The 1794 Meetinghouse is a non-profit arts organization, one of thousands, probably tens of thousands, of such organizations in the United States. Why such organizations exist and why they should be supported is at the heart of this essay, meant to be an informative and yet a somewhat personal piece of writing. None of this can make sense without considering why the arts in themselves exist and why they have value.
Although I am a writer, and have supported myself by my writing for most of my life, I do not consider myself an artist. (More about this later.) At the same time, I am aware that many of my friends and relatives are artistic individuals, some of them professional artists, and I am a consumer of the arts.
Since moving to the North Quabbin Region in 1973, I have observed that many people in this area identify themselves as artists, even if that is not the way they make a living. I noted that for an area anchored in "declining mill towns," there has never ceased to be a significant amount of attention paid to the arts. Have you ever seen a photograph of the Academy of Music that once stood in Athol?
Furthermore, as I began to listen to conversations people were having about economic
development in the wake of the decline of manufacturing, the arts frequently were mentioned as an important factor if not a focal point. The same could be said about the area's natural environment. There is so much of a connection between the arts and nature, and for proof, take a look at the arts and crafts for sale at North Quabbin Woods in the center of Orange.
In mid-July of this year (2011), I traveled from the North Quabbin Region over the gorgeously scenic Mohawk Trail to Williamstown to rendezvous with friends who live on the New York side of the Berkshire Hills. Our place of encounter was the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, an amazing gem in that small New England college town. The Clark, as it is known, was featuring a special exhibit on the impressionist pioneer and master, Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). The exhibit, entitled "Pissarro's People," continues through Oct. 2, 2011, so if you are reading this prior to that date, go see it, or check out whatever is happening at the Clark.
There were many people like me that day, paying $15 to enter the museum, though admission was free for those individuals who already paid a membership fee. My experience at the Clark gave me much food for thought, and since I was already ruminating on the writing of this article, it gave me an interesting perspective.
I had been to the Berkshires previously, about once a year, almost always to enjoy the natural beauty of the region and/or to take in a cultural activity. Tanglewood (music), Jacob's Pillow (dance), Shakespeare and Co. (theater), and the Clark (visual arts) are only four of many well-established cultural institutions. I think this is significant because in the Berkshires, as here in the North Quabbin, both the natural world and the cultural institutions can play a part in economic revitalization and quality of life.
Enjoying the beauty of Pissarro's paintings was the expected part of my experience. But I also learned a great deal from the written material, artfully placed on the walls near the paintings. I learned to my surprise (as a Jew myself) that Pissarro was born into a Sephardic Jewish family, and also that he had political views very much in tune with my current interests (and the interests of many people in the North Quabbin Region and elsewhere) in sustainable agriculture and social justice.
I had just told my friends over lunch in the Clark's cafe that I spent the previous day in my garden picking peas, and as we were wandering through the galleries, one of these friends rushed over to me and said, "Don't miss the painting in the next room entitled 'Picking Peas.'" Indeed, rural people growing fruits and vegetables were favorite Pissarro's subjects.
The write-up provided by the Clark said, "As a committed anarchist, he imagined a future society of small communities bound by shared work and social integration."
As a writer, I was struck by the fact that the person who wrote this text, as well as those who prepared the exhibit and who do the day-to-day chores of the museum, were all paid workers in the arts industry, and that brings me to a fascinating and important study recently completed by an organization called Americans for the Arts.
The study, entitled "Arts & Economic Prosperity III," was conducted to document the economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture industry in a variety of communities and regions across the United States. It found that "America's nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year -- $63.1 billion in spending by organizations and an additional $103.1 billion in event-related spending by audiences. The national impact of this activity is significant, supporting 5.7 million jobs and generating $29.6 billion in government revenue."
The study pointed out that the "arts and culture industry, unlike many industries, leverages a significant amount of event-related spending by its audiences. Attendance at arts events generates related commerce for local businesses such as restaurants, parking garages, hotels and retail stores. Data collected from 94,478 attendees at a range of events reveal an average spending of $27.79 per person, per event in addition to the cost of admission."
When I was doing press releases for the 1794 Meetinghouse last year, I suggested that concert-goers stop at the New Salem Country Store to buy a sandwich and a beverage and have a pre-concert picnic on the town common. Perhaps a few people took up my suggestion and boosted revenue for the store.
