Saturday, March 15, 2008

Day 47 "In the trenches" (sleepwalking edition)

Sloggin' along here, and pretty sleepy after a lot of Jameson's last night and a 6am wakeup today.

Missed the one-a-day rule yesterday because there was too much else going on--and because I knew that the day would stretch long: up at 5am, not to bed until after 12:30am. Second in a run of around six St Patrick's gigs: last night's the first iteration of what we hope will be an annual return fixture (reminds me of the old joke about the accordion band who made such a positive impression on the first-ever New Year's gig that they said "can we just leave our gear set-up until next year?") at a top-notch area restaurant which attracts a very interesting and potentially lucrative clientele--lucrative not just for making musician-money, but even more potentially valuable as a developable resource for long-term fundraising and arts advocacy.

See, in a place like this, whose population (+200K) is that of a medium-sized city, but whose city fathers' espoused governing ethos is aggressively--defensively, self-preservationally--small-town, you basically have to make arts initiatives happen on your own. What dollars can be shook loose from the city are overwhelmingly hogged by the notorious music-booker and dinner-theater owner who's made a career art of conflict of interest: advising the city on programming for arts events in such a way that he, and his cronies in the local public-relations machine, are inevitably selected to receive the fat city contracts.

The best example of this is the way in which old-Lubbock small-town good-old-boy mindsets about "that 'Messkin woman from New York", concomitant greedy convictions of entitlement to any profit accruing from the genius of a native son they ignored and slandered when he was alive, and just plain flat stupidity have combined in a perfect storm which rendered if permanently impossible for the city to do anything constructive with Buddy Holly's legacy. They've chased away two museum directors, numerous city arts officers, and Maria Elena Holly herself. And they do this shit over and over again, perpetually thinking in the greedy, self-protective short term instead of actually committing to anything that would improve quality of life and of the arts in this town.

Likewise the time, at the request of the friends of the local museum, that I wrote a report taking off from Richard Florida's "Creative Class" demographic metrics for looking at cities' arts & culture possibilities. Essentially Florida (who has made a very lucrative brand out of a fairly simple concept) identifies "information workers" (interpreted very broadly as everyone from students to professors to data-processors to lawyers to medical personnel to programmers and so on) as the essential demographic who will spend money on quality of life issues like fine & performing arts, touring artists, good restaurants and interesting shops, revitalizing urban areas, loft space, etc. He measures presence or absence of the demographic by various indicators: obvious ones like # of college degrees per thousand, household income, and so on; but also by less obvious indicators like: # of patents per ten thousand and--crucially for this story--the presence of a visible gay community. His argument, confirmed by my own empirical observation and experience, is that such groups, including specifically GLBT communities, tend to choose communities based upon the possibility for these sorts of positive quality of life attributes--and that they not only choose such attributes, but also can help bring them into being.

So I wrote this report, did the research, provided the footnotes and charts and bar graphs, and turned it in to the chair of the board for her review before submitting it to the city council. I got a call from the chair (a 60-ish "arts lady" who was an amateur painter and whose perspectives and presumptions are the sort that pretty much dominate fine-arts funding here), who told me "well, I'm just about ready to turn in your report to the Council tomorrow at their 7am meeting...but I had to make a few changes."

I said, "Uh...excuse me?"

She said, "Well, of course I had to go through and take out all the references to The Gays."

I said "You what?"

She said, "Oh, don't worry: it's still got your name on it. But I had to take out all the references to The Gays, because if the Council ever saw those, they wouldn't read any further."

I said "If you turn in that report in a bowdlerized form, take my goddamned name off it."

Which she did.

At the next board meeting, I was steaming but trying to let it go by, and would perhaps have succeeded, had she not heaved a big sigh, and told everyone "well, I turned in Dr Coyote's report, but the Council wouldn't even discuss it. I guess it just wasn't the right approach."

At that point, I more-or-less exploded--though at least in slow motion. I said "Mary Ann, you altered my report. How on earth can you know whether the council would have discussed it if it wasn't even the original report?!?"

She said "No, I didn't!"

Dumbstruck, I said "You called me the night before and told me that you were taking out all the references to 'The Gays'!"

She said "No, I didn't call you, I never said that! I have nothing against The Gays!"

I resigned.

The point here is you can make arts initiatives work anywhere, but that typically the "initiative" has to be your own--because those who are in with the power structure have far more of an investment in maintaining their cozy relationship with the power structure than with doing anything new--because "new" implies "change" and "change" threatens the status quo.

And yet this city has been changing all around these bozos in power, and they don't even realize it. Both physical topography, tax-per-square-foot in different and new neighborhoods, new businesses and relocating industry, all point toward these changes--but the good old boys are still operating as if it was 1969 and they had to keep all those raggedy pot-smokin' artists and musicians from muddyin' the waters for all the respectable sorts.

The result is that I don't work with the city anymore, and I counsel others to similarly avoid. There's people on the city staff who I respect, but they are hamstrung and subverted by the network of good ole boys who want to keep channeling the tax dollars for the arts straight into their own feed-troughs. I'll bust my ass for arts initiatives, on- and off-campus, both solo and in collaboration--but I won't sit on a committee with those jerks and I won't let the city have a say in what we do.

