Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Fall River: 1 Million Dollars for the Arts

Everyone knows that the Fall River idea of art (usually called “ahts and crafts”) is Popsicle stick napkin holders. Instead of having an actual art museum, Fall River opted for the “art society” option, which sets up bus trips to Boston to buy tchochkes at the museum store up there. Art is scary and belongs isolated. The best art gallery in Fall River is located on the campus of the 7-year high school known as Bristol Community College, or Beer Can College (BCC). Some performing occurs but annoys the local Yankees and Calvinists. And after they get the crowd settled in for a night of the musical version of the "Female Odd Couple," they cede the stage to the Overwrought Pretentious School Theater there, further frightening and alienating the audience.
Fall River lives by the tagline “There Can Be Only One.” Yeah, like the Highlander. So there can be only one “arts” center, the Narrows. With uncomfortable seating, has-been acts and also-rans who are celebrated in local folk radio circles merely because they show up. Oh, yeah, and a self-styled "art” gallery. All down by the imaginary waterfront.

I tease because I love. The Narrows does bring in some interesting acts, and BCC and the Little Theater (for whom I have worked) do the best they can with what they've got. Fall River is a town entertained by politics and (until recently) high school sports. Folks don't care for art and don't possess the vocabulary to discuss it. The mayor has nothing to lose since he's quitting this year, so Fall River’s outgoing chief executive has chosen to mention arts in his state of the city address yesterday. As well as to quote Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt just like the Preznit does. Oh yeah, and Carole King. Just like nobody does.

We have supported the Arts, by distributing almost $1 million
dollars in arts grants to various organizations over the last 12 years; by
maintaining a free, annual First Night celebration, initiating the annual
Fall River Children's Film Festival and hosting art shows and displays of
local talent in our downtown Cherry & Webb facility... I will be
bringing together the private owners of the former Capitol Theater in the
downtown with state and local officials to determine the viability and to
devise a plan for restoring one of Fall River's old treasures for the
purpose of bringing performing arts back to our downtown.

And when nothing happens, we can blame, for the very few who mention it, those “state and local officials.” But that MILLION bucks. I can just hear the regressives in town with their usual "wish that money didn't have to come out of my pocket (it didn't) to go to them artsy-fartsy types (it doesn't)." Of course, over 12 years that's $83,000 a year. In a real city (like Columbus OH, or Eau Claire WI, or Augusta GA) that would be one museum executive director salary and maybe some supplies for a school program. The Met has an annual budget of $200,000,000. But FR is a special city, and culture really does mean jugglers and face painting. It's all about the kids, you understand.
Ed was wisely indistinct, avoiding real detail. We've heard all this before. A dilapidated police station was to be put aside for “an arts center.” A historic church turned into a steak house when the community didn’t support an arts center there. A former state office building was never converted into affordable work-live spaces for artists. (I know artists who live in housing available inexpensively in Fall River. They work in Rhode Island. They show in galleries there and in New York or Boston. You see, people buy art and the artists get paid to make art, and are part of the economy. Unfortunately the locals think, in one artist’s words, “Art to buy is seagulls on shingles.”
ThirdMate's Reckoning: Money and real and eager annual donations need to come from the SouthCoast leadership who should learn to not fear what they don't get, and lead the way, not rely on grant-making organizations and state funding. Helping to distribute Mass Cultural Council or local Arts Foundation grants is not supporting the arts; it's just supporting the bureaucrats who shuffle those papers around. Creating a culture of respect for the arts, fostering a spoken need for the arts, and understanding that arts are not alternative forms of elite's diversion but viable sources of income and entertainment. Artists rarely shoot or stab each other. Curiosity and teamwork and cooperation and imagination and discipline are present in every edition, print, and concerto. And it's not skylarking.


Dr. Momentum said...

For a supposedly progressive state, the arts in this area are amazingly regressive.

I think it's great that the local population is proud of its heritage, especially the very visible Portuguese community. That said, I wish there were more focus on a varied arts program. I never hear about the arts, but I am always hearing about Portuguese festivals and such.

I like that my kids can get a glimpse of Portuguese culture, but there already is a Portugal. I'd love it if my kids could get more local exposure to other artistic expression. I wish I didn't have to make a special trip to Boston, which doesn't happen often enough.

Education is important. Jobs are important. Technology is important. But a varied and vibrant culture including arts makes people happy to be in an area. Otherwise, education and jobs will merely become springboards to other cities where they have education, jobs and a standard of living that includes the arts.

Think about it - if you sufficiently educate and employ someone, they're going to start thinking of leaving, aren't they?

This is why people leave the area. Not only to live closer to jobs, but to live closer to life.

ThirdMate said...

Well said. It isn't just the Portuguese, they're just easier to see because they are the majority minority. Don't forget their contributions. But "culture" is not merely a menu item.

(dopey ethnic labels to follow) As someone who has been very involved locally trying to get the "Portuguese" community involved in The Arts, I can tell you that one play had to recruit "French" and "Irish" actors to play the parts of "Portuguese" people because that's all who auditioned. One "Portuguese art exhibit" never happened because the only submission was made by an "Italian" from New Jersey. And the "Portuguese" community is notoriously tight around fundraising time. And they foster that reputation, so no one solicits them. Eventually, less stable arts organizations just go away. Mission accomplished.

I always worry about bringing up the SouthCoast's cultural shortcomings here, since most SouthCoasters are thin-skinned and afraid any discussion of the dismal condition of culture won't attract any future employers. That's Economic Development's job, and they don't even know there's a lead involved, much less how to swing it.