WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Endangered Creativity

By on October 4, 2016

As more of the creative class leaves, the need to elevate local art is increasingly important.

Caspar David Friedrich depicts standing on the precipice in ‘Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog,’ 1918.

Caspar David Friedrich depicts standing on the precipice in ‘Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog,’ 1918.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Sitting in town chambers last Friday morning during Mayor Sara Flitner’s gathering of local creatives, I raised my hand tentatively.

Despite the good intentions of the meeting, pitched as an effort to put more public art in public spaces, the outcome was frustrating. The conversation teetered between a dialogue about turning town hall into an art gallery, to a disagreement about how best to support our creative community. I was vocal about my stance: Visual art is not the only type of art produced here. The room was filled with a spectrum of artists. An antiques restorer. A wildlife painter. A writer. A fashion designer.

When it was challenged, the art gallery idea was spun to be a stepping stone towards a more tenacious artistic community. I left unimpressed. Exiting town hall, I got a coffee and immediately went to work on this week’s column.

We’re standing on the brink of change. We’ve ended up here together, standing on the same precipice, overlooking the same ocean of possibility. The crashing waves of outside influence carving away at our local foundation, eroding the cliffs we stand upon, and at any moment we can lose our footing (or our housing), and be forced to step backwards, or tumble forward into the abyss. I have no intention of falling or stepping back. And I have no intention of watching others fall.

Western communities were founded by pioneers, people whose worldviews were crafted with an ethos of opportunity, a vast grassy plain, an empty canvass. It was here in the West where these visions were cultivated and celebrated. The children that followed developed those ideas further and eventually, as the years passed, and the snow fell, melted, and fell again, Western Americana established its own creative voice.

We became locals. Our art, our perspectives were local.

These pioneers weren’t raising money to hire wagons delivering performers of eastern perspectives to showcase in saloons or at fancy dress balls. They celebrated what they had, cultivated their citizens, challenged them, forced their artists to come up with new material and new visions.

As a local artist in 21st century Jackson Hole, I can say making a name for oneself is an uphill battle. I’m sure we’ve all lost count on how many projects we could have cultivated here, if we only had access to resources and funding to make them possible. The constant fight for gallery space, venues, art materials, etc. only exacerbates the issue, and despite Jackson being touted as having a vibrant arts scene, local artists receive little to zero financial support as individual entities. Without an artistic endowment from the town or county, individuals who are not pairing up with a nonprofit must reach out on the state or national level to find funding for projects. Otherwise, any fundraising is done on a grassroots level, seeking out donors and asking friends to pitch in a couple (or a hundred) bucks.

You would think it would be easier here, what with all the economic and artistic wealth in the community. Those of us who are visual artists have an easier time with this escapade, as the product is often tangible and easily acquired through a single transaction. But what about the filmmakers, the poets, the musicians? The art produced by an actress, dancer, or sound designer cannot be hung up on the walls of a gallery or living room, so we can develop the illusion that visual art is the most prevalent form of art in our community.

In our town, performing artists are overshadowed by a plethora of photography, painting and sculpture galleries. Our local theatre venues are often inaccessible due to high rental rates and packed calendars. Writers and performing artists are overlooked in our annual Fall Arts Festival, save for the occasional guitarist performing in the corner of an art opening.

If you think this revelation sounds as though there is a group of local artists in town stomping around like toddlers who got their toy taken away, you’re absolutely right. Our community and our local government should be doing more to help cultivate our local artistic perspectives. Our local nonprofits should consider putting more of their fundraising dollars into supporting artists of every age, and helping them drive their creative visions. Artistic nonprofits who raise local money should be spending less on out-of-town talent, and more on scholarships, fellowships, and individual grants on the residents who want to fuel our town’s vibrancy. Venues should find ways to offset rental costs and give breaks to locals, not just nonprofit entities. Art galleries should curate and champion local artists with different perspectives, encouraging them to create challenging, transformative work.

If our housing crisis deepens, and more locals leave the valley, we will no longer have an artistic community to celebrate. Our creative voice will be lost. All that will remain are the high-profile visual artists and their brands. And that’s on par with getting rid of farmers markets to make room for a Whole Foods.

Local artists of all genres are facing the winds with their teeth clenched, refusing to step back, refusing to give up. If Jackson wants to retain its vibrant artistic culture and small-town sensibilities, its citizens need to unite and start demanding we do more to support local art. Each of us must take up an instrument in this orchestra, and we have to play wildly and loudly, and find the artistic harmony that our home so desperately needs. PJH

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