March 2008

Promoting culture in your community: what do you want to nurture?

March 5, 2008 23:51

When you give someone the opportunity to “dabble” in the arts, and never the chance to get good at it, you are not offering the kind of experience that leads to the deep satisfaction, increased confidence and other wonderful things we attribute to participation in the arts.

This was one of the ideas that really struck me today, as I attended a meeting of my community's cultural leaders called “The 2008 Nexus Summit” and sponsored by the City of Pasadena and Pasadena Arts and Culture Commission. The speaker was William Cleveland, who just published a book called Art and Upheaval.

Not a bad idea, to bring together arts organizations and city leaders, with the aim of “promoting cultural access and inclusion in the arts.” I was there as a recipient of a city grant, which I've used to teach Suzuki violin to public school first graders and to put the lessons up on the Internet.

“The arts community has the ability to organize on behalf of itself,” said Cleveland, looking around the packed room of several hundred artists, administrators and city officials present. The problem is, it rarely does so. At this meeting, visual artists, musicians, dancers, actors and other kinds of artists brainstormed about a vision for the arts in the city. People came up with a lot of specific ideas: creating murals in specific places in the city, creating a medium-sized performing venue to be shared among local performing arts organizations; creating an artists' district in the northern part of town; allowing city sites to be used as rehearsal spaces; increasing museum hours city-wide; having city arts tours...

As people voiced their ideas, I began to see the importance of coordination. You can't coordinate the city's artistic endeavors unless you bring together the artists and arts organizations. You can't create a cultural vision for your community without soliciting ideas from your community's artists.

Cleveland compared the role of the artist to that of the ancient shaman, whose job description included singing, dancing, painting, healing the sick, presiding over ceremonies, guiding the spiritual life, and telling the stories to help people make sense of the world.

“This is the function that tells us over and over that we are a community,” Cleveland said. “There is not one thing here in our world that does not have a story attached to it,” Untold stories are nascent shadows, and left to fester, they are dangerous. We need to tell our stories, we need to create meaning in our lives. “Art contains the story, holds the story – but only for a little while.”

“It looks like this community is ready to invite the shaman back into the center of town,” Cleveland said of the Pasadena gathering. “In these uber-cynical times, this is an audacious thing to do...We live in a society that really trivializes what we have gathered to support today.”

Cleveland had some ideas to remember when trying to create and support a community's culture. First, one must respect the established culture of a community. “You are not bringing art to a great unwashed crowd,” he said, but you are joining with and enhancing what culture is already there. Also, the focus should be on artistic excellence – artists do the most for a community when they are focusing on the ART; don't water it down and torture it. Also, an artist who endeavors to create community culture must be accountable to his/her legacy: “if you don't know why you are there, you don't belong there,” he said.

Arts program should be sustainable. You can't teach someone to paint or play the guitar at a two-day workshop. “Art isn't easy,” Cleveland said. “Art is an opportunity and a challenge. You cannot do this piecemeal.”

And art grows of partnerships; one should foster a network of colleagues, he said.

Communities need the arts; the arts are not something “extra.” But thought and intention should go into any effort to direct a community's cultural growth.

“There is a level of responsibility through which the creative process should be wielded,” Cleveland said. “If it's powerful enough to save lives, it's powerful enough to do damage.”

Lastly, think big, and seek out ways to fund big.

“If you're going to work your a** off,” he said, “you'd better have a big rainbow, with a big pot of gold at the end of it.”

Here's what I want for my community: I want real music. I don't want to pretend to educate children while really just letting them “dabble” here and there with music. I don't want programs that get funded one year and cut the next. I don't want to tolerate any more patronizing attitudes about music -- a subject that is every bit as academically rigorous and beneficial to humankind as math and reading.

I want children and adults to hear great music, played at the highest level. I want children to play instruments and to sing – and to do it well. I want them to be able to read music, fluently. I want people of all ages to play in orchestras, play in bands, create quartets in their living rooms, write songs, sing in choirs, sing in their churches, form rock bands, make, and listen to, the music that moves them.

Music literally promotes harmony among people. It is not only a critical means of human expression, but it also is a potent weapon against the kind of boredom and poverty of spirit that destroys lives and communities.

Do you want music in your community? Do something about it!

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