In Defense of the Arts

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:

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.


  1. Thank you for this. I was born and raised in San Jose, ended up in High-Tech (go figure), but I am inspired by music, art, creativity, etc. I cannot imagine life without artistry. In my humble opinion, a greater awareness of the arts is very important in our growth as individuals, and as a community. We have some great talents in San Jose—and I look forward to seeing them all shine.

    Warmest regards

  2. I find it laughable that a lack of fine arts education leads to “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.”

    Funny I don’t think that an arts education spurred the development of Silicon Valley and its varied enterprises. Silicon Valley was created by engineers, programmers and people with vision. Not Picasso. Product design that engages the consumer is a form of art, but the presence of public artwork or free concerts probably won’t be the inspiration for the next mobile device. 

    Public funded art has a horrible track record. The Quetzalcoatl statue is the ultimate example of such foolishness. The Thomas Fallon statute was banished to a warehouse for being politically incorrect and later freed. It now resides in a gore point at Julian and St. James. The Arts Commission is just another example of tyranny of the minority as it forces down the throats of the public art it considers important to the uneducated and unwashed masses. Idiotic codes that force public buildings to spend a defined percentage of their construction cost on public art is stupid. The mothballed Police Substation was supposed to spend nearly 1 million on public art. Another waste of taxpayer dollars.

    If you want to have art displayed to the public, then let it be paid for by donors or patrons. After a period of time the art can be removed and sent back to the donor or artist. This way we can save taxpayers money and avoid idiotic occurrences like the Quetzalcoatl statue.

  3. The arts and cultural centers were located in downtown San Jose, for the most part. About 20 or so years ago, the downtown area, with the City of San Jose’s backing, established an “entertainment area” that flooded downtown with out of control bars. This chased the very people out of downtown who patronize arts and cultural events. The perception was, and still is, that downtown San Jose is not a safe place, and not a safe place to bring your family. I would never bring my family to Christmas in the Park, knowing it is a popular haven for gangs. Until that perception changes, downtown San Jose will be devoid of the family friendly atmosphere necessary to foster art and cultural events, and they will continue to flock to SF for these things, as I and my friends do. The constant violence and blatant gang, drug, and prostitution activity in downtown San Jose will keep it a ghost town, until this is cleaned up. It is a shame because downtown San Jose has some beautiful things, but our city leaders have turned a blind eye to the blight in downtown. It is too bad that Mayor Reed and the city council gave 25 million dollars worth of land to the A’s owner, who is a multi millionaire and buddy of Reeds, to build a baseball stadium for a team that will never come here, instead of investing that 25 million into cleaning up downtown and funding the arts. If you want arts and cultural events to succeed in San Jose, families first need to feel they will be safe and not taking their lives into their own hands by visiting downtown San Jose. I think this mayor and city council are living in ivory towers and too obstinate to see this though.

  4. Quetzalcoatle and the Fallon statue, were not about public art, rather they were about hugh political egos. RDA and the city council put up front a deposit of 75% of the half million dollars for the plastic snake.
    Total cost of the snake maybe $50,000, that would include the 2000 lbs cement base.
    So where did the money go. Who ran to the bank, with $375,000.Why did the city pay such a large deposit, for something that did not even resemble what was quoted originally in bronze. 
      Ever wonder why McEnery, went over seas to do the Fallon, especially, since there were, many art foundries capable of producing this piece here in California.
      McEnery, never disclosed who the second guy was in the rear.  Who paid for the sculpting, casting, transporting to the USA, and the subcequent storage, and installation.Perhaps some one out there can enlighten us on the city’s involment with the costs of both the snake and the Fallon horses.
    My last words, are, place the Horses in front of Gonzo’s Bird cage, and the snake in the court yard at the MHPG.
    Give US our central park back.

      The Village Black Smith

  5. The expressions of negativity and corruption here sliced through the spirit of my initial comment like a sharp arrow. Sad.

    I am tough and honest enough to “get it”… Things need to change. However, I would appreciate some references to information that substantiates some of these assertions for my own educational purposes.

    Hot air will not help anyone—it will just perpetuate bad experiences and promote more of the same. Armed with facts, I will try to help promote positive changes. Critical thinking followed by inaction is useless.

    Please try to avoid falling into a pessimistic black hole from which you may never return. We are all in this together.

  6. It’s regrettable but true that the populace of San Jose is unusually uninterested in the arts. So is it government’s job to promote the arts anyway? Aren’t such efforts self serving on the part of those promoting them and, once established, are not such programs just another special interest serving not the public at large but the few insiders who are subsidized to indulge their desire to perform and to create?
    One example is the now defunct San Jose Symphony, a taxpayer subsidized organization which could not have stood on it’s own. It didn’t exist to benefit the people of San Jose. It’s primary function was as some sort of highbrow jobs program for spoiled, unionized musicians and incompetent managers who ultimately thought so highly of themselves they stiffed taxpayers and season ticket holders alike and left them holding the bag.
    So be very leery of public art. Be honest with yourselves enthusiasts. Ask yourself, “who’s this project REALLY for?”

    Having said that, how about some sort of photography exhibit, even an online one, focusing on scenes of beauty in and around San Jose. People could submit photos. Maybe something along the lines of APOD (astronomy picture of the day). SJPOD wouldn’t cost much and it might help get people to look up and recognize what’s good in San Jose and be inspired to build on it.

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