The Trouble with Art

By Ronald R. Thomas

ArtsFund Keynote Address
November 18, 1005

I begin with a quotation from the classical poet, Horace, who himself alluded to the Greek physician Hippocrates with this Latin phrase: Ars longa, vita brevis. Art is everlasting, life is fleeting. Our art, that is to say, outlives us. It is what is left when we are gone. But I should start again. I should have begun with my title: “The Trouble with Art.” Now this may not seem like a very gracious subject for a talk on a day dedicated to celebrating the arts in Pierce County, this occasion for honoring those remarkable advocates for the arts, Bill and Bobbie Street; this moment when we recognize my colleague, Professor Christophe Chagnard, who so brilliantly conducts our own University of Puget Sound Orchestra as well as the Northwest Sinfonietta and the Lake Union Civic Orchestra, and who teaches conducting in our School of Music at UPS so stylishly and effectively. I appreciate the art—visual, musical, and dramatic—the three of you have created and brought to us all. And I apologize, especially to you, for my subject today.

But art is trouble, and there is Trouble with Art. And we have got trouble. Do you all feel as if you have suddenly found yourselves in a scene from The Music Man? Well, I am here to tell you we’ve got trouble. Right here. Now, over the last several weeks, we in Tacoma have been hearing a different message about the arts. We have been blessed, one might even say beset, by a series of prophetic voices that have reminded us of the importance of the arts and the indispensable value of fostering creativity for the economic health of our community. Richard Florida spoke to us in a compelling way about the creative class and the fertile economy it engenders. This creative class, Florida argues passionately, will be the economic engine of the next generation: it is the great American alchemy in the new global economy, produced by this class of people in the workforce—energetic twenty- and thirty-somethings who are drawn to climates of innovation and change, to the presence of high tech industries, and to an environment friendly to ethnic, cultural, and artistic diversity. This group seems to act almost as a kind of magic potion that will determine which cities will thrive and grow and develop into the next millennium, and which will not.

Consistently, he shows, the most successful of these cities invest heavily in the arts and recognize their importance in drawing and retaining a creative class. Florida argues that the destiny of the American economy, and of American cities, will rest in the work of a so-called creative class that advances American innovation, invention, and expression. These virtues are the hallmarks of liberty and, I might say as a college president, they are the direct offspring of an immersion in the liberal arts, which I like to call the arts of freedom. The character of mind the liberal and liberating arts engender is one of innovation, self-expression, one that calls into being ideas and opportunities that are as yet unimagined. These are the liberal arts we cultivate in a college like Puget Sound—the liberating arts, the arts of freedom. So I agree with Florida wholeheartedly. But Professor Florida left something out of his lecture: he didn’t address my subject today. He didn’t talk about the Trouble with Art.

Ben Cameron came to town a week or so later and spoke to us with zeal at the Community Foundation luncheon about the critical strategic importance of nonprofits and of the arts in particular to the well-being of a community, about how the arts create the soul of a community and fuel its economy at the same time, about how a dollar spent on a ticket for say, a museum or a concert, infuses at least ten-fold more dollars into the economy. Ben Cameron reminded us that we need to mount an “arts conspiracy,” in the literal sense of the word “to con-spire”—the act of breathing together with one breath, building a sustainable arts community, one that endures. But you will note that Ben Cameron didn’t mention the Trouble with Art either.

Florida and Cameron told us about the value that the arts have for us. The TNT embraced that message and gave it great coverage. The Chamber embraced it. And most of us in this room embrace this message. This is the city, after all, that sparked its nationally recognized renaissance with the flame of the arts:

