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Laurie Niles

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

March 6, 2008 at 6:51 AM

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!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 4:50 PM
I just read an Boston Globe editorial about what "stories" have come to mean in our culture that I was reminded of when I read your blog.

It's about the latest in a series of fake bestselling memoirs. The current one was written about running drugs in LA, was marketed as a memoir, but was made up by the author. A story. The editorial says:

"If these fake memoirs feel "ripped from the headlines" it's precisely because they're calibrated to feed the same media machine that habitually markets "real life" trauma as a narrative trope. It's all there: the innocence lost, the tried and true villains, the cinematic victim hood."

It's a powerful idea to try to reclaim our cultural stories from what they've become.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 10:33 PM
I think I mentioned it before but the most powerful movie I saw in recent years was the one calle dasomething liek `Rythm it is` in which a couple of dancers train dienfranchised teenegers from berlin to dance with the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle. It took art to strip away all the barries of hostility and cynicism that these kids had erected just to survive in that hell hole.
At our core, all human beings need is to create togethrart, life and love. Unfortunately todays world is concerned mostly with manipulation which is not an adequate substitute.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 10:59 PM
I remember your writing about that movie, Buri. The speaker I heard yesterday also talked about the power of a program that taught prisoners to make art. The prisoners who participated had fewer incidents in prison and a lower rate of recidivism once released. But the program lost nearly all of its funding when the state cut its budget. "Just because you do good work that's effective, doesn't mean that your program will live," he said.

Very sad, but true.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 1:20 AM
I never understood why state tax money went to give criminals free art and music lessons. I could see volunteering your own time, or choosing to donate your own money to the cause if you feel like it, but I personally know of people much more deserving in need of art lessons, teachers who deserve better pay, public education systems that could use the boost, etc.

Why prisons? Why not reward good behavior instead?

As far as my community goes, I would like to leave a legacy of beauty in all I create, and I want my students to be equipped to express themselves and to love making music themselves.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 2:27 AM
Why should artists be required to volunteer their time? Jail wardens don't volunteer their time, nor do police officers or counselors. Turning someone's life around is actually in the state's and community's best interest. If art does this as effectively or more effectively than counseling people or flogging people or incarcerating them for longer, then artists should be paid to create those kinds of programs.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 3:04 AM
Nobody's "required" to volunteer their time since the Civil War.

People from all walks of life volunteer. I think you're sensitive to most musicians not making a lot of money, or needing opportunites to make money. Or want to provide opportunities to make money. But if you're already so fortunate to have a $100k job, then give something back.

You can be sure it it was a full scale "program" people would get paid. And you'd have to have your music education in the prisons certificate. And tons of paperwork and writing up long progress reports. Or worse yet, progrees check lists :)

Emily's complaint, I can add prisoners are people too :) Especially when the latest stats are 1/100 of Americans are in prison.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 4:42 AM
Emily, the problem with your argument about rewarduing good and bad behaviour is that many people are on prison as a result of poverty deprivation. Our onlbest hope is to not judgetoo harshly and belive that people need help to find their way. By far the most expensive tcrimes and criminals in the USA are white color crimes which cause untold harm the poor and disenfranchised. There is not such a clear demarcation between the criminal and the suppsoedly good perosn in this world.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 5:09 AM
Well, Buri, I know I for one am not a crook. ;) I work hard every day to keep it that way, too. I also happen to be friends with many whose income fall below the poverty line, yet somehow manage to contribute positively to society.

I'm not friends with too many white collar rich people, except maybe my dad, but he's the best darn bureaucrat I ever knew--worked his way from the ground up, generous, and honest as an eagle boy scout (which he was).

The only criminal friend I know had everything she needed, but made a lot of stupid decisions despite plenty of love and attention.

But you're right, criminals take all forms. I also agree that money shouldn't enable one to live above the law. White collar crime enrages me too, because I know I'm one of those who will suffer for their crimes. But large corporations aren't all bad. The Anchorage Symphony, for example, is largely funded by Conoco-Phillips, a large wealthy oil corporation.

I was just expressing my opinion that I would prefer it if my own hard-earned money went to the causes of my own choosing, by my own generosity. It's tax season, I'm having a bit of a rough time making ends meet, and a little pissed about it. The Gov'ment do take a bite, don't it?

Laurie, I hope you didn't get me wrong. I think this has been a great topic for me to ponder today. Thanks for posting it.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 6:11 AM
"The only criminal friend I know had everything she needed, but made a lot of stupid decisions despite plenty of love and attention."

She had everything you would need, and possibly didn't have some things you think she had. And hey, some crimes are good. Breaking the segregation laws was, for example. I think I know the person you're talking about and from what I know, I wouldn't consider her a criminal. The real crimimals would be the people who made the things she does illegal.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 6:15 AM
But I've known many people who've lived on the fringe for generations. Just like you grew up the way you did, they grew up the way they did.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 6:58 AM
Jim, she joined the skinheads and is a hustler in Vegas now, amongst other things. I can't think of any excuse for that. And if legalizing the things she does makes her a saint, then I'm through with this discussion.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 7:04 AM
Sound like I might not know everything she's doing now, then. But truthfully, I still might not have a problem with it ;)
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 7:07 AM
I'm not exactly a family man, deacon of the church, candidate for mayor kind of guy.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 10:07 AM
Hm, I thought for sure you'd have a problem with the skinhead bit.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 1:05 PM
Could be worse. Could be Southern Baptists, New Kids on the Block, or Aryan Nation.
From Christopher McGovern
Posted on March 8, 2008 at 5:23 PM
I'm glad you're bringing this up.
It's really hard to watch shows like "The Phil" (on the Ovation TV network; BTW I think it was a series on British TV, but they'll show episodes from it on occasion) where they show you how a symphony orchestra and its members (I think in this case it's the London Philharmonic) have to deal with their short incomes because of the way they are funded through the system--Discussions about cutting back on rehearsal time so the pay isn't compromised, meetings where they've had to cancel certain concerts because the conductor wanted more money than the budget allowed, etc. Now, I don't know if this is exactly what every orchestra has to deal with, but it's sad that such a promininent group like them whose name has appeared on so many records has these issues.
It just makes me think of the time Carnegie Hall kept calling my house and wanted donations--I refused because I felt they were strong-arming me into making a donation, and they seemed to need a big one because the guy wanted to know if he could put me down for $50. At the time I was outraged they would ask for such an exorbitant amount, but I kind of feel now like I should have been more considerate if an establishmnet of the arts needs that much money.
I don't make a lot of money. I'm a musician stuck in a job I hate but keep since its benefits are hard to find anywhere else. I really do agree that the arts needs to be boosted in more communities, especially in communties where they don't even know who Mozart is.
From Christopher McGovern
Posted on March 8, 2008 at 6:33 PM
Sorry my point didn't seem to be complete, but I know that you wouldn't see these issues if we were supporting the arts and their groups more fervently. OK, glad I got that out! :)

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