I'm sure you think my job is nothing but glamour, art openings, and hobnobbing with the famous and bohemian--but let me assure you that there's plenty of drudgery. This week, the unpleasantness entailed a lot of thinking about art's unholy bedfellows: money and politics.
I am nothing if not ambivalent about the relationship between government and art. Given all the NEA backtracking and funding of "safe" art while sidelining anything perceived as remotely dangerous, I wonder if the best work comes out of government support. And yet, and yet. What about artists getting shoved out of neighborhoods they've improved? What about restrictive zoning that makes it illegal for an artist to live and work in the same space? What about the tripe that results from private-sector funding: plop art and Pigs on Parade?
In search of answers, I took my heinie over to the Seattle Children's Theatre on Monday, October 22 for the Seattle Mayoral Candidate Forum and Seattle City Council Candidate Forum, where I heard candidates from the upcoming election talk about arts and the urban environment. I was hoping for a debate, a little healthy jabbing and ante-upping, perhaps a little devil's advocate-style back-and-forth about why art should be funded at all when human services budgets are suffering. All I got was question and long-winded answer.
I'm so, so sorry: I think Greg Nickels is a very nice man and will probably be a lovely mayor, but I fall into a narcoleptic stupor whenever he begins to talk. My notes indicate that he is in favor of all the right things--sustaining the Seattle Arts Commission; requiring the percent-for-art tax on the private half of certain public/private partnerships; upping the 1% to 1.5 or even 2%--but his language was neither inspiring nor illuminating. After each affirmation of support, he simply said, "We'll take a look at that."
Mark Sidran, on the other hand, is a man you listen to, if only to give yourself high blood pressure. (He is also a lot of fun to draw in the margins of your notebook.) He doesn't use a lot of jargon, and he doesn't mince words: "The 1% program has been a terrific success," Sidran said, "but I haven't been in favor of growing it. However worthy the art, it's not worth diverting funds from the capital project." On public/private partnerships, he was not in favor of applying the 1% to the private sector if it would compromise the viability of the project, when they're "difficult enough to put together and make work."
So, nothing new there.
A visit to the King County budget hearing further confused my thinking. Due to a drastic cut in the county's budget, the Office of Cultural Resources could lose $1.4 million--a much larger percentage of its funding than other sectors of the county budget. I received an e-mail asking artists to show up and testify (with visual aids and music, if possible) about why the endangered programs should be saved. I thought this might be interesting.
But a half-hour into the hearings--after brief testimony from rehab centers, food banks, mothers who need day care, and programs that help people get their drivers' licenses back--I began to fear the kind of pageantry the artists might produce. Suddenly, it all seemed so inappropriate. And when I sensed an imminent tailspin of existential despair about everything I had previously believed to be true, I left.
At the candidate forum, I was moved by City Council Member Richard McIver's comments when asked what his participation with the arts entailed (although I'm still throwing my vote to opponent Grant Cogswell). "I found my place in the audience," McIver said. "That's the best thing I can do for the arts."
This, it seems to me, is at the heart of what the public can do for art: attend it, listen to it, pay attention to it, buy it.