Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"Where Have All The Artists Gone?"

Recently I made a trip to a little town in New Mexico that I used to live in, Truth or Consequences, along the Rio Grande, once called New Mexico Hot Springs (how it got its name from the 1950's game show is another story).

When I started visiting there 15 years ago I was drawn to it because it was inexpensive to live there, had a friendly, eccentric community of older artists, mystics, alternative healers, poets, and dreamers, and a main street with little artist run galleries.  The pace was New Mexico slow, which meant, shops tended to be open if they felt like it, and all the food was "slow food", but good when it finally arrived.  There was a juice bar called Little Sprout that featured juice and art on the wall, and a big pink former apartment building with inexpensive studios for artists to rent (I ended up renting one for a season).  My dream was to be a New Mexico artist there, and for one season, until family illness forced my return to Tucson, I was.  I even had a show in a local gallery.

I love hot springs,  finding them sacred places that not only heal, but can open "the doors of perception" in various ways. The hot springs at T or C, once called New Mexico Hot Springs, and by other unknown names by earlier native inhabitants, were considered sacred ground - Apache, Mimbres, various other Pueblo peoples, and wandering Yaqui  could go there to heal without fear of  war.  Geronimo and Cochise went there.

 I also love rivers, and the Rio Grande, a turquoise ribbon in the red-brown expanse also brought me there.  A big draw in T or C  was the River Bend, a hostel ($20.00 a night with  more expensive private rooms with a shared kitchen and common area if desired).  They had a number of pools built over the Rio Grande (some of them were built by volunteers who worked there in exchange for free "rent").  It was a pleasure to go to the pools every day at dawn or sunset,  where you could always be inspired by the view and the interesting people you met while soaking  there.  For example, I remember meeting a German man who was biking across the country while writing a book, various kinds of healers and mystics, travelling writers, poets and artists, a group living in an old style bus who were building straw bale houses, an artist who had some unusual theories about the Pleides,,,,,,,,,,,,the pools, and T or C, were an interesting, friendly haven for travelers, eccentrics, artists, and  visionaries without a lot of financial clout, in other words.

I went back to T or C a few weeks ago, and was dismayed by how much it has changed.  Gone are all of the galleries on main street (except Rio Bravo, which has an endowment), including that of eccentric, big hearted Ruth.   (T or C, like most small American towns, long ago lost the prosperity of its old downtown to Walmart and the big box stores on the outskirts.  But it felt much more impoverished now than it did a decade ago.).  Main street now has a lot more empty storefronts, and the galleries have been replaced with junk's sad looking.  The big pink artists studios complex is now just another hotel.  The Black Cat Bookstore is still there, and still hosts poetry readings once a week in season, but the Little Sprout is gone.  There are a few of the "old time  health spas" from T or C's era as a place where people went to "take the cure", but many have been converted into much more gentrified hot spring spas that  are expensive and, to me,  resemble gated communities in the midst of some  pretty obvious New Mexico poverty.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment to me is the River Bend.  Because the pools looked out over the Rio Grande, affording a chance to watch the sunset or sunrise on the river, and because its original layout had a large common area, even a campground along the river, it was a real community gathering place.  It began as a hostel, and although it had more expensive rooms (with a common area to cook) it retained two mobile homes with bunkbeds.

When the original owner retired its character completely changed. The mobile homes were hauled off, the building with a common area became private suites, the campgrounds were plowed over and new private casitas built.   It is a gated community indeed now, with big locked artistic metal walls that make any visibility into that once open courtyard impossible.  Rates begin at $85.00 a night and go up from there, no shared anything, and, on a personal note, an unfriendly  staff that looked at me suspiciously when I inquired about renting a pool to soak in for an hour (I had come off the road, and looked rather disheveled no doubt).

They are prosperous,  obviously, and that prosperity is gated away, physically and spiritually, from the rest of the community. The waters remain the same, but the demographics have changed.  Yes, it is the American Dream - if you can make money, make it.  People like me, who  it might be said brought energy and interest to the place in the beginning,  now stand before a hostile staff and an economically barred gate.  No one seems to notice that something, other than generosity and a sense of community, have been lost along the way.  It's just the "way it is", isn't it?  And "old hippies" like me are relics of the past, along with communes and love-ins.

