When the Career Center hosted a panel of people working for museums earlier this year, Gregory Tom, the Museum of Contemporary Art: Detroit’s programming and development coordinator, commented that of all businesses, nonprofits are the most concerned with money. Many arts institutions and presenters are nonprofits, including our Detroit Institute of Art, University Musical Society and the University’s Museum of Art.
In several campus events this week, the student organization Arts Enterprise posits that arts and businesses – by generic definition, profit-seekers – have something to say to one another. The organization calls itself a “forum” for students of the Ross School and of the School of Music, Theater, and Dance. An article later this week will cover resident renaissance man Eric Booth’s 5:30 p.m. lecture today at the Rackham Amphitheater and his residency at the University, which is co-sponsored by the group.
Maya Angelou’s charismatic appearance at Hill Auditorium in October as the Ross School of Business’s alumni weekend keynote speaker conspicuously ushered in this talk of the convergence of practices. After Ross School Dean Robert Dolan introduced her, Angelou proclaimed, “I’m not surprised to find a man who knows arts and science go together like peaches and cream in Ann Arbor.”
In a preview of the event, Ross School spokesman Paul Gediman told The Michigan Daily that “business doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in the real, complex world full of artists, writers, poets, doctors, activists and others.” The inverse – that art exists in a world formally predicated on economic negotiations – is just as true.
Nonetheless, there’s a misguided tendency to define art by its distance from practical, strategic or monetary concerns, the labor of a pure mind spooling through the world of ideas in search of beauty. That idea of art as necessarily esoteric and theoretical is the convention.
Because of this ready association, it’s easy to talk about artistic efforts as if they are – or as if they should be – isolated incidents. But for a practice that supposedly requires only an imagination and a means of expression, political and monetary networks could not be more important.
A recent New Yorker article on the contemporary art market exemplified how knotted the powerful structures that support the creation and exhibition of art are. The article described New York-based art dealer Jeffrey Deitch’s feverish lifestyle of keeping an eye on art deals, securing paintings for his clients, sponsoring bizarre performance art events and inviting artists to fancy dinners. Perhaps na’vely, I was taken aback by the dizzying intricacy and busyness (pun forgivable) of the art market. As should have been unsurprising to me, it read less like a discussion of art than a discussion of, well, a market. The author quotes Deitch as saying, “We live in an increasingly culture-based economy, and the value of art is in synch with other tangible assets now, like real estate.”
Art sales reaching into the hundreds of millions of dollars are largely private enterprises, although the article brushes on the role of dollars in public art endeavors as well.
Another campus event, happening today at UMMA/Off-site at 6 p.m., “dream.DETROIT,” seeks to pool ideas about the public role of art and, most pressingly, the policy behind that role. Like I said, it’s all too easy to imagine that art doesn’t need material support – and that, in its aesthetic bubble, it has no power to infuse business endeavors with its relevancy. But as Angelou said of arts and science, “One without the other’s not much of anything.”
Art as a practice comments on the world and elevates people’s observations of it. With such potent imagination, art should be on a two-way street with policy. Today’s UMMA event is put on by the Roosevelt Institution, a “nonprofit, nonpartisan student thinktank” according to RC junior Lainie Kokas, director of the new Urban Planning and Community Development Center in the Institution, and co-sponsored by the Detroit Project and College Democrats.
“dream.DETROIT” will be part of a series of speakers and discussion on arts in Detroit, with the goal of brainstorming innovative policy ideas. Kokas told me she expected the event – which is free and includes such varied speakers as UMS’s president and the founding director of the Cultural Alliance of Southeast Michigan – to produce “some powerful ideas, which will be noted so they can be researched later.”
At the risk of over-quoting Angelou, I offer a final statement on the inherent relationship between the arts and the workaday world: “There is an order to all things. As a poet I start with that premise.”
To all systems, some beauty.
– Colodner is a closet academic. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.