Until I began doing some research for this essay, I did not know there is a Congressional Arts Caucus. Louise M. Slaughter, a New York congresswoman and co-chair of that caucus, has written:
"Across America, cities that once struggled economically are reinventing and rebuilding themselves by investing in art and culture a proven catalyst for growth and economic prosperity. By creating cultural hubs, nonprofit arts businesses help cities define themselves, draw tourists, and attract investment. Federal support for America's nonprofit cultural organizations must go on if we hope to continue enjoying the substantial benefits they bring."
Microsoft founder (and philanthropist) Paul G. Allen commented: "In my own philanthropy and business endeavors, I have seen the critical role that the arts play in stimulating creativity and in developing vital communities. As this study indicates, the arts have a crucial impact on our economy and are an important catalyst for learning, discovery, and achievement in our country."
I shared a draft of this article with a friend who lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and here's an excerpt from her reply: "There's a little town in Georgia -- Colquitt is its name -- that was greatly depressed economically but resuscitated itself by putting on a major community production called 'Swamp Gravy,' utilizing local talent. It's been a huge draw, with sell-out crowds from all over the region, on top of painting a huge number of murals on their public buildings (again, by local artists) and even on a huge grain silo -- quite marvelous. Tom and I have been up there twice for their productions, staying in a darling historic hotel with balconies.
The town has an arts center that teaches classes and involves students. It's a racially integrated town, but we were sad to see that not many blacks were in the production. Anyway, that's one example of the arts rebuilding a local economy." I found more about this on the web:swampgravy.com.
The question of who makes money from any aspects of the arts is a complex one, and for the individual artist, it's a spectrum from those who never make a dime to those who become multi-millionaires. There are many artists who would like to make a living in that field but never quite achieve that goal, whether it's the youngster in a garage band or someone who has been told since childhood that he or she paints beautiful pictures. Their creative juices don't stop flowing, and if they can find the inner strength to have the right attitude (rather than become bitter), they enjoy their lives anyway, find other ways to pay their bills and continue to be creative.
Some artists become teachers, for example, and the role of art educators in society is admirable. On occasion, the studying of art and music is demeaned in favor of "the basics," but I believe that art is just as basic as the so-called 3 R's reading, writing and arithmetic. I have observed the work of art and music teachers in the North Quabbin area, and became personally friendly with some of them. They are always enthusiastic and love working with children and helping them be creative and excited about what they are creating. Often, these teachers continue painting or performing on the side.
One talented musician I know pays bills working as a stone mason, but he can be heard in local concerts from time to time. Another worked for decades in her profession and lived frugally and now can enjoy being a singer-songwriter without stressing about a bank account.
Someone I know who tried but never made it to the Broadway stage now lives happily with a successful career in retail and an occasional appearance in community theater. There are dozens of such stories, each with a slight variation.
There are some artists in the North Quabbin who actually do end up making a living in their chosen field. As one of them told me, "It's wonderful to be able to be paid for something you love to do." I know two local artists who were truck drivers when I met them and who are now sought after for their artistic skills, not their driving skills. As an aside, it's interesting to note that in the case of these two men, their spouses played an important role in encouraging them in their artistic interests and careers.
Then there are the artists who relocate to major urban centers in order to make a living. There are a few of these from the North Quabbin who now reside in New York and Los Angeles.
One must be realistic about the North Quabbin Region, while comparing it to the Berkshires, Boston or even the Pioneer Valley. The North Quabbin has a total population, after all, of under 30,000 and few people have even heard of our nine towns (Athol, Erving, New Salem, Orange, Petersham, Phillipston, Royalston, Warwick and Wendell). It's also an area with economic problems and very few wealthy people who can serve as patrons of the arts.
There used to be a Franklin County Business Association for the Arts that funded local arts organizations, but that has faded out of existence. At least, however, many local businesses support the arts the best they can for example, buying ads in the seasonal program of the 1794 Meetinghouse.
Expectations about the arts here need to be adjusted, but that doesn't justify a negative attitude toward our region's cultural reality or potential. In my regional guide book, North of Quabbin Revisited, there are two sections, entitled "Arts and Crafts" and "Music," naming dozens of accomplished artists, and mentioning local arts organizations such as the 1794 Meetinghouse and the Petersham Craft Center. When compiling the book, I drafted those sections and found that my publisher, Marcia Gagliardi of Athol, who has a great deal of knowledge in the field, was able to add many more names of talented individuals. And we probably left a few people out anyway -- inadvertently, of course.
