Two months ago I decided to embark on a 50 state Arts in Crisis Tour. The purpose of this tour was to talk about the issues facing arts organizations in the current economic environment and to discuss ways to address these challenges. As I planned the tour, I thought I would visit the biggest city in every state. I believed, erroneously, that this would give me exposure to the most arts organizations and managers. Then I received a letter from Jim McIntyre, a board member of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, asking me to visit his city. Like other cities in Michigan, Kalamazoo has been hard hit by the recession and many arts organizations there are struggling. Jim had another compelling reason for asking me to visit Kalamazoo; his children had attended my sister's school, Bread and Roses, decades ago and he remained a close friend of my sister Susan.
Kalamazoo is a relatively small city. There are just over 75,000 people who live in the city and approximately 250,000 people who live in the entire county.
And yet my Arts in Crisis session in Kalamazoo drew over 400 people! The ballroom of the Radisson Hotel was filled to capacity. The mayor of the city was there, as was the former mayor who is now a state representative. (A group of community leaders -- business people, a college president, foundation executives and educators -- had a breakfast with me before the session to educate me about the nature of the arts community and its issues.)
The issues raised by the audience were no different than those raised in New York, Cleveland San Diego or Baltimore, all substantially larger cities. The arts managers, board members and artists who came to the session were all facing budget cuts, reduced state funding, a rapidly changing and diminishing corporate community, and low morale.
They asked pertinent, detailed and intelligent questions about ways to maintain their theater companies, ballet companies, symphonies, and education programs. The mayor asked about best practices in arts education. He believes that the arts are a necessary part of the education of every child in his city but was concerned about ways to pay for it.
Board members asked about how boards should change as organizations mature. Artists asked how they could help their organizations cope with the current crisis. And the arts administrators asked how they could reduce budgets without irreparably harming their organizations.
In general, there was great concern that the fabric of the arts in Kalamazoo not be destroyed by the current crisis.
But the overwhelming feeling from every person in the room was that the arts were not dispensable in this environment. The feeling from top to bottom was that the arts are central to the healthy ecology of the city.
It was a truly inspirational meeting. Here, in the middle of America, in a small city, in the state most battered by the recession, was an entire community saying that the arts matter, that the health of their community depended in great measure on the health of their arts programming. They were determined to work together -- the arts community, the business community, the political community and the educational community -- to maintain the vitality of the arts in their city.
Next time any government official in Washington or elsewhere says that the arts are elitist, that they only serve the largest cities, that all arts funding finds its way to the coasts, or that everyday people don't care about the arts, I am going to suggest they visit Kalamazoo, Michigan. I think they will learn a great deal, as I did.