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Culture Zohn: A Walt Disney Film About the Arts Comes to Light

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When people hear I've been writing about Walt Disney and the immensely creative golden age of animation, their first question to me usually is, "is he really frozen"?

In some ways, yes, Disney was frozen in time--a man who looked back toward the simpler ethic of his youth and the early years of the studio with a nostalgia that could become repressive. But in other ways he was prescient and modern--especially about technology and about the need for passing on the skills and traditions of artists. In fact, it may be his legacy of promoting the arts, twinning commercial motivation with the pure joy of making people happy that lives on longest and makes the recent crop of Medici look like minor league players.

Walt Disney understood the power of the arts to move people, to make them laugh and cry. He began as an artist himself, one who drew from many sources and who revered and appreciated the tradition of artistic apprenticeship; he made this the fundamental structure of his movie studio.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in a 1964 short film recently loaded on the Cal Arts site that he had produced to promote and raise funds for the then-nascent institute for professional art training. Aside from the fact that Cal Arts was originally intended to be on a hilltop in Hollywood and not Valencia (and which looks remarkably in plan like the Getty Brentwood), the film is filled with the signature Disney touches--both animated and live action. It shows what Cal Arts was and is all about--the passing down of artistic tradition and the establishment of new traditions, of the need to experiment while also revering the past.

The CalArts Story, a Walt Disney Studios Film, courtesy California Institute of the Arts, on Vimeo.

Of course Disney had no small self-interest in Cal Arts. Its unstated (in the film narration) purpose was to provide the studio with successive generations of talent. In this it has been wholly successful. In fact, all the Hollywood animation departments, not only Pixar and Disney but also Warner and Universal, are chock a block full with Cal Arts graduates.

But the film takes as its premise that arts education was the third cornerstone of the civic arts trifecta as it showcases other building projects in Los Angeles of the time, the Music Center (performance) and the County Museum of Arts (visual arts) and proves that the last big wave of artistic empire building in the 60s was every bit as competitive as it is today (Lincoln Center in NY was also underway).

It's also testament to the notion that if you build it they will come.

But will they?

Two recent whirlwind tours of Italy and Texas made clear that the gathering place for the 21st century at home and abroad is indeed the museum and that municipalities are banking on them as glue for local community building as well as tourism.

Whether it's to reclaim a fading district (the grand new MAXXI museum in Rome), to attract families with country western picnics on a spray-cooled lawn on a steamy Friday night (the lovely Nasher Museum in Dallas) , or with basement fountains and pint sized wall labels for the toddler set (the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence), or whether curators and directors have finally understood that this generation of art goers does not have the art historical reverence that previous generations might have, and whether this is all to the benefit or detriment of art, doesn't really matter anymore. The fact is, museums all over the world have re-invented themselves as egalitarian, inviting spaces.

Tom Hoving, onetime director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY -- who was often reviled for his populist ways -- can only be smiling from his heavenly perch.

But this shape shifting is often at their peril. Museums not only have to worry about raising enough money for those sexy new buildings but also make sure they have the dime--and the collections--to back it up. Rich people are not giving as much away--or they are giving it with strings attached, or in the case of Los Angeles's County Museum, almost giving it and then taking it away--and governments, even in Europe where state financing of the arts is like health care or preschool, have pulled back.

This month's Vanity Fair details the chess maneuvers of the various players in the Los Angeles museum game--and shows even in a city with a tradition in the arts, it's still mighty difficult to get the pieces to line up. The MAXXI museum took the better part of a decade to build and now has been cut loose from state funding just when the doors are barely open. Other empirical evidence abounds. Though some museums I visited were busy, others with equally spectacular offerings in grand spaces-- were less than full.

Glenn Lowry, director of the the Museum of Modern Art in NY gave a recent speech at a conference in Australia touting MoMa's excellent "numbers" but there are not many museums with pockets as deep. Some critics indeed, blame art empire building on an alleged Disney-fication of the museum world--turning the desire to get them in the door into the desire to please.

Does it matter? Should museums and artists--art--be quantifiable now just like everything else (blog hits, Facebook friends, LinkedIn contacts)?

A spate of books and articles has just been released testifying to our need to unhook, to leave the dopamine surges of text, email, and tweet behind.

Supporting artists and the institutions that educate and showcase them seems like a no-brainer if we are counting on art to pick up the slack in real live human connectivity. It is one of the only experiences left--along with sex--that is not actually better online.