  • It is built upon the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art, that imposing presence that forms a keystone in the recovery of our waterfront, a place where art is made as well as displayed, a place inspired in part by Tacoma’s son Dale Chihuly, a creative class unto himself (and a son of the University of Puget Sound where he attended college). We appreciate, too, how Josie Callan’s leadership helped to make the dream of the Glass Museum a reality in these last five years.
  • Our renaissance is built on the Washington State History Museum, under the able leadership of David Nicandri, the first of the triad of new museums on our waterfront, an institution that so dramatically exhibits the stories and artifacts and representations of our past, the “soul and spirit of Washington” on display; and they are on display in a building that is itself a work of art, designed by world class architects, Moore/Andersson Architects.
  • And so is the new Tacoma Art Museum, created by Antoine Predock, upon whose dramatic building we have also built our renaissance, a daring and elegant intervention into our cityscape that brings fantastic exhibitions to the city and houses an impressive collection of its own in art including works by Cassatt, Corot, Chihuly, Degas, Hopper, Lawrence, Renoir Rauschenberg, and Sargent to name a few. We are fortunate to have Stephanie Stebich now at the helm of this great organization, which has a special place in my heart, since it found its inspiration among our faculty at the University of Puget Sound and had its first home in the art department at UPS.
  • Our renaissance is also built upon the Broadway Center and the broad array of performing arts available to us from, among others, the amazing Northwest Sinfonietta, the Tacoma Philharmonic and Symphony Orchestra, Tacoma Actors Guild, the Opera, the Concert Band, the Ballet. Several of these organizations, too, got their start from faculty at UPS, and count as their original homes our School of Music and our theater department.
  • And it is fitting that our renaissance should also have been built upon our sister institution, the University of Washington, Tacoma, now expanding into another four-year campus for this city that is home to so many great colleges and universities, public and private.

We are all co-conspirators in the arts of freedom, dedicated to the attraction and creation of a creative class of young people who can become that creative class Richard Florida speaks about. And all this is the just the beginning. There are other arts institutions among us, and a proposed LeMay Car Museum on the horizon to celebrate the great creativity of the American spirit in design and technology expressed in the American automobile. We have this new facility we are enjoying today, which would never have been built were it not for these arts organizations. Nor would our new Marriott Hotel be here, or Rainier Pacific Bank, or the Sea Grill, or Indochine, or the Pacific Grill, or the UW bookstore. These are the things that make Tacoma a most livable city. This is the house that we have built.

We Tacomans are, are we not, an emerging creative class, poster children for an urban renaissance based on the arts and the creative class it will engender?

So what is left for me to say to this group today about the arts? I am here to talk about the trouble the arts bring. In dreams begin responsibilities, the poet has said. And in our dreams of the arts and in the arts of our dreams, here begin our responsibilities. It is not where they end. Art is a responsibility, not a magic potion to solve our problems. The arts are magical, I want to say today, but they are not magic. Creativity is the great fuel for our economy rather than a magic potion. And like any fuel, its costs are rising, and we must pay them. If this is the house we have built and in which we live, then we must be ready to pay the mortgage. Will we support the organizations we have helped to build, the arts they draw, the programs they sponsor, the creative class they will attract? What will we do with all the trouble we have made in creating our amazing arts organizations, in building this impressive palace of arts?

Ars longa, vita brevis. Life is fleeting, but art endures. Let me pause for a moment to tell a story about another city and another renaissance, one that truly has endured. Of course, when we think of the word renaissance, we think first of the great outpouring of artistic genius that ended the middle ages in Europe. The causes for that unprecedented flowering of human creative genius in painting, literature, sculpture, drawing, philosophy, science, and architecture were many, of course, and cannot be oversimplified. But one thing is certain: without civic leaders who acted as patrons, who recognized the intrinsic value of art to cultural prosperity, who made art a first priority, and who took on the burden of its costs, there would have been nothing we call the renaissance.

Think of the case of Michelangelo, one of a handful of names we identify with the Italian renaissance. If there had been no great banker and political leader named Lorenzo de Medici to bring the promising young stonecutter to be part of the creative class of individuals he gathered under his roof in Florence, there would have been no “genius” we call Michelangelo. Because the Florentine civic leader brought Michelangelo there and supported him with the other 300 scholars and artists he gathered together, Michelangelo was exposed to the world of learning and culture for which the Renaissance, and the Medici in particular, are still famous. There Michelangelo met his mentors in sculpture and painting, and he came into contact with the works of the great thinkers of the classical world that informed his thinking and sharpened his intellect and inspired the images he imagined and made. It was there he was exposed to the works of Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, and Virgil, Seneca, Cicero, Juvenal, Plautus, and Horace. And it was there, among that creative class, that Michelangelo likely read the great contemporary Italian writers as well, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio.

Equally as importantly, he met the rising and influential members of the Medici family who would later become his popes and his patrons. They would in turn later call him to Rome where he would create timeless masterpieces from the Pieta to St Peter’s Basilica itself, that magnificent structure at the very center of Rome and, one can argue, at the center of Christendom itself. Because of those years in Florence, Michelangelo would conceive and execute perhaps our civilization’s greatest masterpiece: the painting of the Sistine Chapel; and it would lead him back to Florence to carve the monumental sculpture of David about to slay Goliath, and the great prisoners emerging out of stone, and his ultimate design of the brilliant Medici chapel and tombs. This art has endured.

Were there no Lorenzo de Medici, whom we now call Lorenzo the Magnificent, no civic leader who knew the value and the responsibility of great art and invested in the gathering and nurturing of a creative class, then we would have none of those magnificent masterpieces of painting, sculpture and architecture we owe to this one masterful hand. No Michelangelo. No Florence or Rome as we know them.

Ars longa. Vita brevis. Civic leaders like the Medicis saw to it that after they were gone, their cities would be home to a creative class, and would possess forever as monuments to human thought and expression the great treasures that would endure long beyond the men who made them. Those civic leaders, as much as Michelangelo or Leonardo or Raphael, those bankers and merchants and politicians, touched not only the lives and economies of Florence and Rome, but of all of us here these millennia later who have been moved by these works, and the millions in between. The center of power in the world would shift to the North and to the West and to then to the East and the Far East. Economic cycles would rise and fall, and the great empires of the world would come and go. But Florence and Rome and Venice remain great cities today because of their art and their legacy of commitment to the arts. Nine million visitors come to Florence every year alone, and they come for the art. And the pasta of course. But they come today because those civic leaders half a millennium ago knew the responsibility in their dreams. They knew the trouble with art: that even if it endures, it does not sustain itself.

We in Tacoma have built great art and cultural organizations that have made it possible for us to be named a most livable city in the nation. Perhaps that was our destiny all along. But now, what will we do with that honor and with the arts organizations that helped earn it? Their destiny is now tied to ours, and ours to theirs. Who will be our patrons? Who will sustain our creative class? Who will be sure that our universities and colleges thrive and continue to spawn arts organizations and high-tech start-ups and restaurants and nightclubs and galleries and community theaters? Will we recognize that our arts and cultural organizations provide a valuable service to our community? Will we realize that, as a good police or fire department protects its citizens from the dangers of crime and conflagration, so does a great museum or great university protect a city from ignorance and brutishness and prejudice? Will we admit that as safe streets and good schools draw families to come to live in our city, so do good libraries and symphonies and theaters and poets develop informed citizens with sympathetic imaginations who are more likely to be free from racism and hatred and parochialism as well as to be innovative, creative, and inventive?

How much is all that worth to us? What will be our public policy on the arts and letters? Will we impose new taxes upon them, as some have proposed? Will we consider them a drain on our resources? Or will we support them, and make it possible for our arts and educational organizations to survive and thrive and thereby enable our own survival as a city of destiny? Character is destiny, Heraclitus, said. Do we in Tacoma have enough character to truly be a city of destiny?

