Alan Larkin’s Speech for the ArtLights Award Ceremony
The Importance of Citizenship and the State of the Visual Arts in South Bend
I feel very privileged to be standing here today accepting this award, the Carlotta Banta award for excellence in the Arts. Since nobody accomplishes anything without the help and support of a lot of people I would like to acknowledge them. First of all the museum and its excellent director and staff, my former school Indiana University South Bend, the artists who assisted me in understanding my craft, my patrons, my business partners, and my friends. I know who you are and I’m eternally grateful.
Let us also acknowledge the woman for whom the award has been named. More than 70 years ago she had the vision to push for the creation an art center and ultimately managed to achieve it through the generosity of a bequest and with the help of her friends. I am speaking of course of Carlotta Banta, a public school elementary teacher, a lover of art, a person who understood the true meaning of citizenship.
It’s not just about you.
And it’s not just about now.
(remember that we are not alone) (remember the people who will follow us)
Carlotta Banta was widowed at a very young age and never remarried or had children. She stayed in the same home for the rest of her life and died there, suggesting in her will that the museum association that she asked to be founded could move into her home. This still stands on West Jefferson street a few blocks from here. Carlotta Banta saw her art center as a place where children could express themselves and learn to be creative beings. She knew that this would produce strong returns over time for the city. After her death her vision gradually became a reality, and the museum has fulfilled her vision through its excellent facilities and educational programs.
But there is yet more work to do.
Looking at our community as I have for the past forty years I have seen that South Bend has has not reached far beyond its museum. We have not, for instance, sustained commercial art galleries very well or for very long, and we need to do this.
In part this is because the visual arts are currently in a strange relationship to the culture at large. The art that commands the attention of our large urban centers, of our critics and our richest markets has deliberately sequestered itself from even educated society. Apparently if you find it hard to love this art, you must be a hick. Secretly we can’t believe what people pay for contemporary art. It’s hard to believe that any painting could be worth tens of millions of dollars. And if it is, then clearly it’s not possible for ordinary souls to know anything about what is good or what is bad.
I don’t think that we feel that way about the other arts. Not books, music, theater or film.
I actually believe that time will solve this problem. The digital world encourages us to look at many images, to compare and contrast what we see, to discuss it, to impart a kind of value to things in an entirely natural way. This brave new world is an art school already!
The hicks no doubt will ultimately get their revenge.
Seeing art in person is a different experience and an important one.
We need more opportunities to do this here. Historically, in places like New York, Chicago, and LA, the arts exerted a multiplying effect. There was a symbiotic relationship between the arts and economic growth. Affluence encouraged curiosity and intellectual engagement, which in turn generated wealth.
We are seeing this same effect in many other places in our country now, even in the state. Look at Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, places where there are many galleries, they are beautiful modern cities.
And now look! Aren’t you proud of what our city is becoming? Many have worked hard on this for years.
Think of the city as an artistic enterprise. We’re engaged in a collaborative and multidisciplinary art problem, involving a number of individuals. Not only our artists but:
Our architects and city planners who design our buildings and public spaces;
Our entrepreneurs who take the risks, find the money, and make these places possible;
Our community leaders and above all our citizens who establish the web of civility which makes society possible.
Each of us can be a Carlotta Banta, one voice fearlessly raised in support of a good idea. Many good ideas make a strong community. A community of such voices could be a very powerful thing.
One final thought – my former colleague at IUSB, the political scientist John Lewis, once gave a speech to the academic senate entitled South Bend – Athens on the Saint Joe in which he made the observation that contemporary South Bend has a comparable population to that of classical Athens, one of the great centers of western civilization. With all that that implies.
Let’s keep this thought moving forward.