Thursday, November 27, 2008

Community News - Arts and Business thrive together

The arts of the community – our community – is at the very core of our social structure. Vibrancy and diversity in the arts cannot be disassociated from economic stability and growth.

A lot is at stake, and we've lost our edge.

Decades ago, DuPont would simply put up a “help wanted” sign and people would flock to our community. Fifteen years ago, credit card banks hoisted that same banner to a similar effect. DuPont and later MBNA particularly poured both lucre and intellectual talent in the form of board members into community and statewide arts organizations, effectively becoming patriarchs of the local arts.

The DuPont Company has subsidized The DuPont Theatre since its premiere in 1913. Sans Charlie Cawley, there would be a vacant space next to The Grand where now the baby grand resides. MBNA poured nearly a million dollars into the (now defunct) Russian Ballet Theatre in the late '90's. That beneficence had a ripple effect with other statewide corporations to get on the bandwagon. The ballet dancers who were stranded in the U.S. after the fall of the Berlin Wall had terrible dental hygiene. RBT Producer Marsha Borin called on her local dentist friends, and they donated a total of 39 root canals! Those were the salad days.

It's no longer a banquet. Today, we are facing challenges attracting new business to Delaware and getting them to invest in the arts.

Part of the due diligence of any corporation in the process of relocating is an evaluation of a location’s cultural fitness. A dynamic cultural atmosphere begets creativity in all professions and transcends income levels. Big companies often establish facilities in “world class environments” where the creative talent exists.

I am a native Delawarean who has been active in the arts for five decades. I have witnessed the dissolution. We are in danger of losing our most crucial economic advantage – being a talent magnet and attracting economic drivers here. Our community must grow its creative class.

Due to our corporate wealth and the “two degrees of separation” we enjoy, New Castle County could become “world class” like Austin, Texas, for example. Every night, the streets are alive in that city. Leaders and citizens alike embrace creativity there, which then becomes self-fulfilling. We need this concerted effort in our community.

One may not live in the city, but it remains the hub to our becoming “world class.” Wilmington Mayor James Baker talks the talk, but Wilmington after 5 p.m. remains the urban equivalent of Death Valley. There are no buildings for sale on Market Street from 10th to the Riverfront, bought up by the visionary Buccini Pollin Group and Preservation Initiatives. On the surface, that sounds good. The bad news is there are few retailers renting these storefronts and few people living upstairs. Our promised “Renaissance” has taken longer than The Middle Ages.

On the arts funding side, only through the recent infusion of a commitment of more than $3 million spearheaded by philanthropist Tatiana Copeland were the five foremost county arts institutions able to breathe some sigh of short term financial relief. Those happily bequeathed were Opera Delaware, The Grand, Delaware Theatre Company, Delaware Symphony and the Delaware Art Museum.

Convention and visitor bureaus around the state have embarrassingly meager funding engines. And for a state that attempts to sell its peerless arts institutions as tourist destinations, Delaware has ranked a paltry 49th of 50 states in tourism funding for the past 10 years.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to nurture the arts; one individual, one family at a time.
I am not suggesting we all stop what we're doing and write the great American novel or design a building. What I am advancing is the notion to be a pro-active partner in the community by giving support. It is a legacy for our children.

Taking children to arts events is a glorious way to grow the creative class from within.
Following is a very personal example of the cultural axiom, “Ya just never know.” Ten years ago, a singing ensemble in which I played a part had a gig at Hagley Museum. Lacking a babysitter that eve, my 10-year-old son was dragged along. For two hours while the group was performing, he stood transfixed by an entertainer twisting balloons. On the way home, he said, “I can do that.”

We bought him a pump, a study book and a bag of those long skinny balloons. Within six months, Grant was working parties making $50.00 an hour. The hysterical sidebar was that the kids attending the parties were the same age as this entrepreneurial balloon twister.

Fast forward to summer 2008. Grant is in Avignon in study. He and his peers go out in the evenings soaking in the French culture and delighting in the street performers. He e-mails to say, “Send me my balloon stuff. I can make some money.” Four weeks later his Facebook page is ripe with photos. There's my 20-year-old college student holding court in a 500 year old city square. On his head sits a foot high balloon hat as he fashions balloon poodles for the tourists! A bowler hat on the ground brims with euros.

“Ya just don't know” where promoting the arts – and enriching your child - will take both him and you.

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