Monday, November 02, 2009

Be the artist. (and yes, be the Athlete too, why not?)

This Sunday November 1st the 40th NYC Marathon took place under great weather. I ran that Marathon two years ago, after volunteering in my running club’s water station in mile 24 the previous year. I was very inspired by seeing those thousands of runners (over 38,607 finishers in 2007). This Sunday I volunteered once again, this time I got there early enough to help in the preparation: a team of about 60 volunteers from my running club setting up tables with thousands of paper cups with water and Gatorade. And to think that 40 years ago Fred Lebow co-founded this marathon which only 55 runners finished the first time. His enthusiasm and drive were essential in making the running movement in New York grow and turn those 55 runners in 1970 to the estimated 43,475 that finished the marathon on Sunday. I was fired up (to quote my friend and Abreu Fellow Stan, quoting Obama, quoting someone else) thinking this is what Dr. José Antonio Abreu has been doing for almost the same time in Venezuela and Latin America, and now at a global scale!

A couple of weeks ago, Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation visited us and made a presentation about the state of the economy of the arts in the U.S. He talked about how JFK made a policy that Cameron summarized as “see the artist, become the athlete”. This statement helps to understand why there are about 45,000 runners finishing the marathon, another few thousand volunteers, and literally millions of spectators following the race. The challenge for El Sistema USA and the Abreu fellows is to start a new “become the artist” movement, and to amend this JFK-era policy (looking back at it...a crazy idea, coming from a President who loved the arts, as Cameron reminded us). Be the artists. Be part of the movement, it’s good for you, for your body and soul, and it’s good for your community.

In my Arts Administration degree essay about the internationalization of El Sistema, I made a couple of arguments about the current trends in U.S. orchestras missions and the concept of participation in the arts, according to a couple of research institutions. I found (and I might have been a tiny bit cynical, I confess) that orchestras' missions could be summarized as saying "Orchestras exist so that orchestras can exist" (Trying to paraphrase: "XYZ Orchestra's mission is to maintain, promote, preserve, foster the interest, enjoyment, of music making…” and then there’s something about outreach and education) (Yes, I’m being very cynical…sorry, I’m just trying to make my point clear). The other argument is that many of these organizations consider participation as sitting in a concert passively. In few cases “participation” has been seen as actually putting instruments in the hands of people, especially children.

Cameron argues that orchestras mission is to be the conduit for communities to access symphonic music (and that that may not be by presenting concerts!).  After watching the enthusiasm and pageantry, but also the dedication and sacrifice of thousands of people at the marathon, paired with the history of El Sistema in Venezuela and Latin America, I have no doubt that I am standing in the right place at the right moment. It's time for all orchestras, professional, community-based or youth to help everyone become the artists.  Change is in my hands!! Come join us!!!