September 28, 2005

Recognizing the value of “perceived value”

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:51 pm

I am always fascinated by the concept of “perceived value” when it comes to the arts. There is a pecking order which categorizes creative output as either highly valued or undervalued.

Sometimes value is based on the amount of money something is worth. A painting by Picasso, for example, is generally regarded as something worth a lot of money.

Sometimes value is merely emotional or sentimental, like tourist art, which costs more to frame than the inherent value of the piece itself. But if you could measure the heart palpitations of the owner of the tourist art, the dollar to heartbeat ratio might easily be equal.

Some financial value determinations seem to have to due with the substratum of the artwork. Newspaper is cheap and easy birdcage liner. Most of the writing informs or amuses the reader for a brief moment and then it is forgotten. Newspapers and their content have very little perceived value.

Film historians are panicking because the celluloid (an expensive medium) on which many early films were captured is disintegrating. Some of those films are classics, and many are not, but film has a high perceived value so a tremendous amount of money is spent to preserve it.

It works for performing arts too. For instance, I know I have moaned when a favorite rock group is demoted from a prestigious venue on its last tour to a second-rate facility on its current tour. My perception is that the group must have fallen from public grace a notch. Their perceived value has declined, even though they are likely playing the same music they always have.

Trying to interpret financial perceived value is merely a curious exercise for me. But the hypocrisy and discrepancy in evaluating sentimental value can get me pretty riled up. There have been a couple of offenses recently in my life.

The first was a personal infraction. I am creating a family art gallery in the bedroom wing of our home. To get in, the artist has to share blood with one of us. It is our family way of honoring the creative heritage of some ancestors who are no longer with us, some who live too far away to see all the time, and some up and coming creative contributors to the family line.

One day when I was collecting data to learn about the history of a quilt, one family member said, “Oh, that was just a kids quilt thrown together.” Now what does that mean? Is this piece being undervalued because it is a children’s quilt? Or because it was “thrown together” without needless hours of toil? As art, there was a discrepancy between our perceived value of this piece.

The second infraction was more general, but just as disturbing. A talented and sophisticated designer with her own show on HGTV framed a piece of children’s art for the room she was decorating. She commented that with the frame, “ordinary kids art can become a museum-quality art piece.”

There are a lot of problems with this statement, but the only one I am going to dissect is the use of the word “ordinary.” She could mean “ordinary” in terms of the piece being “common,” or “run-of-the-mill.” I know a lot of people see kids art this way. A canvas smeared with paint has more perceived value than a piece of construction paper with finger paints on it. For many of us, the finger-paint piece is automatically relegated to the refrigerator and we install spot lighting to showcase the canvas above the mantle. Which one is true art and which one is a mess? Sometimes the difference is negligible, but the “ordinary” construction paper masterpiece is worth no more display effort than lifting a magnate on the refrigerator.

“Ordinary” could also mean that there is such a prodigious output of kids’ art that finding some in a house with children is not an unusual or extraordinary thing to do. People with kids do often find themselves surrounded by original artwork. I was struck by something one father said to my son’s preschool teacher when he picked up his kids and was handed a stack of paintings. “Look at all these paintings. This stuff is so special that we put it in a box in the garage. How can we throw it away?” Examine that statement. Is putting his kids’ art in a box in the garage really any different from throwing it away? That attitude makes the refrigerator look like the Louvre.

I have a soft spot for kids art because it is always so fanciful and colorful, two qualities I admire. I also find it anything but ordinary because for most of us, the prolific art years taper off as we grow and by the time we hit middle school age, we have a hard time filling that box in the garage.

I think the output of visual artwork from children during a finite period in their lives is extraordinary. It will only be ordinary when I can walk into 45-year-old Bob’s house or 77-year-old Mary’s apartment and see their daily artwork up on the refrigerator.

April 13, 2005

The Artist in Me Foundation

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 4:05 pm

Last summer, my mom visited a friend in El Dorado Hills and brought back a brochure for a non-profit organization called The Artist in Me Foundation. Founder Susan Lee shares that her active, distractible, argumentative and loud daughter has been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Sensory Integration Disorder and learning disabilities. But this same girl is fun-loving, inquisitive, sensitive and compassionate with a love of arts and crafts. Lee calls art her daughter’s “saving grace” because through art, her daughter can be herself, express herself and do things the way she wants to do them. There are no rules in art. It is fun, therapeutic and captivating for any personality.