But Renaissance Florence may be too grand an analogy for us in Tacoma. Well, it is only if we imagine it to be so. But let me tell you one more story about another set of civic leaders and another renaissance not so distant in time and space from us. A group of businessmen got together in this city in the 1880s, soon after Tacoma was incorporated and before Washington was a state in the union, before the Northern Pacific railroad linked the east and west coasts of the continent. Those citizens had an idea: they wanted to have a great university in this region and they wanted it to be in this city; it would be a center of liberal learning and culture every bit as great as those in Chicago and Boston and New York, they said. One of these citizens was a Methodist bishop, another a former president of Northwestern University. Others were shopkeepers and lumbermen and railroad people and candy makers. And because of their collective will and their donations of land and cash, they made sure that the new university, called Puget Sound University, would not be located in Port Townsend, as was originally planned. They outbid that city for the privilege of making Tacoma Puget Sound’s home. They did the same thing a few years later when Olympia sought to draw the struggling University there, and then again during hard times at the turn of the century when plans were considered to move the campus to Oregon and merge it with the University of Portland.

Each time, a Medici of Tacoma appeared, someone like James Hill, the president of the Great Northern Railroad who made a $50,000 challenge grant in 1911 that generated $200,000 from other citizens, just when the University needed it. In 1920, when UPS had outlived its quarters on 6th and Sprague, citizens responded to another challenge to the university: the Puget Sound Conference of the Methodist Church offered the University of Puget Sound $500,000 if we Tacomans would raise a matching $500,000 to build a new campus in the north end of Tacoma, on the site we now occupy. It was our first capital campaign—the so-called million-dollar campaign advanced by Dr. Todd.

It worked, and we stayed, and the whole city joined with students and faculty and staff in a triumphal march from the old campus to our new digs not much more than a year later—the marshy rise of huckleberry bushes that is now our impressive campus location at 15th and Warner—to celebrate the founding of the first building on that new campus on an August morning in 1924; and we could do it thanks to a gift from another Medici, one Mrs. Frank Tobey Jones, the wife of a Tacoma lumberman and Civil War veteran who was a generous friend to the college, and thanks to another gift by Harry Brown, the inventor of Almond Roca and the Mountain Bar for Brown & Haley. Without these leaders, there would be no University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. There would have been no UPS art faculty to start the Tacoma Art Museum, no theater graduates and faculty to start the Tacoma Actor’s Guild, no music faculty to conduct the Northwest Sinfonietta, the Tacoma Symphony, the Tacoma Concert Band. Maybe no Dale Chihuly. No Medici, no Michelangelo.

A similar story can be told about UWT coming to Tacoma, of course, about the new TAM building, about the Museum of Glass. Each time there was a Medici with a vision, a Bill and Bobbie Street or a George Russell or an Annette Weyerhaeuser or a Herb Simon or a Gary Milgard or a Harold LeMay. But it also took quiet citizens like Mrs. Jones with quiet gifts, which, together with grander gifts, made great things happen. Without leaders at every level who see the value of a vibrant intellectual and creative community, we would have none of this. We would not have the trouble of being one of the most livable cities in America, I can assure you, and the destiny of this city would not have been an enviable one.

Now, what will we do with these dreams that have become our responsibilities? “All art is concerned with coming into being, Aristotle said. “For art is concerned neither with things that are, or come into being by necessity, nor with things that do so in accordance with nature.” Art is not inevitable, and it is not even natural; but it is essential. It is about the future. And it is a whole lot of trouble because it is about the painful process of birth, of coming into being—about our coming into being. How will we address the responsibility we have taken on in the arts we have brought into being and those that are to come? How will we sustain these assets that enable us to come into our full being as they stimulate our economy?

That’s the trouble with art. In dreams begin responsibilities. I am here to tell you about the trouble with art, and the troubles the arts can bring. Ars longa, vita brevis. Art is everlasting, life is fleeting. But art only lasts if we sustain it. All of us must be in the business of the arts: the liberal arts, I would emphasize, which I call the arts of freedom because they challenge the status quo, they resist prejudice, they explore and trespass boundaries of knowledge, they cultivate conversation, dialogue, exchange and expression. They are a lot of trouble, in other words. And they are just the kind of trouble we need if we are to make this city what it can be. They are not just ways of luring a creative class. They are that. But they are also our greatest defense against the armies of ignorance and darkness that threaten us.

The arts are the character of our destiny. And they are worth all the trouble they bring. This is the trouble without which we cannot live. Let’s make sure we continue to make all the trouble we can.