From the Editor

by Claire Ruud

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      Erin Shirreff
      Still from Day is Long, Night is Longer, and Nothing is Longest, 2006
      Single-channel video
      8 hours
      Courtesy Lisa Cooley Fine Art

      Ever since the June 1 New Yorker arrived in my mailbox, I’ve been thinking about health care and the economic cultures of cities. Required reading in the White House, Atul Gawande’s “The Cost Conundrum” makes a provocative case for the vast differences in health care costs across the country. Gawande suggests that a few key figures in a community can set a tone that may take root within the community and then intensify with time. Thus one or two hospital directors might instigate a profit-driven culture in one city, while an alliance of private practice doctors might trigger a patient-driven culture in another. The rule of thumb Gawande uses here is common sense, and seems applicable to local art scenes—one or two big players can deeply affect the character of the communities in which we live.

      Gawande uses sociologist Woody Powell’s anchor-tenant theory of economic development to back up his claim. Why, Powell asked, does the biotechnology industry flourish in cities like Boston and San Francisco, and not in similar cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia? The difference among these cities, Powell argued, is in the presence of a particular type of “anchor tenant” in certain cities: M.I.T. in Boston and Genentech in San Francisco. As Gawande puts it, “The anchor tenants that set norms encouraging the free flow of ideas and collaboration, even with competitors, produced enduringly successful communities, while those that mainly sought to dominate did not.”

      I’d like to see a similar study of art communities in cities with comparable resources. Of course, living in Austin, I’m less interested in the Los Angeleses and the New Yorks of the world than in the Kansas Cities, Portlands and Atlantas. Who are the anchor tenants in these communities, what kinds of norms are they setting, and what types of ecologies are growing? In Austin, I’d venture that Arthouse, with its collaboration-minded curator Elizabeth Dunbar and its exciting building plans, is poised to become one.

      Of course, this doesn’t mean the responsibility for maintaining a vibrant art scene here falls entirely to our large institutions. Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of the “tipping point” offers a way to look more closely at the anchor-tenant phenomenon on the level of the individual. Gladwell argues that ideas and behaviors spread like viruses: when a few people change their behavior, the behavior can spread until it reaches a “tipping point,” changing the entire culture. (The danger of the “tipping point” theory is that we measure our success against whether or not we’ve reached it. When Gladwell spoke here in 2005, before I had arrived in Austin, I’ve heard the general consensus was that the Austin art world hadn’t.)

      Gladwell identifies three types of people who contribute most to spread of an idea or behavior: Connectors (who are sociable), Mavens (who are knowledgeable) and Salesmen (who are persuasive). If Austin’s is any indication, I’d guess that the greatest shortfalls in mid-sized U.S. art communities are in Salesmen. I can think of quite a few Connectors and Mavens among our artists, arts professionals and collectors, but I’m at a loss for Salesmen. We need more people skilled in bringing the uninitiated into the fold—charismatic and persuasive types who make excellent Executive Directors and development professionals. Just my hunch.

      Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.

      Peggy Phelan
      Jul 10, 2009 | 8:54am

      I completely agree but also believe that "Salespeople" (skip the "men" please) are critics and journalists (such as yourself) and teachers. In former days, the NEA funded emerging writers who could be funded to write about new art. We need these people as bridges, ways to translate and make accessible recent art (and also not so recent art, but that is another topic). Colleges and universities could do a better job at teaching art writing, and newspapers and websites could invest a bit more in this crucial aspect of cultural transmission as well. Anyway: great piece. Thanks. Peggy Phelan, Stanford University

      Peter Briggs
      Jul 13, 2009 | 10:12am

      Dear Claire Ruud,

      The application of methodologies from a range of disciplines to analyze and interpret issues in art communities can produce rich and rewarding insights.  However, such strategies will benefit from close scrutiny regarding their reliability to accurately and objectively address the problems that one seeks to solve.  Mere adoption of general characteristics of “anchor-tenant” theory, common sense (I assume that is “good ole American common sense”?), “tipping points”, and other enticing concepts has little chance of advancing our knowledge about the dynamics of arts communities in Austin or anywhere else.  I can think of at least a dozen other strategies that offer an equal level of understanding with equally catchy terminology.

      I am aware that short editorials may not be a viable forum to pursue seriously the depth of analysis that complex problems, like the social and economic dynamics of urban art communities, might demand.  But you do draw a conclusion, actually “guess”, from your brief punctuations of heavy thinkers: mid-sized urban art communities (like Austin) need more “salesmen”.  The “salesmen’s” spiritual mission is, in your words, to bring “the uninitiated [unbaptized] into the fold [congregation]”. (Of course, the words in the brackets are my additions to the quote from your editorial.)

      Marketing, especially with religious zeal and focus, seems to be a favorite American strategy to solve problems.  If we just preach louder, on more street corners, make bigger signs, shake more hands, get more TV sound bites, have more stars endorse our ideology, we will succeed.  We have the “divine word” (mavens have provided it) and willing “congregations” (the “connectors” out there).  We just need some good preachers.  It might be informative to apply the Sinclair Lewis theory, Gantrianism, to this model.


      Peter Briggs

      Jul 18, 2009 | 8:11am

      very well-written, claire. thanks for this lateral thinking. I love it.

      best, wells

      Hills Snyder
      Jul 28, 2009 | 1:40pm

      " or two big players can deeply affect the character of the communities in which we live."

      Experience proves this catchy-terminology-free statement to be true, regardless of any pointy pencil comments that come your way.


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