I flew to Cincinnati yesterday for the annual CEOs for Cities conference. Its opening event featured GOOD Ideas for Cities, a series of gatherings in cities across the country that engage local creatives in proposing solutions to some of the city’s greatest challenges. In Cincinnati, the challenges ranged from engaging the public in the local art scene to increasing access to fresh food to improving the transit experience of bus riders.
Next American City hosted a similar series in 2009 called Urbanexus where we parachuted into cities to spark a discussion about pressing, local issues; GOOD Ideas for Cities does one better by not just crafting solutions but encouraging participants to support these projects with time and/or money. The solutions put forward by the teams were thoughtful, dynamic and beautiful, and for someone with little concept of Cincinnati, it provided a good introduction to the city.
But while I stood in the overflow space at the Contemporary Arts Center listening to the presentations, I was struck by the feeling that projects were all circling around a fundamental problem in our society. More fundamental than urban planning or transportation or government. The problem is that we have forgotten how to do the basic things. One of the projects sought to encourage walkability and in particular focused on ways to prod kids into walking around the city. These basic aspects of life, like walking, reading, having good transportation infrastructure, clean air and water, fresh food, education — these have been lost over the past several decades.
I am starting to wonder if we ever did have a society that was able to provide these things. But I know that in 1969, 48 percent of kids ages 5 to 14 walked or biked to school. I know that obesity rates have more than tripled from 10 percent to 33 percent since 1950. There are many other facts to record our drift in the wrong direction.
How did we lose those advantages? Last night I wondered if we prized innovation so much that we lost sight of what had once been working.
Many of the presentations suggested technological solutions, and they were compelling and cool-looking. For example, in response to the challenge of engaging the art community, a team called 20-Somethings Doing Something proposed an app that would enable people to quickly see where the art is in their community. Galleries and other institutions could upload their events or projects to the site and attract a new audience. Users could quickly arrange their calendars to soak in some culture. I quickly began thinking of how this idea could be imported into Philadelphia.
But take a step back and ask: Why is it that we don’t know where the art is in our community? Does this lack of art scene knowledge reflect the lack of true art community that one should form a true relationship with? Is there a problem with seeking out an art scene at the last minute’s notice? Is there a problem with the idea that much like fast food, we want our art on demand, easy and accessible? I think back to the happenings of the 1960s and 1970s in SoHo, where the underground nature — the exact opposite of exposure and accessibility — was the calling card for the work. So many of our most fertile art movements, whether punk or rap, or yarn bombing or urban agriculture, grew out of being transgressive and exclusive. Is it problematic that we are treating art as a product, just another thing to add to iCal?
While waiting for the GOOD Ideas for Cities presentations to start, hundreds of people milled around the Contemporary Arts Center’s lobby. It was the picture of the vibrant, urban scene so many of us seek out and try to cultivate. I was looking forward to seeing the museum because it was designed by Zaha Hadid and I’d never been in one of her buildings. I walked up to the galleries and found one of the main exhibitions was about the music video as art form.
The exhibit was organized according to many of the themes and techniques that generate music video’s language and aesthetic. I found favorites in Arcade Fire’s Sprawl II and Aha!’s classic Take on Me. But what got me was a big, dark room with a big wall dedicated to a projection of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, full audio as well. I watched the video and immediately summoned a host of emotions — that is why music videos are indeed so brilliant. Seeing the life-size video, I almost wanted to mosh along with it.
But there was no one in that room, no one on that floor, no one at all who left the reception on the lobby floor to explore the upper galleries (which were free to the public, by the way). It was just me and three security guards whose boredom was palpable. Just then I had an idea for a music video: I would run around the museum, knocking over art, making the guards run after me and then join me. Or something weird like that.
But it didn’t happen like that. Instead I went back downstairs where people drank beer and talked about how to make a better city. Somehow that disconnect, right there in the space, seemed like a perfect metaphor. Hundreds of people came to a contemporary art museum to talk about engaging the city’s art scene but missed all the art. Let’s get the basics right — teach your kids to walk down the street, and also teach them to explore, exploit and improve the institutions that already exist. We might not have to build so many new ones.