The Long View

Learning to succeed

Creating the environment for vitality

By Jim Sparrow
I recently spent a few days in Washington, D.C., as part of an Advisory Council for Americans for the Arts. As professional peers, we discussed trends, challenges and the future state of arts and culture in America and the world. The group included people from all over the United States, and while there were similar stories it became clear very quickly that different places had adopted different strategies to build their futures and deal with problems. What struck me was that the more closely a boiler-plate strategy was being followed by a community, the more likely they were to be falling into regression and decline.

The conversation was global — including politics, economics, history of the field, education and community development mixed with arts and culture and its place within all of this — and focused very narrowly on the immediate problems facing the arts. What became very clear was that the narrow lens had very little to offer except detail of implementation. Few strategic lessons were to be gleaned from this approach, I believe,  because problems, communities and life are complex and particular to each locale. As with the challenges we face in our economy, job creation, education reform and our national success as a country, one-dimensional approaches and “one size fits all” templates focusing on narrow outcomes will not solve our problems, make great cities or move us forward toward a great society.

So how does art fit into this line of reasoning? I believe it fits everywhere, along with all the other components of vital communities because what we need is to look at all opportunities to build our communities through the vast knowledge and experience each community (and especially Fort Wayne!) has. Art is an essential part of everything. So are other disciplines. From this perspective that the world is related, better ideas, solutions and community can be built. Art is a key component as is science, history, politics, ethics, business and so much more. Society is measured and remembered when all these building blocks are present because they all create opportunities for success. The reality that life interacts resonates throughout history.

One of my greatest frustrations as we try to manage our challenges is deciding things are discretionary too quickly. Let me first say that many of our institutions and systems are too big, antiquated or in need of reform. In the arts too much time has been wasted protecting paradigms that have shifted from past success and working to keep the structure of the institution at the expense of the mission.

But the arts are not discretionary; they are necessary even if the institutions need reform. How we choose to consume them may have some discretionary nature, but to argue that they are extra-curricular in our society and our schools is a quick way to nowhere. Let’s take the education debate. The arts should be a vital core subject as should history, literature and science and math. We do not become a better society by expecting less and focusing narrowly on more intense study of math and science.

Do we really believe that engineers designing our bridges and systems should not understand more of the world and society so that the tools they design actually meet needs of function beyond not falling down or failing their most basic goal? Designing the best requires knowledge of how the world works, of the importance of design both aesthetically and functionally as well as of the secondary uses such systems and structures will receive. We need to address the needs of our education system, but eliminating arts from our core education will not solve our challenges in education. We must look deeper, lead instead of react and create innovative ways to expand education not narrow it.

Here in Fort Wayne, we are out in front in a number of areas. That may be hard for many of you to believe, but it is true. We are beginning to show up on radars in many sectors, and we will continue to stay ahead as long as we create ideas from a wide range of experiences — not from failed cookie-cutter paradigms, strategies and institutions. The Midwest and Fort Wayne are prepared to grow and lead. Let’s make sure we remain innovative and open. Most importantly, let’s make sure this successful trajectory continues.

Jim Sparrow

Jim Sparrow is executive director of Arts United, the third-oldest united arts fund in the United States and the second largest arts council in Indiana.

Posted: Fri, 04/27/2012 - 7:52 am
Last updated: Mon, 10/29/2012 - 1:45 pm