Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Interview with Peter Coyote

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on…………………………”

Noted author, actor, former founding member of the California Arts Council and long time arts supporter - Peter Coyote - sat down with me for a quick Five Question Interview:

Barry: State Arts Agencies across the country continue to experience draconian budget cuts. There has been a debate centering on whether or not these agencies should get out of the grant making business, and focus their more limited resources on a variety of leadership initiatives – ranging from research and advocacy efforts to professional development and brokering intersections for collaboration. As one of the original members of the California Arts Council when Jerry Brown created it in 1976, what are your thoughts as to where the primary focus of a state arts agency should be in 2011 and beyond?

Peter Coyote: To my mind there are two reasons for the budget cuts. One, is that most people (including legislators) think of the arts as entertainment and decoration. Those that do not, often think of it as high-status branding (art reflecting disposable income and culture.) The second is that the major institutions, while they have the social/political power to make end runs directly to legislators and guarantee their funds, have divorced themselves from the community and popular arts, thus divorcing themselves from the motive power of democracy. The prior California Arts Council (CAC) addressed both those concerns and did so effectively. By reminding legislators that art was “a creative, problem-solving mechanism” and proving its utility in solving problems for the State, we were able to create 14 inter-agency agreements with State Agencies who picked up 50% of the costs of our programs. They did this because creative problem solvers addressed their Agency problems, giving them “wins” and the tax-payers value for their money.

While this does not address “status” concerns, it demonstrated clearly to the legislature (which funded our programs again and again, even when they were admittedly experimental) that one cannot be “excellent” as a plumber, legislator, doctor, or carpenter, unless one can integrate practical, problem-solving skills with the intuitions. The arts are the primary mechanism for teaching this process (maximal interplay of both brain hemispheres), and the fruits of this---people having an experience of hundred percent commitment and concentration---redound through the entire society.

Furthermore, our strategy of paying people for work (not making grants) obviated the resistance of most conservatives in the Legislature. We felt that if the artists made a living wage for half-time work, they would make the art for free (we were correct), but that the State should not necessarily be in the position of “giving away” tax-payers money. This was not an absolute when it came to major institutions, but even here, we encouraged them to work in the schools and communities to build awareness, skills, and also to obviate class-antagonism. (A blue-collar father whose daughter is being taught singing by the opera is not going to complain about the subsidy for middle-class seats that most grants supply.)

To answer you more directly: the primary focus of a State Arts Agency should be: the re-integration of popular and “high” arts to build forceful, effective coalitions and re-thinking the fundamental utility of the creative process to the State and tax-payer. Let’s remember that those cultures in which design figures most prominently (think Asia) are currently kicking our butts in designing useful, attractive, products that consumers want. Art is R&D for the culture, and failing to understand that costs the culture the same thing it would cost an industry when its R&D funds are cut.

Barry: A number of arts leaders in California are proposing to newly elected Governor Brown that he create a high profile, 911 type Commission Task Force – which would include nonprofit arts & culture people, private sector business and government representatives, academicians and civic leaders – to make specific recommendations leading to the nation’s first strategic plan to promote, facilitate and nurture creativity as essential to the state’s growth in the next hundred years. How do you think such a group might proceed to try to re-establish California as a citadel of innovation?

Peter: Governor Brown’s initial impulse to create an Arts Council of primarily working artists was inspired. Artists are the most conversant with the creative process, and by applying it directly to the Council and its programs continued to innovate and win high support from the legislature and the public. (If you remember, the Senate kept trying to abolish the CAC by forcing us to take members of the Senate into our deliberations, etc. to “find us out.” The result was, that we converted everyone they sent into rabid partisans of our projects, to the degree that for my last appearance before the Senate Finance Committee, all the members, were comically dressed in “hippie head scarves” to say good-bye.

You’re on the right track discussing “creativity” rather than art. Art tends to lead directly towards commodities, and one wonders how much the State should be directly concerned with the support of a specific commodity. Creativity, on the other hand, is a human resource that can be nurtured as a part of education and aid. It’s application will result in art (as well as increased skills in a number of area) but the language frees you from certain Conservative/Liberal conflicts that are unnecessary.

Unless you have a governor, willing to at least enter suitable funds in his budget as a “State” activity, whatever you win from the private sector will be constrained by their demands (a danger.) My “pitch” to Governor Brown when he placed the first $20 million dollar Arts request before the Legislature, was “to give us a chance. If we can’t win it, we don’t deserve it.” The presence of that incentive was a formidable organizing aid, and that year, our budget rose from 1 to 5 million, even as Prop. 13 was creating a ten-percent across the board cut for State Agencies.

The other requirement is to have ALL the stakeholders present. It’s my belief however, that the creative engine is and will remain working artists, and that they should predominate. It doesn’t take many businessmen to “talk sense”. Karney Hodge, the Director of the American Symphony Orchestra League, was the lone business-man on our CAC but rapidly rose to be one of the most prominent members. When he and I (as Chairman) agreed, there was rarely any Council dissent on policy. In the arts world the situation is usually reversed. One consults the Board and Staff of the symphony, not the musicians; ditto for the Opera, Ballet, and major theaters. Consequently policy is skewed towards the concern of business and financial people, with the result that we have amazing edifices for our arts…and dwindling audiences and support. Time to do things differently, and have the humility to engage the true source of creative expression in policy planning.

Barry: There is a widening gap between the Millennial generation of artists and arts managers and the traditional nonprofit arts sector – which has been slow to embrace and fully integrate newer technologies – with the result that the current nonprofit sector is increasingly seen as irrelevant to that generation. Do you have any thoughts on how, that issue might be addressed?

Peter: This is ass-backwards to my mind. Art will never be technologically “saved”. You can’t computerize an opera; all the CGI effects in the world will not save an inept movie. You are missing the role of the non-profits sector as the “mulch” which strengthens the roots and produces the “blooms” for higher culture. If you think of these institutions as R&D you’ll realize that failure is a necessary requisite, just as it is in a corporate R&D lab. The fellow who invited the LP record and the Transistor for RCA labs, had only those two inventions to show for 30 years of work. Were the rest a failure?

The non-profits are seen as irrelevant, because the profit sector has its head up its ass and doesn’t realize that without mulch, you inevitably wear out the soil and produce nothing. I’m not willing to accept that the non-profit sector is irrelevant. If you go to small theaters around the Bay Area they’re jam-packed and sold out; small festivals and arts events are sold out. The problem is thinking in terms of Bigger and Smaller, or better and worse. WE NEED IT ALL. Picasso and Matisse thrived in a Paris that was FILLED with painters, most of them bad. So what? They created the climate and the background for genius to flourish. Mediocrity is always the background for excellence. Trying to preserve simply the excellent and dispense with the rest is not the way Nature (or art) works. The “widening gap” is ignorance, which, luckily, can be dispelled with deep thought and energy.

Barry: Why is it so hard for the arts to broker meaningful partnerships and intersections with the entertainment industry, and do you have any suggestions as to how the arts might proceed to work more closely with Hollywood?

Peter: Why is it so hard for a preacher to have meaningful relationship with a hooker?

Barry: What advice would you give newly elected Governor Brown in terms of how the state might support the arts in California?

Peter: He knows. He’s done it once.

Thank you very much Peter.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.