February 25, 2008

Prof Speaks on Isolation of Artists

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“Puppets, Not Porn.” Such was the slogan of a burlesque stage-turned puppet theater, one of the grassroots arts organizations highlighted by A.D. White Professor-at-Large Ann Markusen in her lecture on Friday. In her talk, entitled “Cultural Planning and The Creative City,” she discussed the difficulties many artists face in urban areas.
Prof. Susan Christopherson, city and regional planning, introduced Markusen, a visitor to the department and the director of the Project on Regional and Industrial Economics at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
Markusen began by outlining the conflict between art and politics in the ’90s due to the outbreak of AIDS, which victimized and alienated many artists.
“There is a way in which this backlash against art and culture [was] linked to the fact that for decades there has been a disconnect between artists … and people in general,” Markusen said.
She noted that many artists work in mainstream fields, but added, “They’re not really lined up with the rest of the artistic community. I can’t get anyone in publishing and advertising to come to my study groups.”
Markusen criticized the “obsession with physical capital,” arguing against massive undertakings like the Lincoln Center, the San Francisco Civic Center and Minneapolis’s $50 million Guthrie Theater.
“[These] big institutional investments … funded by traditional elites [are often] very costly failures,” Markusen said.
She praised “local, decentralized, organic … initiatives” like writers’ centers and music halls. She highlighted the positive effects of art centers on local communities, in particular a studio in a drug-ridden neighborhood.
“It has become an amazing, stabilizing place. The main thing was really to show young people in the community that art is one direction they can take,” Markusen said.
In describing the demographic of the artist, she added, “performing artists are always the most concentrated, because they’re involved in the most collective form of art. Except for in Los Angeles, writers and visual artists tend to be the most highly decentralized group.”
Markusen explained that Los Angeles’s film industry accounts for its high concentration of writers. After mentioning several low-profile artists of various cultures and disciplines, Markusen discussed the cultural city’s implications for policy.
“It’s pretty formidable thinking about how we could get a coherent cultural policy,” Markusen said.
In stating her own policy viewpoint, she spoke against the idea of a “cultural district”. “To call any one place a ‘cultural district’ is to imply that every other place is not a cultural district,” Markusen said.
“Like everything in the economic world, we have to evaluate the economic outcome [of the cultural city] so we know what’s out there,” she said.
“Ann is a truly unusual person,” said Christopherson, who cited Markusen’s position as a promoter of women in the male-dominated field of city planning. “She has combined a critical sense … with a practical policy orientation.”
Following Markusen’s talk, Prof. Barbara Mink, management spoke about the Ithaca Light in Winter Festival, which she founded as a celebration of the arts and sciences.
“We were very interested in the notion of cultural tourism — having events that would draw people to an experience instead of … just counting on natural resources,” Mink said.
In contrast with Markusen, who focused on the effects of art’s effect on local community members, Mink said, “The focus [of Light in Winter] was on bringing people from outside to stay here … You can’t really measure the kind of soft things Ann was referring to. They’re not quantifiable, and so they’re not fundable.”