I strongly agree with all Lee’s assertions, and I support the mission of The Arts in Me Foundation to embrace the individuality and uniqueness of special needs kids. As their mission statement declares, “Let us nourish their souls and uplift their spirits so they can have the courage, perseverance and vision to make their dreams come true.”

I think this all sounds wonderful, so I continued to read the brochure. I learn that the foundation provides monthly art classes for special needs children and hosts a Young Masters Art Exhibit twice a year to display, award and encourage a passion for art, fostering a sense of self esteem and pride. My mom had pictures to show me of the latest exhibit, for which all the artwork was beautifully framed to show off the masterpieces within. The art in the pictures was vibrant, playful, emotional and impressive.

Finally, I read about the guiding precepts of the foundation which are: To develop self esteem; treat each child with respect and dignity; foster understanding and empathy for the journey these children must travel; encourage creativity and celebrate their unique abilities; discover and develop artistic skills; provide a fun activity where these children feel like they are “regular kids;” recognize their limitations but encourage them to reach their potential; provide an opportunity to fully explore themselves and to embrace their individualism; and instill a sense of hope for the children and their parents.

I can’t argue with any of these precepts, and I staunchly cheer for any organization that espouses them.

But something fell flat with me after reading all this. Of course, I am thrilled that an organization exists for special needs children to gain from the positive effects of art and making art. It reminds me of programs I have written about concerning art programs for Alzheimer’s patients to give them a productive and fulfilling outlet for the creative part of their brain that still has something relevant and important to say. And then there are the art therapy programs for children who have dealt with horrific tragedies. St. Mary’s College in Moraga has exhibited the artwork of rape victims as a means to give those women a voice. In fact, I can’t think of a challenge to the human condition that can’t benefit from a little time with some art supplies. Was it the commonality between these other programs and The Artist in Me Foundation that left me from reaching the heights of exhilaration about their program? Had I finally become jaded about all the ways the arts are beneficial to humanity? I cringed to think that the answer to either of these questions could be “yes.”

And then it hit me that everything Lee writes about the place art has in her daughter’s life should be absolutely true for everyone, whether identified as having “special needs” or not. I wasn’t having a “Wow!” moment because The Artist in Me Foundation is documenting fundamentals. Every one of us is on a journey, every one of us has a unique view of the world, and every one of us is eligible to reap the positive rewards of creating and sharing art. I’m glad Lee and the volunteers for The Artist in Me Foundation have formalized their mission for the special needs kids in their community and focused an art program on a segment of the population which otherwise might be written off in a traditional art classroom. But we must not forget that art underscores the special qualities in all of us.

March 30, 2004

The sun shines on school music program

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:27 pm

A year ago I wrote a column skewering Acalanes Union High School District superintendent Randy Olson and the Acalanes School Board for issuing preliminary layoff notices to district choral teachers. I had taken the news of those preliminary layoffs very personally. The day I heard, I called my husband at work in tears of anger, fear and frustration. He and I are both products of the choral music program at Acalanes and for each of us, singing at Acalanes was a highlight of our adolescence. One reason we wanted to raise our children within the district was so that they could one day participate in the wonderful arts programs these high schools provide for the students. To learn that individuals in decision-making positions might be undermining our past memories and our future dreams was very hard for me to take.

The layoff situation had a happy ending for the choral teachers. School board members emailed me and said that they were huge fans and ardent supporters of music education and did not want to see those programs crumble. Parents and community members stepped up to save the programs and the school board has since made public statements that the music programs at the high schools are of the highest priority for them to protect.

One year later, I find myself crying in joy and exultation that the choral programs in our high schools are alive and thriving, reaching higher heights than ever before. On March 20, I was privileged to be in the audience of Campolindo High School’s closing night performance of “Les Misérables.” I was looking forward to the show. Not only am I a “Les Miz” fan, but in the week leading up to this performance, I had been hearing a lot of buzz about how incredible the show was. Folks were emailing me, stopping me at the store, and calling to ask breathlessly, “Have you seen ‘Les Miz.’ I have covered theater in this area for six years but I have never experienced that kind of unsolicited enthusiasm for a show. It amused me that the epicenter of the buzz was a high school music program.

