How is it that a two-page story beginning on the top-fold, front page of the New York Times arts and leisure section about the art scene in Los Angeles can miss the most basic issue? In Edward Wyatt's March 25 article, "The Art's Here. Where's the Crowd?", Los Angeles rues a tricky cultural situation and the author fails to solve a mystery in nearly 2,600 words.
Apparently, although LA is wealthy with museums and such, not many tourists flock to them-at least not in relation to other culture capitals like New York, London and Paris, where up to 80 percent of visitors take in a museum during their visit. LA is as hip as can be with two artists moving there for every one artist who leaves and 56 art establishments per 100,000 people but, it turns out, an insubstantial portion of the world's population gives a damn. The Times proposes various factors that might explain such a bizarre conundrum-not enough corporate support, more aggressive measures needed from the city's office of cultural affairs, better cooperation and marketing among organizations-but nobody can solve the riddle. Look, if Paris had a frickin' beach and lovely southern California weather, people wouldn't hang out in museums all day long. If you want tourists to ditch sunbathing for culture, you've got to either import crappy weather or build beachfront museums and float people past paintings in log rides conducted by docents in bikinis.
Such articles and attitudes are typical of creative types who believe, rightfully, that culture is the heart of a community but insist, wrongfully, that recognition of that fact by tourists and statistics and media creates a meaningful and exciting art scene. Take, for example, the wild ride in the ratings charts that Santa Fe's art scene has experienced in the past couple of weeks. Ratings, you ask? It's true. There's nothing so institutionalized or as regularly updated as a Billboard Top 40 for art towns, but there are occasional studies, both private and public,
that lead to either celebration or sadness, depending on how a city rates. What a blow for Santa Fe to tumble recently from the second largest art market in the country (a calculation based on the 1997 federal economic census) down to the third largest (based on the finally released figures from the 2002 census). Never mind the fact that most people have never quite known whether to call us the second or the third and nobody knows where the statistic came from in the first place and probably wouldn't want to understand that it's only a pure dollar value summation based on an incomplete sampling of some participating galleries and gift shops; it was a point of pride, damn it.
The federal government estimation of Santa Fe's market position was just a dollar figure. It doesn't account for more important and ephemeral factors of creative life here. These factors include the strength of college art programs, the dynamism of noncommercial exhibitions and events, the importance of any of the artwork being produced locally, the cross-fertilization of ideas between different disciplines or appropriate housing and work space for actual artists. Yet, mythically, we've held this categorization up as though it were a totem of our community's cultural value.
Fortunately, in timely fashion, a new No. 2 was released for Santa Fe just in time to cushion the blow. If you happen to be on the e-mail press release circuit, you were recently bombarded by the incessant forwarding and reforwarding of the news that Business Week has clocked Santa Fe as the second best city in America for artists to live. Hurray! The celebratory press release-issued jointly by the City of Santa Fe and Creative Santa Fe, and which quickly took on the tone of a chain letter (send this to 10 friends or something terrible will happen to you!)-cited some of the factors used by Portland, Ore.-based Sperling's Best Places, which compiled the results for Business Week, including the number of people between the ages of 25 and 34.
Now, I can't blame Creative Santa Fe for wanting to remind everyone how critical the arts are to Santa Fe's existence and future, and I'm pleased to see the city on board, but the Business Week article, should one bother to locate the actual source of all this hoopla, is, in and of itself, downright depressing. The headline is "Bohemian Today, High-Rent Tomorrow," and the gist of it turns out to be less about good conditions for artists and more about good conditions for real estate speculators. Thriving art scenes, we're told, send real estate through the roof, baby. And the No. 2 ranking glosses over Santa Fe's real problems that need real solutions. Of the top 10 listed, Santa Fe actually has the second lowest percentage of young people (11.85 percent of the population between ages 25 and 34, less than five times the amount of real estate agents in Santa Fe), only ranking ahead of Nassau-Suffolk County, New York, i.e., The Hamptons. And it turns out Santa Fe's ungodly cost of living was overlooked due to the potential for artists to be so close to so many, um, wealthy white folks who might actually buy something to put in their big, new houses. Finally, Santa Fe is summed up as a "hippie haven" that's prime for someone who's "ready to quit their day job and make art their profession."
I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm real certain that the kind of "artists" who read Business Week are not the kind of artists I want moving here. It's great that Santa Fe continues to get recognition as a center for the arts, but the challenges addressing our community, like attrition of creative youth and affordable housing, aren't going to be solved by recklessly embracing questionable rankings that are really all about real estate. It turns out you're either a part of the community or you're a part of the commodity.