Monday, August 3, 2009

Art is Dead

It is a sunny graduation day at prestigious Davidson College in North Carolina, and I have just invested over $120,000 in tuition to see my son receive a diploma from what is known as “the Princeton of the South.” (Of course, in the South they call Princeton “the Davidson of the North.”) He has earned a BA in liberal arts with a major in art history. After the ceremony we stand in the shade of a 30-foot magnolia tree, me smiling with pride. I hug my boy and say teasingly, “Well, I just hope you learned something.” He answers with a smirk, “I did, Mom, and in a nutshell this is it. Art is dead.”

That was seven years ago, and the poignancy of the story is that I was at the time the director of an arts organization. Ouch! Way to burn old Mom. Actually today I am still the director of that same organization, the Akron Area Arts Alliance, and the arts are still alive -- although truly in need of life support in today’s economy.

The Alliance is an advocacy group representing 46 organizations and 70 artists and arts supporters in Ohio’s Summit, Portage and Medina Counties. Last spring I surveyed our organizational members on the effects of the falling economy. Half of those responding experienced major staff and programming cutbacks. The other half said they were expecting changes. Performances were cancelled, museum hours were cut and staff members were laid off, dropped to part-time or forced to take pay cuts. Often the laid off staffers were in the essential areas of educational programming, development and marketing – the very things that keep an organization alive. (Studies prove that if children are not exposed to the arts at early ages, they do not attend arts events as adults. Arts education is the key to future arts audiences.)

Now someone could argue that lay-offs are happening in all businesses, so why are the arts any different? The difference is that the creative industries have been cutting back for the past decade. Across the nation, there have been major cuts in arts support from business, foundations and government since the 1999 mini-recession and more since the market fall after 9/11. The staffs of arts and culture organizations were already bareboned – working longer, harder, for less money. For example, the local theatre company that let go one person last spring was actually laying off a third of its staff. It had previously been reduced to three people. Arts organizations were already at the edge and this economy may just push them over the cliff.

When my son declared “art is dead” seven years ago, I am not suggesting he was prescient. He was not talking economics. His comment was purely academic – a highfaluting, intellectual argument about how art, once purely the domain of the rich and elite, has been democratized by making it accessible to the masses. Hence it has lost significance, and a comic book has as much artistic value as a Picasso. (When we discussed it later, his argument was much more convoluted with many big, need-a-dictionary words, but that’s it in a nutshell.) So why should anyone care that arts and culture may take a nose dive off that cliff? Are the arts even relevant today? That is discussion for a future blog.

Note: My son did not follow in Mom’s footsteps and go into the arts. He learned to speak fluent Chinese and went on to Duke University where he earned a masters degree in Asian Studies. He is now a businessman working in Shenzhen, China for an American company. I am still smiling with pride.

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