Categorizing Campolindo’s “Les Miz” as a mere high school musical is pejorative. The production was transcendent. The student talent on stage, in the orchestra pit, through the set design, and behind the scenes represented professionalism equal to and beyond most of the professional and semi-professional theater companies in Contra Costa. I don’t mean to belittle those other companies, but rather to underscore that our public high school kids are getting a musical education that puts them in the same league as many professionals. As a member of the larger community, I was very proud of Campolindo that night. I can’t even imagine what the students, their parents, the Campolindo staff and the community volunteers who worked to put that show together must be feeling.

And there was Campolindo’s director of choral activities, Gene Peterson, leading the orchestra and at the helm of this tremendous program. What would have happened if we had lost him last year to budget cuts? Thank goodness, we didn’t! I see Campolindo’s “Les Miz” as a victory celebration for arts education throughout the Acalanes District. Their ambitious musical production showed what our young people have the power to accomplish when a community and a school district make the arts a priority.

A line from “Les Miz” says, “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” I am so glad to be on the other side of last year’s dark night and warming myself under a radiant sun.

March 27, 2004

Finding an artistic surprise inside the box

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:55 pm

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor, I was incensed by the media coverage. Schwarzenegger’s name and “the actor” were interchangeable when reporters and broadcasters gave us the news of his campaign. So the man has made boatloads of cash through a career in the arts. Why do we have to pigeonhole him based on only one aspect of his life? He’s decided to try something different. Why don’t we give him a clean slate and look at the whole Schwarzenegger package?

Of course, in the last twenty years, Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono and Ronald Reagan have had to sit in the same pigeonhole. Reagan went as far as he could go in his second career, and he is still referred to as the actor-gone-politician.

While the recall election dragged on, I routinely got to the breakfast table, saw the headlines, and pulled my soapbox out of a nearby closet. With rolled eyes and half-open ears, my husband was the lucky guy who got to hear lecture upon rant about how ridiculous it was to limit our perceptions of a person, and then perpetuate it with finite monikers. It’s not uncommon to refer to a next-door-neighbor as “the doctor,” completely overlooking the fact that she plays trombone on nights and weekends. In New York, you might have a high percentage of actors bringing you your burger and fries, but that doesn’t mean they’re not talented in, and highly stimulated by, food service as well. Folks are multi-faceted, which makes the world an interesting place to live.

And when an accountant runs for office, we don’t see headlines replacing Joe Blow’s name with “Accountant Says California Needs to Stop Spending.” Accountants-turned-politician don’t get big play. Although every time I read the professions underneath the names on my ballot, I notice quite a few accountants moonlighting in politics.

I think I always saw and heard Bustamante referred to by his proper name. I read in his bio that he studied to be a butcher. I bet the man still has more talent in that area than most of us. Even a career politician has facets.

“Can’t you just write a column about this, or something?” my husband would plead. I wanted to write a column, but the timeliness of current events and my column deadlines never quite synced up right for a column to be appropriate.

Now I’ve had several weeks to watch Governor Schwarzenegger and I realize that had I filed a column, it would have been the dumbest bit of prose I’ve ever submitted. Arnold doesn’t want to drop the actor thing. It is a part of him, and he is using it in his political career, just like a multi-faceted person should. Duh. I was packaging him into boxes, and putting some in storage while unpacking the others in the living room. That’s not how it works. Everything about us is theoretically accessible and available at all times, and that makes us who we are. And that’s what made Arnold interesting to the media, and the world, as a political candidate.

I so deeply believe that everyone can claim an artistic facet that I feel foolish for expecting the media to downplay Arnold’s. In fact, in a perfect world the media would up-play every candidate’s creative bent. Don’t they surmise that Bill Clinton’s saxophone playing on “Arsenio Hall” won him the younger voters? Gavin Newsom’s very public commitment to the arts is supposedly one of his facets that got him elected. Maybe if public figures who aren’t more obviously creative find something artistic to share about themselves, we may not have such a communication gap between politicians and their constituencies. We could connect viscerally through a common artistic language.

