Category Archives: Little Cities

New London’s Only Winter Tourist Attraction

Hygienic Art celebrates the 30th year of its Salon des Independents this weekend with what will surely be a cast of thousands, roaming the snowy streets of New London in search of art that won’t be hard to find. I’ve always loved the Hygienic’s can-do spirit, as in YOU can do—the Hygienic is an arts organization that truly lets everyone in, and the theme of the annual Hygienic Art Show is “No Judge, No Jury, No Fees, No Censorship.”

To that end, I was seriously excited to drop by hygienic.org and see that they have adopted a new ning website! I’ve had a few discussions with emerging arts leaders about whether or not ning is the way to go (requires users to become “members” to use many features–too much commitment?). But now I can see that for the Hygienic, this is perfect. The Hygienic is all about participation, and doesn’t it make sense for an organization to embody its real-life essence online? This is done to brilliant effect with the Hygienic’s new site. AND, as an added bonus, Hygienic expats like me can participate from afar. 

XOXO, Hygienic, and happy XXX!

Barack Rock & Black President

A few weeks ago, Dan turned me on to Barack Rock, a “movement of musicians and artists creating an ever-expanding catalogue of free, exclusive songs, each with its own individual art, meant to inspire participation and donations for the Obama campaign.” The site made me think of Terry Woolard Jr., who was one of my playwriting students at the Green Street Arts Center. Terry was an extremely talented writer, even at age thirteen, who focused his efforts around the concepts such as liberty, politics and what it’s like to be part of the “citadels” of the North End of Middletown.

Yesterday I read in the Middletown Press that Terry’s father, Terry Woolard Sr., just released a CD with a title track inspired by his son’s writing. Black President debuted on WPKN in Bridgeport, Connecticut and was engineered by David Davis, a Green Street teaching artist and one of my former neighbors at the North End Artist Cooperative (aka MAC650).

You can listen to tracks from Black President, including one featuring Terry Jr., at cdbaby.com.

Merce’s Ocean: Rock Bottom, or Soaring Spectacle?

I think Graydon Royce’s insightful feature about the process of bringing Merce Cunningham’s “Ocean” to Waite Park, MN is so much more interesting than the reviews . Although … what pops up on the StarTribune’s site after a search is not a review, it is more a collection of sound bites from the audience.

The LA Times offers something a little more substantial , and Minnesota Public Radio touches on the film aspects of the production.

Despite mixed reviews, the production is sold out … perhaps a testimony to the value of deep programming, meaningful partnerships and giant spectacle?

(photo: Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center)

Little Cities Missive #1

I have been preparing for my first Little Cities tour to the Midwest/West North Central region, thinking about where to go, who to speak to, what to ask and what to tell. The tour began as a return to my roots—visiting the towns I lived in growing up, looking back on the art and artists that inspired me. But Little Cities is bigger than just me. This project was born from the idea that philanthropy is changing, the economy is changing, and something must be done to help artists who live outside major metro areas gain a foothold in the workforce and earn a living wage while telling the stories of an America that the major media (including arts publications) often overlooks.

A recent study of the National Endowment for the Arts divides the arts workforce into four geographical regions: Northeast, Southeast, South and West. From September 24 to October 7 I will be visiting the West North Central sub-region of the Midwest (sounds technical, doesn’t it?). My tour will include Wichita, Kansas City, Des Moines, Rochester and Good Thunder (MN), St. Croix Falls (WI), Sioux Falls, and Omaha.

Here is what I am working toward: collected stories, told through visual art, literature and music, that make you think about the world around you. Housing, transportation, economy, sexuality look different in Laramie than they do in Los Angeles.

Here is what I don’t want: A roundup. No “Best Artists of [Insert Region Here],” no State by State . There is a place for these, but that place mostly involves curators and arts insiders. Nobody walks away from the Whitney Biennial with a deeper cultural awareness of life in little cities. They walk away with a few names of artists to watch.

Here’s the double-edged sword: I haven’t been able to find anything like this out there. This means looking through a LOT of roundups. MNArtists.org, the Emerging Iowa Artists Program. Writers often don’t have a web presence, or if they do they don’t list where they live, or they say they live and work in Omaha AND New York. There is a stigma attached to living outside a major metro area.

Little Cities is not about the Rise of the Creative Class . It’s not about art in empty storefronts, or economic development. Little Cities is about cultural preservation, leveraging the collective power of artists off the beaten path, and providing an opportunity for their work to be seen, read and heard.

And, as I am only beginning to realize, it is going to take a lot of hard work.

A Midwesterner Returns to Her (Disappearing) Roots

Due to a link on the UnConvention homepage, this blog had a 300% increase in visitors yesterday. Thanks, UnConvention! While I have your attention, let me ask for your help:

From September 24 through October 8, I will be visiting cities in the Midwest (Wichita, Kansas City, Des Moines, Rochester, Twin Cities, St. Croix Falls, Sioux Falls, Omaha) in search of visual artists and writers who live and work there. I’ll be bringing my podcast gear and scouting for interviews to post on this blog.

