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Involve the Public in the Arts

By Marion R. Behr & Omri M. Behr
ART TIMES September 2005

The arts community has been self-interested and self-supporting for a long time and has been moderately successful at it. Unfortunately wider support has been fraying at the edges. Not only is public arts funding constantly in peril but it is the first area to be cut when school district budgets are under pressure. Sports donít get cut, math doesnít get cut, so why the arts?  Any one who is aware of 500 channels on TV must realize that not only is arts training a good thing as far as culture is concerned but it actually has the potential to make a lot of money, not only for the art workers but also for the massive entertainment industries which thrive in the US and are responsible for massive export income. So what is the problem? The voting majority in the US does not understand this because, by and large, they have not been led to participate in a serious manner after nursery school.

Our experience teaching abroad has given us some ideas that may be useful. Marion had been working as a printmaker, specifically; she had been doing acid based etching for several years and became sick from acid fumes. She was bending over a plate, feathering it for a long time to create a deep embossment. How could etching be done without the toxic effects of acid on the printmaker and the environment? After discussions together we tried the idea of low voltage anodic etching that is the flip side of electroplating. This type of etching has been used industrially for decades but had the side effect of generation of explosive gasses, which does not occur at very low voltages (about the same as an AA battery). The surprising result was that instead of the smooth etch of acid, the etched lines in a plate had a rough internal surface, which not only held the ink better but actually simulated a light aquatint on open bite without rosin, especially on copper. The process allows the use of virtually all traditional etching techniques, and also provides the opportunity to work a plate as often as desired, which is not present in most other non toxic etching methods. It is also so safe that our 9-year-old granddaughter was able to use it by herself. Our findings led to the grant of US and foreign patents as well as a grant from the Charles Lindbergh Foundation. This enabled us to develop the method, teach and install it around the world.

Our teaching trips exposed us to positive art attitudes which merit consideration here. On Holman Island, 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the NorthWest territories of Canada, there is a craft and printmaking co-op, which has been in existence for about 40 years. The Inuits in the co-op were not only skilled printmakers in their own right, but adapted very rapidly to our plate making method. The interesting thing about the studio was its openness to the whole community; children and non-member adults just wandered in and were welcome. Word of the simplicity of the process spread quickly and a young woman who worked in the motel where we were staying asked to do a plate; she was not an artist, but quickly produced a lovely image. We do not know to what extent making art is a tradition among Inuits in general, but the openness of the studio clearly rapidly generated an interest in the community at large.

Asilah is a small seaport town about 30 miles south of Tangier on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. A century or so ago it used to be a pirate hangout; when the chief pirate retired from operations it became a sleepy fishing village. About 30 years ago, the young mayor of the town had a bright idea (he is now an ex ambassador to the US and presently foreign minister of Morocco). He and a classmate had studied art, so why not create an annual arts festival in the town? Now the old town is spotlessly clean, and artistically inclined people from all over Europe have bought houses there. Every August there is a conference of writers, poets and intellectuals, there is a major art show, the print studio is populated by artists from all over the world and invited painters decorate the whitewashed walls of the town. These murals remain until before the next yearís festival. Needless to say the finances of this town and its suburbs are very healthy.

New Zealand is a thinly populated country with very little surplus, but it has found innovative ways to stimulate artists and interest in the arts. Its three largest cities have excellent museums of Maori and western art.  The newest museum in Christchurch exhibits and compares classical art i.e. Rembrandt and contemporary New Zealand art in a very instructive manner.

Individual artists and craftspeople are supported by the simplest publicity. Every highway outside the towns has blue street signs directing the traveler to wherever the local studios are located. It costs the locality virtually nothing, but clearly encourages the arts.

In the coastal town of Omaru, local businesses contribute blocks of local limestone and every two years artists, not necessarily sculptors, are invited to create what they will, in a month, in one of the public parks. The local interest is huge and the finished works are then auctioned off for the benefit of community services.

Wanganui is a small town on the North Island, which used to be the center of the now virtually defunct railroad system. It has a thriving arts college located in old warehouses and a printmaking department with a unique method of ensuring the continuation of the art they teach. The have designed a readily disassemblable printing press. Each student in the department is required to buy the parts, build the press and take it home after graduation. Needless to say printmaking is alive and well in New Zealand.

We donít know which of these ideas can be introduced into the US, but we hope these thoughts will stimulate approaches to wider community interest and support for the arts that they and this nation need and deserve.    

(Marion Behr is an artist and Omri Behr is a Patent Attorney. They are principals in ElectroEtch Enterprises LLC and can be reached at 377 River Road, N. Branch Stn NJ 08876-3554. E mail to Electroetch@prodigy.Net)

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