Off the wall: incentives for arts and craft
March 21, 2001
Put this old goat among those who value the presence of visual arts in downtown Meridian. For starters we've got three very good private galleries and the Meridian Museum of Art. Not bad for a city of fewer than 40,000 people.
Plus our area boasts a number of practicing artists and artisans. Local people who regularly engage in doing art. A number of Meridian-connected visual artists are practicing their craft in other places. No names. I'd leave someone out.
Area businesses and governments are certainly open to assisting local artists in showcasing their work. A local Arts Commission seems to function well. Arts in the Park and other events offer additional marketing opportunities to area artists.
Meridian and east Mississippi have a number of excellent African-American artists and craftsmen. Many of these folk practice their art other places. But an encouraging number remain engaged in our community.
And of course area college and community college faculty and students together provide a significant number of artists and wannabe artists. As you might suspect I am especially proud of Meridian Community College's visual and graphic arts folks. Past and current.
It appears to me that we have a good range of program elements available. What I don't see is ongoing collaboration. Too little or no synergy. Everybody does his own thing. Sure, there are some successful events and individuals. A few wins. But far too few breakthrough accomplishments.
Artists are, of course, individualists. Even anarchists. Leading artistic folk is not unlike herding cats. Some of the tales you've heard about "artistic" temperament and ego are true. Eccentric? You bet. But then isn't that frequently the case with prophets?
So why aren't the visual arts a people-magnet in our community? What can be done to improve Meridian's capacity to draw visual artists as residents? Grow Meridian, downtown Meridian?
How about an Artist Relocation Program? Does that sound goofy? I hope so. Downtown Meridian has a reemerging cultural context that could be made more attractive to visual artists. How about some financial incentives to support existing and relocating artists.
What kind of financial incentives? How about rent subsidies in downtown properties for practicing visual artists? Or bartering artistic instruction with educational operations or businesses in exchange for space. Public or private space.
Downtown space occupied by starving artists is more productive than empty buildings. Studios serve students and teachers. How can teaching studios be made available?
Artists, at least the commercially successful ones, are skilled entrepreneurs. Good sales and marketing folk. What can be done to help create more opportunities to showcase their work? How about free Web space on the City's site or some other public agency. More purchase programs from businesses, including health care providers, and public agencies, including schools, would also help.
Media attention would be encouraging. Currently most news coverage is random and unconnected. How about something as radical as ongoing collaboration between electronic and print media highlighting visual artists? Programmed, not incidental, free press. Why not?
Our schools, community colleges and universities could do a better job encouraging students to explore the business dimension of arts and crafts. Training artists and artisans to "make a job" for themselves.
One of my all time favorite community college programs clusters furniture making, pottery, weaving and jewelry making around a core of business courses. The idea is to teach craft skills and business skills. The facility in which these programs are housed also includes a small crafts shop.
I'm not one of those "if we build it, they will come" folks. Maybe we need to attend to some coherent "if we give them incentive and opportunity, maybe they will relocate" strategies.
If any of this sounds goofy, I must admit none of it is original. These are programs operating in various places. I'm not entirely nuts, just a copycat.
Bill Scaggs is president emeritus at Meridian Community College and a senior consulting editor for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.