Art helps fuel economy -- and much more

Special to The HeraldFebruary 21, 2009 

The recent Herald editorials on public art were disappointing in several respects. As an artist who has received public money for various projects and who has completed several large-scale permanent installations, I can assure the general public that this is not a line of secure work from which you can expect to retire early.

Just for the record, and if the argument must remain purely pedantic and rooted in economics: When I first came to this community in 1985, we had approximately 85 art majors in The Department of Art and Design here at Winthrop. This year, now being split into two departments, there are approximately 520 art and design majors. That's an awful lot more dollars coming to Rock Hill through those students alone. And, students being partial to "hospitality," I can guarantee that many of those dollars will have found their way into the city's hospitality tax! So, art does have a very marked effect on the local economy.

As the editorial stated, there are many examples throughout history when the legacy of "public art" has defined the culture of the period. The Herald's example of Florence, Italy, is worthy of comment. Florence was a warring city-state, that in all likelihood we would remember little, except for the fact that a successful banking family, the Medicis, commissioned art and scientific endeavor that helped define the period we now refer to as the Renaissance. It was not that the Medicis (and other notable Florentine patrons) were planning for a future tourism industry that they supported artistic and scientific enquiry. They were committed to this because they firmly believed that a civilized and well-educated population, one that was well-versed in literature, visual and performing arts and science, would flourish, prosper and assume responsibilities of leadership. It was a society modeled after Classical Greece, and one we would do well to mimic.

Depression pictures

The Great Depression, a period of this country's history that is currently on everyone's minds, is brought into clear focus because a federal agency, The Works Progress Administration, hired artists, writers and photographers to document conditions of the period. If we allow a broader definition than some would use for "art," then what was produced in that period through the use of public money is a treasure at which the rest of the world marvels. Before emigrating to this country, I learned about the South through the eyes of photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans -- sensitive, heartbreaking, persuasive images that only a practiced and committed artist could produce.

Rock Hill has worked diligently for years to define its character as an independent Southern town.With visionaries of the past few decades, including former Mayor Betty Jo Rhea and former City Manager Joe Lanford, the city has transformed itself from a typical mill town and avoided being regarded as just another dormitory town for Charlotte.

Community of artists

Among the efforts that helped achieve this is an Arts Council that has initiated many new events and supported an active community of artists downtown. Unable to attract large commercial stores downtown, the city has been provided part of the solution in the presence of galleries and artists' studios. That City Council was willing to enact a hospitality tax to provide amenities of which most other South Carolina cities are jealous took leadership. The hospitality tax has never been popular throughout the entire city, but then no tax ever is.

According to writers such as Richard Florida ("The Creative Class"), those cities that are going to succeed within the new knowledge-based economy are those which encourage innovation. While not the exclusive property of artists, creativity in its many forms is an attribute that is seen by many as vital to culture. And culture is vital to the economy. Charlotte has succeeded in attracting a skilled work force partly because it provides opportunities for engaging with issues presented by contemporary artists. Their public art program incorporates a range of projects, from easily accessible to challenging. The value of original public art is in helping to create a unique identity for the community.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for continued discourse, with diverse "stakeholders" encouraged to contribute to a vision of the future for this fair town.

Phil Moody is a professor of Fine Arts at Winthrop University.

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