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THE CITY OF SURREY, BRITISH COLUMBIA, decided it was time to get more serious about the arts. Only they didn’t undertake the task in the fashion other municipalities had tried. Believing that every aspect of the arts was vital to any future life the city had, they laid out some clear markers:

  • they would develop 6 community public art plans, identifying sites and themes for the public arts around the city
  • Surrey would compile an inventory of public and private sector cultural assets, services and facilities n the city – identifying gaps and needs
  • seek to identify needs, opportunities, space and operational requirements for a decentralized model of arts and heritage
  • identify space and resource requirements for the growth and preservation of cultural and art collections
  • assess needs and roles for effective communication of cultural values and benefits by public and community stakeholders
  • identify cultural spaces and amenities in city centre development plans

What’s important here is the sheer comprehensive nature of their undertaking. This wasn’t about merely supporting one group or another, but was instead an inspiring attempt at getting every sector of the community to buy in. Just like other communities, Surrey had been through its own economic difficulties and it would have been easy to place what many regarded as the “soft stuff” on the back burners in favour of the harder financial realities. City leaders quickly discerned the fallacy in such an approach, reasoning that if citizens lost the ability to express their emotions and celebrate, then economics alone would lead to a diminished municipality.  Numerous cities have cultural prosperity plans, but Surrey actually implemented theirs.  Great cities find a way to get it done.

What’s the point of living on the same streets if we merely become an audience. Visionary community planners understand that citizens must become players in their own performances and the best way to achieve that is to inspire them – not just with amazing arts but in giving a city some soul. As David Binder puts it:

“Twenty-first-century arts festivals] ask the audience to be a player, a protagonist, a partner, rather than a passive spectator.”

Those communities that make art to be solely about money have forgotten how they initially came together through community singing, acting out life in real-time, and painting the essence of a streetscape. Only as communities grew could they eventually sustain concert halls and art galleries – a great step in their respective evolutions as communities.  Any aspiring city should seek out the arts and support them at their very best.  And when they are performed at their very best, the arts help a city to become a showcase to the world.

A city that no longer has something to sing, act, or draw about inevitably loses those higher levels of the arts that can inspire entire communities through talented performances. It is through the arts that we learn to dream together, to feel the same collective emotional tug to weep or laugh, to mourn, or to live with purpose. Participatory democracy is better flamed through the passion of the human spirit than through any other source and it is often through the culture of a city that this passion is resourced.

There are those who occasionally imply that cities and their huddled masses will destroy themselves. We have yet to see it. Just two words remind us of just how resilient cities are: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their future seemed obliterated in a millisecond, yet today they thrive, having overcome some of the worst humanity could throw at them and prevail as robust communities.

In reality, cities can survive against the most amazing odds. They come back from floods, famine, conflict, poverty, and political catastrophe because in the end their citizens still dream and find way of using their emotions, intellect, and willpower to forge their own future.

If communities die, it will be mostly because individual lights went out over the process of time. People lose hope. They feel the odds against them are too great. They grow isolated, losing the humanity in one another. The bulbs burn out and the light is gone. It is for the very purpose of restoring the human soul and spirit that the arts were born.

Why a community flourishes is every bit as important as how it does so, and it is often through the presence of artistic communities in our midst – amateur and professional – that the will to actually be a great city is generated. The day a city can no longer find its purpose will also be the day that culture must rescue it. “To be or not to be” never came from a corporate or political leader, but from a writer. The ability to find ourselves and lose ourselves in the same moment is the gift of art. And no city can ever dance when its leaders can no longer hear the music. The question should never be whether we can afford culture; it should be how can we possibly survive without it.