by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
November 1, 2007
ART AT THE END OF IT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - "Why would I let my 14-year-old daughter be an artist?"
This interesting question was asked by Kate Anderson at the Arts Council of Windham County's annual meeting Tuesday night at the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center. The point she was making, if I understood her correctly, was that most artists struggle to make a living, so why would she want that life for her talented daughter.
I was at the meeting to be the turd in the punch bowl of art and talk about gentrification. The panel was called, "Feeding the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg: Gentrification, Arts Destination, Paying the Bills."
In 1973, I rented a loft in SoHo in Manhattan. SoHo then was full of empty manufacturing spaces - greasy floors, filthy walls and windows, vast open spaces, freight elevators, cheap rents. Because of zoning, it was illegal to live there. The neighborhood was decidedly industrial and grim.
Today, "loft" is an architectural style, and you couldn't buy one of those spaces for several million dollars.
What happened? The artists - the painters, writers, dancers, musicians, composers, choreographers, sculptors, muses, etc. - moved in because they needed space. Then a few food stores opened up to serve them. The old bars got crowded, so restaurants and fern bars opened.
Galleries opened. The artists put on "Happenings" and dance events and concerts. A newspaper was started to cover the scene. People with jobs and money started coming down. Then they started moving in with the artists. Then they chased the artists away. Today, the entire island of Manhattan is too expensive for artists. It has become entirely gentrified.
Aspen, Colo. Woodstock, N,Y,. Waitsfield, Vt. As the singer-songwriter Greg Brown wrote in "Boomtown," "The rich build sensitive houses and pass their staff around/For the rest of us, it's trailers on the outskirts of town/We carry them their coffee, wash their shiny cars/ hear all about how lucky we are to be living in a boomtown...The guy from California moves in and relaxes/The natives have to move/They cannot pay the taxes/Santa Fe has had it/Sedona has, too/Maybe you'll be lucky/ maybe your town will be the new boomtown."
Brattleboro is becoming more and more gentrified as we speak.
It's expensive to live here. Rents are high, and people tell me it's hard to buy a house for under a quarter of a million dollars. Luckily, Vermont's property tax has income sensitivity - if it didn't, many of us who own homes would have already lost them.
Cars are necessary and gas prices are not going down any time soon. Heating oil prices have gone through the roof. Food isn't cheap. Most of the restaurants in town are expensive, yuppified places where deserts cost between $8 and $10.
Wages are low. Manufacturing is gone. You can't make art when you're stocking shelves at Hannaford. And we haven't even begun to see the economic damage caused by the subprime mortgage disaster. Things could get a lot worse.
Brattleboro remains a wonderful place for artists who come here with well-developed businesses and clienteles. And the many festivals - everything from the Strolling of the Heifers to the Brattleboro Literary Festival - are designed to bring in tourists who put money into hotels, restaurants, gas stations, book stores and galleries - all worthwhile places. According to a new study, the arts economy brought $11 million into the area in 2005.
But don't talk about an arts economy until you figure out a way to get the money to the artists. For someone struggling here as an artist - or as a writer - the living is anything but easy.
Worthy arts organizations - the museum, the New England Youth Theater, the Latchis Theater, Nimble Arts, the theater companies, the music organizations, the crafts shows and the studio tours - are all competing for the same scarce dollars. And they do it against the Drop In Center, Morningside Shelter, Our Place up in Bellows Falls and the Reformer Christmas Stocking.
A few solutions have been proposed. Marie Procter, the president of the arts council, suggested organizing a local endowment fund. Another idea is to hire someone to market Brattleboro artists in New York and Boston. Spoon Agave suggested that instead of building a "cultural economy," we should concentrate on building a "living wage economy." Then more people would have disposable income to buy art.
We also have to realize that when we talk about art, we're not just talking about chenille scarves and hand-blown glass. We're talking about work that can be challenging, dangerous and threatening to the status quo.
Many questions need to be asked. Do artists make art because they have to make art? Do they make art for tourists? And if they do, and the tourists come, doesn't this make artists slightly analogous to zoo animals?
If I don't get paid much for my art, does it mean that my art isn't good? Do people who make money automatically make good art? In our late capitalist society, they do. Or, to put it another way, does anyone think Van Gogh is a worthy model?
Speaking of Van Gogh, he never sold a painting, suffered deeply from a lack of support, understanding and appreciation, and killed himself in the end. Today his tortured countenance can be found on message "stickies" being sold by the package at the desk of the museum. There's a lesson in irony there for all of us.
Which brings me back to Kate Anderson's excellent question. I've been thinking that if her daughter is a true artist, she will determine her own life's path. And just as I have to write, she will make art because she has no choice. It's what we were born to do, and there's the end of it.
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.