|A Breathing Lights house in Schenectady|
photo by Cindy Schultz, stolen from the Times Union
On a recent Saturday night I took a truncated bus tour of a few of the Breathing Lights
houses in Albany, offered as part of Historic Albany Foundation's annual Built
fundraiser. It was good to finally get out and see some of the illuminated vacant houses, and I plan to go again soon - on foot for the real experience - and hopefully in all three participating cities (adding Schenectady and Troy).
In case you have been living under a rock, Breathing Lights
is the local winner of a $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies, part of its national "Public Art Challenge," and comprises a collaboration among three city governments, several nonprofits, and numerous neighborhood organizations. It is the brainchild of UAlbany art professor Adam Frelin, in partnership with architect Barbara Nelson, and consists of a very elegant, broadly distributed installation of glowing panels in the windows of more than 200 vacant houses, which represent less than 10% of these three cities' unoccupied housing stock.
The installation is (obviously) very ambitious, but it is also simple, which I can't help but like. And it passes the "Is it art?" test quite easily, as the work transforms the subject matter and gives viewers a new experience of something old. All the better that this new experience comes directly out of one's own presumably familiar local raw material. (Those who know my personal photography of some of these same neighborhoods will understand this approach is not unlike my own as an artist.)
But Breathing Lights
is also so much more than an art installation. It seeks to help correct the widespread social and economic problems of vacant and deteriorating inner-city housing in our region, by raising awareness as well as energizing the grass roots of these communities. And this is where I start to get a little uncomfortable with it.
So, I'll ask a few more questions:
- Is it the job of art to make our world a better place?
- Should art be a community organizing activity?
- What would be the best use of $1 million for art in the Capital Region?
1. My answers to these questions are not off the cuff - when I was a young artist growing up in the turbulent '60s and '70s, I wished that art could make the world a better place. I thought it could open people up, make them more sensitive to their surroundings, maybe raise their conscious levels and even change their harmful behaviors.
|from Breathing Lights website|
But, as time went on, I recognized that big business and politics, and education and religion were the forces that made things go, and that art in American society was an afterthought, a decoration, an entertainment. Yes, art can make you think, it can make you feel, it can make you understand. But I decided it can't change the world, and neither should it try to.
Instead, it is the job of art to be the best it can - as art - to reach the viewer and then to let the rest of the process go as it may.
2. When I see artists out there working with kids and community members, I get thinking about time and money. Many artists and arts organizations are struggling financially, and they often turn to the relatively abundant cash cow that is education for financial relief, and to build an audience.
So a dance company, for example, does a lot of reasonably well-paid school visits throughout the year, designed to enlighten the kids as to the wonders of dance and its creative potential. Or an arts center offers classes in pottery and jewelry making and drawing and creative writing, thereby bringing in some cash, and some interested bodies, as well as providing a little income to the artists who teach those classes.
|from Breathing Lights website|
And, truth be told, I've done a fair amount of that stuff, myself. But it did nothing for me as a creative artist, and it did nothing at the time for my real work, either (which would be - you got it, making art). This is the sort of thing that nonprofits call "mission creep": You set out to cure cancer but, along the way, in order to raise money, you find yourself spending all your time organizing road races.
Arts in education should be a normal part of the curriculum. But, instead, it has become the mission creep of everyday artists and arts organizations. I say get back to your core mission and leave the community organizing to social workers and political activists.
3. If I had to decide what to do with $1 million for art in the Capital Region, I would want it to have the most impact. And I think that would be best suited to a myriad of projects, rather than one ambitious project.
What about $50,000 each for 20 artists? Or $10,000 each for 100 artists? Do you think that the 100 best Capital Region art projects that could be done (or at least carried significantly forward) by a $10,000 grant would potentially have more impact and broader appeal and be more lasting than one (admittedly very nicely done) project that is essentially about real estate?
You already know what I think.
Find out more about Breathing Lights here
. The lights are on from 6 pm to 10 pm nightly, through the end of November.
|From Breathing Lights website|