Where Has All The Art Gone?

Pete Seeger died last week. Today the Toledo Public Television station was kind enough to air an American Masters program about Seeger from a few years ago. There was an interview with his son, who said his father had never aimed to commercialize folk music – he used it to build community.

Community is still something people seek, even in this age where you can watch movies and meetings and concerts and sports events on your smartphone. In the rapid evolution of new apartment buildings in Ann Arbor, developers have found that the students and others who inhabit these new buildings are more interested in communal spaces than they are in large living spaces. The first “private dorms,” Landmark and Zaragon in the South University area, have mainly 4,5, and 6-bedroom apartments with relatively large central areas within the apartments. The newer buildings, Zaragon West, Varsity, and the non-student Ann Arbor City Apartments all have smaller apartments, mostly one and two-bedrooms, with some studios, but have gone all-out with rooftop party rooms and even a “Zen Garden.”

People want to be with people in an organized way.

It’s a concept many of our public servants fail to understand. What brings people together? Big sporting events, for certain, as we know from the success of the recent Winter Classic. But hordes of people do not necessarily make a community, and sporting events can polarize rather than energize. One message from Pete Seeger is that art and music build community in a sustainable way and a way that fosters common bonds instead of emphasizing differences. That’s why it is such a mistake to forego the opportunity to promote public art.

There is plenty of art around if you are wealthy enough to own paintings and sculpture and if you were raised in a culture that made you appreciate museums and concerts. But public art is a way to bring the arts to everyone and to make everyone feel a part of it. In 1983, the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to Miami Beach with what sounded like a bizarre and even goofy idea. The result was “Surrounded Islands”:  tiny islands in the intra-coastal waterway between Miami and Miami Beach surrounded by thousands of yards of pink polyester fabric.Christo

Everyone got involved. Just placing the pink material took hundreds of volunteers. The artists had to work with government and local arts organizations to make everything work (it took a couple of years). My brother was one of the lawyers who helped import the pink polyester. My neighbors on one of the causeways that joins the beach to the mainland used their boat to help. People talked about it for years and I’m sure it was a factor that led to renewed interest in the Art Deco preservation movement on what was then a very dilapidated Miami Beach hotel strip.

As I have written about previously, Ann Arbor had an innovative, progressive Percent for Art program that used 1% of budgeted money from otherwise un-artistic capital projects to fund public artworks. But thanks to some councilmembers who think Ann Arbor should be ordinary rather than innovative, the Percent for Art program is dead. Not content to have killed it, one of those councilmembers, Jane Lumm, has now proposed that money in the public art fund – from those projects that have already been successfully built without that 1% of their budgets set aside for art – be “returned” to sewer, water, and roads funds. That would effectively eviscerate the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, which is just what Lumm and her cohort want.

These councilmembers would rather see money spent on potholes and police, even though the road millage taxes pay for street improvements and there is so little crime that the police already spend more than 40% of their time on non-crime, “pro-active” activities. Perhaps it would be wise to pipe in a little Pete Seeger music into the Council Chambers in the hope it might instill a sense of community. Nothing else seems to work.