August 25, 2003

Have some local art with your wine

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:31 pm

I had the good fortune to be in the workroom of FastFrame in Lafayette one Saturday when owner Anthony Ruiz gave young Sean an impromptu tour of the mechanics that comprise the art of framing. At the end, Sean went and got his mom and immediately started giving her the same tour. With a gleeful grin, Anthony said, “I love it when kids make themselves at home. It means they feel safe.”

What a wonderful gift to give a child — the feeling of safety in a creative environment. Anthony admits he has a soft spot for “kids, the elderly and animals. If you’re at all viable, you’re on your own,” he chuckles.

It’s not unusual for Anthony to donate free framing to children in local schools to underscore the importance of artistic expression in their lives. He has seen the “Wow!” in their faces when they see their sponge paintings, line drawings and watercolors custom-framed and displayed in the FastFrame window on Mt. Diablo Blvd.

Anthony is also a huge believer in supporting artists of all ages in our community. He is using his store as a platform for his beliefs during this year’s Lafayette Art and Wine Festival on September 20 and 21. He will host the opening of “Luck of the Draw,” showcasing the artwork of elementary school children throughout Lafayette. In conjunction with the Lafayette Arts and Science Foundation, Anthony custom-framed the artwork of one child in each grade level who was picked from a hat. After the two days at FastFrame, the artwork will travel around town on display in different venues for several weeks before returning to its proud creators.

Anthony’s views on using the Lafayette Art and Wine Festival to overtly support local artists struck a chord with me, and ignited my annual pondering of one of life’s great mysteries. I have never understood why more local art isn’t featured at the festival. I understand that the event isn’t about art or wine at all. It’s a fundraiser put on by the Chamber of Commerce for Lafayette-based organizations, and it’s about bringing people to the fair city of Lafayette. I understand this intellectually, but my gut can’t reconcile why this city, which has been an active force in a regional arts renaissance over the last few years, doesn’t make more of an effort to showcase its homegrown artists.

The event is eight years old, and for the last couple of years the Lamorinda Arts Alliance and local business which feature art have been fighting for space and pre-event publicity to say, “Hey, if out-of-towners are coming to Lafayette to see art, then they are going to see OUR art.” It always feels to me like they are swimming against the tide of gypsy artists who set up their booths on Mt. Diablo Blvd., having just arrived from the Anytown, California Art and Wine Festival and en route to the How-Many-Art-And-Wine-Festivals-Can-One-State-Have Festival next weekend. Most of the gypsy artists don’t offer anything we can’t find among our local artists, and none are any more talented than we can find here at home.

I want you all to go to the Lafayette Art and Wine Festival, and I want to send you on a mission to support our local artists. They’re not shy about identifying themselves, if you keep your eyes peeled for that sort of information. Talk to the artists in the white cottage across from La Fiesta Square. They represent the Lafayette Arts Gallery and The Art Room. Look around the perimeter of the festival at the businesses in La Fiesta Square and on Mt. Diablo Blvd. and if there’s art in the windows, give them equal time to those who have a booth. And most importantly, stop by FastFrame at 3571 Mt. Diablo Blvd. and give your emotional support to the young artists who are the future representatives of our local arts movement.

July 30, 2003

Arts education is in our hands

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 4:05 pm

So the California state government values arts programs so little they decided to insult artists everywhere by giving the California Arts Council a token $1 million in the coming year. That is equivalent to three cents per person, and California has the mighty distinction of spending the least per capita for the arts. That’s like giving a waitress a three-cent tip to send the message that you were unhappy with her service rather than leaving no tip at all.

But was anyone really surprised? Artists are angry, rallies were held, speeches were given about the importance of the arts in our lives, especially in the lives of underprivileged children. How many boulders have to fall on our heads before we just accept that the California government does not support the arts – period. Forever an optimist, I have spent a lifetime fighting the acceptance of this grim fact. As the budget gridlock played itself out, my heart hoped for a miracle while my brain winced in anticipation of the worst. When the numbers finally were announced, I mourned more for the loss of hope than for the budget cut.

