Tuesday, October 12, 2010

From the Office of Cultural Repair: A proposal to create a network of Art Carts

Vincent van Gogh, The Caravans/Wikimedia
By Barry Johnson

Early this morning as rosy-fingered Dawn opened the Gates of Heaven, saffron-robed Arts Dispatch opened a brand new wing -- the Portland Office of Cultural Repair. While we await the large contracts that must inevitably come our way given the general state of disrepair of all things cultural, we decided to make a modest proposal, just to give some indication of the services we might provide. 

We propose that our culture-shed establish a network of Mobile Cultural Repair Units that we will deploy to flare-ups in the region -- restive populations in our parks, stressful street fairs, cul-de-sacs where we have detected dangerous Levels of Ennui.  We call these units, Art Carts. (In Portland, the food cart phenomena is well-developed, and we've just extended it to our purposes.)

The idea, which arose in the comment thread of our Art and Elitism post, began as something more specific: an Emergency Mozart Service (EMS).  The EMS vehicle would arrive at a hot spot, deploy its all-weather acoustic shell, suggest an amphitheater space with a set of colorful panels and pass out mats for seating if the ground is hard. Then the musicians would begin to play. Mozart in the mall. Mozart before school. Mozart on overpasses playing for motorists stalled on freeways below. Mozart, in short, where Mozart is needed most.

We still think this is a good idea, but we have expanded it.  Now, we are thinking of our Art Carts more like TriMet and less like the Fire Department. The repair units won't be for emergencies only. They will provide a continuous repair service throughout the area. And no art is good for all seasons. Not even Mozart. We want to offer a clinic full of remedies.  So, the Art Cart arrives at an elementary school and its complement of artists might include a storyteller, a puppet theater, a poet working with a beat-boxer and a cellist working with a dancer.  A tent is erected, a crowd summoned by the storyteller and the beat-boxer and the show begins.  It's not all about performance, though.  We believe that Art Carts can also be centers for participation, traveling workshops and instruction zone for art, music, theater, dance, writing.

This is not a new idea. The Tent Chautauqua movement, which began in the late 19th century and continued until radio and television wiped it out, brought music and lectures to the hinterlands of America for several decades.  It had a reformist and often a religious bent, and lectures were a mainstay along with popular band music.  We are proposing an update of this idea, without the William Jennings Bryan stemwinders and with crucial cultural content -- jazz, ballet and modern dance, various folk musics, theater of all sorts.

We have focused on performing arts, but our Art Carts can also provide pop-up art exhibitions, especially of more portable art -- prints and drawings and smaller paintings. We might even include very inexpensive editions of prints to sell to our audiences -- $5 or $10 apiece. These would be excellent companions for our growing number of food cart pods. 

Another old idea that the Art Cart might repurpose? The bookmobile. We want to provide a selection of books where books are needed, yes, but more than books we want to create a place where actual reading happens, on the spot. The Literary Art Cart arrives at a congenial spot, opens up its shelves of books, sets up bean-bag chair reading stations and opens for business. Its curator/librarian guides prospective readers through the collection, which is made up of donated books. Lemonade will be available. We hope that some readers become so involved in their books that they want to take them home to finish. We will ask for a small donation from those who can afford it. We are just as happy, though, if a reader spends quarter-of-an-hour with "The Midnight Ride of Paul of Revere" or "The Wasteland" and then moves on.

Who will decide what books are in the Literary Art Cart? For that matter, how will we determine what music the quartets will play, what poems the poets will read or what dances would be most useful? Before the Art Carts are deployed, the repair service will conduct interviews with prospective users and event organizers to help shape the choices. Let's imagine a street fair in an Hispanic neighborhood. Maybe the selections will include a few poems by Neruda, a short fiction by Borges, classical flamenco music and dancing, a tale from Cervantes, short theater pieces by Teatro Milagro -- if that's what the organizers suggest would be appropriate. They may prefer Mozart and Dylan Thomas, and if that's the case, we will comply.

At the same time the Art Cart is an information gatherer, investigating what sorts of experiences are most useful for what audiences under what conditions. The audience may say, "Bring us some Stravinsky next time," and the next Art Cart will bring "The Rite of Spring," maybe with a comic dance by Gregg Bielemeier to go along with it. The Art Cart is diagnostic as well as therapeutic.

