Saturday, May 19, 2012

Everyone In the Circle Please Shift One Seat to the Right

Here following is my open letter to government officials. It is intended primarily for my local town council members, but extends far beyond:

Dear Council Members,

I am writing to you as member and Catalyzer of the Ashland Arts Alliance, a newly formed creative "industry cluster" focused on Ashland, Virginia. The Ashland Arts Alliance is one month old, and boasts 64 members, with membership growing almost daily. The Alliance includes a core of professional visual and performing artists and craftsmen, who have forged a career in the "creative arts". It also consists of novices, hobbyists, and students.

The three primary goals of the Alliance are collaboration, referral, and solidarity. These goals have been and will be achieved through rapid communication channels, open-mindedness, inclusivity, and lateral empowerment. In the thirty days since the Alliance has gone "live", we have had 11 advertised "meetups", with 7 more announced.

One of the strengths of the dedicated "artist", for lack of a better term, is the habit of seeing both potentiality and actuality in a fresh light. This is certainly not to denigrate the imagination and creativity of every individual, as indeed I believe we are all artists by birthright. Rather, I use the word "habit" intentionally, for as artists, particularly professional artists, many of us must use all our creative energies on a daily basis to create a microcosm around us that allows us to thrive financially and spiritually with the world with which we are presented. Sometimes this means re-shaping the world around us. Sometimes this means simply viewing that world in a new light. In this spirit, I applaud your visionary action in creating an Arts and Culture District overlay in Ashland.

I bring your attention to the Comprehensive Plan adopted by the town council on December 6th, 2011, particularly to policy CD.13 titled "Public Art". As a refresher and for the education of the public, the policy reads:

The use of public art as a landmark enhances the visibility of arts and culture in the environment. As part of Creativity and Arts in Downtown and England Street, this area can serve as an on-going outdoor art exhibition using sculpture in open spaces. Public art should be displayed throughout the town, at places such as Town Hall, the Ashland Town Center, local parks, and on busy downtown streets such as England Street and South Railroad Avenue.

By locating art in significant areas throughout Downtown, a positive visual message is conveyed that Ashland is a town that supports the arts and its local artists. The Town should encourage Ashland Main Street to determine appropriate locations, a maintenance routine, and develop a request for proposal to solicit art for display. An additional method of highlighting creativity and arts in Downtown and on England Street is to feature art in businesses throughout town. This may be the artwork of local artists or area students. To enhance the Town’s appearance, art can also be displayed in vacant storefronts throughout Downtown. These connections and arrangements for the display of artwork in businesses should be made by Ashland Main Street.

The idea of bringing more public art to Ashland is a sound and inspiring one. Alas, funding for such projects in the current economy seems to be a Herculean, if not Sisyphusian task. While I have faith in the long term achievement of such a goal, I can't help but wonder what might be done to accelerate a public art endeavor.

As I have the habit of holding several thoughts in my head simultaneously, (a talent which I have found to prove quite useful time and time again), I will also bring to your attention the town ordinance on signage, Article XX Sec. 21-207.1, General Provisions (which is too lengthy to repeat here), and point out that I have heard frequent laments from business owners who think that the sign ordinance is too restrictive.

I believe that an obstacle that serves both to frustrate the business owner as well as impede progress in procuring public art for the the town of Ashland is the limited definitions we have come as a society to apply to "art". In a more quiet time in our cultural past, before the advent of electricity, signs had a tendency to be works of sculptural marvel. Illumination and industrial development have resulted in a trend for signs to escalate into ocular insults... either too boring to attract attention to a business, or too gaudy to be tolerable to a populace sensitive to aesthetics.

One possible solution to both goals... namely the acquisition of public art and a more visible promotion for business, is to consider "signage" as "art". That is, consider proposals for either two dimensional or three dimensional visual displays for each business that do not conform to existing sign ordinances, yet can help to promote the business in a creative and appealing way.

One such approach I have seen was in Martinsburg, WV, where large "artists pallets", about 4 feet wide and supported in a steel stand, were placed on the sidewalk before each business in the downtown area. These "pallets" were painted with murals by local artists. The images tied into the nature of the business before which they stood. An eastern dragon before a chinese restaurant, a family on vacation before a travel agency, and similar ideas. If the art can be designed in such a way as to promote a business, the business owner would be more likely to be willing to pay for their own "sign-as-art".

To initiate this endeavor, I would suggest facilitating a meeting which includes visual artists, business owners, and town representatives. Various ideas for two dimensional and three dimensional possibilities can be discussed, including size, materials, and possible locations for placing such creations. I believe part of the success of such a project will require refraining from creating an actual ordinance for such pieces, but rather approach each one as one does any piece of art... individually.

I have adopted a motto of late that goes to my vision of believing in mutually beneficial solutions to seemingly unrelated problems; "Everyone in the circle please shift one seat to the right". The idea is that the solutions to the problems are already in existence, and simply by changing our perspective or our individual function within the system, those solutions can become self evident.

I thank you for your time. Sincerely,

Arthur Brill

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