I don’t believe in victims, however, and I’m tired of hearing how school programs, small and medium-sized performing arts companies and community outreach programs are going to be devastated by lack of grant funding in the coming years. I know I’m very lucky to live in an area where the impact of an arts budget crisis will undoubtedly be less than in communities whose socio-economic demographics reflect less educated parents and less money for education programs in general. I know in this community, parents will once again open their wallets to fund arts programs in our schools, and the talented and educated artists who live among us and already provide outreach to those less fortunate will find a way to continue doing it. There are the people who get it, and the people who don’t. What we have on our side is that for the people who get it, making art and sharing art is a compulsion.

It seems that the solution to funding the arts in California lies with each of us individually. Forget about the state government. They play for the Don’t-Get-It-Team and no longer are worth our time and energy. We weep for their lost souls.
I see two places every one of us can make a huge contribution to the well-being of the arts statewide. Just like charity begins at home, so do the arts. Arts education through music, painting, dancing and drama can all be done inexpensively through projects custom designed for your child and his or her interests. If you think you don’t have any talent or skill in these areas, you’re wrong. At the very least, you probably have an opinion on any artistic contribution you come across. Start by talking about that. If your child shows an interest in something in particular, then dive into that subject with as much enthusiasm as they do. There’s no crime in learning along with them.

Giving monetary donations to community arts groups and small performing arts companies is another significant way you can help. And you don’t have to give much. If everyone gave even $5 or $10 to local organizations, that would be a much bigger pile of money for them to draw upon than waiting for a blessed few to donate hundreds, thousands or millions. Most of the organizations that most likely won’t survive without state grants are non-profits anyway, so you get the tax write-off when you help them weather this storm. And, it is those smallish organizations that often provide arts programs to the kids in inner-city schools, rural communities, the disabled and the elderly — the populations most likely to be forgotten once the budget plague ravages those organizations.

I’d like to think that if this community had food while the rest of California starved, we would feed our children first, but there would also be a canned food drive on every corner. That’s exactly what needs to happen now for the arts.

March 31, 2003

Peace and Creation

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:49 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a line from the musical “Rent,” — “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.” I’m reminded of it when I see the myriad pictures in the newspaper of Bay Area arts groups organizing exhibits, stage shows and concerts promoting peace and protesting war. As the various music and film awards shows have filed by, those who make a living in the arts have been vocal about their anti-war sentiments. Artists representing peace and politicians representing war are age-old adversaries.

But Jonathan Larson’s lyric stating that creation is the opposite of war has always struck me to be asserting that the creation antidote is more personal, more individual than a high-profile, get-on-the-bandwagon kind of artmaking. Until recently, I had gotten that far in analyzing the phrase by myself. As usual, the artist community in Lamorinda has helped me to make more sense of what I feel is an extremely important edict for all humanity.

First, I received a brochure from Lafayette artist, teacher and healer Jean Anderson telling me about upcoming workshops she is offering. I had the pleasure of experiencing Jean’s integrated approach to art and healing about three years ago when I was writing a story about her work. This is how Jean opens her Spring 2003 newsletter:

“Now, more than ever, we are required to make peace within. It is the war within each of us that must be resolved for humankind and this planet to thrive. Each time I judge myself or another, I am engaged in violence. We must fall madly in love with ourselves and each other to blaze forth with the beauty, love and creativity that we came into this life to express. The time is now, there is no other time.”
It’s a powerful statement, more powerful than the “dead prez” statement on Erykah Badu’s t-shirt at the Grammy awards, or Michael Moore’s “fake war, fake president” tirade at the Academy Awards. I happen to believe that if we all lived our best lives, and that includes all of us in the U.S., in Iraq, in France and in Germany, from the meekest child to the most powerful world leaders, then the destructive drive to make judgments and make war would cease. Like Jean, I believe we discover how to live our best lives through personal creative expression. It’s the ultimate in think globally, act locally.

Days after getting Jean’s mailing, I got my newsletter from the Campolindo High School Music Department. Among the concert announcements was a blurb with no introduction and no follow-up that could possibly be the most profound two-inch page-filler in newsletter history. It asks the question “Why study music?” and then lists the answers, “So you will be more human. So you will recognize beauty. So you will be sensitive. So you will have more love, more compassion, more gentleness, more good — in short, more life.”

