Ensuring Pittsburgh’s Cultural Heritage for the Future?

It’s Dollars and Sense ... and JOBS

Editor’s Note: Back in September 2003, Charlie Humphrey wrote an insightful opinion piece for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette identifying a crucial connection between the survival of a healthy, vibrant local arts scene and the need for job growth in the region. Five years later, we asked him to re-examine his conclusions and update his commentary for Pittsburgh magazine’s “Arts Issue.”

My thesis then, and now, is that the arts and cultural community in Pittsburgh will suffer significantly if we do not focus our attention on job growth in the region. Arts administrators (myself included) have been known for whining over the fact that we don’t get the resources we think we deserve. Witness the startling revelation made by Pittsburgh Today that more people in the region attended arts events in 2002 than sports events. With that said, I would still argue that significant resources, and significant effort, need to be applied to non-arts-related industries if the arts are going to survive in the long run.

For the past year [2008], the arts community has been hard hit by the downward shift in the economy. Nothing in this scary mess is unrelated. As the city and country go, so too will go the arts.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh remains a better place than places like upstate New York largely because it started off as a better place, with resources and assets that far exceeded those in towns like Buffalo, Syracuse or Rochester, even in their salad days. But these assets will not remain in their present form forever. As a member of the so-called cultural community, I find it painfully clear that we have become trust-fund babies, bestowed with riches and advantages unlike any other city in America. And unless we work now to build opportunities like those that existed in Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century, we will squander this legacy of privilege.

We have been cruising on the strength of the foundation community and the profound vision of its creators. Extraordinary wealth was created here, greater than any seen before in the free world. Much of it stayed in the form of trusts and family legacies. And now, it is only through the contemporary vision of its current leaders that we have not become a cultural wasteland. By propping up the cultural community, the Heinz, Mellon, McCune, Hillman, Pittsburgh and other foundations, and more recently the Allegheny Regional Asset District, have made this city inhabitable. More than inhabitable. They have sustained its proud legacy of culture. I, like many others, am deeply grateful.

But here’s the punch line, which will surely alienate me from family and friends: Civic resources should be primarily directed toward those things that will allow us to establish new industries, which can carry the banner forward in this still-new century.

Art and culture are not really an industry, as much as we like to claim they are. The arts business is instead a byproduct of successful industries, made possible by those with a clear sense of responsibility to community, and the critical elements that distinguish one community from another. Sure, the arts create jobs, and they contribute to the local economy in ways both measurable and immeasurable. But art is not a core industrial value that will save us from ourselves.

Note, also, the distinction between the arts business and art itself. Where art flourishes, so too does the arts business. And where art flourishes, so too does community development. But we can’t rehabilitate an eroded economic infrastructure from the arts. The arts will thrive in the long run as a business when the rest of the region flourishes economically.

This is a simple cause-and-effect argument. You don’t fix a flat tire by tuning the engine. Much of the arts-and-economy case is predicated on little more than butter-or-guns logic. When most arts organizations generate half or less of their budgets from earned sources, that means that contributed income does a significant portion of the heavy lifting. It’s money that could be spent though any number of conduits.

Let me say again: I believe that this has been money well spent. Keep spending it. But remember that a significant amount of arts spending is actually philanthropic spending, in one form or another.

The arts will not be the answer to our region’s economic or social problems. Neither will retail development. The Waterfront in Homestead, as successful as it is, simply trades money around that is already here. And as with sports teams, a great deal of that retail money ends up somewhere else. Just ask the business owners on Forbes and Murray avenues what they think. Flourishing retail, like the arts, should be the result of a healthy economy, not the engine that drives it.

This is heresy in the view of many of my colleagues, who somehow want to argue that the arts are more important than food and water. Art will happen, no matter what the economic circumstances. It won’t necessarily flourish, and it won’t be nearly so evident, but human nature is such that art will emerge no matter what happens.

Even in Syracuse. Look, we’re way ahead of Syracuse. But if young people don’t want to live here because they can’t find a job, who’s going to take advantage of what little art gets created?

I have argued, in the Post-Gazette and elsewhere, that a healthy democracy and a healthy arts community are inextricably related. And I continue to believe that government has a specific responsibility to support the arts in a major way.

But in the triage of priorities, the vast majority of arts support will come from private sources. It’s been true since the Medicis in Italy, and it is true now. If the private sector stumbles, the arts will falter.

The point here is that we in the arts community need to take bold stands for issues and initiatives that do not directly benefit our field. In fact, we should be spending a significant percentage of our time helping to find innovative ways to strengthen the economic base of the region.

That means we need to be vigilant around issues like slot machines (bad idea), taxes other than the now-defunct amusement tax (good idea) and public transportation (any idea?). It may very well mean that we have to tighten our belts for a few years, operate smaller or postpone capital projects, and make room for projects that will directly encourage regional economic growth. It may mean asking for less now so that we may be in a position to ask for more later.

We have become accustomed to our own unwavering sense of entitlement, an attitude that exists in the elite halls of art as well as in the provincial fire halls of labor. Like so many children living on a steady allowance from sources of vague paternity, we have failed to take responsibility for the family jewels. And we cannot will ourselves to success through regional branding, a kind of wishful thinking that suggests that if we all drink the same Kool-Aid, we will become what we think we should be.

Am I suggesting that we not fund the arts? Of course not. Am I suggesting that the arts, as a field, recognize where their long-term support will come from? Yep.

If that means less for the arts now so that we can re-establish Pittsburgh as an economic powerhouse for the next several generations, then I say: hell, yes.

The arts will always exist and, frankly, must exist, through patronage. As this or that trendy issue forces arts administrators to contort themselves into a variety of things they are not, like economic-development powerhouses or social engineers, the ideal of art for art’s sake is diluted to something far less significant.

We live on the dole, and it shall always be thus. As an arts community, we need to take strong positions on issues that have little or no direct impact to our own bottom lines, for the future sake of our own bottom lines, and in the name of great art.

Charlie Humphrey is executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Pittsburgh Glass Center. He has worked in the arts since the late-1970s, when he interned at WQED-FM for two summers. In addition to serving on various funding panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, he is on the boards of Quantum Theatre, Squonk Opera, The New Hazlett Theater and The Andy Warhol Museum.

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