On Nov. 20, the Santa Fe Art Institute and a good representation of the Santa Fe community participated in the event Flash Flood for a Living River. Flash Flood, dubbed a “community art action” was one of 18 events around the world in conjunction with 350.org in the lead-up to the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference that begins in Mexico at the end of this month.

The goal of 350.org in this case was to create a global art exhibition of projects around the world that would be visible from space, ie, impactful on a an unprecedented, planetwide scale.

Many hundreds of projects vied to participate, so SFAI’s inclusion is significant. Flash Flood’s concept highlighted global issues of drought and access to fresh water, while mobilizing activism and awareness about the Santa Fe River on a local level. The project was particularly inclusive as it focused first and foremost on engaging local community and making a “visible from space” splash only as a secondary function.

To generate enthusiasm and community involvement, Flash Flood organizers undertook a number of viral and unorthodox promotional schemes, including heavy social networking, matchbooks, and chalk and water-based stencils on downtown sidewalks. Mayor David Coss gave express permission for the stencils, which led to two—unrelated to Flash Flood—situations: East side resident James Rutherford got his panties in a bunch about historic downtown Santa Fe being victimized by…chalk; and the Santa Fe New Mexican mistook Rutherford’s ire for news.

The only story here is that artists and creative types—the alleged jewels of Santa Fe’s cultural crown, without whom we’d just be another town (and without whom Mr. Rutherford would have never made a handsome living as an art dealer)—behaved as we want them to: in charming, innovative, original and, in this case, legally sanctioned ways. The story is that creative and socially engaged artists are active and progressive in Santa Fe, and are using art to broaden the environmental dialogue locally and globally. The story is that art can move among the people and the land and need not be confined to museums, galleries and other milieus that sometimes put a veneer of exclusivity and elitism on the creative process.

One man having a hissy fit is not a story. One man having a hissy fit—because, in his elitist view, temporary chalk art in the service of large-scale, inclusive community event should not taint downtown Santa Fe—is a crybaby.

Mayor Coss (along with the Santa Fe Police and Public Works departments) was right to condone and encourage a bit of fun-loving promotion on city property. If we are going to solve the problem of attrition among our youths and creatives, who leave us in droves for cities that openly encourage such expression (and whose mainstream media would have laughed in Mr. Rutherford’s face), we need to continue to demonstrate the city’s willingness to be tolerant and open-minded to unusual requests. Unfortunately, the Santa Fe New Mexican’s tacit implication that we should spend time examining whether or not Flash Flood’s temporary stencils were inappropriate has exactly the opposite effect. The message is that Santa Fe’s primary concern is upholding a sense of decorum and propriety defined, apparently, by stodgy cranks who can drag their east side credentials over to the daily paper and—amazingly—receive a front page airing of their grievances.

Despite interviewing a tourist who had a favorable impression of the stencils—and whose opinion probably ought to legitimately outweigh Mr. Rutherford’s—the Nov. 12 New Mexican article gave weight to the idiotic notion that a potential doorway was being opened, a kind of Pandora’s box of “graffiti advertising” that would engulf the city, and the mayor’s authority to have allowed such a thing was called into question.

Firstly, we’re talking about a community event organized by a nonprofit arts organization—there was no product for sale, just the offer of esprit among neighbors and of helping Santa Fe share in a global dialogue. If neither Mr. Rutherford nor the New Mexican can distinguish between promoting community and advertising a product, I can only conclude that both have spent too much time prioritizing profit over substance.

As to questioning the mayor’s authority, the response he gave to the New Mexican is enough to give pause to any of us who have chided Coss for being too timid. All he had for authority, he said, was “the city charter that names the mayor as chief executive.” I can think of a lot of words that might have punctuated that declaration well, and I sure hope the mayor was at least thinking of one of them, even if he refrained from saying it out loud.

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