The anonymous author of this little gem has also hit upon the secret of world peace. Sensitivity, love, compassion, gentleness, goodness, beauty, humanity and life are all superb elixirs for the wartime ailments of fear, anger, hatred and suffering. Make music, not war should be on all the protest march signs from now on.

Elena Pang of Orinda said something during an ordinary conversation that completes my dissertation entitled Creation: The Antithesis of War. She said, “The only place we can honor each person’s spirit and their unique expression is through the arts.” If we all honored individual spirit and unique expression, then how could we possibly judge one another, or wage battle against each other? Artistic and creative expression mirrors individual spirit. If we learn to honor our own creativity, and the creativity in others, then the biggest disagreements we should have are the ones that fall under the heading of critique.

March 12, 2003

Budget cuts travesty

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:31 pm

News flash for Acalanes District superintendent Randy Olson: Not every student learns math, English and science in math, English and science classes. Not everybody learns how to work with a team by playing after-school sports.

The preliminary staff layoffs list for the Acalanes School District jeopardizes arts programs in our Lamorinda high schools causing an even more grave crisis in education than the impending state budget cuts. Extremely strong and popular choral programs in our three high schools are seemingly expendable. With the issuance of three pink slips to Gene Peterson, Chris Olin and Bruce Lengacher, programs built on decades of excellence in vocal music education could be completely obliterated.

These aren’t glee clubs. The choral music classroom is a place where students engage the same part of their brain that is cultivated in a math class. Culture, history, sociology and politics are explored through preparation and discussion about challenging music selections. Students learn to take risks by putting themselves on the line to create top-notch performances, sing solos or simply hold their own part in the alto, soprano, tenor or bass sections. The skills of teamwork and cooperation are honed on a daily basis, for without the other voices in the choir, there would be no song.

Our choral students compete at music festivals as prestigious as the North Coast section championship in sports. They become ambassadors for our superior school system through state, national and international tours. The richness and depths of this educational experience for the hundreds of kids who go through these programs each year cannot be matched in a classroom that simply teaches the “3 Rs.”

Half the district’s industrial technology teachers are also facing possible elimination. “Industrial technology” is the current term for what used to be called “industrial arts,” which along with auto shop and metal shop, includes wood shop, drafting, graphic arts and photography. At Lamorinda high schools, three-dimensional artforms like sculpture in myriad materials, pottery, woodworking and various mixed media are created in these programs. Industrial technology classes teach engineering skills from problem-solving to follow-through and the nuances of communication skills to translate an idea that started in one brain but may have to ultimately be achieved by many brains working together. Students in Don Dupont’s furniture building class learn the social studies inherently intertwined with the history of design when they create their projects.

Students in industrial technology explore different learning processes from those used in core classes, and even in other arts electives. It is not unusual to find students for whom industrial technology classes are the single high point in their academic day. In fact, in many cases, I have met kids in the Acalanes district who are staying in school just because of their industrial technology class.

We also have to remember that there is a vocational aspect to programs in the arts. Not every kid coming out of Lamorinda wants to be a doctor, lawyer or businessperson. For many students, introductory and advanced instruction in the arts comes through arts electives in high school. Lafayette resident Erling Horn is the very proud papa of professional violist Patrick and professional photographer Rolfe. Both boys came through the Acalanes school district and Horn on multiple occasions has told me that he is convinced that it is the arts education his kids received in our public schools that set his boys on the path to successfully pursuing their passions. And even if a kid’s passion is to be a doctor, lawyer or businessperson, I know I wouldn’t hire or work with someone in these professions who was educationally incomplete because they did not have a comprehensive arts curriculum.

All 53 potential layoffs are appalling. I’m not saying that one educator is more precious to our kids than another. But the devastating impact on entire arts programs due to staff cuts is a lesson we all should have learned during the Prop 13 era.

While researching pre-school programs for my son, I asked one administrator about the arts curriculum at her school. Without missing a beat, she said, “Well, preschool education is really all about the arts.” I believe this attitude should be stringently upheld through all levels of our educational system. I hate to think that the Acalanes School Board and Superintendent Olson believe that the arts are simply child’s play. The district Web site says they are inviting public comment. Please take them up on their invitation.