Just in the past year, a new effort called "Art for Life" has emerged in Orange, and aside from the amazing work of the 1794 Meetinghouse, there are musical endeavors such as Tooltown Live in Athol, Open Mic in Royalston and community bands in several towns. The Franklin County Chamber of Commerce has helped create Fostering Art and Culture in Franklin County (which includes North Quabbin artists).
Historians have clearly proven that music and art have played a role in the human experience from the beginning of time. A basic drum and flute, made by primitive people from materials found in nature, probably constituted the "equipment" of the first duo of musicians as well as the first band or orchestra.
There's an interesting new film, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," by the German filmmaker Werner Herzog. This documentary follows Herzog's exclusive expedition into the nearly inaccessible Chauvert Cave in France, home to the most ancient visual art known to have been created by man. It offers, according to one reviewer, "an unforgettable cinematic experience that provides a unique glimpse of pristine artwork dating back to human hands over 30,000 years ago almost twice as old as any previous discovery." Art historians have speculated that these first artistic impulses, as with many later ones up to this day, relate to spiritual or religious ideas, provide a visual record of how people lived, and perhaps are just for the fun of it.
It is my impression, based on my own experience as a consumer of the visual and performing arts, that the artistic impulse is located deep within the human soul or psyche (choose the term that most suits you). I asked an experienced artist and art therapist, Kathleen Lovenbury of Royalston, executive director of the Stetson School in Barre, to offer some comments on how the arts do or do not help reveal the innermost aspects of human beings. She wrote:
"Some works of art do not reveal the inner most aspects of human beings but rather reflects our natural inclination for harmony, balance, and rhythm. Alexander Calder's 'Big Red,' a very large mobile that consists of suspended abstract sheet metal elements connected by steel wire that move and balance on their own with the air's currents comes to mind as a work of art that fulfills, as a sole purpose, our internal appreciation for balance and harmony. Works of art, in order to be considered art, need to engage the mind and/or appeal to the eye.
"Some works of art intentionally reveal the inner most aspects of human beings. Unlike the formality of spoken or written language, the malleable shapes, symbols, sounds, movements, and ideas inherent in the arts allow the artist to go beyond the literal and convey the underlying and overpowering expressions of the artist's innermost feelings, about themselves, about their perception of the world, about the crisis in their lives, and their response to the spiritual and the aesthetic.
"German printmaker and sculptor, Kathe Kollwitz's lithograph, 'Death Seizing a Woman,' is an incredibly moving image completed in black ink that depicts a woman trying to rescue her child from death, attempting to pry her away. This image is often thought to be a related to the loss of her son during World War I. Kollwitz's ability to express grief, despair, and horror through her drawings, lithographs and etchings conveys the plight of the people and the experiences she encountered during her life. Her works evoke powerful emotional response.
"The arts, through art therapy, music therapy, dance and movement therapy, and expressive arts therapy, help reveal the innermost aspects of the human experience, when people, young or old, cannot or will not use words. For example, when children, who are often naturally creative and artistic, experience adverse events they may be more apt to express those feelings and emotions through the arts. Emotions are released and through the creative process the healing begins.
"The arts, within a therapeutic context, support improved mental and emotional health, cognitive abilities, and learning disorders. They increase self-awareness, reduce stress, and assist in the healing of the emotional aftermath of significantly adverse or traumatic experiences. Just like the arts allow the artist to go beyond the literal and convey the underlying and overpowering expressions of artist's innermost feelings, the arts in the therapeutic context allow people suffering from stress, pain, and anxiety as well as many different types of injuries and illnesses, including cancer, eating disorders,
psychoses, and substance abuse to face illness and express deep emotions."therapeutic context allow people suffering from stress, pain, and anxiety as well as many different types of injuries and illnesses, including cancer, eating disorders, psychoses, and substance abuse to face illness and express deep emotions."
Earlier in this essay, I said I would be somewhat personal, and I commented that I do not consider myself an artist. Maybe I'll yield to the idea that journalistic writing can be artful, but that doesn't make me an artist. When I was a junior in high school, planning my course of study for my final year, I was urged to take two one-semester courses offered by the English department one semester entitled "Journalism," the other entitled "Creative Writing."
