Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How Does Art Benefit a Community?

This week in my classes we are talking about local culture.  I had my students read an essay by a former student about how Fullerton lost the Norton Simon Museum in the 1960s, called “The Great Loss.”  Today, I asked my students to spend some time thinking and writing in response to this: How might Fullerton be different today if it had approved the Norton Simon Museum?  How does art benefit a community?  Here’s what I wrote:

If we look at Pasadena, where the Norton Simon exists today, we get some clues about what Fullerton might have been like if City Council members in the 1960s had not rejected the priceless museum.  Pasadena is a culturally rich area.  Its historic downtown has book stores, galleries, boutiques.  People from outside Pasadena visit it for its cultural amenities, which contributes to the local economy. 

If we look at the proposed site of the Norton Simon Museum in Fullerton, near the present-day Hunt Branch Library, it is not a popular place to visit.  You have some old office buildings, a run down art-deco building that once served as Norton Simon’s office.  You have a self-storage facility, a trophy shop, and other random businesses.  In short, the development of the west side of Fullerton was stifled because the City Council rejected Simon’s proposal.

Rodin sculpture outside Hunt Branch Library in Fullerton, early 1960s.
As someone who grew up in Fullerton in the 80s and 90s, I never really associated the downtown area with rich art and culture.  In the 1980s, it was pawn shops, antique stores, the occasional bar.  I later learned that there were some galleries there in the 80s.  In the 90s and early 2000s, LOTS more bars.

This raises the issue of city planning.  City council decisions have consequences.  The decision to reject the Norton Simon museum had consequences (cultural impoverishment).  The decision to grant a huge amount of liquor licenses had consequences (cultural impoverishment, plus all the problems associated with a massive bar scene—fights, more police, DUIs, etc.)

City Council members, as community servant-leaders, ought to think deeply about the consequences of these kinds of decisions.  Not just the immediate financial consequences, but the long-term consequnces.  If the Norton Simon museum was in Fullerton, generations of school children (myself included) would have grown up being able to see Picassos, VanGoghs, Degas, Rodins on field trips or with their families.

Art museums, galleries, and arts programs can bring enormous benefit to a city—encouraging creativity, exposing people to other cultures and ways of thinking, bringing dialogue, friendship, and genuine community.  As a gallery owner and an organizer of the fledgling Downtown Fullerton Art Walk (which started in 2010), I have witnessed the benefit of cultivating an arts community.  Not only does it economically benefit the city with increased visitors and shoppers, it also creates things that are essential in any healthy city—diversity, real community, collaboration, and an environment that is friendly to everybody.

The Museum that Could Have Been

To read more about the loss of the Norton Simon Museum in Fullerton, click HERE.

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