No, it’s not a lack of funding. It’s not audience development. It’s not the decline of subscription-based ticket sales or the death of decades-long subscribers.
What’s killing the local arts scene is simple: jealousy. And I believe we are all at fault.
A few months ago, I was short-listed for the Stranger’s Genius Awards, the alt weekly’s annual award of a QFC cake and a five-thousand-dollar check to a handful of local artists working in a variety of disciplines. Before I could even pat myself on the back, the hands came out of nowhere – by e-mail, by text and, of course, by Facebook – to pat, to comment, to “like.”
But there was one person I expected to be proud of me – someone who has been a mentor since I began making my cheap wine-soaked roost in Seattle’s arts scene – that couldn’t see me shine. And she wasn’t the only one.
Others slighted me at events. One introduced me at a reading with enough snark to make Tao Lin blush. A good friend didn’t even bring it up, volleying around the usual writerly conversation over beers. Someone talked so much shit to me on Facebook I had to block him.
If you flip back a few pages, you’ll see me listed as one of City Arts' CultureMakers. As excited as I was when I received notification of this honor, I was just as anxious about the backlash. Who would I have to tiptoe around now?
But I have to be honest: I have been jealous, too.
When the City of Seattle and 4Culture announce their grant recipients, I tick down the list bagging the people who’ve been awarded. (I’ve applied four years running and have yet to receive any funding.)
“She lives in Florida. How can the city fund her project?” “She’s a terrible poet. Why would they give her money for that!?!?” “I’ve worked with that guy – total douche.” Same goes for publications and contests – I look at the competition, google their work and begin nitpicking. When the Stranger announced the 2010 Genius Award winners, I thought, “Jim Woodring? His book didn’t even have words.”
And I’m not the only one. I’ve heard countless authors, artists and arts administrators, after a long night at the office, one too many merlots or just a quick wink and a smile, skewer some of your favorite local arts muckety-mucks for one reason only: it’s not them on the mountaintop. Sherman Alexie, Sean Nelson, Nancy Pearl, Lynn Shelton, despite your much-deserved success, I’m afraid none of you are safe.
To be jealous, obviously, is natural and common, particularly in the arts. Italian poet Dante Rossetti feuded with his sister Christina for years because he believed she unfairly received more recognition than he. Bands of every genre, from the Fugees to Van Halen, have all been reared by jealousy’s ugly head. And everyone seems to take shots at Jonathan Franzen since his mug made Time, whether or not they’ve actually read Freedom.
In a small city like Seattle where each of us writers and artists are a degree or two of separation from one another, simple jealousy goes farther than the stem of an empty wine glass. What you say over that glass only rears more jealousy, fooling yourself into believing you haven’t made it to the mountaintop because of someone, something, else — but really it’s just you.
Sure, funding and audience may be limited; however, in my experience, working together and supporting each other – riding each other’s coattails rather than stomping on them – is a healthier way for artists to make do. Besides, collaborations and consortiums are crack cocaine to grantors, and expanding audience is at the top of every arts organization’s wish list.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting a “Kumbaya” session for the local arts scene. Criticism and competition are important aspects of creating art professionally, yet neither necessitates jealousy. If you get the grant, the publication or the Genius and I don’t, I’ll now be the first to offer that pat, that “like.” And then I’ll hunker down and work even harder to beat you next year, next submission. I know I didn’t win because I didn’t work hard enough – not because of Jim Woodring. His book might not have had words, but it was still good enough to win, which says more about my words than his.
So I have a challenge for every writer, artist, dancer, actor, musician, filmmaker and arts administrator in Seattle: next time you’re chewing the fat with others in the community and someone says, for example, “Brian McGuigan is a shitty writer” or “Brian McGuigan sucks as a curator,” don’t defend me. Ask why. And if they have reasons, make your own decisions, but if the jealousy is clear, say so.
And then tell them they just need to work harder.