The result of that is that we have to be far more self-reliant, and have to constantly develop, tend, and expand our potential network of both audience and donors. There are a hell of a lot of people--now--in this town who fit Florida's metrics, even if the good ole boys at the city haven't figured it out yet. The trick is to cut the city right out of the equation, and find a way to bring the arts initiatives and the donor-opportunities directly to the target. So you have to figure out how to reach those folks, and go there.

Hence to last night's gig. This place is a top-notch restaurant, started by a young married couple who went through the Houston Culinary institute but decided they'd rather own a business in their home town than submit themselves to the 10 or 15 years of peripatetic travel through the world's 5-star kitchens until they could find investors to start a place in New York or Atlanta or Houston or San Fran. She's the chef and he's the baker and their food is stunning. They've been smart as hell in shaping a profile for their business: they're open mornings for coffee & pastry, and for weekday lunches and Sunday brunch--and that is flat it: no dinners, no Saturdays, no late nights. They spent almost nothing on decor or the space (just a storefront in a strip mall), but the ingredients, menus and preparation are first quality. Every meal will have an ethnic entree, a vegetarian option, and--most wisely and acutely for this demographic--a "Blue Plate Special" that's down-the-middle W TX comfort food: chicken & dumplings, chicken-fried steak, pot roast, grits on the side, or something similar--but the best, freshest, most delectable version of that dish you ever had.

So the clientele that has developed over the past 18 months is that clientele who care about excellent, fresh, imaginative, healthy food--but who also want to be able to bring their elderly relatives to the place and say "don't worry, Grandma, they have chicken & dumplings that are almost as good as yours!" and Grandma will be happy and so will they. At any given Sunday brunch, you have the following key arts demographics:

all the Good Methodists and Baptists who've just come from church--who may not trust the artists' personal lives, but can sing their asses off themselves and, being old-school W Texans, respect live music;

all the suits from City Hall, and upper management in the local telecom and high-tech industries, including the progressive Republicans who are fine with The Gays as long as the overall property values continue to trend upward;

all the local electronic media types: weather forecasters, local news anchors, etc, who probably have a better handle on how electronic advertising reveals demographic shifts;

a ton of University faculty and Medical Center staff (lotta professors and doctors);

a sizable representation from both gay and lesbian communities.

In other words (with the region-specific exception of the Good Christians listed first above, who in this area still wield a lot of financial clout), the clientele at this restaurant, for a Sunday brunch or for a one-off "special reservations-only theme dinner" (Valentine's, New Year's, particular...St Patrick's Day), is virtually a carbon copy of Florida's Creative Class.

So you want to sell to them.

So we did. We suggested that perhaps the restaurant would like to do a special St Patrick's dinner, and that perhaps we could play music for it. And it worked: we played for both seatings, sold a bunch of CDs, saw a bunch of the movers & shakers, and made certain, more importantly, that they saw us.

Interesting experience. Most of our playing is either in pubs (where the drunks and smokers may or may not be paying attention), coffeehouses (where the posing high-school children almost certainly are not), festivals (where they're usually paying attention but the sets are usually attenuated, and sidelined by "Celtic Rock" bands (definition of "Celtic Rock"? a bad rock band with a piper, a fiddler, and/or, typically, kilts), or, on some occasions when we play for private functions (where the doctors and lawyers and professors are usually thinking of us as background music).

This was different. Here, where they hadn't ever had music before, we took over the space before the crowd ever came in--which meant that it was a different, charged, magical space when they did. I was remembered of the accounts the old people have shared with me, of the great piper Seamus Ennis walking into Friels's pub in Miltown Malbay in West Clare in the 1950s, and striding for the back kitchen where he would hold court on the pipes, shrugging off his jacket and holding it into the crowd as he passed, knowing that someone would respectfully gather it up and hang it so as not to crease; as his son Christopher told me, "it was like a prince returning to his country."

In the old days--the old old days--the great pipers and harpers didn't deign to play in a pub, unless it was a public house known to be especially attentive and respectful of music. They would rather play in the back rooms of private homes--humble or majestic--for an invited audience who could be counted upon to listen with respectful attention while the master held forth. I don't have much use for aristocracies and, to paraphrase Harry Flashman, "my opinion is that the very best thing you can do with a genealogy is hang it up on the wall in Bedlam," but I can't deny that some of the most positive and respectful experiences I've ever had playing music for pay have been for either (a) the very poorest--Portuguese fishermen's weddings in Gloucester Mass or drunken bachelor farmers in Connemara; or (b) the very wealthiest--among others, the Romanovs, various ambassadors, or, as here, the doctors and lawyers and executives who are this town's version of an aristocracy.

Sitting there drinking Irish whiskey and playing tunes at our own pace, I thought of Seamus Ennis.

Here's the menu:

irish breakfast:
house made lamb sausage, irish blarney cheese, and roasted chive yukons
and fried quail eggs with soda bread

butter poached salmon with fresh sorrel
and a malt vinegar reduction

guinness braised beef short ribs
on colcannon irish potatoes and cabbage

irish coffee bread pudding

No comments: