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Monday, November 7, 2016

Breathing Lights

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.

photo: hyers+mebane
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:

  1. Is it the job of art to make our world a better place?
  2. Should art be a community organizing activity?
  3. 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


Andrzej Pilarczyk said...

A well written and thought out article by David Brickman, an insightful veteran of the Capital District's art community. I didn't have quite the same thoughts as David as I participated in the first leg of the Breathing Lights project in Troy. But, there in North Troy it was co-presented with the wonderful people at The Sanctuary of Independent Media and community members. There were walking tours every 45 minutes or so and they were lead by Breathing Lights 'ambassadors' who either lived in the community or were raised in the community. I went on two of these walking tours with two different sets of 'ambassadors' and documented what I saw with a camera for the organization. In this context of a hands-on presentation, not a bus tour, I was deeply affected through the knowledge gathered that day from seeing and hearing about what I saw. With full disclosure here, David documented Albany's South End and Arbor Hill with his camera for almost two decades and self-published a book on these neighborhoods which were filled with abandoned houses and a decaying landscape. However, David could always find beauty and hope in his visual documentation. I think Breathing Lights is bringing that same hope to those who are open to learning, seeing and feeling about these communities and might want to help. If that 'help' is in the name of art, I welcome it enthusiastically!

Robert Millis said...

His point is well-taken: is this project primarily an "art" initiative or a "fix to a sociological /economic / community development / something-other-that-art problem" initiative?

I don't know what the mission and funding guidelines are for the donor mentioned here. They might be suitable all of those purposes listed above.

But if not -- and if the endowment is meant for "art", period, then I think the slope has become iced.

Anonymous said...

I'm not addressing Breathing Lights' effectiveness as a "community organizing activity," but just offering some information: I believe that The Bloomberg Philanthropies grant that's paying for the project came from one of its own programs, called "Transforming Urban Spaces with Dynamic Public Art." There wasn't an existing pot of $1,000,000 that someone in our region decided to spend on this project (rather than distribute in smaller amounts to more artists). If not for this project, that $1,000,000 wouldn't have existed for this region; the project brought the money here. In a way, the project created the funding, rather than the other way around. As with most grants from private foundations, the funders get to set the criteria and allocate the support as they see fit, hopefully in a way that fulfills those criteria.

david brickman said...

Joel is right - this magical million came to the region because the Breathing Lights project won the Bloomberg grant (as stated in my original post). But it got me thinking about how much impact a million bucks for art could have in our region if it weren't tied to a single project that fulfills criteria that are not altogether about art. It also gets me thinking about the overall competitive economic system we currently exist with, in which big winners are emphasized, leaving most of the rest of us as some kind of loser. It is not a coincidence that the money funding this project derives from a vast business empire steeped in capitalist values. While I've always believed it's better to try to spread the wealth around, the art world increasingly mirrors the business world in creating a few huge winners and disregarding the many, many also-rans. One more thing - Andrzej mentioned my past photography project on the neighborhood; it's worth noting that it was partially supported in 1998 by a $2,500 Community Connections grant that was distributed from NYSCA through the regional arts council, a program that still exists. Let's see, if I divide $1,000,000 by $2,500, I get ... a whole lot of artists winning grants to do projects that connect to the community.