Window Dressing

Window Dressing
Simply said:

Engaging artists as window dressers for civic boosterism is always a losing proposition, both for the artists and for the city.

Even though it may be well intended, it is unfortunate when political leaders -furthering assumptive notions of cultural relevance, or trying to generate tourism dollars to pick up slack from the lack of a more tangibly productive tax base- take it upon themselves to organize and promote art extravaganzas without the understanding and the capital commitments necessary to produce a worthwhile event; doing so without a discernible critical mass of qualified artists capable of presenting material in a wide enough range of artistic disciplines, and without a proven acquisitive audience to make these events economically feasible, ultimately sustainable.

So even as our fearless elected leaders are patting themselves on their backs for the success of Luminaria, San Antonio’s first ever full day art event, ultimately, the question is: Who stands to benefit from all this? The range of possible answers is commensurate with the delusional level of the people involved with the event, but the real answers are simple enough: The short term political winners are the event’s organizers and close supporters. The long term economical winners, if the event has long enough legs, are the service industry folks.

The people of San Antonio? One more party, one more chance to get smashed in public. Official reports indicate that the inaugural Luminaria was relatively calm and family oriented. Give it a couple of years.

The tourists? It’s obviously a good time for tourists. A street party anywhere is a good thing for tourists.

And the artists? Unless they get their acts together and start behaving like serious professionals, requiring adequate compensation for their services as independent contractors, artists will remain side show window dressers for the politicos and their friends, and will forever be taken for granted. The stated notion that all the artists involved with Luminaria would add several thousand clients to their rolodexes the day after the event (forsaking project fees for a potential collector base), is not only a crackpot fairytale, it is facile reasoning at best and ultimately an insult to anyone’s intelligence. Although, apparently, a lot of purportedly intelligent folks bought into the argument.

As I have said before, unless San Antonio defines itself (in fact, not by decree) as an artist-friendly community (a tenable proposition, but we’d still have to define what would make us different from a the few thousand other cities and towns that make the same claim), or becomes an art market (an unlikely course of events); thanks to political lobbying and entrenched personal relationships, cultural branding and promoting will only benefit a few established institutions.

It is easy to organize block parties for the general populace, especially in cities like San Antonio where said general populace is famously mellow, in the mid- to lower-income bracket, with diminished discretionary means, and where civic pride is quick to take hold when free entertainment and modestly priced imbibables and digestibles are readily available. To the point, it’s very easy to get a public party going in San Antonio. Any kind of party. In the case of Luminaria, the organizers just added Art-For-The-People as a thematic catch-all, a hook, an angle, to differentiate this party, somewhat, from other festivities scheduled year round.

Most everyone communes with the entertainment value of street parties, even those that further political agendas. Few however, understand the long term consequences of mixing street parties with the arts. The host cities themselves are enhanced by the festivities, but there are potentially serious downsides for artists willing to ply their trades in exchange for a few hours of civic glorification.

The furthering of arts and culture by political decree with the distinct purpose of propping up the state’s, or in this case, the city’s standing, typically results in cultural Potemkin Villages, with meager prospects and undesirable outcomes. Unless you’re part of the inner circle. Very politburo. Very Central Committee. Very not cool.

Given the large number of countries, regions, cities and townships that are currently reinventing themselves as worthy cultural destinations, there has to be a compelling uniqueness of concept and context to draw the traveling crowds to a specific locale in the first place. What makes an event different? What makes a city different? What can one see or enjoy that one would not see or enjoy elsewhere, especially in a city like ours, that has a discouraging reputation for onerously high taxes levied on all travel related services, and not enough return on the investment? The myth of San Antonio is a good draw, the reality not so much.

Granted, for established cultural institutions, the walk-in traffic generated by these events has a one-time salutary effect, a renewed sense of optimism fostered by the illusion that audience interest is revived or will show an increase after an event like Luminaria. But that rarely is the case. Most of the revelers are out for the free entertainment opportunities that come into play, and will, in all likeliness, not venture out again en- masse until more cultural freebies are proffered.

Many wannabe cultural destinations have an instinctive propensity for arts and culture. In fact, one could make the general argument that humanity has an instinctive propensity for arts and culture. But instinct aside, in the production of art extravaganzas like Luminaria, there has to be an intelligence to the effort that goes beyond mere pageantry and festive proclivities. Given the right frame of mind, any city can block off a few streets, set up sound stages, install pretty lights, and pay overtime for police officers and maintenance crews. Considering that San Antonio already has a few dozen events like this throughout the year -several of them art events at that; aside from suffering a severe case of Metooism, what compels our city leaders to think it necessary to throw yet another downtown street party?

Things are different in cities where economic and cultural interests coincide, organically, creating a necessary critical mass. Take the example of Seattle, a city that makes a convincing claim to uniqueness and enterprise. Aside from being a leader in the high-tech and aerospace industries, a hotbed for new music, and, lately, a proponent of public art and architecture as civic definers; Seattle currently finds itself in the unlikely, unintended circumstance of being a tastemaker for the literary masses. In the publishing world, retail booksellers and international bookfairs have their place as market makers, and the fact that most publishing houses of consequence are based in New York, begs the question: Why Seattle? The answer is surprisingly simple if unexpected. Amazon, Costco and Starbucks, all leaders and innovators in their industries, with finely tuned distribution systems, detailed consumer research, and non-traditional marketing formats, are primary influences, the new needle-movers of the mainstream book market. And they are all based in Seattle, itself a major book market, where reading is considered a substantive pastime, ingrained in the city’s civic DNA.

Seattle is instinctively an active book market. Reading is an important part of Seattle’s lifestyle and sense of being. It’s outsize importance as a literary tastemaker, however, derives from the unique intelligence its resident corporations apply to the traditional framework of the publishing business, asserting its reason for being. Thus, Seattle’s impact on the literary market. And by extension, on the film industry, a good part of which seeks out books with proven mass market appeal as options on which to base screenplays. Good or bad, this is the case.

San Antonio is instinctively a party city. Our cultural worth, though much touted by all of us toiling the arts, is much more tentative. There are too many folks who, by virtue of family or personal connections, are overseers of our cultural patrimony, regardless of their qualifications. Our cultural instincts are still tied to old fashioned notions of art and culture as recipients of the noblesse oblige of the upper crust; a country club cultural mind set. If this does not change, we will always be remembered for our parties, but we will not be sought or celebrated for our culture.

We have the instinct. And sometimes we have the political will. A few years hence, Luminaria may become the kind of event it should be. But there has to be an intelligence to our efforts.

It’s always in the making. Make sure you are the one making it.

Michael Mehl

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