As you might have noticed from reading my columns up to this point, I can get pretty opinionated about politics and public service. Considering my day job as a local campaign hack, that’s par for the course. But there was a time when I engaged in all-night dialogues over the viability of non-linear filmmaking, the finer points of Caravaggio and the eternal debate of Beatles vs. Stones. (Beatles, of course.)
That time was called “college,” when yours truly was earning a degree in screenwriting and just picking up the bass guitar. Some 12 years removed from graduation, I’ve been through a number of micro-careers as a journalist, community organizer and communications specialist. But my original calling as an artist has persistently tugged at my soul.
So, six years ago, I found some friends and formed a band. Two years ago, I joined the board of a local theater company. And last year, I took the opportunity to fuse my passions by applying for and being appointed to the city of San Jose arts commission.
For many of my friends and neighbors in America’s 10th largest city, the arts are relegated to a second-tier status. The common reaction when I tell people about my moonlighting gig goes something like: “What does an arts commission do in a city with no culture?”
When I took to Facebook and asked friends to suggest priorities for my first term on the commission, 90 percent of respondents demanded the instant removal of the Quetzalcoatl statue in Plaza de Cesar Chavez, still a lightning rod when it comes to public art in our fair city. Not one comment came in on a worthy nonprofit that deserves public funding, or an initiative to bring more live music downtown.
Indeed, in my five short months as an arts commissioner, I haven’t engaged in a conversation that didn’t remind of one of my favorite Monty Python sketches.
It’s as though those of us in the “arts community” are speaking a different language from that of our fellow residents. This is not surprising in an age when arts education has been virtually eliminated in our public schools, nonprofit funding has fallen in the tank and presidential candidates have placed Sesame Street on the chopping block. We’re in danger of raising a generation devoid of the creativity, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that transformed Silicon Valley from an agricultural bedroom community into one of the most vibrant economies in the world.
As The Dude would say (paraphrasing Bush 41) in one of my favorite movies: “This will not stand.”
As a renaissance man who began a career in the arts and now practices the art of political math, I understand more than most the benefit of a well-rounded education. Until we put arts and culture on par with science, math and technology, we’ll be shortchanging our potential to evolve as a society while accepting an Orwellian future.
So, what does an arts commission do in a city with no culture?
We start by refuting this premise and promoting the diverse and abundant artistic riches San Jose has to offer. We nurture an understanding and appreciation of art among young people. And we remind our friends and neighbors that there’s more to it than statues and plays and galleries. Art and culture is about tapping into our collective imagination to make the impossible possible.
If you’d like to find out more about the arts commission and public art in San Jose, you can visit the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs. I’m happy to take your suggestions in the comments below. And if you’ve got a half-hour to burn, I highly recommend watching the entire Python episode: http://youtu.be/W3HekYSoppM
Peter Allen is a first-term arts commissioner and a proud native of San Jose. He currently serves as President of the Board of Directors at Teatro Visión and plays bass for Usurper Vong.