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Mayors, Higher Education, & The Arts

Ron Jones

Institutions of higher education and the communities in which they reside must be collaborators, and they must mutually seek beneficial ways to partner.

Nowhere is this more critical than the arts. Put another way, the arts in higher education must be part of and inseparably linked to, and woven into, the fabric of the community in which they exist.

Most everyone will agree with the above. The mayor of virtually every city in this country has probably been quoted as saying something like, “The arts are our heart and soul and must be part of our future.”

I would imagine that at national and regional workshops on “How to be a Two-Term Mayor,” there is an emphasis on how to speak embracingly of the arts, how to create an environment where the arts are central to the vibrancy of a city, and how to energize and focus artists so neighborhoods can be transformed.

Additionally, mayors want to attract creative professionals. In the end they don’t worry about one inevitable consequence of gentrification, the ultimate displacement of the arts, the very tool that had been used to generate economic growth.

Most mayors do a splendid job of wooing the arts community and establishing arts districts, arts centers, and creative industries. Few, however, care about sustainability and the long-term health of the arts in those neighborhoods; quite to the contrary, the arts are used only as a tool to accomplish other political purposes, often with disregard to the economic stress and instability experienced by the arts as they are forced to relocate to less costly areas of the community.

Thus, it was with surprise, and delight, that my very first meeting as the incoming president of Memphis College of Art was with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. He started the meeting with a review of what he has done in partnership with and for the arts: the drafting of “An Agenda for Memphis” which calls upon artists, fellow public officials, state legislators, and local arts administrators to work together on ways to better promote Memphis’ unique cultural assets and creative community; the enhanced funding for the UrbanArt Commission, Memphis’ public art authority, to bring awareness to the value of public art in our city; and the wooing of ArtSpace, a nationally-renowned developer of affordable live/work space for artists, to our South Main Arts District in 2013.

He then began to innumerate his future plans and initiatives for the arts. On the surface these sounded very much like the rhetoric one would expect: special projects, public art support, arts in the school, establishment of an arts district, etc.

As he talked it became clear to me that this mayor has a more enlightened idea and that is sustainability for the arts; his challenge, he said, is to continue developing plans and opportunities for the arts and for artists that will ensure permanence and stability for the arts. Refreshingly, the mayor wants to assure the city that there is a long-term partnership with the arts as arts and not just as instruments to cause positive economic change to the city.

When the mayor expressed his commitment to “planning comprehensively for the future of the arts” and considered it “imperative to their continued growth and success” I was excited. But just like NEA Chairman Landesman when he visited Memphis, it was the combination of the mayor’s words and works – not just his words – that makes me know I am in the right place!

Memphis is one city (I am certain there are many more?) where sustainability of the arts trumps (sorry for using a recently worn out political name) political ambitions and superficiality.

The mayor has challenged me to encourage Memphis College of Art to be an even greater partner in making the arts an integral, essential, and lasting force in this city forever and I challenge other higher education institutions to also accept the challenge.

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