Sunday, April 2, 2017

What's the Point of Art?

What’s the point of art, anyway? Maybe that seems a funny question when the arts play such a large role in our local economy. Huge, when you include the decorative arts. Antiques, and such, you know.

But, separate from the dollar benefit, the idea of art itself remains prickly for many non-artists. Maybe it smacks of self-indulgence. Or of elites in snooty museums drinking wine and nibbling canapes.

We do like art for our children. As the public schools minimize or eliminate funding for arts education, local groups step up to provide equipment, instruction, encouragement. Every year, organizations like the Round Top-Carmine Educational Foundation, ARTS (Art for Rural Texas), Texas Women for the Arts, Unity Theater in Brenham, the Round Top Library and others, renew these commitments.

Why do they think it’s important? What does art bring to a child’s life? In my opinion, much the same thing it brings to ours.

There are a lot of timeworn descriptions: self-expression; teamwork; the honing of senses, as the mind opens to the world it inhabits; eye-hand coordination, development of verbal ability, fun. All valuable to human beings of any age.

For adults, though, art opens the door to fuller communication. The kind that can move heart to heart, gut to gut. Most artists I know long for that.

But communication implies a recipient. An audience. And that’s where the marketplace comes in. Will they buy a ticket to our concert or play? Buy my watercolor or sculpture or necklace? Buy my story, my book?

Sometimes they will.

And if they don’t, why should we care? Sure, we value being known as an arts rich community. That reputation brings visitors here, to shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants. We thrill to the performances, the music and plays, concerts and exhibits that enliven our weekends.

And yet superlative local organizations such as Festival Hill at Round Top, Fayetteville Chamber Music, ARTS and others have to scramble constantly for donations and grants.

Many of us shrug that off. Somehow, we’ve got the notion that the marketplace makes good decisions about what deserves support, and what doesn’t. That popularity alone is the yardstick.

But how do you measure the value of art to a community’s soul? How do you experience the richness of human life if all you can see, hear, smell and touch is what “most people” want to pay for? Most people love potato chips powdered in flavor enhancers. How about if those were all you had to eat?

That’s why non-profit groups, private foundations, individual donors give time and money to keep alive what the marketplace overlooks.

Donor fatigue, volunteer fatigue, are real factors, however, in a community as small as ours. That’s why many of the groups feel such gratitude for the grants they receive from the Texas Commission on the Arts, itself under pressure from shrinking state budgets. The TCA, in turn, receives 10% of its annual funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, presently on the budgetary chopping block.

As those factors indicate, some people don’t think the arts deserve taxpayer support. Yet we’re benefitting so greatly from the activity of the arts, here in Fayette County. Benefitting personally, economically, emotionally.

Did you sell snacks to a student from Festival Hill last summer. Did you attend the annual Fourth of July concert in its superb concert hall?

Do you enjoy the programs and exhibits sponsored by ARTS for Rural Texas, out of Fayetteville? The variety of children’s programming is remarkable for any rural area.

Are you proud that your child can play a musical instrument, participating in a rich local tradition?

Is your B&B booked by people who’ve come here to hear music, see or buy art and antiques?

How about the houses you sell to new buyers, or build for them, because people are attracted to the art and culture we offer in addition to lovely scenery and fine neighbors.

By my calculation the Texas Commission on the Arts will lose $964,100 if NEA funding stops. Our local organizations (counting Round Top, LaGrange, Fayetteville and nearby Brenham) have received a total of $53,244 from the TCA so far in fiscal 2017. Not much, yet crucial to their survival. Will they lose all of it?

To replace that funding, it will take 1,064 new donors at $50 a pop every year. Spread between several organizations and committed in advance so budgets can be set up, teachers contracted with.
Can we count on you?

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