This is an open letter I sent to the head of the Arizona Commission on the Arts back in 2002. I copied it to 50 heads of museums, cultural centers and arts funders and it drew almost as many replies.

There was unfortunate and objectionable language in the September/October issue of the Arizona Commission on the Arts newsletter characterizing the arts in Arizona.  It quotes the council’s executive director as having said, “The arts industry in Arizona plays a significant role in the state’s economy and quality of life. With the fragile nature of the state’s current economy, arts organizations AS SMALL BUSINESSES (my caps and itals) are also under stress….”

Many arts administrators fell into this trap in the late 80s during the first attacks on the NEA by Dick Armey and Jesse Helms. As a former arts administrator, and current cultural reporter and dance critic for The Phoenix New Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, I am sorry to see this ugly rhetoric resurfacing in Arizona.

The objective of artists is the process of making art that, sure, they hope people will buy or pay money to see, but most artists would continue to do work they believe in whether or not it sells. I cannot imagine an artist waking up in the morning and thinking I want to make a community-based work that will change the neighborhood. Sure that is the objective of such hugely-funded organizations such as the Mural Arts Project in Philadelphia. But too often the result is funder-driven, art-like work spuriously celebrated by philistines who want to seem smart.

The business of business is product and profit.  The business ends of local business criminals like Charles Keating and Fife Symington, and national corporate criminals from debacles like Enron and Tyco are smeared with the defecated dreams of millions of honest Americans.  Not even Martha’s butt is clean.  To equate artists with sludge such as these is to impugn one of the few groups of Americans who we can largely trust to do good work merely for the good of the work and the community that is blessed by it.  Communities do not consume arts and culture, but rather absorb it.

“Arts organizations” I might characterize as small businesses are for-profit art galleries, those traveling “starving-artists” auctions, touring and performing troupes such as Cirque de Soleil, Riverdance, and the ethno/artistic travesties spawned by their success.

These examples of marketing-driven — not arts-driven — phenomena impoverish rather enrich our communities.  They retard America from developing and appreciating its own culture outside of the profit-making world.  They reduce intelligent, mature discrimination to accepting, docile consumption.

It is legitimate to point out, for example, the oft-proven fact that arts and culture bring greater revenue to a city or state than the sports industry, as it can correctly be called.  But using terms like industry and small business to describe the arts derides the integrity of artists and panders to the lowest common notion of what art means to the community.  Of course, arts administrators feel they must use these descriptives when they are trying to pry loose funds from the collectively mindless and unimaginative business community.

But why not be all that you can be?  We need advocates for the arts and cultural community who fearlessly champion the arts for what they are.  Better to see and characterize our artists as resources to help people reflect on the beauties and tragedies of our times, on history, on the future, and on our relationships to each other and to the world.  Better to stress to the business world/world of government how our artists enhance our lives, as the director does when she says, “The arts contribute to community identity, economic development and tourism development.”

Art is not made by punching timecards, but by dreaming. Using terms like industry and small business to describe the arts is nightmarish.  Please don’t do it anymore. Tell the politicians and funders that business should emulate the arts, not the other way round.

Merilyn Jackson