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Culture: the newest of Arizona's 'Cs'

April 13, 2011

Approximately eight months ago, Betsy Fahlman was invited to take on an assignment that could be called thankless at best: “In the next 8 months I’d like you to create and edit a 200-page report, and recruit the authors – whom you won’t be able to pay.”

Fahlman, professor of art history, accepted, and her work is now complete. The product is a 236-page report titled “Capitalizing on Arizona’s Arts and Culture,” which will be the “textbook” for the 98th Arizona Town Hall May 1-4 in Tucson.

This is the first time the Town Hall report has focused entirely on arts and culture, according to Tara Jackson, Town Hall president. “But it’s also about the economy – the relevance of arts and culture in economic development,” she added.

The process of producing a report for Town Hall follows the same pattern, no matter what the subject matter. First, the editor meets with the Town Hall research committee to discuss what the report’s content and scope should be.

One of the debated points for Fahlman’s report was whether or not it should include architecture, Jackson said. And when the committee agreed it should, Fahlman recruited noted Valley architect Will Bruder to write about how architecture “defines our sense of place.”

Fahlman, who is sometimes described by friends and colleagues as the “energizer bunny” or a whirling dervish,” characteristically plowed into the project full steam, enlisting 39 arts administrators, educators, gallery owners, artists, librarians and others to write chapters for “Capitalizing on Arizona’s Arts and Culture,” which set a record, according to Jackson. “In this report, the number of authors is unprecedented,” she said.

The report also includes photos, poems, drawings and other illustrations by noted artists and writers, including Janet Echelman (whose floating sculpture “Her Secret is Patience” is on the cover), Mark Klett, Carole Jarvis, Alberto Rios and Tiffiney Yazzie.

In her introduction to “Capitalizing on Arizona’s Arts and Culture,” Fahlman, who has studied Arizona’s New Deal art extensively, notes that “Arizona’s first artist-visitors were dazzled by the state’s geographically impressive landscape, while others sought inspiration in the rich heritage of the region’s Native American culture. The paintings and photographs they produced helped define the state’s national image to those unable to travel to the far West. From the start, art and economics were intertwined in Arizona.”

Perhaps the first major art transaction involving Arizona, Fahlman said, was the sale by artist Thomas Moran of a large painting of the Grand Canyon in 1873 for $10,000 – to Congress.

And the first significant act of public arts patronage in Arizona came at statehood “when Lon Megargee was commissioned to paint fifteen mural-sized canvasses for the State Capitol. The artist was paid $250 apiece, receiving a total of $4,000, and the Arizona Republican (newspaper) celebrated the fact that there would be ‘Art Galore for Capitol.’”

Before Arizona became a state in 1912, “the arts were a rare commodity in Arizona, and it would be a long time before Culture took its place beside the ‘five Cs’ that are the historic foundation of Arizona’s economy – Copper, Cattle, Citrus, Climate, and Cotton,” Fahlman noted.

But according to her introduction, “Culture” has taken a beating in the last few decades.

“As documented by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, public funding for the arts in Arizona was at its highest in fiscal year 2007, at 65 cents per capita. The state then ranked 33rd in the nation. In fiscal year 2010, Arizona’s legislative allocation in support of the arts fell to 15 cents per capita (the national average was $1 per capita) lowering our rank to 47th in the nation.”

When Fahlman was invited to edit the report, she said yes without hesitation. “It struck me as the perfect task for me, as I am very much oriented to real world issues relating to the arts,” she explained. “I have a long and extensive record of public service in the arts (20 years in public art with Scottsdale and Tempe, extensive lecturing around the state for the Humanities Council, board service, etc.).”

During the fall and spring semesters, while she was contacting authors and reading their essays, she was given a one-course load reduction for both semesters and a research assistant for fall.

“This put me completely out of the formal classroom for the academic year, though each semester I had 150-200 students in my online history of photography course and 25 interns,” Fahlman said.

The first part of the process involved meeting with numerous people involved in the state’s arts and cultural activities, seeking both chapter authors and suggestions of other possible writers and topics.

Fahlman said, “I consulted with many, many individuals in the arts and culture sector, and spent countless hours on the light rail (I got a lot of murder mysteries read in transit).

“Early on, I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted the report to look like, in that I aimed for the usual suspects be present, as well as voices not normally included in such a report. I also wanted to highlight points of pride in Arizona, areas in which we had achieved national leadership and recognition (for instance, public art).

“Since this was the 98th background report put out by the Arizona Town Hall – and the first ever since their founding in 1962 on the arts – I knew it had to be a substantive one that would clearly convey the state of the arts in Arizona.”

Fahlman admits she “got a little obsessed as the report took over my life.”

Previous reports had averaged 10 chapters and 10 authors, but “Capitalizing on Arizona’s Arts and Culture” includes 23 chapters by the 39 authors, seven art works by eight artists, and three poems (one written specifically for the report).

Fahlman chose to include art works “to convey something of the character of Arizona’s vibrant arts community. But the art works also had to suggest some of the broader issues facing the state (development, transit, etc.).”

One of the most satisfying aspects of her job as editor was meeting “so many amazing, committed individuals who have remained enthusiastic, even amidst the many daunting economic challenges currently facing the state.”

And the most important lesson she learned from editing the report is how deeply the arts, economy and education are interconnected.

“The arts are often accused of not having the kind of good, crunchy statistical data that exists in other fields. But that view is wrong. Take a look at all the charts, tables, and studies in ‘Capitalizing on Arizona Arts and Culture’ and you will find that there is a wealth of hard information that supports precisely why the arts are important to Arizona’s economy and what a huge contribution they make to the state as a whole.

“The arts and culture dollar is often stretched very thin, yet it makes an excellent return on monies invested, revealing that supporting the arts reaps positive benefits for the communities that invest in them.”

Fahlman added that the “creative economy” plays a significant role in both attracting and retaining a diverse pool of well-educated and innovative knowledge workers.

“Such individuals, who include a younger demographic, often want more than a job and a salary, and issues relating to quality of life and community building are important to them.

“Arizonans may want to consider this, as they work to stabilize the state’s economy so as to remain nationally competitive within a global marketplace. The arts can contribute significantly to this process.”

For more information on Arizona Town Hall, and to see “Capitalizing on Arizona’s Arts and Culture,” go to