Field notes from inside my head: connecting art and commerce

Christo, "Over the River"

Point One: When we attended the Alliance for Artist Communities conference in Chicago several weeks ago, I found myself eagerly awaiting the start of a session entitled “Earned Revenue and Artist Residencies.”

Point Two: The other day, as Martin and I drove past the Kerrville Tractor Supply Company parking lot, always stacked with neat piles of gates, troughs, feeders, and such, I looked carefully to see if there was any nifty bit of equipment that we needed but hadn’t thought of.

I understood at that moment that someone must have performed a brain transplant on me in the dark of the night. Here are the kinds of sessions I would have expected to look forward to at the conference: “Why We Need More Poets”; “Why Food Should Be the Center of Every Residency Experience”; “Why All Residents Should Be Required to Stare at Bugs and Birds for Three Hours a Day”; “Remedial Programs for Residents Who Don’t Like Chickens.” Here are the kinds of stores I normally eye with pleasure: book stores, kitchen supply stores, stores with great selections of cowboy boots. Earned revenue? Farm equipment? Huh?

Points Three through Five or Maybe Seven: Recently I’ve read a number of interesting articles in the New York Times, some of them in the business section (more evidence of a brain transplant), about such issues as the transformative power of excellent design in the public places of poverty-stricken communities; the involvement of the Danish government in the redesign of unsightly power towers in rural Denmark; the surge of young entrepreneurs (examples: the practitioners of “Gandhian innovation” in India, the Unreasonable Institute) who see that for-profit business and social justice are not at odds with each other; the powerful but unfocused energy of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Also, the proposed Christo project over the Arkansas River in Colorado in which environmentalists, government agencies, and artists are tussling over how, if, and why the project should proceed.

What has linked these disparate subjects in my mind is a sense that we are witnessing a radical shift in thinking about the nature of commerce. In my lifetime, business has been a stand-alone subject, like medicine or law. As an academic discipline, it has been completely separated from the humanities. There may be writing requirements for business majors, but they’re usually specified as such. Studio art for business majors? History? Philosophy? I haven’t seen them cross-listed in any departments I’ve studied in. Business has been cordoned off and cordoned itself off.

One of the reasons I enjoyed the session on “Earned Revenue and Artist Residencies” was its underlying assumption that there is a fruitful overlap between the arts and business beyond the mere sale of art objects. Most of us attending the session represented residency programs, ranging from very urban to very rural, from huge to tiny, from brand-new to venerable. Given the roller coaster of the economy and the shrinking of foundation funding, there’s a real sense of energy around the question of how residency programs might become more, or even fully, self-sustaining financially. What for-profit goods and services might residency programs provide, especially when they charge artists nominal or no fees for their residencies? The arts are so automatically relegated to the nonprofit world that the question frequently doesn’t even arise.

One of the participants in the discussion runs an organic farm outside Toronto and is able to provide space for artists and make a comfortable enough living between farming and renting space on her farm for workshops and events. An emerging program in Ajo, Arizona, is planning to use some of its space—an old public elementary school—as a motel that will feed its paying guests excellent local and organic food (they’ll have their own garden), making use of the cafeteria kitchen already in place. In fact, the twining of food and its place in the production of art was a persistent sub-theme of the conference.

All of this led me to wonder how Madroño Ranch could more closely unite the business of the ranch with the mission of the residency program, which was why the Tractor Supply inventory suddenly looked so interesting. What on the ranch could supply the artists in their work? And how could the artists contribute to the function of the ranch? How might the art and writing produced at Madroño waft beyond the perimeter fencing and generate appetites for new business and beauty in the community around us?

Wondering in a vague way about Nice Big Questions is one of my favorite pastimes, which is why I was so pleased to find the very concrete story about power lines in Denmark. The rapid growth of wind and solar energy production in Europe has led to the need for much larger power poles, which are undeniably unsightly. Even as people understand the need for them, no one—especially in rural communities—wants them spoiling the views. (These nasty things are going up all over the Texas Hill Country, every bit as blighting as huge billboards.) To help mitigate the NIMBY response to the power poles, the Danish government commissioned a contest among design companies to see who might come up with a less intrusive structure than the starkly utilitarian poles. While I can’t say that the winning design is anything I’d want on my own property, the very fact of the contest pointed to a way of thinking that’s foreign not just because it’s Danish: aesthetics matter, even when it comes to the most practical of issues.

Of course, the most practical of questions behind the most practical of issues is: what will it cost? How are the costs justified? Most of points three through six I watched in the fields inside my head related to those questions. In Denmark there seemed to be a shadow bottom line floating just below the financial one: can we make what we build beautiful? Can it be of a pleasure (or at least not a blight) to the community? The piece on well-designed public spaces in poverty-stricken areas noted that the addition of bright color to housing projects, or of new stairs to replace a steep, eroding dirt walkway in a slum, injected a sense of hope, order, and civic pride where it had been sorely lacking.

In these instances, government has pointed to the need to consider more than one bottom line when spending money. Many young entrepreneurs (this is a very interesting generation coming up) are aware that there isn’t necessarily a conflict between the need to make a living for themselves and making the world at large more livable. They operate with the assumption that there is more than one bottom line; their business must succeed financially. But they measure success not just in income to the company but measurable usefulness to the community in which they work. One of the impetuses behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, I think, is the (so far unarticulated) recognition that businesses, especially financial institutions and transnational corporations, have hewed to a single bottom line: short-term profit for shareholders.

Obviously a company needs to be financially profitable, but I think there is a sense that many of these shadow bottom lines need to be as visible and material as the financial ones in order to judge a business as truly successful. Does a business add to or detract from the beauty, health, social coherence, and ecological systems of the community in which it operates? A business may offer a lot of low-paying jobs and operate profitably but still gets an F-minus in the beauty, health, social coherence, and ecological factors. Is it a successful business? The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program is at least a template for how such bottom lines might be developed.

Maybe businesses—especially big ones—could offer residency programs for artists and environmental scientists, recognizing that the costs of such a program are as necessary to operations as paying for the lights. Maybe business and the arts (liberal and otherwise) can develop a new relationship, one that is more than just a charitable donation at the end of a financially solvent year. Maybe the arts are as important to business success (especially in a climate-changed world) as steel is to bridge-building. Maybe I’m standing out in one of the pastures of my mind, mooing to myself. And maybe there are some restless young business-oriented people ready to figure out how we might bring these shadow bottom lines clearly and boldly into view.

What we’re reading
Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God
Martin: Denise Markonish (ed.), Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape

This entry was posted in More and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Field notes from inside my head: connecting art and commerce

  1. Heo:

    Have you looked at Kohler’s work with artists and factory workers: They have a wonderful residency and have pushing the collaboration of art and industry in their own factories. I taught there 10 years ago, and was floored by their innovation.

  2. Karin says:

    “Maybe I’m standing out in one of the pastures of my mind, mooing to myself”–thank you for this line, it made my day. And as someone who hasn’t the slightest inkling how profit divorced from social or environmental betterment motivates anyone, you are mooing to the choir.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>