Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (Perennial Classics)

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When the Private Sector Funds the Arts

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I recently wrote a piece defending the National Endowment for the Arts, a grantmaking organization that represents .001 percent of the U.S. annual budget but is somehow such a drag on the economy that it is now very publicly on the chopping block (along with sister agencies, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) for the federal 2017 budget. This move makes perfect sense for Donald Trump the businessman, according to GOP enablers, because if the arts and so-called free expression are so worthy, the private sector will step in and fund them.

As if on cue into my in-box comes the news that the very temple of capitalism, The Mall of America, is initiating a Writer-in-Residence program, giving “a special scribe the chance to spend five days deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere” along with an honorarium,  food stipend, and housing.

Residencies for artists to create art isn’t a new idea. But this is the first time I’ve seen one that has been offered by a corporation (MOA Holdings, LLC).

Normally, residencies are funded by a combination of public funding and private donors and foundations that support the arts. The nation’s oldest residency program is the MacDowell Colony, founded in the early 1900s by composer Edward MacDowell, who noted to his wife, a pianist, that in their summer location on their bucolic farm in New Hampshire, he produced better — and more — music. The MacDowell Colony was born out of the desire to share this experience, and various artists, including writers, visual artists, composers, and choreographers from all over the world travel to Peterborough, N.H., to sleep in communal quarters, eat wonderful food, and work without distraction in a studio out in the woods. Work that has come out of this one place has shaped the American cultural landscape — e.g., Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town there; over the years, the Colony has dispensed this gift of time and creativity to artists as varied as James Baldwin, Aaron Copland, and Meredith Monk. This gift is made possible in part by public funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

When I was starting out as a young fiction writer, the advice I received most often from mentors and editors even before I started getting published regularly was to do a residency. I was working on Wall Street to support myself (so I could live alone in New York City — and write), and attending artist residencies were some of the first opportunities I had to meet other artists.

When I’m lucky enough to get an artist’s residency, as soon as I’m on the grounds, I enter into what I consider a sacred state: an intentional community detached from the outside world, where signal can finally be separated more easily from noise. This paradise for the mind is also free or minimal cost, they sometimes come with stipends for lost wages. One favorite, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, received an NEA grant for Collateral Reparations, which funds a residency scholarship for a veteran.

These residencies are purposeful in their locations; one of them buries its power lines to eliminate visual clutter, another one is in the stunning landscape of Wyoming. The last residency I did, at the Mesa Refuge in coastal California, the sky, devoid of the usual light pollution, had so many stars it was startling; the impressive dark was initially alien — then inspiring — to this city-dweller.

The basic artist residency is a studio, a place to sleep, and food. Composers’ studios, for instance, have pianos (Steinways at one) that are carefully and professionally tuned. Visual artists studios have huge blank walls. Writers’ studios tend to be monk-like in their simplicity: desks, a bed for napping. Ample space to spread out chapters, to group poems. One studio had a wall made of corkboard that looked like a starry sky, punctured infinite times by all the writers who’d been through, pinning up their notes. There are no ringing phones, no drop-ins. Often, no Internet.

It’s in this quiet that dreams swim to the surface more readily, and I am there waiting to write them down, instead of my usual: making mental grocery shopping lists, scheduling appointments, watching the clock.

When I saw the ad promoting a residency at the Mall of America, my first impulse was “I must apply!” See, a bunch of scenes in my novel take place in the freaking Mall of America! It had a nice honorarium ($2,500) for 5 days in residence at a connected mall hotel, plus a $400 food stipend, which is a lot of Cinnabons.

But a quick look at the terms reveals the horrifying things the artist gives up in the for-profit residency: her art.

Regimented by corporate decree, instead of a studio in the woods, “Workspace will be located in a common area space within Mall of America.”

You basically clock in: “The core daily work hours will be 11:00am to 7:00pm.”

And, like being a busy-bee warehouse worker at Amazon.com where bathroom breaks are monitored for frequency and efficiency:  “While the Winner will be encouraged to take breaks from writing to explore the Mall, post on social media, eat and find inspiration, the Winner will need to be physically present at the writer’s desk for no fewer than four (4) hours per day.” Prime one-day shipping waits for no one — why should art?

