People do this for their souls

The whirlwind is over, the proverbial dust is settling, and I am left with pages of notes, a slew of contacts and the memory of dozens of conversations with old friends and new. (The face-to-face kind of friends).  For me, it was a “good” APAP, meaning that I was happy with my showcases, with traffic at my booth, with response to my artists.

For me, the convening is what is most important – coming together with my colleagues in this field — presenter, manager, agent, artist – with ultimately the same premise: our passionate belief that the arts carry meaning that is essential to us, to our communities, to the welfare of our society. And so we come together to work with each other to put arts on stages; to find new ways to ensure our children have arts experiences in schools and after school; to push the boundaries of how arts can live in communities outside the four walls of traditional theater while still making sure that our artists can make a living from the extraordinary work they do. We come together to share ideas, triumphs, war stories.

I often leave these conferences renewed by our shared passion for the arts, and yet always wondering why is it such a struggle to articulate to our communities and boards and governments what seems so self-evident to us—this knowledge of art’s power and essential role in our lives. Arts continue to be cut from many education and university programs, even in the face of more than 20 years of studies revealing again and again the importance of the arts in developing thinking, collaborative citizens capable of problem-solving, capable of working across cultures, educated in the skills needed for today’s and the future’s non-industrial society. (Maybe I shouldn’t complain — education programs themselves continue to be cut).

Curating presenters are told by their boards to make every show a break-even or profit-maker, eliminating the ability to take chances, to take the risks that bring new artists, new experiences to their communities. These boards are often reflecting their audiences who also shy away from risk with their decreased discretionary dollars, going for the known rather than the new. For that matter, why did the arts become “discretionary,” when every culture has some form of artistic expression? I look to my own background — for my parents, going to performances was not discretionary. Even in the days when, as immigrants, they had very little money, going to concerts was essential; they scrimped so that arts were part of their lives.

Which brings to mind a conversation I had with Ethiopian artist managers many years ago at a conference: “The U.S. is such a wealthy country. Why is it so difficult to support the arts? Ethiopia is poor and still we provide the necessities to our people—food, shelter, healthcare, the arts. If you don’t support the arts, what do people do for their souls?!”

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