I already was writing for a weekly newspaper on a regular basis, and had no problem with the journalism class. When it came to creative writing, however, I felt inept, and the teacher seemed to agree. I tried to write a short story and could sense it was just a memoir with names changed, while a talented creative writer goes beyond this approach. Some people just don't have what it takes to be an artist. I took piano lessons, but I always wanted to quit. I played the tenor saxophone in my high school band, but it never held much interest for me.
Exposure to the arts, nonetheless, was an important part of my youth. Furthermore, I have a distinct awareness of being part of an artistic family, though to an outsider,
that would not be so apparent.
My parents had a favorable attitude toward the arts, but were inconsistent. My father told me he had painted in his youth, but I never saw any of his work nor did I see him pick up a brush. He had worked as a printer and told me his specialty was mixing inks for use in printing lithographs of famous paintings sold in the gift shop at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
My mother took up dancing as hobby and told me decades later that if she could live her life over again, she would have pursued a career as a dancer. One of the nicest memories I have is surprising my mother during a visit to New York City, when she was already in her 70s, with tickets for the two of us to attend one of the last performances of the great dancer Rudolf Nureyev.
My sister sang beautifully in her teenage years, performed on stage in Catskills resorts, and even had a test record made. She was told by a musician friend that she was like "a white Nina Simone." When she told our mother that she wanted to pursue a career as a singer, the response was harshly negative. Our mother suggested that such a career would bring her into contact with a bad element presumably a reference to illicit sex and drugs. My sister went to nursing school instead, later becoming a photographer where she was able to use her artistic instincts. She still likes to sing, and I can tell you that she is, indeed, talented.
There were other artists in our family, none of whom made a living at it. One uncle took classes and sang Jewish liturgical songs in an operatic style and occasionally got a gig to perform as a cantor during major holidays. His wife, who was an Armenian originally from Westfield, Mass., was an outstanding painter who became part of the abstract impressionist movement but failed to obtain the recognition afforded the mostly male coterie in that branch of the art world. (If you are curious about this amazing unrecognized woman, you can find out more about her at her posthumous web site, www.nevartte.com.)
Another aunt studied Hindu dance and I saw her perform various times in New York City venues, but I doubt she was paid. She did make a small amount of money as a puppeteer, recruiting her husband and daughter to help in amateurish but acceptable productions at schools and day care centers.
Yet another aunt studied at Manhattan's well-known Art Students League and painted in every spare moment she had. As a child, I wandered through her tiny apartment which had a very pleasant smell of oil paint and was crowded with canvases finished and unfinished. This aunt was a World War 2 veteran, having served as a nurse, a career that kept her going while she sought recognition as a painter. She was a favorite of mine, partly because she was so eccentric, but because she always found time to take me to museums, the circus and the planetarium. In our family, this aunt is remembered not only
for her career as a nurse and her love of painting, but also for her often apparent mental illness. Perhaps my aunt's creative gifts made her more vulnerable for mental illness, or perhaps coping with her likely horrific wartime experiences led her to paint. In any case, I'm glad she was honored with burial at the Arlington National Cemetery.
The man who is now my only surviving uncle, was a talented clarinet player in his youth. After serving in the army in World War 2, he worked for many years as a cab driver in New York City. When he got married, his wife wanted him to "better" himself, so he joined forces with an entrepreneurial friend and became a successful electrical contractor. Not long ago, I reminded him about his clarinet playing, and he had a wistful look in his eye as he told me he had totally left that behind. I like to envision him playing in a popular klezmer band.
While some works of art focus on unpleasant things, I think people most often associate art with beauty. Keats' poem "Ode to a Grecian Urn," came to mind as soon as I started working on this article. In this verse, which I first read in high school, Keats wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." This reminds me of a friend who is a skilled artistic carpenter; he once said he sees his role on earth as "just making things more beautiful."
So it seems to me that the arts are just a part of life that will always be with us.
Perhaps the best way for me to end this is with a quotation from Jonathan Fanton, the president of the MacArthur Foundation, one of many organizations that helps fund the work of artists:>
"There is no better indicator of the spiritual health of our city, its neighborhoods, and the larger region than the state of the arts. The arts deepen our understanding of the human spirit, extend our capacity to comprehend the lives of others, allow us to imagine a more just and humane world. Through their diversity of feeling, their variety of form, their multiplicity of inspiration, the arts make our culture richer and more reflective."