The Rapidian

Can art actually save cities?

Inspired by the ArtPrize speaker series talk, I ask questions about how art can save cities- and how cities can save artists.
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"Can Art Save Cities" was the title of the ArtPrize panel discussion recently at the Ladies Literary Club. This discussion was between the three guest jurors, Manon Sloan of No Longer Empty, Anne Pasternak of Creative Time and Artist and activist Mel Chin. These three art world heavyweights had been invited to our city to bring heft and discernment into the crazy, art all over the place urban experiment that is ArtPrize. There were a lot of big ideas and visionary art projects shared from the stage that night. It became obvious from their insights that they have thought long and hard about how to make art relevant and powerful enough to evoke real change in our cities. I rode home on my bike from the talk with old friend and colleague Paul Wittenbraker. We rode through the night with our bike lights lighting the way side by side on a newly designated bike path. Pedaling home together we continued the conversation the art panel had begun earlier in the evening. What follows was seeded from that very conversation.

Can art save cities? Well with this question we must ask ourselves what do we mean with the words art and save? If we mean the kind of art that goes up over the sofa or the mantel, then any possible impact on a city would be a little harder to make a case for. The art championed by the guest jurors was site specific work that is not object oriented by more about an important idea. This type of work, typified by what we have seen at SiTE:LAB over the past four years, you could say could have a very direct effect on making our cities better. As for the word save, we need to consider what do we think is wrong with the city and from whose perspective we are looking. What are we saving the cities from?

Can cities save art? Artists need a city to expect something from them more than just making pretty things. Our cities could look to artists as problem solvers and creative thinkers and bring them in on some of the tough problems we face. I guarantee that artists would bloom within this kind of situation where they are challenged to bring their built-in resourcefulness to bear on the real life problems and puzzling questions currently facing our cities.

Can artists be more that the pretty girl jumping out of the cake? What I mean by this is that too often it seems that artists are brought in to spice things up, to make the the event cool and sexy. You hire the strolling accordionist and maybe even throw in a few hula hoop girls and now you've got a party! What about inviting the woman who has turned hula hooping into a thriving business as well as a trail blazing performance art to become a new board member? Maybe you could hire her as a consultant to help you revamp your stale business plan? 

Can we be honest about where our cities aren't working? Of course it may be easier to congratulate ourselves for the cool things we have accomplished like our new Downtown Market, and still new GRAM and UICA among other significant recent developments. But we also need to take a look at how we got to be so intensely racially segregated. How did this happen and how can we begin to mix things up a bit? How about all the little children growing up with lead poisoning that will forever clip their wings and lock them even deeper into a downward poverty cycle? How do we get real healthy food accessible to people living in what has recently been termed urban food deserts? I think artists need to be brought into these kinds of challenges with high expectations.

Can we be honest about who we have left out of the conversation? I think this question relates to the idea of how we simply lack diversity among those who are making decisions on what is effectively defining our cities. This is a very old problem of class and ethnic civic strata that is layered like rock and tends to simply stay where it is. We really need to find ways to bring people together like the crazy mix of people in the night clubs of turn of the century New Orleans that gave birth to the beginning of jazz. Jazz was a completely new musical form woven from the different traditions of the people who where in those clubs getting drunk together.

Can we forget about money for awhile? It is no mystery that we were all born into a culture defined by a market driven economy and yet we need to think beyond the dollar sign if we are ever going to get anywhere interesting. Artists by nature are generally not motivated by money. They are curious and generally driven to solve problems in a creative and fun way. They want to go to "places" they have never been before and they like being brought into situations that are confusing and force them to think differently. This kind of person could be very useful to have around in order to provide a different viewpoint when a company is seeking to understand why they exist and where they should be going in the future.

Can we take time to let our hearts be broken? Artists tend to be in touch with their emotions. They are empathetic by nature and this is an important quality that can lead to good decision making that does not just favor a sliver of the population. We need to consider and love all kinds of people and we can only do this with bigger hearts and hearts grow bigger by being broken over and over again.

Can we learn to listen better? I think listening is related to empathy. One of the first lessons of art school is drawing. You learn to draw by learning to see. You stand there with a lump of charcoal in your hand and you look at the nude model in front of you. You begin making lines that correspond to what you really see, not what you think a nude man looks like but what you see in front of you in that very moment. This teaches a person to be present and tuned in to the moment in such a way that can only lead to a very acute sense of empathy. Seeing and listening are kissing cousins. 

Can cities save artists from themselves? With all their heightened emotions, breaky hearts, and skinny bank accounts, artists are often not working off the best foundations. Left to themselves artists can become a little too self-involved. Their acute abilities to empathize can leave them exhausted and overwhelmed. It would be helpful to have artists woven into active community where they can plug in their special abilities in such a way that everyone can prosper. The beginning attempts to do this may be awkward and halting, but we must continue like the toddler who keeps falling in the first few weeks of learning to walk. 

If we want our cities to go forward, we need to go forward together- and artists desperately need to be included in that "together."

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