Michael Fields: Art And Prosperity Are Natural And Necessary Partners – March 16, 2011
Note: Keynote speaker Michael Fields offered the following address at the recent Arcata Chamber of Commerce Annual Membership Dinner at Humboldt State’s Kate Buchanan Room. – Ed.
I stand before you unabashedly as an “artist.” When I was younger I could never have imagined that. It would have been an anathema. I was an all-state middle line backer for Seattle Prep and had my heart set on playing for the 49ers. And given this past season maybe they could still use me.
I also stand before you as the producing artistic director of “Dell’Arte.” And that opens a whole other can of worms. Dell’Arte is an old Italian word meaning the “art of the professional comedian.” It is spelled Dellarte so many people prounce it like Dell’Norte. So people tend to call us Dellarte (or in the plural Dellartees).
And even though we have been here for decades we are still often mistaken for a bakery in Eureka. Or that clown school. My brother-in-law once asked if we were a cult. And there is a nagging suspicion that we just might be a bit too counter culture for our own good.
While we are not a bakery or solely a clown factory, we are a business that has been in Humboldt County for 40 years. Dell’Arte is a $1.3 million a year organization, employing 35 people with an audience base of more than 25,000 people a year. We are a nationally and internationally recognized theatre center with 60 students a year in residence and the only MFA degree of its kind in the world.
Our professional theatre company has toured to almost every continent. Our summer festival is attended by more than 6,000 people, many of whom could be classified as “cultural tourists.” And yes, we do crank out clowns, many of whom now work with Cirque du Soliel.
When we came to Blue Lake in 1974 and bought the old Odd Fellows Hall for a staggering $20,000, the community was anything but hospitable to having such a creative enterprise in its midst. The logging industry was still going strong, there were three bars, a general store, and us – the dellarte’s.
It was a term of derision – said like trying to cough out an old piece of food that has been stuck in your throat for years. The cultural collision was intense.
Our journey that began in this place has taken us around the world and we have exponentially grown. We now occupy two buildings and lease many apartments for our students to live in. But we still live just down the block. We live here by choice. The interplay between the local, national and international is essential to how we work.
Now, 40 years later the possibilities for cultural economic development here in Humboldt County are immense. At Dell’Arte we are now partnering with the City of Blue Lake, the Humboldt visitors and Convention Bureau, HSU Center for Entrepreneurship, the Humboldt Folklife Festival and others to develop a new initiative in how we look at making Humboldt County a cultural destination.
When I look at the economic impact of Oregon Shakespeare Festival Operations in Ashland, Oregon at $174,500,102 a year – I say why not here. Especially when we look at the enormous advantages we have – a stunningly unique environment and a thriving cultural community.
But you are businesspeople.
And I wanted to look at a couple of myths about the arts as business.
Arts are fluff and artists don’t know business. Facts:
• The creative sector, whose economic function is to create new ideas or creative content, employs 38 million Americans, or 30 percent of all employed people.
Source: Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, 2002.
• In 2006, 574,596 U.S. businesses participated in the production or distribution of art and employed nearly three million people.
Source: Americans for the Arts, Creative Industries Report, 2006.
• More people are attending live performing arts events than professional sporting events in 10 major communities across the United States.
Source: Performing Arts Research Coalition, The Value of the Performing Arts in Ten Communities, 2004.
I list these facts because they tie directly to Myth Two.
Myth # 2
The arts are not a critical part of economic development in Humboldt County.
One may well ask, according to whom and whose figures?
• More than half of U.S. adults participate in cultural tourism. In 2009, cultural tourists spent an average of $201 more per trip than tourists not participating in cultural activities.
Source: Travel Industry Association of America, The Historic/Cultural Traveler, 2003.
• Arts & Economic Prosperity: The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts Organizations and Their Audiences, report released in 2009, reveals that America’s nonprofit arts industry generates $166 billion in economic activity every year, including 5.7 million jobs, $104 billion in household income, $29.1 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues. And $80.8 billion in event-related spending by arts audiences.
Often times these myths about arts as a business are perpetuated by both community perception of the arts as a viable “industry” and how the arts cluster is perceived as a whole. Somehow, due to the nature of the goods and services we provide, the arts are considered less valuable than other traditional industries. If you actually look at the comparative facts, this is simply not true. In addition, the stresses we face as an industry are the same as any other local business: sound strategic planning; articulate human resource management, up-to-date IT support systems, and effective marketing in what is a growing web-based economy.
A recent Newsweek article stated, “The ability of workers to be creative and collaborative is the most prized asset by international business and is becoming an increasingly important consideration in both college admission and curriculum development.”
It is proven that communities with strong arts industries and city governments that have the vision to support and promote the arts are surging as economic centers and considered desirable places to live.
We’ve always been a society that values profitability and celebrity above almost all other qualities. That emphasis reached delirious levels in the economic boom years, even as Ponzi-inspired finance firms shafted the economy and our pop star-obsessed media fed a culture of celebrity-sucking stupidity.
I know, with jobs and homes and dreams of better lives being lost by the millions, art and culture seem like a luxury. But I would argue that thinking culture is a frill, a disposable ornament for a comfortable life, has helped get us in the mess we are in. What has happened to critical thinking? The disappearance of arts from our education system and the downgrading of culture to consumer pop has eroded our capacity to ask the real questions that good art provokes us to engage. Questions of morality, humanity, the range of identity, the importance of beauty and ideas and qualities that you can’t quantify.
The painter Robert Henri wrote, “When the motive of artists are true, when they are at their work as the result of deep consideration, when they believe in the importance of what they are doing, their work creates a stir in the world.”
We all want to make something of this life. When we, as individuals and as a community, aspire to the true greatness of this effort, we find we must nurture and cultivate the collective imagination – the ability to imagine life other than it is lived.
This is our only road to solving not only the problems that currently confound us, but also the problems we have yet to face. No matter who we are, what kind of work we pursue, or what our religious and political beliefs may be, we know that imagination – deep, passionate imagination – is as valuable a national resource as the well-documented impact of the arts on economics and in raising educational test scores.
Our deepest values, as we must increasingly claim, lie not just in the practical and the measurable, but also in the quality of life to be lived, in engagement with each other as a community, and in the powerful act of imagining what could be.
This is the intrinsic value of the arts industry – an industry that is stronger in Humboldt County than most, but that still faces so many obstacles. Change won’t happen without dispelling the myths and understanding the true impact and enormous possibility of what this industry can be in our community.
Thank you for inviting me to your celebration tonight. Congratulations to those who are receiving recognition for your good work. And please remember Dell’Arte is not a bakery and Blue Lake is only five minutes from Arcata. Come visit us. It is a true blessing to be a part of this community. Thank you.
Michael Fields is producing artistic director and master teacher at Dell’Arte.