Inwardlooking-ness, contemplation, stillness has never been a friend to corporations, so:

“The Winner’s ongoing work may be displayed in almost-real time on a large monitor at the workspace. The work product may scroll continuously throughout the day for passersby to view.”

When a business takes over, the artist residency basically becomes its opposite. The protected space of creation becomes a publicity stunt for consumer entertainment. I noted the Mall of America’s Writer-in-Residence announcement was a PR release touted as an “event,” wedged in the website, not even meriting a place as a “Feature Event” like “Clash of the Super Beers” and “Toddler Tuesday.”

What we have here, when for-profit private interests take over, is not an artist residency, but a propaganda-PR content factory (indeed, the content must “be approved by a Mall of America Marketing representative” to not be “contradictory to the Mall of America’s desired presentation of the Mall”).

But even more worrisome is the idea of corporate ownership of an artist’s work: the writer “unconditionally agrees that Sponsor shall be the exclusive owner of all right, title, and interest in and to any and all work product, materials, and content produced by Winner during the MOA Writer-in-Residence.”

I’m not saying art cannot be created by the private sector. But I am saying that it’s unlikely, given these terms — of the work and of the ownership — that few artists I know would consider such a risk. And it’s not as if there isn’t a history of artists producing works for pay: during the Depression, a full 7 percent of the Works Progress Administration’s budget was given over to art, as the head of the WPA acknowledged that artists needed economic relief from the devastation of 1929, like any other workers.

Through the arts, music, theatre, and writers projects, Post Offices were decorated, plays were written. The Federal Writers project created the well-known American Guide series to the states. Some of the 20th century’s greatest abstract painters, such as Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, were kept afloat during the Depression by their employment creating realistic figurative murals for the government. For Willem de Kooning, WPA funding made it possible for the first time for him to concentrate fully on fine art instead of having to do commercial painting.

Do we want a small number of taxpayer dollars — roughly 45 cents per person — helping fund the next wave of important artists? Put another way: should corporations provide us with “work product” — clever, enjoyable, and effective ads for capitalism? Or do we want art off the workaday clock, art that’s been allowed to effloresce into all its beautiful, strange, and disturbing forms?

Put another way: do we want work that explores the void, or do we want “Void where prohibited?

Image Credit: Flickr/Cliff.

Book Sightings


With the advent of e-readers, books on the subway are getting harder and harder to spot. It takes dedication to get a sense of what people are reading these days. At The Awl, Ben Dolnick sets out to catalogue a week’s worth of sightings, which included a man reading Cloud Atlas and The Stranger and a teenage girl reading Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. You could also read our own Nick Moran on the question of whether e-readers are really green.

Summer Reading

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I’d have thought that the whole concept of summer reading lists for high schoolers would have fallen by the wayside, as it would seem to lack usefulness in our testing- and extracurriculars-obsessed education system, but a CS Monitor article shows that it’s alive and well (and just in time for that last-two-weeks-of-summer cram).The article includes some interesting insights on the makeup of such lists and how they’ve changed over the years.For the most part, reading lists are still heavy on classics. But consider the differences between reading lists from the 1960s and those in the 1980s. Of the nine most commonly taught books in public high schools in 1963, only one (the 1938 play Our Town) was written in the 20th century. By 1988, the 10 most commonly taught novels in public schools included four books from the 20th century: The Great Gatsby (1925), Of Mice and Men (1937), Lord of the Flies (1954), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).But not all novels take a generation to catapult to required summer reading lists. Some new staples in summer reading lists: Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.Ten years ago, these reading lists didn’t have new books like that,” says Alleen Nilsen, Arizona State University English professor and co-author of the textbook Literature for Today’s Young Adult. “These are really popular new books.”So what catapults Life of Pi and The Lovely Bones to the elusive reading list club? Both are bildungsromans, or stories of young people coming of age. Ms. Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature.

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