Arts vs. Social Services Displacement

March 6, 2015

Mami always railed about the neighborhood doctors wanting to prescribe her anti-anxiety medication.  In bombed-out, famously violent East New York Brooklyn it seemed like everyone was on meds of some sort, prescribed and otherwise.

Whenever the doctors wanted to write her a prescription for some chill pills she would, talking to no one in particular in the kitchen, say “Quieren darme pastillas , pero no voy a tomarlos!”    Maybe she should have – she certainly had a lot on her mind. Raising her kids in a very dangerous neighborhood that was burning down all around us, living in a substandard apartment that eventually got condemned by the city as “unfit for human habitation” (that’s what the big orange poster outside read in big block letters when I came home from school one day).  And even that nice lady who came with the clipboard from time to time, which always curiously caused us to hide the mini toaster oven – and papi’s shoes – in the closet; something about her made mami nervous. As kids we all took it in and still went out in the street to play, but for her life must have been very stressful.

But no to those damn pills! mami would say.   Instead she would put on her music from the island, and sing, every day, every night, for as long as I can remember.  Music was her therapy.  Music was her social service.

I’ve been thinking about the arts and social services ever since last fall’s supervisorial candidates forum on the arts, which was a bummer.  With the exception of one there were uninspiring presentations all around, and candidates arriving late and leaving early – clearly arts organizations are not a constituency to contend with.

I heard two points from District 6 Supervisor Kim.  First, city hall doesn’t know what the arts community wants as there is no advocacy voice presenting a coherent message.  In regards to the annual city budget process this is indeed true, and an exciting new movement – Arts for a Better Bay Area – is in the works to address that.

The second point Supervisor Kim made was that displacement of arts groups is a cyclical phenomenon, and that most groups eventually land somewhere.  This is arguably also true, though of course it begs several questions: What about the groups that don’t land on their feet?  Are we okay with cyclical displacement of arts organizations?  What if they’re displaced out of our neighborhood?  Should supervisors do everything they can to work against losing neighborhood arts organizations, capacity and resources to other districts?

Here’s another question: Would we casually accept this dynamic of cyclical displacement if we were talking about social service organizations?  That seems highly unlikely.  Maybe the arts advocacy community should think of embracing a new tagline: Arts, the original social service.   I bet that would score the arts more respect.   (I know mami would dig that!)

Candidate Tony Kelly offered what, to me, was the only inspiring comment of the evening when he said “yes the arts are notoriously difficult to organize, but that doesn’t mean we, as city leaders, should not look after their interests.”