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Agnes Gund

Agnes Gund

Posted: February 25, 2011 01:55 PM

Recently, I visited the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Demuth is run by a fine young professional, Anne Lampe. At the Demuth, I discovered a museum with remarkable buildings, collections and programs. I saw work I hadn't seen and I learned a lot. What I learned from the visit that is really special to me is just how very, very important institutions like the Demuth are, institutions that are situated and centered in smaller American communities. The Demuth is a national resource, but, just as important, it is an enduring and inspiring presence in Lancaster and the region. Thanks to the Demuth, I've become aware that cultural institutions of its scale and significance thrive throughout the States; I think about how they contribute to local economies and local education, preserve local histories, strengthen local spirit, play and values. The Demuth and institutions like it are American spaces helping to define American places.

In a sense, the Demuth is Lancaster-in-a-building. The Museum fills the house, workrooms and gardens where the artist Charles Demuth lived from his childhood to the end of his life. Demuth traveled widely, but he always came home; like him, the Museum has never lost its roots. It thrives in its particular setting, housing art and archives of the region. Many of its visitors and most of its supporters live in the region; the volunteers are local, as are the college students who are its interns. The Museum reaches directly into local schools, working with teachers. As immigration changes the local mix, the Museum reaches the area's new populations. It provides jobs, draws tourists, inspires attention in national media, and contributes its shows, banners, its color and excitement to the panorama of the region. People in Lancaster know the Demuth the way they know a neighbor--it is their next-door museum.

Big national museums have the idea that museums should help generate strong communities; it is something they work at. But museums like the Demuth relate to their communities in ways that precede policy and require less systematic effort. They practice community building by being a part of the community -- by inhabiting the soil and customs and histories of their regions. Their natural mission is to help define their communities, to help them grow and change. What I have come to appreciate is the presence in all America's places, large and small, east to west, of cultural institutions at home.

For instance, choruses. Chorus America, a membership organization, reports that there are 270,000 choruses nation-wide -- in schools, churches and synagogues, in community centers and other local facilities, in colleges and clubs and in people's homes. Thirty-two and a half million Americans sing in choruses -- ten million of them are children. There are singers in one out of every five households. Americans sing with and for their neighbors. An "Impact Study" done by Chorus America shows that singers are more likely to volunteer in their communities; they donate more than twice the philanthropic dollars; they vote more often and more regularly; they patronize other art forms way beyond the average. In short, singers are engaged, active citizens. The study found that singing in choruses results in enhanced social and academic skills in school children. From PS 22 in New York City to the Peninsula Singers in San Diego, from the Bow Valley Chorus to the Bethany College Choir to the Boston Gay Mens' Chorus, Americans sing -- and make better communities.

Or, orchestras. The Owensboro Symphony Orchestra (OSU) in Kentucky is another example, among many. The OSU lives right in the middle of "the Bar-B-Q capital of the world," a place where bluegrass began. But, as a recent issue of Symphony magazine makes clear, Owensboro's orchestra is as central and defining to the region as are bluegrass or BBQ. Situated on the Ohio River, Kentucky on one side and Indiana on the other, the orchestra plays to regional residents, students in area colleges, tourists and travelers. Its main listeners, though, are the families in the neighborhood. The orchestra's musicians are local; they live in the area or they come from the close-by School of Music at Indiana University; some are shared with the Evansville Philharmonic, across the river in Indiana (another great local ensemble). Owensboro's symphony has local staff and a concert hall that was built specifically for it. The musicians work with the public schools. They play where the public is likely to be -- at festivals, on lawns, at celebrations. The OSU is one reason why the town has been named by Money Magazine as one of the country's one hundred best places to live.

There are 1,825 non-profit theaters in the United States. There are over 600 professional dance companies and over a thousand pre-professional and semi-professional dance groups. There is art everywhere, defining American communities.

I have come to believe that museums like the Demuth and orchestras like the Owensboro are laboratories which can provide leadership to us and from which the rest of us can learn. These institutions live in their communities on a daily, dedicated basis. Opportunities to influence education, to make diversity understandable, to showcase American values and American art, to connect people to each other through the arts experience are missions more natural in these institutions than in their larger, more famous, often urban counterparts. Smaller institutions can give us lessons about how to stimulate, strengthen and substantiate the values that reside in true community because they have a natural proximity to their places, to their pasts and to their people. I think we need to know more about what they do, and how they do it.

As E.F. Schumaker, the economist, taught us, "small is beautiful" and should lead the way.