Arts in America

Why am I home right now, staring out the window, attempting to be a brilliant writer instead of wailing my guts out somewhere in an opera? Well, one reason is that I was supposed to have a gig this spring with San Antonio Opera - I was going to sing Rosina in a production of the Barber of Seville. Except San Antonio Opera filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and no longer exists as of a few weeks ago. Too bad for opera lovers in San Antonio, and too bad for opera singers who were supposed to make their living singing there. So instead of singing, I'm sitting in my apartment thinking about how a lack of arts funding in the U.S. really really stinks for someone like me.

I don't like to disparage the U.S. - I really do like it here and choose to make it my home, even though I have almost moved to Italy, France, or Germany about 16 times per country. But in the last three years, almost 70% of my income has come from my gigs abroad, and so I spend a lot of time contemplating why there seems to be so many more opportunities for artists (opera singers, particularly) outside the U.S than here at home (this is not to discount the fabulous network of regional opera companies that have developed here over the years - but there are currently more singers than there are jobs here, and a lot of very talented, but out of work artists). I've had more encounters than I care to recount with seemingly cultured, educated Americans who have thrown questions at me like, "You're an opera singer? Is that like Phantom of the Opera?" or "An Opera Singer?!?! Aren't you too skinny to be an Opera Singer?" compared with the dozens of conversations I've had with Italian taxi drivers and fruit sellers, and Austrian shopkeepers and maitre d's about what repertoire the opera company in town has planned for this year, or what type of mezzo soprano I am, or whether I prefer Mozart or Verdi. Now, this is not the fault of those Americans asking me those less than informed questions (I could have easily been one of them had my path not steered me towards singing) - the problem is that not only is our country young, and our history doesn't intertwine with our cultural heritage for the past bunch of centuries, but we are also not brought up to believe (as they are in other countries) that arts and culture are a human right, one that we all deserve and are entitled to.

Which brings me to this week's question for Round Three of Spring for Music's Blogger Challenge:

Many countries have ministries of culture. Does America need a Secretary of Culture or Secretary of the Arts? Why or why not?

It's a subject I contemplate all the time because of the pull between my "love of homeland," as cheesy as that sounds, and my need to make a living. A couple of years ago I had just finished two great gigs in Berlin, was slated for a few more, and had spent a fair amount of time in Germany having those kinds of fulfilling conversations with shopkeepers and restaurant waiters that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. I was all set to just pack up my life and move over there, where there was lots more work, more respect and admiration for artists by the general population, and government subsidized opera companies who were not likely to go bankrupt and close their doors any time soon. But then life got in the way - I fell in love with an American, if you must know - and I realized that deep down, I really did want to live my life in my own city in my own country, where I didn't feel like an outsider, where my family was nearby, and where I could shop at Target and easily find a decent burger. But it left me wondering why things were always so freaking hard over here for an artistic type like me, and more importantly, what could be done about it.

So, to answer the blogger challenge; YES!! Of course we need a Secretary of Culture or a Secretary of Arts or even an Undersecretary of Anti Reality TV! We need somebody to run naked, wearing nothing but a hat made out of ketchup bottles, up and down the aisles of the televised Grammy awards screaming "WE NEED MORE CULTURE IN THIS COUNTRY -AND I DON'T MEAN NICKI MINAJ DRESSING IN RELIGIOUS ROBES AND PRETENDING TO LEVITIATE!!!" (if you don't know what I'm talking about check youtube - it totally freaked me out, and made me feel about 150 years old when I saw it on TV). But realistically, are we ever going to get one? And the answer to that, I fear, is; Probably not.

Americans are a society of self made individuals - we are pioneers who like to make our own living, and putting too much back in the pot for the betterment of society doesn't really jive with our capitalistic spirit. And I don't think we'll ever get a higher tax rate for government subsidised arts organizations like they have in Brazil for example (as discussed here in this droolworthy New York Times article about Brazil's surplus - SURPLUS - of arts funding), especially when we're too busy fighting over things like whether to raise the debt ceiling or whether to tax millionaires. When our elected officials gleefully make disparaging comments about the NEA (okay, it was Sarah Palin on Fox News, but still), it suggests that to even consider adding culture to our list of social responsiblitiies would be a big challenge. And with no government Arts funding, a Secretary of Culture would be sitting in Washington twiddling her thumbs, watching helplessly as one arts organization after another lost funding and had to shut its doors.

