If we want more art, we need a holistic approach

Last week, @downtownslc led a discussion on Twitter about how to improve the arts in Salt Lake City. Like many discussions about the arts, this one included many comments about what we lack and what we’d like to see more of.

It was a great conversation, but in the aftermath I was left wondering if we art lovers need to consider more holistic ways to help cultivate the arts.

More specifically, to build a better arts culture we need to consider the economic systems that support it. We need to look at how cities become art centers, not what they look like — e.g. filled with great art — after they already succeed.

Paris

Paris was a great arts mecca because, among many other reasons, it combined places like this with some amount of affordability and enough people to produce some stars.

So, just to rattle off a few examples, places like 19th Century Paris and mid 20th Century New York had cheap places to live, a lot of density, and diverse job opportunities. These were the sorts of things that appealed to young, up-and-coming artists because they appealed to everyone. Their success as art cities was preceded by significant periods of economic growth and diversification. Clearly, then, getting a lot of people together in one affordable place is important.

More importantly, these places also had a wealthily upper class and a robust intellectual class. That meant young artists could effectively move up the ladder as they succeeded, all without leaving. People like Rodin or Rauschenberg, for example, would never have become the icons they are if they spent their whole careers exhibiting in coffee shops, farmer’s markets, and cool-but-hidden provincial galleries.

The silver statue in this picture is a monument to Andy Warhol. New York didn't produce people like Warhol, nor did it end up with monuments to those people, just because the arts community worked really hard and was really cool. It happened because New York has the economy and built environment to support those people.

The silver statue in this picture is a monument to Andy Warhol. New York didn’t produce people like Warhol, nor did it end up with monuments to those people, just because the arts community worked really hard and was really cool. It happened because New York has the economy and built environment to support those people.

That’s a piece of the puzzle that I think we often forget: cities need to be able to propel their artists to critical and financial success — and possibly even to superstardom from time to time — if they really want to become successful art centers. After all, an artist’s needs at age 20 are completely different from at age 45, or 70. An aspiring art city needs to be capable of handling the entire career of an artist, or most of them will leave and go to places where they can “make it.” And while some artists will always move into practical “creative class” careers — graphic design, for example — in a successful art city not all of them will have to.

For better or worse, making this happen requires money. I feel vulgar even writing this, but what cities need at very least is an aspirational bourgeois class of people with plenty of disposable income. I suspect a city also needs a class of super rich who can drop wads of cash on art and who treat it as an investment.

Here’s a fun and illuminative clip from Mad Men that shows the different kinds of non-artists a city needs in order to support artists:

How many people are there in downtown Salt Lake who could afford to buy a Rothko, or today’s equivalent? How many of those people would want to? Not many, I suspect.

An outdoor market in Salt Lake City.

An outdoor market in Salt Lake City is a great thing for the arts. But this can’t be the only, or even the primary, way the arts happen if a city wants to keep its best and brightest artists.

Comparing Salt Lake City to New York is unfair, of course. But the point isn’t to insult Utah, it’s to emphasize that if we want an arts culture we should focus on building the systems, population, and economy to support it (which is one reason I wish the investment in City Creek had gone toward something more productive). With those things in place, the arts will probably take care of themselves without a lot of top-down work to cultivate them.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that New York in the 1850s was not the arts capital of the world. The changes it experienced over the following century, however, offer case studies on how to become a great arts center.  Those changes — which have to do with economics, immigration, slums, business, etc. — were often gritty, unglamorous and ostensibly had little to do with actual arts.

Over time, however, they coalesced into a holistic system that could support an array of artists at various levels of success and ambition. And that, I think, is something we’d all like to see in Utah.

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