Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An Assessment and Proposal on the State of the Arts and the Island

On June 16, I authored a letter to the community, "An Assessment and Proposal on the State of the Arts and the Island". It was sent to around 700 people. I have received scores of responses which is tremendous, for which I am grateful and also humbled, realizing the vein of deep concern that so many people have similarly expressed. I re-post this in its entirety and further ask for your comments so a greater dialogue may be established. Thank you!

June 16, 2007
To the many friends and supporters of Java Studios:

First, thank you greatly for the generous support shown over the past season(s) as Java Studios has endeavored to present ‘media that matters’ to the community, through films, dialogue, and calls to activism. I now write to ask a minute or so of your interest to let you know what's happening, and to ask for your comments regarding the future. The “winter season” came to a wrap as scheduled. Spring zips by and now Summer bears down, also as expected. Not as anticipated was the closing of the White St. Deli Café “Courtyard Cinema” on Monday, April 16. The Deli received from their landlord, through an attorney's letter, a demand to cease and desist the movie nights. The letter warned that continuing the presentations might jeopardize the landlord’s conditional use as a café. On Wednesday after, the city Code Enforcement even visited to check it out, and found no such “violations”, of course. Apparently, the other public courtyard event’s noise levels are not as disturbing to the originator of the complaint. As Vonnegut would say, so it goes. I give my deepest thanks to Jennifer Cornell for offering the courtyard, and especially to the audiences who braved the elements and enjoyed the screenings, each a Key West premiere. Thus, that chapter is written, and the next pages are being drafted. A recent edition (4/25) of Solares Hill carried a full page interview with me by Nadja Hansen for an extended conversation. We spoke about Java Studios primarily, and what the future may present. I emphasized that as a social entrepreneur (she omitted the “social” prefix), my efforts have been about creating social and cultural benefits toward community development. This is an important distinction, for “profit” is measured in social capital, not merely in dollars. I wondered what role or contribution Java Studios can make in Key West as many people regard the island as being in the throes of a significant civic and cultural transition. What follows is my further assessment and proposal for creating a new "cultural collaboration". It's in the attached file you should be able to readily open. It describes the opening of a SALON for Key West. Want to know more, please read further. Not interested? Just delete, and if you'd rather not receive updates, let me know, and your email will be removed. Again, thank you so very much.

An Assessment and Proposal on the State of the Island and the Arts

Paradise is increasingly being marketed to the upscale. The island has transmogrified in the past 5+ years, accelerated by the drive-up in real estate values, and resulting flight of families and the working class, into a burgeoning second-home destination (reportedly 30% of all housing stock, with as much as 58% of all properties not filing a homestead exemption), whether for investor-class and/or as a retiree haven. Thousands of hotel rooms have been condo-ized. Existing work force housing (once referred to as "homes") is under continual threat of diminishing stock. It feels that everything about living in the Florida Keys is in flux. The full measure of these impacts has yet to be realized.

The community seems near incapable of surmounting the formidable challenges needed to bridge the economic gaps that have resulted in the wake of the new Key West. Valiant and essential efforts by activists like Hometown PAC, FIRM, and others are tackling some of these real problems. Yet, we all know many people who have simply pulled up roots and headed out. Many more would, if only they could "cash out". Monroe County is only one of seven in the nation that actually lost population last year. The public school enrollment is down every year, from a peak of 10,000 in the public system to 7,800 this coming year. At FKCC, the smallest of the 28 community colleges in the state, enrollment also continues to dramatically decline The list goes on. What does this tell us and what can be done?

Any community revitalization or re-imagining begins with a fuller understanding of the cultural foundation we are set upon. The economic facts of life reflect the cultural underpinnings. But, the economic measurements are not, in fact, the real worth of our community. Our natural environment is the number one facet of this jewel: Cayo Hueso. Everyone should agree on this. The natural island, this “paradise”, is what attracted us here, from its very inception, whether military, commercial, leisure or fantasy. We've all witnessed, even over each generation, how it has also been plundered, leaving us with rear-guard actions that are costly in every respect. We realize it is under tremendous stress.

No one can ignore, when we face the indisputable global climate change scenarios, that the Florida Keys are Ground Zero and impact every facet of our life. The coral reef, which protects and sustains us in more ways than we fully realize is in critical condition. Confabs are held, gnashing of teeth is heard, and daily reports confirm near-shore waters are under continual assault, habitat threats are increasing, quality of life is diminished for all life forms. "Development", seen all around us, appears destructive, not constructive.

Within such an environment of change and uncertainty, it's imperative that the Arts be a vital and central organizing principle in our lives - and not just for a feel-good entertainment escape. Our cultural roots have given us a diverse social and political trunk. The rewards that branch from this display not just the fancy fruit, or dollar value of our labors and cultivation. The Arts serve as creative food and fuel for our imaginations and our very being, sustaining our environment's vitality. We despoil it and we place into peril everything – culturally, socially and economically.

The “state of the arts” in Key West is likewise facing a possible and probable radical transition, if not transformation. Every non-profit arts organization faces significant challenges, from the graying of the audiences, to funding cuts, and are continually up against non-stop fund raising – and donor fatigue, to staff and leadership turnover or burnout, to even examining the basis for their continued operations, or re-tailoring their missions to reflect current or projected limits to their growth. Many of you receiving this are members of these organizations, which would not thrive otherwise.

