Art Works Blog

Postcard from New York, Puerto Rico, and Washington,DC

Washington, DC

As you can see from our latest issue of NEA Arts, arts and community is very much a topic of conversation at the NEA.

I think the theme for my last few outings has been musicians, museums, and mayors. I hope you all saw our coverage of the NEA Jazz Masters events at Jazz at Lincoln Center on January 10 and 11. (You can catch up here, here, and here.) While in New York, I also attended a great luncheon sponsored by the Center for Curatorial Leadership with Agnes Gund, the center's founder, and Elizabeth Easton, the center's director. These are two powerhouse women who are really committed to mentoring the next generation of museum leaders. They have young curators from all over the country coming together to get educated in aspects of running a museum outside of their direct curatorial responsibilities. I think it’s a way of grooming future curators to take over their museums, rather than have museums run by managing directors. We had a great roundtable discussion that veered off into notions of the nature and origins of art and the future of museums. It was exactly the kind of conversation that I love having since I’ve been at the NEA, where it’s stimulating and where there are people there who are knowledgeable and intelligent and provocative. We really had a great time there.

One of the points I made during the discussion was that the museums have to get out and around in their communities, and have to engage their communities. The old model of the “temple on the hill” that’s not that approachable is on the wane. We need the museums to go out and engage their communities, and that’s the best way for them to build support everywhere. I think there was a really receptive audience for that, and it was a neat discussion.

Continuing on the museums theme, I next attended the winter meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which is led by Executive Director Janet Landay. It was the first time I’ve been with the national group of museum directors. Some of them I had known from previous meetings, but most of them I didn’t know. The morning of my talk I visited the Museo de Arte de Ponce with museum director Agustín Arteaga. The museum is amazing. You would have no idea that in Ponce, Puerto Rico, there would be this kind of a museum with one of the world’s great collections of Pre-Raphaelite art. It really was impressive. I’m not always the biggest fan of abstract art, and it was nice to see a collection that I could relate to and really enjoy. They have some sensational paintings there. It is a very, very impressive collection. It’s also a very interesting museum architecturally with lots of light. I really had a great time.

After my keynote at AAMD, we had quite a stimulating Q&A session. These guys are smart folks. Of course, they asked, when are we going to give grants to individual artists? And my answer is---when Congress mandates that we can do so. I would love to do that, it’s just not part of our charter now from Congress.

I arrived back in DC in time to visit and speak with the mayors who were in town for the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting, and that was fantastic. I received an incredibly warm and personal introduction from New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu before I introduced Mayor Michael A. Nutter of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is an arts city, and Mayor Nutter is an arts mayor. He gets it. First thing he did when he came into office was he re-established the cabinet position of the arts in city government. It was a tremendous signal that he cares, and that he gets it. For the people who care about the arts in this country---he’s one of the heroes. After spending so much time with our NEA Jazz Masters in New York, I was also really excited to be there at the mayors’ arts breakfast to see NEA Jazz Master Herbie Hancock receive the 2011 Legendary Artist Award from Americans for the Arts and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

You know, the mayors are our natural allies. They’re the people who are on the ground and see how the arts work in communities and in cities. They get it. To me, of all the relationships that we’ve formed since I came in here a year and a half ago, our relationship with Tom Cochran and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and with the mayors themselves all across the country, is the most important one we have. There’s no doubt about it. When you’re talking about art as placemaking---and artists as placemakers---you’re talking about the cities. You’re talking about communities. You’re talking about places. And the mayors are in charge of these places, and they are our allies. They really are; they’re great.

Finally, I hope you’ll take a look at our new issue of NEA Arts, which looks at the relationship between the arts and community. One of the things I’ve been talking about in my speeches is that the artist has a role as a citizen in the community, not just as someone who’s special and is entitled to something. Artists are citizens like everyone else. And if they’re going to ask for the same rights as other citizens, I think they also have to be responsible, be willing to participate, in their communities. So that’s an important relationship. But, I think communities should value their artists because the artists help to give communities place identities. And it’s the artists that make the communities destinations---places where people want to go, where people want to live. The communities need to nurture their artists and their aesthetics. I think that it’s a two-way street.

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