New Free Resource

Democratic Vistas Profiles, Essays in the Arts and Democracy

2006, available online. Center for Arts Policy, Columbia College Chicago, 600 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60605, 312-344-7985

What do Cirque du Soliel and acid mine drainage have in common? And how do they relate to arts and democracy? You can explore these questions and learn about many other surprising combinations in this mind-expanding new "cyber series" now being distributed free of charge by the Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College Chicago.

The series title, Democratic Vistas, recalls an 1871 essay by Walt Whitman, linking an active arts and cultural life to the development of a robust democracy in this country. Fast-forward 133 years. Fred Fine, a colorful and energetic Chicago arts leader, proposes a series of essays profiling "artists and arts professionals who push the arts and cultural policy in new directions by challenging and reimagining the ways the arts and communities interact."

The first five of the ten profiles appeared between March and June 2006. Under the editorship of Michael Wakeford, leading authors have been commissioned to write ten-page essays. Each essay is itself a work of art, beautifully crafted, thoughtful, challenging, and boundary-pushing.

The first profile introduces Umberto Crenca, founder of AS 220, an alternative performing center, studio, and gathering space for a wide array of young artists in Providence, Rhode Island. AS 220 "accepts any painting, poem or song produced by any Rhode Islander" because Crenca believes "in the long run you ensure quality by providing opportunity. It will surface and endure." For Crenca, art can play a vital role in the ability of all citizens to "re-imagine themselves," compose their own lives, and make creative choices.

Profile two takes the reader to a gathering of funders, scholars, doctors, artists, and research scientists watching a performance by the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. The performance is a dance suite inspired by the study of the human genome. After developing an inter-generational, multicultural dance company, and creating several large-scale community dance projects, Lerman is now pushing the boundary between dance and scientific research by translating molecular theories into movements.

Contemplating science and dance is challenging enough, but profile three looks at Las Vegas, for-profit entertainment, and Cirque du Soliel. Conceptual artist Franco Dragone directed most of the Cirque's signature shows between 1985 and 1998, fusing postmodern dance, performance, and circus art to create evocative dreamscapes. When the Cirque moved to Las Vegas in 1993, its $80 million dollar productions spurred the reinvention of Vegas entertainment culture. Whatever one thinks of Vegas and for-profit circuses, the quality, creativity and audience-drawing power of Dragone's creations cannot be denied and should not be ignored by supporters of the arts.

Independent radio producers have smaller budgets than the Cirque du Soliel, but profile number four shows how Jay Allison has ex-panded the reach of public radio. Believing in the fundamental power of the shared story to create community, Allison helped start the Public Radio Exchange and Atlantic Public Media. He sees Atlantic Public Media as "a crossroads" where producer and listeners "can meet and gather and even create change." Allison recognizes that, "This is perhaps a lofty goal for a mere radio signal, but a radio signal has the singular ability to proclaim all our separate identities, while it also spans our boundaries to bring us together."

In Vitondale, Pennsylvania, as described in profile five, T. Allan Comp literally joined acid mine drainage and art in a new organization named AMD&ART. After decades of deep mining left aging miners, environmental scars, and toxic water runoffs, AMD&ART worked with artists, environmentalists, and community members to create a miner's memorial, a bicycle trail marked by mosaic tiles, and a series of self-cleaning treatment ponds. To the inevitable question, "but is it art?" Allan Comp was decidedly affirmative, saying it is "art that works."

These five profiles creatively address important topics often debated at GIA conferences: What is art? What makes good art? What is the role of the artist in the U.S. today? What is the relationship between the not-for-profit arts and cultural sector and for-profit enter-tainment? How do arts and culture relate to citizens and communities?

Democratic Vista Profiles is available on the Center for Arts Policy Columbia College Chicago web site listed above. Each essay can be downloaded as a pdf file, and there is a button to join the mailing list and receive an e-mailed link as each new essay appears. The web site also contains links to the people and organizations profiled.

Thanks to the GIA members — Nathan Cummings Foundation and Richard Driehaus Foundation — who are supporting the free distribution of these ten profiles. All arts funders can benefit from reading and thinking deeply about the challenging ideas, inspiring artists, and effective strategies of citizen engagement presented in this series.

Judi Jennings is director, the Kentucky Foundation for Women.