The Artists, They Live Among Us

I didn’t really know much about Jamie Bennett when he was chief of staff at the National Endowment for the Arts or when he was appointed as executive director for ArtPlace America, but after watching a video of his talk at TEDxHudson, I figure he was the right person for the job.

There were a number of moments during his talk where I nodded my head and thought “this guy gets it.” (And not just because as kids we apparently both had our first Broadway experience seeing the same production of Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan)

He talks about growing up in Honesdale, PA and encountering the idea that art was something done by people who lived far away. He speaks of a colleague performing a study for the Urban Institute who went out and asked people who the artists in their community were, only to be told there weren’t any despite all the participation in singing and dancing going on.

He relates another experience in Aspen, CO where people in the audience readily self identified as golfers and tennis players, but not as artists. He comments that he doesn’t know:

“why we can so easily see ourselves on a continuum with Serena Williams and Tiger Woods, but we don’t think anything we do has anything in common with Sandy Duncan.”

He goes on to list all the encounters he had with artists growing up in Honesdale. He admits it even took him 30 years to realize there were practicing artists in his hometown.

He continues saying what we have probably all realized by now, that this perception of artists as an “other” is deeply rooted in society. He cites a study which found that “Although 96% of Americans value art in their communities and lives, only 27% value artists.”

When he says that the study lead to the formation of United States Artists which took the tagline “Art comes from artists,” people laugh. But I couldn’t help thinking that such an obvious statement might be required.

Since people have a concept of creativity and inspiration as something that flows from the ether into blessed individuals rather than something that everyone can participate in and get better at with some effort, just like your tennis backhand, a blatant statement of the basic definition of an artist could be necessary.

I suspect this sense of special insight has been propagated by artists. If you are going to be poor and starving, it helps a little to be able to wrap yourself in an aura of uncommonality, in touch with the muses the way monks are infused with spirituality.

Bennett likens the situation to the food world which has made people more cognizant of the source of their meals leading to the concepts of eating local and farm to table, among others. He extends that idea to making people aware of the local sources of art, including themselves.

The second thing Bennett said that made me sit up and take notice was that the typical conversation about the arts in this country is about the lack of money and resources. “We open with our lack and spend every conversation with our hand out.”

He talks about the purpose of ArtsPlace America being to turn that around to draw attention to the asset common to every community-artists.

“Not every community has a waterfront. Not every community has strong public transportation. Not every community is lucky enough to be anchored by a hospital or university. But every community has people who sing and dance and tell stories.”

I don’t know that the dearth of resources is what entirely dominates my conversations, but I am going to keep a more attentive ear on what I say in the future.

Bennett goes on to talk about other benefits of the arts in communities. He touches on some concepts that were familiar to me, but provides slightly different insights about the positive ripple effects of arts participation, especially among groups of people who may not be perceived as artists.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYdiVIbOO_s&w=560&h=315]

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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