Spa Landia

A friend called the gentrification of  places we remember as small  enclaves for "artists, cultural creatives, mystics, and soulful eccentrics" Spa Land.  Another word for such interesting, colorful, and messy communities of people and places (before they become Spa Land)  might be "innovation", something that is never very profitable in the beginning, especially if you are in the arts.

It may sound unrealistic in our capitalist society, but many of us aging "cultural creatives"  feel cheated.  We can't afford to do our thing anymore.   We're the people who made these places interesting in the first place, raising the energy with our creativity, while real estate agents followed behind with calculators and teal green formulas for making money off  that attractive glow that was developing where  we landed.  We're displaced - not exactly homeless, but studio-less, gallery-less, arts community-less.

People not unlike us brought our studios and food Co-ops and poetry readings and Reiki classes and crystal sculptures  to Sedona (yes, I remember when crystal dealers sat on the side of the road there with card tables, and there was no such thing as a Teal Green MacDonalds, and people made medicine wheels at the entrance to Boynton Canyon, before there was an exclusive tennis resort and all those "keep out" signs) T or C, or Bisbee, or  for that matter the Haight Ashbury, Soho, the East Village and the Left Banke. 

I've seen it happen everywhere  since more fortunate times  - watching artists warehouses and galleries and small theatres close down  to become restaurants, expensive "live work" condos, or chain stores.   And sadly, no one seems to notice this particular kind of impoverishment, but impoverishment it is.  It's as if people can't tell the difference between a small theatre hosting local playrights .........and Starbucks.  As Ursula Leguin wrote in one of her novels, "no one can tell the difference any more between the true Azure and blue mud."  

I've also seen the ironic other end of the phenomenon:    empty storefronts  waiting for the high rent that property management people feel is "market price", places that previously were lively generators of energy (like the former Muse Community Arts Center) reduced to disposible    "investment property".  What about "investing" in cultural creativity?

Tucson is a good example - there is literature about Tucson's "art district", but compared to what I remember in the 80's, I don't know where it is.   Art galleries  generally don't make money, especially if they are showing experimental or innovative work, and especially now, when so many small businesses are leaving the planet as Walmart and Monsanto become the new global Monarchy.  Without subsidizing rent for an "arts district" in some way now, or at least having some kind of rent control,  it's just not going to happen.

Artists and their Communities as Cultural Incubators

"Yet part of the reason for our collective ignorance about the critical importance of the arts is because we believe that the innovation in the lab — something we can monetize and quantify — is worlds apart from the experimentation in the studio."  
Sarah Lewis, SALON, "Scientists aren't the only innovators!  We really need Artists"
I've kind of reached an age (66, the age of being a cranky old lady, a dirty job but someone has to do it)  where I have no patience for the "why we need arts" argument, as if the human experience was somehow about making money and science, and  human creativity and expression was entertainment or an elective.  

Rainier Maria Rilke, Van Gogh, Herman Melville, Tesla, Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, Paul Gaugain, Egon Schiele, Franze Schubert, William Blake, Vermeer, Monet and most of the Impressionists, Cezanne, Rothko, Pollock, and most of the Abstract Expressionists and Post Modernists........and so on..........

What does this august lineup of historically extraordinary people so celebrated in the arts and the development of Western civilization share in common?

Cheap rent.  Along with poverty in their time.  

Would there have been an Impressionist Movement if there had not been creative but cheap lodging in Paris, and cafes to hang out in and share their ideas? Would there have been Post-Modernism, Abstract Expressionism, a Rothko and a Jackson Pollock,  if there had not been big cheap spaces to rent in Soho's warehouse district?  Would there have been the Beat Poets, the Summer of Love, the Visionary Arts Movement, and all the accompanying social, spiritual, and even technological innovation that came out of that place and time , if there had not been cheap tenements to rent in Haight Ashbury?

Here's something interesting about displacement, by the way, from Bill Moyers, "When the Rich Took Over Our Neighborhood".

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