No proposal is complete without a funding mechanism. Maybe because we don't imagine managing the system through a Central Art Cart Authority (maybe more like a Loose Confederation), we consider a wide of sources of financial support possible.

Some entrepreneurial Art Carts may support themselves on the money they take in from small admission fees and passing the hat after performances. We like their spunk.

Organizers of community events may pay a fee to bring Art Carts to their fairs and fundraisers (the Art Carts will be VERY popular).

Our parks departments, recognizing the dire cultural predicament we are in, may organize and pay for a fleet of Art Carts to circulate through the region's public spaces. They make the money back because the vandalism rate will decline precipitously.

Individual donors and foundations may want to sponsor specific Arts Carts of their own, depending on what needs they see in the community. And businesses and corporations may well decide that the Art Cart is their best hope for spreading good will in the community.  In the case of Art Carts, we do not fear hidden agendas.  A bit of Beckett reveals all.

Who gets the money? The creators of the Art Carts and the artists contained therein. Oh, right: And maybe with a little administrative fee tossed the way of the Office of Cultural Repair?

We believe that mobile Art Carts can provide ongoing, on-site cultural repair, tailored to the needs of its audience and responsive to changes in those needs. We believe they set the stage for deeper engagements and better experiences in the future. And they begin to create a sense of the ability of local culture to satisfy the needs of its people. Art Carts: Creating the future a small bite at a time.


MightyToyCannon said...

Your Art Cart proposal makes me think of experiences I had many years ago (and continents away) watching Chinese street opera. Think of a traveling troupe setting up a temporary stage in a field for a few summer nights, with food vendors crowding alongside. As Portland's food cart culture has flourished, I've thought that those "cart pods" that serve the late-night market ought to have small stages for buskers--or, better yet, a place where a shadow-puppet theater could set up and put on a show. Imagine a string quartet doing the same. (Forget about noise ordinances and rain while doing this imagining).

Barry Johnson said...

Hah! Yes, my imagination has ignored certain critical issues, though I attempted to allow for some of them with "all-weather acoustic shell." But yeah, at least a busker stage. In some ways it's surprising that hasn't occurred. Another source for me was Peter Brook's experiments w/ bringing theater to rural, 3rd World audiences.

MightyToyCannon said...

All this talk about Art Carts and Food Carts brings me back to a thought I had recently: What's going on with the Portland Public Market plan? (www.portlandpublicmarket.com)

Has that vision been disrupted (to use terminology from the Arts Summit) by the explosion of food carts and farmer's markets over the past 2-3 years? (Rhetorical question alert: The answer is "Yes!").

When the idea was first floated, I loved the idea of a central site selling produce and prepared foods by a variety of vendors. Such a place could also provide room for cultural events that are accessible and engaging. Now we have both food carts and farmers markets spread all over town (as well as cart "pods" with shared covered eating areas, etc.), which is maybe an even cooler outcome. The distributed model seems more democratic in its accessibility, even if it doesn't lead to a Pikes Place type of tourist attraction. Not to get all Free Market Capitalist about it, but I also like that we got all these farmer's markets and food carts without a whole lot of centralized planning and bureaucracy (though I suspect that there are a few local politicos who will claim credit).

Barry Johnson said...

I think you're right. The idea for the Public Market was overtaken by a multitude of on-the-ground developments. Some of those may have had indirect public subsidies, but for the part I think they bubbled up from producers. I'd like to read a good account of the management of the markets and how it has evolved over time as they've become more successful, now that I think about it.

But as an abstract proposition, yes, avoiding the command and control structure of local governments in this case was probably a good thing: encouraging more participation than otherwise, avoiding the choice of winners and loser (those who get stalls and those who don't), establishing them closer to their users, etc. I would have favored using the government lever, however, if the current scene had failed to materialize in a timely fashion, because the public good is so obvious. (And that's why I don't mind indirect subsidies, too.)

Patrick said...

On the subject, have you come across these "Roadside Culture Stands"? Pop-up produce and art vending in under-served communities.


Barry Johnson said...

Patrick, I just knew someone must have done something in this regard. Making the carts themselves little works of art is part of the idea, too. Thanks for the great link. And I'm also glad they are using "cultureshed," too.