Is she STILL talking about that convention?
Yeah. I sure am.
So there I was on a beautiful June afternoon in San Diego, sitting inside at a session called “The pARTnership Movement.” I tore my eyes away from the window and tried to pay attention as the President of ArtsMemphis described their relationship with AutoZone; and the presentation got me. I stopped looking out the window and started listening. The pARTnership was a match made in heaven. Then the gentleman from AutoZone gave a presentation. And it became clear that he, as an individual, didn’t have much appreciation for the arts. His title, Vice-President of Government and Community Relations, belied the priorities assigned to him as a representative of AutoZone; a big net of which the arts is necessarily only a small portion. His comments about not attending arts events gave clues to his priorities as a person; his tastes lie elsewhere.
There was some palpable grumbling in the room as this southern gentleman with one of the most resonant speaking voices I’ve ever heard (someone should have gotten him singing when he was 13 … but I digress) dropped inadvertent hints about the arts not being his only priority. He said things as awful as “It’s not about the arts; it’s about our bottom line. I may not attend the ballet but when AutoZone is trying to hire quality people, the town’s cultural footprint is important in attracting the right kind of people.” In short, “I don’t really care about the arts themselves; I only use them as a tool to make sure we get quality employees.”
Grumble, grumble, grumble.
But wait. Why is that so bad? It’s something we don’t talk about near enough these days; the arts as a quality of life issue.
We’re so busy tap-dancing around trying to draw up pie charts about the direct economic impact of the arts that we often forget about the stronger argument; the arts and their indirect impact on the economy. We should concentrate more on the arts as a tool for creating quality of life; good schools, good public transportation, safe streets, a lively arts scene, trash pick-up, recycling. All of those things, in combination, makes for a vibrant community. And a vibrant community attracts vibrant people. Who make it more vibrant. It’s a vicious cycle.
Would we grumble loudly if the government decided to stop picking up our trash? Damn straight we would. It’s a quality of life issue. What if the government stopped funding our schools? We’d be upset, even if we didn’t have school-aged children, because the quality of life in our community is at stake. It’s the same with the arts. I may not go to the ballet but I know that it contributes immeasurably to our culture in Kansas City. So why do we even give credence when people insist that the arts are not in the same category as schools and cops and trash pickup with regards to government funding?
But that’s delving into the political. And we all know I never, NEVER, do that.
So let’s get personal. We get so angry when people won’t fund our art. Right? We make the ask and we are denied. And there’s anger. And resentment. And righteous indignation. But think of it this way; you’re only mad because you’re trying to be a cog in a capitalist machine; money means value. If you give me money, you value my art. If you don’t, you don’t.
But is that really true? Sure, sometimes people don’t value YOUR art. But they still give money to THE ARTS. Think of Auto Zone; the priority is always their financial bottom line. But they see the value of the arts and they are willing to pay for them.
However, a group like Octarium isn’t a big symphony or a big opera company or a big art museum. In the realm of Chamber of Commerce marketing, we are small fry. Ergo, big companies would not likely pARTner with us. THE ARTS is often funded when Octarium is not.
And that’s ok because we still create a wonderful product without big-time funding. One that is remarkably more popular outside our home base of Kansas City than it is within the city limits because Kansas City won’t use Octarium in its promotional materials until we can become useful to them; we won’t be in the brochures or the presentations because our presence isn’t economically-defendable in those larger terms that politicians and businessmen like to talk about.
And that’s ok, too. It’s to be expected, really. But we, like many other small arts nonprofits, are a part of the mosaic of the Kansas City arts and if one tile is missing, the mosaic is incomplete. Think of a car; it has a transmission, a radiator and a battery. It won’t run without those big pieces. But it also won’t run without tiny spark plugs and fan belts and transmission fluid. Octarium is an artistic fan belt in the Kansas City mosaic of arts and culture, mixed metaphor notwithstanding. Octarium is a small part of what makes the artistic engine of Kansas City run. Though we cannot compete with the opera and the ballet and the symphony on levels of community impact, the arts culture in Kansas City would be less diverse, and much less interesting, without us and other small arts nonprofits like us. Kansas City just wouldn’t run as well without fan belts.
So when you’re defending THE ARTS in your community, remember groups like Octarium. We’re small but we’re mighty. And the car won’t start without us.
posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director