Using what we already have.

This past weekend in Vallejo, it was warm and sunny. I ventured into the backyard early Sunday morning. As often happens, when I looked around I started seeing things that needed doing and wound up spending most of the day enjoying the weather and creating enjoyable work for myself. Apart from pulling the grass sprouting up around the baby lettuce in the lettuce box, I gathered all sorts of things to use for the holidays. While engaged in this way I was thinking about how much money we spend on things we don’t need and how we overlook what we already have. This is true for each of us, who are all in some way part of some kind of family or group. It’s also true for arts professionals and arts organizations.

In these difficult times, when The Arts feel the pinch like everyone else, we can all survey our territories to determine what we have been overlooking for its usefulness. Money is essentially an invention, to make a system work. But before money there are needs and the means to meet needs directly without any money changing hands at all. Those are not the words that retailers want to hear with the “holiday season” in full gear, but they are words worth remembering when we consider what is most valuable to us. Art came way before money and filled a basic human need before it ever became a commodity.

People once lived in caves and painted the walls and left their hand-prints. When I go into our little backyard, I gather lavender from the bushes and make bundles, cut the wild grass and make bouquets, clean the leaves off the willow branches my husband grumbles about cutting back every year, to make dramatic art in a large vase. I gather up the peppermint gone wild, and the lemon balm, and chives and sage and thyme and the last of the basil, put them in my favorite thrift store plates and leave them out in the living room to dry, and the bathroom too.

I see fruit trees all over Vallejo hanging heavy with fruit that never gets picked. But not at this house. I worked all summer long canning tomatoes, apples, apricots, blackberries and raspberries. My husband’s faithful watering also resulted in a deep freezer full of dark leafy greens, shredded zucchini and pumpkin puree. So, I won’t be buying holiday decorations, spices, greens, pumpkin puree, tomato sauce or jam over the holidays but my family will be eating “good” and we’ll have a great looking table too that the kids will remember helping me to create. The sun felt great in mid-November so I got extra busy doing a few loads of laundry to save a few bucks not using my drier.

I like to think big, but sometimes small is the way to go. I remember reading from a Suze Orman book some simple financial advice for getting out of debt. She advised people to clean their houses and get organized. (I’m paraphrasing here.) While cleaning, put all the loose change that you find in a jar. When you’re done cleaning and organizing you will feel energized. Then, you should take all the change that you found, whether it amounts to a dollar or thirty dollars (you will find something,) and put it down on your biggest debt. Now that always stuck in my head as some very good advice. More than just symbolic, each little payment on a debt reduces the interest on that debt. Making a positive step in the right direction opens the door of possibilities. Probably, if the banks and the auto makers would do some thorough house cleaning, they could eliminate a lot of their own problems themselves. But while I can’t do much about that, I can clean my own house.

It is important for arts advocates to work together for common goals in the arts, to band together just as big business and financial institutions do, to forward our own agenda. But it is just as important to be able to look in the mirror and examine each and every asset that we have no matter how small and insignificant it may seem, before we look outward to ask for something that we can accomplish ourselves with some sweat equity. Maybe it’s time to clean up the files and update our contacts. Maybe it’s time to put a “junk room” to a more productive use. Maybe we can’t do that big production we wanted to do this year without the funding, but what about a scaled down production that we could bring into classrooms to cultivate a future audience? Over time the value of our baby steps is magnified by the ripple effect, when we dip into the everlasting pool of creativity and ingenuity.

State of the Arts in the New Economy

Everything is changing all the time. Recently change has accelerated in the approach to a historic presidential election in the United States. The state of the economy has revived talk of the “New Deal.” One aspect of the New Deal, for ten short years, that was highly beneficial to arts professionals was an unprecedented role for the Federal Government as a patron of the arts. WPA Federal Theatre Project and New Deal Public Art Projects put thousands of artists to work in various disciplines. It is apparent that radical change is on the horizon as we collectively restructure our infrastructure. I would like to see the Arts take its rightful role, not to drain the economy but revive and rebuild it with the inclusion of new principles.

