Everyone in a city has a part to play in helping its art scene thrive.
What does a city need in order to have a successful arts scene? Do we have one here? And if not, what do we need to do if we want one: one that really invigorates the city with music, visual arts, public art, and drama? It’s a tough question and a lot of thoughtful people around here have been thinking about it. In the past couple of weeks I’ve gone out and heard live jazz on Austin Avenue and seen a really good exhibit by the Art Guild of Central Texas. One gets the feeling that perhaps there are some of the pieces in place.
But contrary to the wishes and maybe the assumptions of a lot of people, an arts scene isn’t something that can just pop up unattended. To have a flourishing arts scene there are four distinct elements that have to be in place and each one needs to be cultivated. First of all, there needs to be a sizable community of working artists: musicians, painters, actors, people who will come out and read their poetry on open mic night. They need to know about and keep up with each other, and know they have community support for doing what they do. Secondly, there have to be places that have things like open mic nights: a city needs numerous different venues where artists can regularly show their works or perform, and can see and hear what others are doing. And venues work best when many are in close proximity to each other.
The culture of the United States really began to take off when the country (or at least much of it) industrialized in the 35 years after the Civil War. An often overlooked element in contributing to the vibrancy of both the emerging pop culture and high culture alike was the role a concentrated population played in making those cultures viable.
A third necessary element is dedicated and open-minded patrons: people who come out and watch, listen to, and see the arts as they’re put forth; and, moreover, actively support them by purchasing art, and buying tickets or season subscriptions, even if what they see and hear is different and unfamiliar. We have a fair number of those people here now and you often see the same dedicated faces when you drop in to any favorite venue. There’s always room for more, because the more people that join up with the scene there more energy there will be.
Finally, there needs to be people who write about and talk about the arts, and who maintain a serious and ongoing public conversation about them. Arts coverage is a serious responsibility of local newspapers both the mainstream and the alternative types. Their task is to draw attention to what’s going on with the other three both here and throughout the broader art world.
It may be hard sometimes to put into words what having sculpture in public places, or several interesting and active art galleries in close proximity to one another, or lots of live theater and music of different sorts precisely brings to a city’s life. But a former head of the National Endowment for the Arts once put it very simply: “The arts help create the sorts of places where people like to live, work, and play.” Hard to improve on that.