An Arts Advocacy Day Conversation in Decatur, GA

By     Mar 24, 2015
Creative Community Fellow

Amanda Thompson

Today is Arts Advocacy Day, but for working artists it can feel like every day is arts advocacy day as we continually make the case in each of our communities to support the arts. I consider myself fortunate that I inhabit two worlds - local government as a Planning Director and the performing arts as a choreographer. It surprises me that I spend a large amount of time in both worlds simply trying to engage the community to participate. Whether a transportation planning project or a dance concert I’m often jumping up and down saying, “Hey! Stop watching TV and participate in the real world. Important decisions and life changing experiences are happening right here in your city.” Generally, physical proximity impacts the level of engagement. The well-worn anti-development phrase is “Not in my backyard.” You haven’t heard “Not on the lot a few streets over.” It’s hard to compete with TV. It’s so close to your couch. And your phone. Forget about it. Nothing is closer to us today than our phones. So as artists and as planners we are learning how to appear on your phone.

I was asked by NAS to sit down with my colleagues from Decatur, Georgia and ask them some questions about “the arts.” Luckily I had the City Manager, Peggy Merriss, and the Assistant City Manager for Public Works, David Junger, trapped in the car with me on a ride to our management team retreat. They couldn't use their phones because there was no cell service. They humored me and this post is the highlights of our conversation.

Amanda: “When I say “the arts,” what does that mean to you?”

Peggy: “It means music, theater, dance, visual art and cultural activities.”

David: “I think more of expression. Anything can be the arts. I like it when objects that are not normally considered artistic are used - like turning buckets into drums.”

Amanda: “Where are the arts in your community?”

Peggy: “In formal places, like the Fox Theater or High Museum. Also in Decatur at Eddie’s Attic (a music club), the Tourism Bureau and the Art Institute student gallery. I like discovering art exhibits like the sculpture garden we found in Quebec City on the side of the road. We also visited an entire artist community in Jerome, Arizona.”

Amanda: “Yes, we tend to seek out artistic experiences in our travels.”

David: “There are no arts in Henry County. I guess there is some yard art. There are also some beautiful landscapes. I enjoy spaces that make you feel really good. I like discovering objects that have been re-purposed - the whole Steampunk movement - and how they reuse antique machine parts.”

Amanda: “When is a moment you connected with the arts?”

Peggy: “I enjoy arts that enhance the everyday experience like an attractive street sign or a painted utility box. The music in the musical Wicked was very powerful for me.”

David: “The architecture of the new Public Works building made me really proud. It is a beautiful, well design open space full of light. We also put a lot of visual art in it so it looks like a gallery. The architecture shows how much we care about our employees and our community.”

Peggy and David illustrate why it is so difficult to pin down a definition of “the arts.” It is everything from Wicked to a bucket turned into a drum with a painted utility box thrown in for fun. I think that’s great. The US needs more arts advocates so let’s cast our net broadly. David and Peggy do agree that they enjoy the arts as part of their everyday experience and would like to have it in their communities. They also have used their professional roles to provide visual arts in city facilities and support arts festivals and events in Decatur. I hope that my fellow artists can learn how to work with their government officials to use the arts to solve community challenges (like ugly utility boxes or graffiti covered buildings). We are all working to engage the community and know the power of the arts to move people off their couch and into the world.

As our car ride was coming to a close I made a pitch for the city to fund “Budget: The Musical” as its next big arts initiative. Peggy told me to try again next year on Arts Advocacy Day. Duly noted.

 

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