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R-e-s-p-e-c-t

May 27, 2010

I have been reading a book called ARTS, INC., (thank you for the gift Maggie Carr) that has some interesting thoughts on the arts in our society today.  The author, Bill Ivey, was the Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1998 to 2001 and director of the Country Music Foundation from 1971 to 1998 among many other credits.  On page 58 he writes, “If citizens have a right to a broad engagement with artists across the spectrum of public life, what elements must be in place for artists to flourish in American society?  I believe three things must be present.  First, conditions must be conducive to originality; artists need to be able to find a way to enter and function in our complex arts system.  Second, they need respect for their ideas and their approach to problem solving, and respect in the form of sufficient compensation to maintain a creative life.  Third, artists must be free to draw on — to synthesize — the work of contemporaries as well as creativity  from the past.” 

This book  really strikes a chord within me.  Many of you know that I have taken a very winding road to arrive at my current position.  I have worked in the fields of parade floats, construction for movies, stage management, props artisan, scenic painter, interior designer, event designer and spot light operator just to name a few areas.   At every step of the way I struggled to survive as an artist.  Today I survive because I am an educator — who just happens to be an artist.  

There is little respect in America for artists.  Working in Russia once I realized that artists are seen more as leaders than as subversive elements in society.   Where did we lose that European sensibility?  Way back on the Mayflower? 

Americans are all about monetary lifestyles.  If you can’t get rich off of it, then why do it?  Who cares if the arts allow you to express yourself, to develop self-esteem and community building skills?   If it doesn’t pay, then find something that does.  Right?  

Well, I can tell you that all my years of struggling as an artist made me a very happy person.  I don’t regret a minute of it and I would not trade places with any person working 9 to 5 in an office complex doing repetitive jobs — no matter how much money they make.  As a creative person I feel I have a healthy curiosity about the world and people I meet that has made me very successful at my job. 

However, I also feel that I have spent most of my life trying to justify my profession to people.  After years of raising me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to, my parents worried terribly about me choosing theater as a profession. “You are so smart,” my father once said. “Why don’t you go into science or math?”  I was always trying to prove to them that I would be OK.  To the theater companies I had to prove that I was a worthy artist to hire and had respectable creative skills.  To the outside world I had to continually explain that being a theater artist did not necessarily mean I was an actress.  To the academic world I have to continually try to explain how creative work should be respected as an intellectual endeavor and just because I don’t publish papers does not mean that my research, my art, is not worthy of equal respect.  

Bill Ivey writes that “everyone wants a Picasso hanging on their wall but no family wants a Picasso in the living room.” 

Despite being an artist, I continue to succeed.   I believe my artistic abilities have made uniquely qualified to play many roles in my lifetime – and play them very successfully.  Ironically, my family tells me now that I am the most  ‘normal’ one of all of us.  Who would have ever guessed that one?  But I certainly believe I am the happiest of them all. 

production photo

My scenic design for Sunday in the Park with George at The Boston Conservatory

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One Comment leave one →
  1. George Cooke permalink
    June 1, 2010 8:17 am

    Hi Crystal,

    Interesting post. I got re-involved in sports in my 30’s and specifically very interested in sports psychology. One of the mantras of sports psych is “focus on the things you can control” (it doesn’t take long to figure out that there is very little that we can control). I am finding that this is pretty helpful in most areas of life!

    It is interesting to look at Bill Ivey’s comments through the lens of “focus on the things you can control” as all three of his points are what I would describe as “external” to the artist and, essentially, “uncontrollables”. So, for example, in terms of point 2, respect from the outside world, both in and of itself and in terms of compensation, is really something I/we have no control over. My experience tells me that I would be waiting a long time if I needed to wait upon those three points to be in line before I could “flourish”.

    So I think the bottom portion of your post gets to the heart of the matter, which is that self-respect and confidence are more important than external criteria.

    In the early 90’s I participated earnestly in trying to make it in the music business. While the conditions of the industry of that time seemed to satisfy Bill Ivey’s three points, I found it to be a superficial world. So I backed out and began a challenging period of time that sought to answer the question: “If I was alone on an island, would I be musical?” In other words, was I inherently “musical” without the need for external markers like respect or compensation? It was an interesting time that lead to a lot of learning about what motivates me and what I need in order to feel creative.

    -George

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