June 27, 2002

Make empty storefronts art-full

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:39 pm

I have an idea.

It’s a phrase that makes my family shudder when they hear it. You see, if I say it aloud, it usually means I have an idea that I can’t pull off by myself and my family knows they are first people I will recruit to help make it happen.
This time, though, my family gets the idea off. This idea will need action from the artists and commercial property owners of Lamorinda.

I drive down Mt. Diablo Blvd. in Lafayette from one end to the other almost every day doing errands. As I sit at the stoplights, I look at the empty storefronts and wonder who might be coming into town next to sell their wares. I know I’m not the first writer in the Sun to comment on how slowly those empty storefronts get filled. And I’m sure I’m not the first one to sigh as I drive by and observe the depressed image that empty storefronts convey.

Why not fill those empty storefronts with art?

Actually, I can’t take any credit for this idea. Putting art from the Lamorinda Arts Alliance members in the empty storefronts of the Rheem Shopping Center is something Bege Elrod organized for years. Bege has moved on to share her talents with some lucky community in Oregon and I was dismayed to notice recently that Rheem no longer has art in their terminally empty storefronts.

With great hope, I popped over to Orinda’s Theater Square to see what’s happening in their empty windows. It was in Theater Square that I first learned about the value for artists in displaying their work in empty storefronts. Piedmont artist Chris Johnson founded a company called Window of Opportunity which hooked artists up with commercial landlords in a mutually beneficial relationship. The artist had a chance to show his or her work to the public and the landlord had a less pathetic looking piece of property.

Guess what? No art at Theater Square anymore but plenty of empty stores. At least Theater Square has some strips of designer butcher paper running the length of the empty windows with catchy phrases printed on them about what’s new and exciting at Theater Square. The butcher paper hides the emptiness well, but I also think it would be a nifty neutral backdrop for some art.

Those of you who are not artists might be asking the question that I once had to ask Bege and Chris: Why would an artist want to display his or her work in an empty storefront? I have learned after talking to the many artists in this community about the dearth of exhibition venues and the competition to get into a traditional gallery space. Artists need to be as creative in finding spaces to show their work as they are in producing the work. Lamorinda has some wonderful banks, retailers, coffee places and doctors offices who turn their walls into galleries for the art community. Rotating exhibits keep these spaces looking new and fresh and vibrant — and they’re inhabited. Imagine the life and hope some art would breath into an empty space.
Back in Lafayette, there’s an opportunity for art in empty storefronts on Mt. Diablo Blvd. to reach an audience that Rheem and Orinda can’t reach as readily — those of us in cars waiting at stoplights. The beautiful brick and glass Loire Court, across from Trader Joe’s, is an impromptu gallery waiting to happen. It’s been empty for a year and a half. Don’t tell me that it doesn’t need a little pick-me-up to draw attention its way.

And the Town Center formerly known as Toon Town (seems unfair to call it Toon Town now with that new, subdued earth-tone paint job) is close enough to the street for a large canvas to easily catch the eye of someone driving by.

Who knows? That someone may eventually stop, park and walk over to the window to see the painting more closely. That someone may decide, while he’s there, to stop into one of the stores or restaurants. That someone may have a positive experience in that store or restaurant and come back. And then the owner of that store or restaurant may tell a potential leasee about the good foot traffic on Mt. Diablo Blvd., and the fact that people stroll in after stopping to look at art.

Hey, I know it sounds a bit idealistic, but whatever’s being done now to rent those spaces isn’t working. Couldn’t hurt to try a new approach.

February 28, 2002

Recovering from a Prop-13 arts education

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:54 pm

I have learned that I am a member of the Lost Arts Generation. We are not as famous as the post-World War I Lost Generation mourned by Hemingway and Fitzgerald. At least not yet. We are the generation who began our elementary school education in the wake of Prop 13 and spent most of our 13 years in the public school system tiptoeing around the rubble of the devastated arts programs.

Of course, at the time I was in school, I didn’t know any better. My inner drive was toward the performing arts and with my parents’ support, my extracurricular music, dance and theater education turned out just fine. But there was a huge gap when in comes to the visual arts of painting, sculpture, mixed media, printmaking, photography and anything else that doesn’t move.

