I must confess, as an artist and resident of the city, I read the headline of Sean T. Smith’s Aug. 14 Backpage Editorial—“Make Jacksonville Great Already”—with a fair amount of skepticism. Here’s why: Again and again, Jacksonville has failed to learn the lessons of larger, more culturally adroit cities. Instead, it has bungled in its attempts to encourage growth.
Then I read the piece and, overall, I agree with Mr. Smith. I believe that the core of what he’s saying is that the greater Jacksonville area has everything it needs in terms of talent to make—at the very least—a good regional impression. However, what this city/county misses is institutional and governmental support. I mean, yes, one can host their party or fundraiser at MOCA Jacksonville, but what might it mean for that institution to host regular, ongoing programs that don’t simply tie into existing exhibitions, but react and respond to current events? (Can you imagine if the museum were to host an air-conditioning sit-in, or a workshop in support of Duval County Public Schools? But I digress.)
“Debt, corruption, stupidity and an almost intentional lack of vision,” wrote Mr. Smith. I circled that phrase because, like Florida Times-Union columnist Nate Monroe’s description of city leadership as “cowardly,” it encapsulates all that is wrong at the top, and this trickles down into every aspect of city maneuvering. Since we’re talking art, however, let’s stay there. In addition to institutional support, there should be folks at those institutions who are here for a while; so the bigger challenge becomes attracting and keeping amazing people in the area.
It seems that roles like full-time arts writer, curator and director seem to be launching pads for folks who want to go off and do bigger things, in cities that matter more. I remember when I first heard that MOCA’s previous director had moved to the beach—I figured she was getting ready to leave. I wasn’t wrong; after living her best seaside life, Marcelle Polednik moved on to Milwaukee. This isn’t a condemnation of Polednik specifically, because (at least) every six months or so, the creative community gets the news that another bright mind is moving away.
Thus, in addition to Smith’s assertion that “culture transforms,” I think we need to think about what attracts. For starters, I’d say that encompasses more folks writing about things in a thoughtful and contextual manner (write about your friends); a healthy-ish gallery scene (like the Off the Grid program) and good public transportation (including appropriate shelters and direct routes). Finally, I’d suggest encouraging artists to stay and engage in Jacksonville will require a sea change from appreciating art, not artists. Of course, many of these ideas are long-term propositions that point to serious structural and cultural changes, and those will require serious commitment on the part of the city of Jacksonville. We need more access and more education, and, well, we can see how that’s going.
Successful cities aren’t successful simply because they have art and artists; they’re alluring because they make plans for the future and also take meaningful risks—not the calculated risk of hiring a former city administrator as a highly paid consultant.
Wagner is an artist and educator. She’s also the former A&E editor of Folio Weekly, and an occasional cultural critic.