Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Patterns of Our Future

As someone who lived through the 1960s as a teenager, I sense an eerie similarity between that tumultuous decade and the current state of affairs. History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes, and the times, as a famous folk balladeer put it, they are a'changin'.
The essence of the sixties lay in the crumbling of authority, the break-up of long-established patterns, from segregation in the South, to gender roles, to the conduct of war in Southeast Asia. Socio-political factors—i.e., human beings, individually and en masse, in the streets—seriously challenged the impersonal forces of technology, economics and bureaucracy. There was a lot of fear, a lot of hope. Not coincidently, the sixties were a period of unusually rich creative ferment in the arts.
Today, that rumble you hear in the background is the sound of idols crashing, from Washington to Wall Street. Despite the happy talk of the corporate consumer culture, the reassurances coming from the White House and the Fed—institutions are "sound," the problems are "contained"—the voices of authority sound increasingly shrill and, well, unbelievable. The levees have broken; old, established patterns are eroding; in the words of W. B. Yeats, "the center does not hold..."
Not surprisingly, we are also experiencing a resurgence of activity in the arts, both among the young and among the aging boomer generation who've gained a "second wind." The stimulus, I think, comes from the primordial, shamanic role of the artist as a pattern-recognizer and pattern-organizer. The construction of a poem, a dance, a song, a painting, a film, involves the organization of experience into a pattern that is emotionally meaningful and satisfying. The creation of beauty—for the artist it is really a moment of discovery—is a profound, multi-layered ordering of experience that rings true.
In the old days, when established patterns broke down—when, for example, game animals inexplicably disappeared from ancient migratory routes to follow some new, unknown pathway—hunting groups turned not to their political and military leaders for guidance, but to their shamans, who journeyed within themselves to discover the new patterns of survival. It didn't always work; no doubt some groups starved. But enough endured that successful shamans—good artists—conferred a selective advantage to their groups, which passed on the genetic impulse for art-making to modern humans.
Now, when professional arts advocates assert the value of the arts for education and the revitalization of our cities, they are really talking about a sort of selective advantage. The arts aren't frills or window-dressing, and the difference between communities that actively support creative artists and those that only pretend to, is like the difference between the flush of life, and make-up on a corpse.
I'm not a professional arts advocate; I'm an artist who left his studio—rather reluctantly—to get involved in my community, Allentown, because I sense that our world is changing. The old patterns, the old life-ways, are breaking down; in particular the late-20th-century American lifestyle predicated on abundant supplies of cheap oil and global military power is no longer supportable. In fact it is bankrupting the country.
The new pattern has yet to emerge. We have arrived within Dante's "dark wood where the straight way was lost." A number of shadowy paths lie ahead, and only a few things seem clear: first, the "authorities" are probably wrong; second, as in the sixties, socio-political factors—human relationships—will prevail over techno-economic fixes; third, the cities are key. As suburban escapism becomes unachievable for the majority, we will have to face long-ignored urban challenges; we will have to learn to live with one another, to feel secure in ourselves in the midst of diversity.
We are lucky in Allentown right now to have a mayor, a city council and an economic development team who really understand the selective advantage to the city of having a vital arts community here. As we proceed with a new arts development strategy, I personally would like to see most of our limited public resources for the arts devoted to expanding opportunities for emerging creative artists.
Museums and art schools are wonderful amenities, but we can actually get more bang for the public buck by investing in artists rather than institutions. Artists are masters of making much out of little. They know how to build with creativity and imagination and not just with machinery and money. And their creations, while often physically fragile, can work uncommon magic on a community's pride and spirit. We need to get artists into the neighborhoods, into the schools. Most of all, we need to allow young artists to risk the creative inner journey, to dream the patterns of our future.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Value Added

The photos here show a couple of buildings in the Old Allentown Historic District, in the vicinity of Tenth and Turner Streets. The first four are of "the Ice Cream Factory"--which is what it was originally--at Turner and Howard. It's two stories, 220 feet long, and has been unoccupied for years. The last photo shows a four-story loft building a half-block from the Ice Cream Factory. It was originally a typewriter factory, and has a history of occupation by artists. Northlight Loft, a group that sponsored performances and exhibitions, used the first floor until a couple of years ago before the city closed them down due to code violations the landlord refused to address. Today it's zoned residential, and a commercial photographer lives and works on the top floor. I point them out because of an article, in today's New York Times, about arts development in Brooklyn.
"Some 1,000 artists and arts organizations are now working in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, courtesy of the developers David Walentas and his son, Jed, partners in Two Trees Management. Operating on the principle that cultural ferment makes a neighborhood hot, Two Trees has offered creative people rents that they cannot refuse.
"It adds value to any neighborhood," David Walentas said..."it's like good architecture. Good architecture is cheap and adds value. People will pay a premium for it."
Little by little, some developers in Allentown are catching on to the idea that making room for the arts can add value to their projects. It can even earn them some free advertising. We certainly have a lot of former industrial buildings, like the ones shown here, with the potential to become exciting creative spaces. Some building owners in Allentown have already taken the plunge. I'll tell you about one of them in an upcoming post.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Connecting is Key

The arts are all about communication, of emotions, visions, ideas. We live in an age of instant communication, and yet in this age of near-universal accessibility to electronic media, it sometimes seems easier to communicate with people on the other side of the globe than with "the locals" on the other side of town, in our own neighborhoods, or at city hall. Usually the problem isn't a lack of information--there is plenty of information out there, in the newspapers, radio, TV, the web, about what is going on in the arts in our area.
The problem, for individual artists and arts organizations, is connection, making personal contact with the people who matter--potential audiences, funders and sponsors, government entities and representatives, other artists. Most of these VIPs are physically near, but if we don't know who they are, what they do, how they can help, how we can help them know us--if we aren't connecting--then they might as well be on the other side of the planet.
As the Allentown Arts Commission transitions from a grant-making arm of city government to a community-oriented and community-based arts advocacy organization, we offer this forum as a means of connecting. I'll be posting regularly about arts development activities in Allentown and about the Arts Commission's efforts to support a vibrant and prospering arts scene in the city. I'll offer my own opinions about where Allentown is headed re:the arts (hint: I'm very optimistic!) and I'll encourage other members of the commission and city development officials to post here as well. If it works, regular readers of this blog will be able to sample the ongoing discussions we've been having about the future of the arts in our city.
But it will only really work if more people join the discussion--artists, educators, parents, arts supporters, yes, even arts critics--you, the VIPs, our neighbors and friends. We need to know who you are, what you like, what you don't like, what you need, how we can help. We welcome above all your questions. If we don't know the answers, we'll try to connect you with someone we know who does. Connecting is Key.
Welcome to Allentown City Arts. The door's open. Come in.