The Lafayette Arts and Science Foundation was just getting up and going when I was at Happy Valley Elementary, but it was no where near the comprehensive and omnipresent organization it is today. I wasn’t born into a museum-going family. After standing in line for hours at The Louvre, we dashed in to see the Mona Lisa, and then our thoughts turned to a good place to have lunch. I think that was the single longest moment we ever spent looking at art on our travels. I come by my penchant for the performing arts naturally.

The art hung in my parents’ home was primarily created by family members— mosaics made by my grandfather, who died when I was five months old, and batiks by my aunt, a high school art teacher. She had an MFA and was always referred to with great reverence in our family as The Artist.

I thought having an MFA and being called The Artist was about the coolest thing in the world. But since I didn’t have any inherent drawing or painting talents, and I was never required to take an art course in school, getting the title of The Artist was a magical, mystical and unattainable privilege bestowed only on a select few.
Oh, there was an arts requirement at Stanley (then-Intermediate) School and Acalanes High School when I attended, but it could be satisfied with a music class. Singing is my passion, so signing up for choir was a thrill, not an academic necessity. I remember being surprised when I met with my counselor around graduation time and saw I had over-fulfilled the arts requirement with seven choir classes in four years. Apparently it didn’t matter that the performing arts part of my arts brain was over developed while the visual arts section was gasping for air.

It caught up to me though. Sophomore year in college I decided to go anti-establishment, forget the business school track I was pursuing and start preparing a graduate film school application. It was a sudden, exhilarating decision when in a moment of pragmatic weakness my heart said “Go for it. Get that MFA you’ve always craved” while my head wasn’t looking. Film has a lot of sound, a lot of motion, all those wonderful, comfortable aspects of the performing arts.

But I soon discovered there was a substantial problem with my plan. Films are not recorded plays, they are thousands and thousands of frames of individual “paintings” strung together. To remedy my visual arts void I signed up for a photography course in my senior year. I felt like a kindergartner in a class of primarily college freshmen representing a selection of the 49 states with better arts education programs than California. I went to Stanford. Photography was the hardest class I took.

I got into film school and earned that glorious MFA, which I guess was impressive enough that the powers that be allowed me to become the arts writer for the Sun. A dream gig, except for one little challenge. Lamorinda is packed with talented painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and countless variants and just about every week I profile an artist or preview an exhibit. Fate must have thought this was quite the humorous little twist to put in my life’s path.

If USC granted me an MFA, then these gracious and generous artists have helped me earn credit toward an MFA with Honors, although I’m far from completing that post-graduate program. One topic that often comes up as we discuss art, the universe and everything is a general lamenting among artists in our community about the lack of local interest in their work. One Moraga artist said that although it is wonderful to have the support of myriad Lamorinda business establishments who give Lamorinda artists exhibit space on their walls, the majority of passers-by just see the art as “background.”

I need another column entirely to discuss the politics of the art world and galleries and why some artists with a good PR person can easily sell a painting for thousands of dollars while your just-as-talented neighbor needs to keep her paintings in the category of “hobby” while she works a “real” job to make ends meet. A lot of this is snobbery, and a lot of it is art patrons not knowing any better. But I have another theory to put forth after almost four years of on-the-job research. One reason art in our community may not be getting the attention it deserves from would-be art patrons is that they, like I, may be unknowingly part of the Lost Arts Generation. Some may just now be realizing that they need to find some educational putty to fill the holes. We may be experiencing a phase of 10 or 20 years when that artist neighbor needs to be an informal art educator. Some of the artists in this community have already realized this and opened public studios to encourage the curious to come and learn more about what they do. These artists know they can’t communicate through their art with someone who can’t hold up his or her end of the conversation. The Lafayette and Moraga co-op galleries operate on the same principle.

If you suspect you’re a casualty of Prop-13, I recommend that the next time you see a piece of art on your doctor’s wall, or in a coffee shop or if you dare to venture into one of Lamorinda’s growing crop of galleries, take a look at the wall on which the artwork is hanging. Most likely there’s an artists name and sometimes a phone number on a small card affixed somewhere near the piece. Give that artist a call and enroll yourself in an art make-up course.