The goal is to highlight the work of some talented artists, and to collect stories about the opportunities and challenges of working artists in “little cities” (outside the top 20 metropolitan areas). Yes, I realize the Twin Cities are #16. I am also traveling to places I lived and reconnecting with my artistic roots—the Pillsbury House, Masque Youth Theatre, the …

…well. As I am writing this, I thought I would link to the Sioux Falls Community Playhouse, but I see it closed in 2002. And the Jeune Lune, where I had my first professional audition, closed this summer.

Philanthropy is changing, demographics are changing, economics are changing. What does this mean for artists in little cities? If you know a working artist who lives in one of these cities, send me their name, contact info, a link to their website or images of their work … or have them contact me directly at lex@lexleifheit.com.

And please, pass this on!

Why is the Sky Blue After a Small-Town Breakup?

I love many forms or art, particularly performing arts, photography, and literature. But there are certain nooks and crannies within the arts that are almost guaranteed to pique my interest. Two of these—art projects referencing life in little cities, and art combined with science—are referenced in today’s Education Life section of the New York Times:

  • Picturing to Learn, a project initiated by MIT and Harvard faculty member Felice Frankel, engages visual artists to strengthen physics students’ ability to comprehend and communicate scientific concepts. Something else interesting? Frankel received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for this project, and as a result the website very thoughtfully articulates the team members, findings and premises of the project. I wish there were more sites like this illustrating innovative arts collaborations in recent years (and if you know of one, please post a comment).
  • The Break Up Project Performance is an “hour-long audio presentation featuring the break up stories of over 20 Providence residents and live music mixing by Tom Vanbuskirk.” Co-created by PRX public radio reporter Megan Hall, the performance aired on Valentine’s Day 2007 and particularly focuses on breaking up in a small town with small social circles where seeing one’s past paramours (over and over and over) is unavoidable. I love how small-town life (and the accompanying accountability) is the antithesis of internet life (and the accompanying anonymity).

The Last Thing I Said To You Was Don’t Leave Me Here

Dan and I are headed to the beach in three days, so unless I get an iPhone (not likely!) there will be no blogging next week.

The beach reminds me of a little postcard I have framed in my apartment. It is a self-portrait of Tracy Emin. She is kneeling in what first looked to me like a stable, but is in fact a beach hut, her beach hut that was placed on exhibition and then lost in the Momart fire. I first saw the photograph in London and the title (above) stuck with me.

I love portraits. The photograph above caught my eye at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and led me to Michael Garlington and his photocar project. I am a sucker for any art project that involves cross-country travel. The Poetry Bus Tour is another one. If anyone reading this knows of other projects, especially those including little cities, please post a comment. 

 

Sunday Morning Statistics

Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005 was released by the National Endowment for the Arts in June. As a statistics geek who loves putting research into action, I am interested to see where—and how—this influences arts funding and programming.

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia’s introduction to the report extolls the virtues of artists as hardworking (albeit underemployed) Americans, citing the following facts:

-Nearly 2 million Americans describe their primary occupation as artist, a larger group than agricultural workers, the legal profession or medical doctors. Of this number, many work in the for-profit field.

-The size of the artistic community gives the group enormous aggregate income—approximately $70 billion annually.

-Compared to other U.S. workers, American artists tend to be better educated and more entrepreneurial.

Overall, the report provides statistical support for many agendas. I was most interested in the data about where artists live. As large corporations consolidate and shift operations from small towns, I fear that we are seeing another post-industrial exodus that will have an impact on rural areas and little cities, making it even more difficult for them to support nonprofit organizations and artists. Already, half of all artists live in 30 metropolitan areas, and more than one-fifth live in the top five.

What does this mean for little cities? It means that they are underrepresented by of a part of the workforce that is educated, entrepreneurial, outspoken and growing in diversity. It means that, 25 or 50 or 100 years from now, the stories of America that are told through art history will be told by artists who lived in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, DC, and Boston. And it means that, quite often, the best and brightest young artists will move from their hometown to larger, supposedly greener, economic pastures—not because they lack inspiration in their communities, but simply because they cannot find enough work.

Of course, one may correctly argue that the percentage of artists in the workforce of some little cities (Boulder, Santa Cruz, Stamford) is comparable to that of New York City and Los Angeles. But I am sure that artists and administrators in those cities will tell you that: volume matters. Little cities have small and mid-size arts organizations. Little towns outside of major metro areas struggle to build the bridges and partnerships that could attract much-needed state and national funding. And a playwright I know, who lives in the not-so-little city of Seattle, recently wrote me about his struggles there, saying “Overall, opportunities are fewer in number by far by far by far than Chicago. And recognition is that much further from the east coast. Like it or not, [Arthur] Miller was right when he said no writers could ignore New York or risk being ignored by New York.”

What is the answer? I have no idea. But maybe it’s time we put our creative shoulders to the wheel and start thinking about it.