2002-01-26 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance
By Susan Hartenstein

In a society dedicated to the work ethic and to pragmatism, the arts are too often viewed as expendable luxuries and even as exercises in self-indulgence. However, the fact is that the arts serve a society in very concrete and practical ways. Further, in times of economic and emotional difficulty, their role is more essential than ever. Our city and nation have been in a time of economic and emotional difficulty. We must be cautious, when we look to solutions, not to seriously hamper one of the keys to healing our woes and, as important, to maintaining the society's health.

Even before September 11 the national economy was suffering an economic slowdown (dare we use the "r" word?) That, combined with the effects of 9-11, has led to some governmental, private and corporate cutbacks in funding to the arts and to a decrease in tourist dollars (from hesitant tourists) going into arts groups and institutions and the businesses that surround them. Some of these losses have already occurred, others are anticipated. Increased demand for decreased dollars will necessitate some clear vision, creative thinking and courageous choices. It is hoped that those making these choices will recognize the importance of supporting arts entities already adversely affected by cutbacks, the forces of terrorism and the recession. Some have understood. Others must.

In the aftermath of September 11, artists of all disciplines were in the forefront of those working to heal a devastated city and nation. Rockaway and Queens artists, individually and in groups, have been among those working hardest. The Queens Council on the Arts (QCA) is a central coordinator of information for projects developed by not-for-profits in this borough that are part of this effort. All over the city arts organizations and agencies like the Arts and Business Council and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs are similarly sponsoring and coordinating such efforts. Among those most in need of healing are our children. Art holds a unique key to this process. Children who might otherwise have no channel of expression to their deepest fears and pain are able to communicate them through the creative stimulation of various forms of art. This is constantly in evidence in RAA's arts education programs.

QCA is sponsoring a series of three Healing Handrum circles, celebrating diversity and rebuilding unity, using the ethnically diverse Ethos Percussion Group. The first of these takes place on February 14, the other two in March and May at Oak Ridge. Queens schoolchildren will be invited to these primal circles that bring people together in a traditional means of communion and group healing. During these months, a Rockaway firefighter, RAA's Michael Redpath, has been invited by QCA to present a solo exhibition of his artwork and a Bronx policeman, Brian LaRussa, to present his poetry – a form of self-expression LaRussa first came to because of the events of 9-11. The policeman and firefighter will also have question and answer sessions with schoolchildren, giving them an opportunity for a free and open discussion about the experiences of Ground Zero and the use of arts as a means of positive self-expression (even by "big, tough" heroes such as these men.) As you have read in this column in past weeks, the Rockaway Artists Alliance recently co-sponsored a workshop for its teacher artists and invited local Pre-K educators. The workshop was designed to help them explore their own emotions and reactions to recent events so that they could better identify and deal with the traumas of the children in their charge. February 6, RAA will sponsor a second free workshop for couples, designed to open communications and explore their reactions and the impact of these events on relationships. Alan Lynes of Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning has established ArtistCares, an initiative for healing through art therapy workshops for victim's families, relief workers and children. There are countless examples of similar contributions by the art world. This column has documented many of them.

So many people have stated in news articles and interviews that art events of all kinds have provided them with comfort, solace, respite, replenishment, beauty, equilibrium and a sense that life will continue with some normalcy. Art of all types restores emotional balance and makes a functioning society possible. The people of a ravaged World War II London knew this very well. Recognizing this necessity, arts groups and institutions all over the city have offered free events, especially to those directly affected by 9-11. Exhibitions have and will take place, of artwork created in response to recent events, often by people who don't consider themselves artists. "Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs" is donating proceeds from sales to the 9-11 Children's Aid Fund.

The essential economic contribution of arts and culture to a society is a fact that no longer requires proof. They attract visitors, who spend dollars in local businesses, stimulating the economy and employment. For obvious reasons, the large number of downtown Manhattan arts and businesses has been very hard hit. In 2000, 7.2 million downtown visitors spent more than $2 billion.

The effects of cutbacks and difficult economic times have already been felt by arts and culture groups in New York who have had to curtail programs. The Board of Education, for example, reduced funding to arts education even before September 11. Some groups, depending on their fragility, may go under completely. Indeed, city services of all kinds have been affected. But in a time of difficult choices by both the private and public sectors, the arts must never be considered expendable. They are as natural to life as breathing or the pumping of blood through the body – and as essential. They serve all parts of society, in very practical ways. And in the most difficult of times, they help preserve our sanity, our stability and our humanity.

Warmest happy birthday wishes to James Cosgrove's mother, Grace. She will be 92 years old on January 29.

The M.S. 43 African Dance Company performing at RAA's ARTSPLASH 2001.  ARTSPLASH 2002 will be coming in October.  Art Frenzy will be here in June. 

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