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March 15, 2012
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Des Moines arts — a 25-year review

By Jim Duncan

Twenty-five years ago I became an arts writer, accidentally. I published a whimsical editorial (“I’ve seen the future of the arts - it looks like baseball”) in The Washington International Arts Letter (WIAL). That publication was the main guide for information about funding in the arts before the Internet rendered it obsolete. My piece proposed that symphonies, operas, art museums, ballets and such would all benefit by adopting the structure of baseball’s farm system. Des Moines’ arts organization could become AAA affiliates of Chicago’s, tutoring young prospects while increasing the marketing clout of both.

Arts non-profits were becoming desperate back then. Attendance was down and so was earned income as a percentage of operating budgets. Their devoted fans and donors were aging, and younger generations cared more about sports, rock bands and Broadway shows. In that climate, my idea was taken seriously. I was invited to speak at arts seminars and to become editor of the WIAL. My 15 minutes lasted less than a year. The farm system analogy sounded good in theory but died hopelessly in the real world, where unions and insurers squashed it. I continued writing about the arts for a quarter century. These were the biggest agents of change that I noticed.

Big corporate donors reorganized the way money was distributed to non-profits by putting marketing departments in charge of those decisions. They demanded quid pro quo, so non-profits had to convince donors that they were getting some positive return. This led to silly things like naming rights for drinking fountains and toilets, but also to far more educational services. Those programs and events recruited a future fan base and earned income rose.

Robert Maplethorpe and Andres Serrano offended social conservatives with erotic and profane art that had indirectly received grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This led to the creation of new levels of bureaucracy, both public and private, to build walls between big donors and ultimate consequences of their largess. The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs was our state version, BRAVO and Greater Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC) regional ones, Metro Arts Alliance a civic one.

Sociologist Richard Florida published “Rise of the Creative Class” in 2002. He theorized that successful cities of the future must pander to a new class of workers who hate suburban sprawl and love bike trails, sports arenas, skate board ramps, historic old buildings, cheap rent, trendy cafés and boutiques, multiculturalism and above all, a lively contemporary music scene. Florida’s theories were discredited soon after they were published — his 10 “most creative cities” barely created more jobs than his “10 least creative cities.” It didn’t matter, every town was afraid they’d be left behind if they didn‘t build to Florida’s models. Iowa hired him in 2005 to brand its Great Places program. Every seminar or focus group I attended the last decade was filled with drinkers of Florida Kool-Aid. Most artists and arts organizations seeking grant money claimed to be an essential part of the Florida vision. Des Moines’ creative class — of administrators — grew again.

More interesting work was done by impresarios doing business the old fashioned way — making money by developing talent. A lively music scene arose here because club and bar owners took risks that live music, from near and far, would pay off. New gallery owners and art makers (Sticks) gave young artists a place to test the market for their talent. Some developed farm system-like alliances with galleries in Chicago, Kansas City and Los Angeles.

The role these people played has been underestimated, at least by the administrative class. Last month, a DMMO awards ceremony honored a marketing administrator, a board member, a bandleader, a radio personality and a guitar maker but presented nothing to any promoter, club or bar owner. Those people made it possible for musicians to make a living here, rather than leaving town. I doubt any of them ever read Richard Florida. CV

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