Geoffrey Lean, the Environment Editor for the Independent in London wrote an article about a Green New Deal, which is a promising and possibly positive development in the economic upheaval being experienced world wide. He states that “Top economists and United Nations leaders are working on a “Green New Deal” to create millions of jobs, revive the world economy, slash poverty and avert environmental disaster, as the financial markets plunge into their deepest crisis since the Great Depression.” I believe that the Arts also have a role to play in the revival of the economy.

According to Americans for the Arts, “…the Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations and Their Audiences documents the key role played by the nonprofit arts and culture industry in strengthening our nation’s economy. This study demonstrates that the nonprofit arts and culture industry is an economic driver in communities—a growth industry that supports jobs, generates government revenue, and is the cornerstone of tourism.”

Now is the time to advocate for a different perspective on what is important to us and future generations. Don’t allow the Arts to continue to be looked upon as charities, when in reality artistic activity can lead the way to economic prosperity. Arts professionals of all kinds should seek ways to work with arts councils, arts commissions, departments of cultural affairs, arts agencies, planning agencies, cultural centers and museums to advance a common cause.

Remember that it is our imaginations that lead us. We’re traveling down a road with bends. Even though we can’t always see where we’re going, if we know where we want to go, then we’ll be more than half way to our destination!

Communication and Concentration of Creative Construction

None of us created the world we were born into. We didn’t get to decide what kind of talents we were born with either. You could argue that those of us who have chosen to create art in all its myriad forms, were destined to be creative artists. Or you could argue that anyone who spends the majority of their time “working” on things that don’t generally turn a profit, is not fulfilling their destiny, just crazy. What’s the point? Why do you put enormous energy into pulling off yet another theatre production? Why do you shell out more money for more paint supplies? Why do you keep going to poetry open mics or writing books that never make it to the New York Times bestseller list? Surely it’s not for the money.

I’ve been thinking about money lately. Who doesn’t think about money whether they want to or not? Those printed pieces of paper that are only worth something because we are told they represent worth, they cause a lot of heartache either way. If you have too much it transforms the people around you. If you don’t have enough your life can become a tragedy. This system that we were all born into here in America dictates that if you are ambitious about producing and presenting big arts projects you will have to go out with your hat out and ask people, companies, corporations and governments for money, because your work will not have any dollar value on its own. It’s time to get away from all that and find a different way to manifest what must be expressed.
Back in the nineties I wrote a few grant applications for a not-for-profit that required many hours of preparation, and gave no assurance that there would be a reward at the end. Many not-for-profits operate solely on budgets with strings attached to foundations and other charitable entities. The arts are nothing but a charity in the United States. Few public school children get any kind of arts education these days. Even less people even seem to care. But I care. And if you’ve read this far, you care too. It occurred to me that one thing we can do as a group is begin to think about ways to operate without money, or beyond money or even in spite of money.
Last week I brought up the idea of an international event on the scale of the Olympics, for the Arts. Now I know this is a far stretch, but can you imagine if it could be mounted without any corporate funding? Could it be done without asking anyone for money? Maybe, maybe not. I do know that it would take cooperation and creativity. When we talk about a concentration of power, we are usually referring to a concentration of resources which a few people have control over. They’re the ones who get the lion’s share of the money that’s in circulation. What do artists have? The power of creativity. Creativity is a great resource or renewable energy. It’s also the thing that can get us out from under the boot, and elevate the artist to an appropriate stature in society.
What do you think? Should the government solve our problems? Should corporations solve our problems? Can we communicate with each other and create new avenues for freedom of expression? Please join me on Tuesday, September 9 at 8pm PST, for a call in radio show discussing the arts and arts professionals in today’s world. You can also start a new topic or join one of the existing ones on our bulletin board. I will refer to suggestions and ideas posted on the bulletin board during the radio show, and use the bulletin board as a tool to continue the discussion between each second Tuesday of the month radio show.
Wishing you Peace and Poetry
Martha Cinader Mims