• Economics, Age, and Art in Staunton, Virginia

    I spent the weekend at the Innovate LIVE conference here at Staunton. It was two and a half days of forums and panels that focused on community, entrepreneurship, solopreneurship, local economy, small business, etc. I met a lot of people and I was able to take part in really important discussions. I don’t often take part in these kinds of community endeavors. But I’ve been trying to make a point of “getting out there” and seeing what kind of helpful connections I can make for both the betterment of my community and my own life. Meghan Williamson and I had coffee a few weeks ago and we discussed what this conference might look like. She convinced me that I should be a part of it—if only because I’m always complaining about the micro and macro problems of being a 20-something creative.

    My friends Nelly Anderson, Angus Carter, and Piper Groves were on the panel for the Art and Community discussion. Unfortunately, it was moderated by someone who clearly didn’t have the time or patience to understand the immense economic and age divides that are at work here (and, I think, in the United States in general). It weighed heavy on my mind during the panel because the night before Hank, Angus, and I had attended an art opening at a local gallery (that caters mainly to the older and more traditional art scene here in town). We were standing on the outskirts of the crowd talking quietly about the two artists who were showing when a docent from the gallery (an older woman) walked up to us and started making “shooing” motions. At first, I thought she was trying to walk through our group to get to the other side of the room, but then I noticed that there was plenty of space to walk around us. She said something about being quiet (we were definitely some of the quieter guests because, you know, old people talk loudly) and moving toward the main galleria. Then she actually did walk directly between us toward the other parts of the crowd and didn’t make those motions or say those words to any of the other (older) guests. We felt like we had been particularly targeted and we couldn’t figure out why. (I hadn’t even taken advantage of the free wine!)  

    When the moderator of the panel at Innovate LIVE the next day brought up that she felt like she did all she could to attract the younger crowd, I couldn’t help but bring up what had happened. I said the docent had been incredibly rude to the youngest people in attendance and—for what? She immediately dismissed me as overreacting. Therein lies the problem. I know that being “shooed” is a terrible insult. I know that there are plenty of larger problems looming in these divides. This is a small moment—but an indication of a bigger problem.

    Of course, it’s also a matter of economics. The older artists in town can afford to be artists. The younger artists (who, lets face it, often make more interesting work) hustle hard to keep their heads above water. The older artists and patrons don’t see that. It’s almost as if they don’t ever consider how the Recession directly affected younger people. It’s so frustrating. I recently found out that a bit of guerilla marketing that the Dwell Collective, the younger and more progressive art space, benefited from was purposefully faked in order to incite a conversation. I’m not sure that it was so successful—though local shops did make a little money off of t-shirts inspired by the piece.

    Maybe we need to actually sit down and have an honest conversation about the art community in Staunton. When I said my piece about feeling unwelcome, Meghan thanked me for being so honest. She said “I was hoping this panel would lead to someone saying some honest shit.” Leave it to me to be that person!

    So I’ve decided that when my friend Cleveland Morris, a worshipped deity in the old guard Staunton arts community, gets back from his vacation (vay-cay-what? never heard of it), I’m going to see if he would be interested in helping me set up an honest forum. The old and young community members could come together and start communicating with one another without being mired in apologies or dismissals.