The larger questions of sustainability and scale, accountability, transparency, governance and insuring and earning the public trust require more critical examination and are deserving of another forum for discussion. As concerns this message, public and private philanthropy, whether through the growing Community Foundation, the Cultural Umbrella of the Arts Council and TDC or private foundations has not sufficiently expanded funding or development for programs as requests regularly exceed available funds. Current funding formulas may well be inadequate and even ineffective to create the forms needed for any new generation or cycle we face.

A critical lynchpin in a vibrant culture that will bear future dividends is support for young artists, those who are emerging and/or for those who are mid-career. While there are many individual artists deeply engaged with their projects, galleries with packed rooms at openings, and work spaces almost hidden in Key West and always interesting labs or ateliers on Stock Island, they all face persistent pressures to survive. While new galleries open and still others close, as "the market" dictates, this illustrates the fragile dynamic of patron and commercial support. From both spectrums, more needs to be done if there is to be a sustainable - and relevant - arts culture in the Florida Keys. (Ganesha Theatre dancers, photo, r.)

Encouraging signs include the emerging Studios of Key West program and the many artists involved there portend an exciting future, an example of imagination at work and offer potential for real community development. The changes underway at FKCC may herald a revival in the academic sphere, and their Library has been particularly innovative. SALT, the indigenous journal, along with the several writers' groups who toil, the many artists and artisans, in every field, are all making vital contributions. Creative people are drawn to participate where it is fulfilling, and gives character room to grow. The history of Key West powerfully reflects this and given the international destination it has become, must step up to the changes thrust upon it and embraced.

The social network in Key West is astoundingly rich, in more than simple bank portfolios. Recently, the editor at Solares Hill, however, bemoaned the overwhelming plethora of activities, as in “It’s just All Too Much, Already!” Are we nostalgic for a simpler, less-hectic social life or has urban life we individually and collectively sought to leave behind caught up with our demand to be fed what may just be sugar water? An even more current SH issue raised the troubling question "is Key West where the avante garde go to die?" Maybe we need more nourishing, substantial fare, as the present diet leaves us wanting.

Rather, we must have authenticity, in a world that has come to slavishly prize the fake, faux, phony, pretend, the "reality shows" and the attendant almost surreal nature of media that has mastered inane images and fabricated environments that no longer speaks truth to us. The island and the natural world that spoke to us in ways we may have only grasped like the vapors of unseen floral scents, has become more elusive and we sense the fragility is our own feelings of loss.

These are the considerations facing Java Studios and many Island artists. What contribution can we make to foster the visual, performing and literary arts, to present “media that matters”? As an exhibitor, presenter, collaborator? All during the past season, I’ve had countless encouraging voices of support and it compels me to move forward, to build upon the lessons and experiences of this year. And a hell of a year it's been! While I have entered into discussions and negotiations with commercial property for a possible venue to craft the environment and cultivate these concerns, along with others, I'm also exploring alternative platforms for artists needing a forum, a canvas, a stage, to express their voice and show their vision.

Given these perspectives, the creation and opening of a SALON is now underway. Ideally suited and adapted for Key West, a SALON reflects the cultural style embedded here, and is an idea and practice that has been nurtured particularly as a fertile ground during periods of great transition and flux. This is not to replicate what's already been done but to refresh and renew. Inspiration is not garnered from litanies of what is flawed; it resides in our willingness to restore, redress, reform, recreate, and reimagine.

This positive proposal of a SALON has been simmering for awhile with me and others, and offers a stimulating environment, with diverse programming, eclectic and even mobile, engaging and with potential to impact nearly all facets of the arts community. I trust that through the word, and pen, song, stage, cinema, and the canvas, sculpture, movement in dance, all the works individual artists sweat and labor for, we fashion our future, not merely survival. I believe the community needs it. I know I do. I hope you do, too. A SALON celebrates this.

A SALON that invites solo and group exhibitions and projects. Encourages breakthroughs and innovative, experimental, or avant-garde programs. A preference for conceptually, politically, or thematically driven events. Definitely fun, from spontaneous to season-tailored, from interactive and participatory to classes or subscription. From fixed and mobile platforms, fluid and engaging. In 1998 I couldn't believe Key West didn't have an existing cinema. I set out to change that. Now, I find it equally incredible that the community does not yet have an alternative creative space with which to cultivate the arts. It's time to change this, too.

Should you also be similarly inspired and motivated to be part of the effort to make Key West what you would have it become, and bolster greater artistic expression, here's your chance as I ask for your support, participation and response to this declaration. That you have stayed to read through this (whew) lengthy message/essay - thank you! I am sending this upon my recent return from attending the extraordinary 50th Anniversary of the San Francisco International Film Festival. You can read about the dozens of events and films I have been watching and events participated in at the Java Studios web site, which also posts comment on the diverse media issues of the day. There are at present almost 150 postings. The gathering in San Francisco of the greatest international film community has been invigorating, and revelatory, having met some of the best filmmakers in the world, and film lovers from all walks of life. It has deepened my appreciation for cinema, certainly, and also provided me with renewed motivation and mission to create the “next” community stage.

You are invited to write back and tell me your interest in the SALON. Discussions have been taking place with several of you already, and more sessions are being scheduled in the days ahead to advance this initiative. Your joining is imperative and essential. Together, we'll continue to design and direct our future, our “cultural commons”. And, make this town, CALIENTE!
For the arts, Michael