I enjoyed a lovely patio dinner at Sam’s Café at the Arizona Center a few years ago with a diverse group of seriously smart folks including attorneys, artists, mental health advocates and others I hope will forgive me for the lapse in memory.
Among them was Robert C. Booker, who’d just arrived in Arizona from Minnesota after accepting the position of Executive Director for the Arizona Commission on the Arts.
The Arizona Commission on the Arts is an agency of the Arizona state government. It was established in its earliest form during the mid-1960s, and currently has legislative approval through 2012. The commission is funded by the State of Arizona and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The mission of the commission is ‘an Arizona where people broaden, deepen and diversify their engagement with the arts—as creators, audiences and supporters—in ways that are satisfying and integral to their lives.’
I ran into Booker recently during the 19th Annual AriZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence ceremony at the Herberger Theater Center. (The AriZoni Awards are a local take on the Tony Awards.) He was there to accept a Distinguished Service Award.
When I decided to share a bit of perspective on the arts in Arizona with our readers, my first call was to Booker. Despite his admission that he’s hardly a morning person, Booker had been at the office since 5:30am, going through “piles of stuff” as so many of us do before staff arrive for the daily hustle and bustle.
He also sipped a cup of coffee (I wonder how many of those he goes through in a day), while listening to Macy Gray, Jefferson Airplane and the soundtrack from the movie Forrest Gump.
No wonder I like this fellow.
What follows is the first of a three-part series featuring the observations and reflections Booker shared with me that morning.
First we’ll look at the many strengths of Arizona’s art community. Next we’ll examine some of the challenges. Finally, we’ll explore actions we can all take to move arts in Arizona forward.
Reflecting on the arts in Arizona, Booker says we’re great in some aspects and lousy in others. Atop the ‘great’ list is the diversity of the arts in our state.
Booker notes that we have a very broad range of amateur, avocational and professional artists throughout our larger and smaller communities.
Once case in point: Yuma.
“Yuma,” observes Booker, “is a small community but it has an historic theater and an incredible arts center offering state of the art exhibition facilities.” They have a city arts council, arts festivals, dance and theater companies and a number of working artists (both independent and college affiliated).
“People generally think of Jerome, Bisbee and Sedona as arts towns,” says Booker. “Yuma doesn’t often get the attention it deserves as a town grounded in the arts.”
Booker recommends the book “The 100 Best Art Towns in America” by John Villani for those interested in learning more about hidden art treasures from coast to coast.
Still, he sees in Arizona a depth and breadth of art not enjoyed in other states.
In many ways, reflects Booker, the arts in Arizona reflect the core values of our state.
As a relatively young state, Arizonans treasure their independence. We’re mavericks, he says, and it shows in the independence shown by individual artists throughout the state.
Booker observes that Arizona politicians are rarely the “cookie cutter type,” citing Goldwater as an example of a moderate Republican concerned with the arts and social issues.
The people of Arizona also have a great appreciation for the handmade—such as the jewelry and silversmithing of Navajo and Zuni artists. Because we take pride in the work of our own hands, many of us are creating and buying handcrafted art.
Arizonans also pride themselves in working hard. Consider the many hard working traditions essential to our state—ranching, mining, landscaping and more. These traditions require discipline, a trait that serves Arizona artists—from actors and dancers to painters and poets—well.
Finally, says Booker, Arizonans appreciate other cultures. Consider, for example, our enthusiasm for art from Latino culture.
So there you have it—the good news about art in Arizona. I hadn’t realized there was so much of it. (Are we guilty, perhaps, of only spotlighting our shortcomings to the exclusion of some really wonderful things we are doing here?)
“The arts,” muses Booker, “are thriving in corners all across our state.”
It’s up to us, I suppose, to get out there and enjoy them…
Next: Challenges facing the arts in Arizona