So where does that leave us? Adrift in a sea of sinking organizations that can only exist if rich people feel like making charitable contributions that year?

I think what it tells us is that artists have to take more personal responsibility for keeping the arts alive and vibrant. We create art, yes. But we must also, each of us, take responsibility for creating new audiences, and spreading culture to as many people as we can. American artists have the tools to create a better and more diverse environment for ourselves and our communities. Our cultural history is so short that it doesn't stare at us every day in our ancient works of art or our centuries old architechture. But we Americans happen to be great pioneers, entrepreneurs, and critical thinkers. So without a Minister of Culture, artists themselves each need to become Ambassadors of their Art.

Well, duh, you say. But how, exactly?

Let me take you on a bit of a tangent for a second here, but one I swear I will tie in with my whole spiel.

One of the most rewarding things I have ever done in my artistic life was part of an "Arts in Education" course I took while I was a student at Juilliard. The course was designed not to help us become music teachers (an under-appreciated and supremely important component in our society - but that's a whole other tangent - sorry!), but to train us to use our abilities as creative artists to empower students of any age to become engaged in the arts in new ways. As part of this course, I taught two classes twice a week for a semester in the New York City Public Schools. I was assigned a class of lower income first and second graders who couldn't have been more horrified the first day I showed up and sang an aria for them right in their classroom. But not surprisingly, after spending only one semester, a couple of hours per week with them doing interactive activities which gave them a foothold into this art form which initially couldn't have been more foreign to them, they were absolutely hooked on opera. It's difficult for me to explain the joy I felt when I witnessed a class of 6 and 7 year olds begging for me to replay sections of Ravel's Opera L'Enfant et les Sortileges- in french, mind you -over and over, so that they could sing along. Their collective excitement was absolutely unabashed, and I know for a fact that for the rest of their lives they will have a different association with opera than most of their peers, who simply have never been exposed to anything like it.

We could and should be doing so much more to educate young people about the arts in this country. And I'm not just talking about basic music classes, which seem to be diminishing to the point of non-existence, sadly. I'm talking about every university, opera company, symphony, theater, and musem using teaching artists to go into the schools and infect the young minds with their enthusiasm and knowledge about the arts. Every school of music throughout the country should have an "Arts in Education" program like the one we had at Juilliard, where artists learn that it is their social responsibility to share their knowledge, and they learn the tools to do just that, while still maintaining careers as artists. Every dress rehearsal at every concert or opera should be filled with kids - but kids that have been prepared and can understand what they are about to hear. Musicians, actors, artists, and dancers should spend those lean years after they graduate from college or conservatory and before they get their big break in their chosen field - not as waiters and shoe salesmen, but as personal Cultural and Arts Secretaries to their communities, and we should compensate them for it. That's not a tax, that's job creation - and neither side can argue with that!

I'm obviously not the first person to come up with these ideas. In addition to the Julliard program, Carnegie Hall has developed a wonderful program for young musicians, with a residency which is heavy in teaching artist activities. A couple of friends of mine from school created an incredible non-profit foundation called Sing For Hope, which allows artists to use their art for education and to raise money for charitable foundations . Most opera companies, orchestras and museums certainly have outreach departments. But even more than this, I'm talking about instilling a sense of responsibility into each artist as an individual, and encouraging a new outlook among American trained artists that makes us not only creators, but sharers. I know, I know; sharers is not a word - but it should be. We are the most creative people in society for goodness sake, shouldn't we be using that creativity to change the way people think? We already do that with the art we create, but if there aren't enough people left who appreciate the arts as older generations die out, for whom are we even going to be creating it?

So yes - we definitely NEED Secretaries of Culture and Arts, but we shouldn't hold our breaths, waiting around for somebody in politics to suddenly see their value. Instead, we must each take on new responsibilities and blaze a new path for what it means to be an artist AND an artistic ambassador. And the individual spirit that Americans possess makes us particularly qualified to do just that.

I lifted this photo off the NEA website: A Hubbard Street Dance Chicago teaching artist leads a fourth-grade classroom in a movement activity as part of the MIND (Moving In New Directions) residency program. Photo by Todd Rosenberg

Don't forget to vote for me in the Spring for Music Blogger Challenge between Monday and Thursday. Select Trying to Remain Operational on the right hand column and click vote. Thank you in advance!