Starving Picasso's Giraffe

Putting art on a diet of worms is penny-wise and pound foolish

My Aunt Leona never had much use for frivolous things. She grew up in Tennessee, worked as a sharecropper, dropped out of school early and joined the migration from the rural south to the industrial north in 1943. She ended up running a sort of general store in the slums of Chicago, where Studs Terkel interviewed her for his 1967 book Division Street America. He quotes her this way: "I guess I worked all my life since I been big enough. So that's all I think of doin'. ... I watch television if I get a chance. I don't get much of a chance. You open six or seven o'clock, you run till eight that night. I'm sorry I don't go to church much. I don't have time."

It may seem odd that a woman who didn't have time for God or even television made time for Picasso one summer afternoon in 1968 and gave me my first lesson in art.

I was 15, and my mother sent me to help out at Aunt Leona's store because Uncle Newell was in the hospital. The Chicago I saw through the windows of my aunt's store was squalid, ugly and dangerous. At night, Aunt Leona barred the doors with heavy wood planks. All I wanted to do from the moment I arrived was go home.

Chicago's new outdoor Picasso sculpture had been unveiled recently to much ballyhoo and public scorn. Of course, I didn't know that at the time and didn't care. I'm not sure why she dragged me to see his sculpture. Maybe it was on the way to the hospital or the little stand where she and her friend Hazel liked to get Vienna sausages and root beer. Maybe she just wanted to see for herself what all the fuss was about. All I know is that some part of my small, limited world was expanded that day and my mind was pried open.

A work of art unto herself, Aunt Leona resembled a parade float, weighing close to 300 pounds and wearing a bright orange dress with huge white polka dots as she sized up the sculpture, harumphing over its cost to taxpayers. She put her hands on her hips, glared up at the towering monster and said, in a voice that could have shattered glass, "It don't look like nothing more than a big cross-eyed giraffe to me."

It did look like a giraffe, and to this day that's the first thing that comes to mind when I see it.

The second thing that comes to mind is the sensation of walking around this giant, unimaginably exotic creature, and discovering so much more than a giraffe. From every angle it took on a different meaning, a different feel, from playful to predatory, from vaguely familiar to utterly alien. It spoke of places and ideas I had never imagined before. It was awesome, mysterious, electrifying.

There are many arguments in favor of government funding for the arts. Cultural agencies at the local, state and national levels have done economic impact studies to show that the arts are good for the economy. Scholars have studied the effects of music and art therapy on physically and emotionally debilitated people. Art, literature and theater have maintained an historical record outside the official version of events.

My aunt's lesson is that large government expenditures for art can be a tough sell to people who don't know its value. But the other lesson is this: It's worth the battle because good art can uplift everyone, even a wretched, ignorant teenager stuck in a soul-crushing place.

That's the message Florida's lawmakers and governor need to hear as they prepare the next state budget. Last year, they slashed more than two-thirds of the cultural funds, from $47-million the previous year to $14.1-million this year, decimating funds for arts in education, museums, libraries, historic preservation, arts touring programs, and grants to artists and cultural groups. More damaging yet, the legislature raided the 14-year-old Cultural Institutions Trust Fund, eliminating a recurring source of income for the arts and transferring $14-million from the trust fund to the state's general revenue fund.

Cultural workers know that the arts are the first to face the budget ax in tough times, so they were prepared to take their lumps along with everyone else when this year's budget was being prepared. But the magnitude of the cuts took them by surprise.

This year, as Jeb Bush writes his budget, some arts advocates are struggling to restore cultural funding to pre-slash-and-burn levels. Sherron Long, President of the Florida Cultural Action Alliance, sounds confident about their chances — even though the Florida Department of State Divisions of Cultural Affairs and Historical Resources is officially asking for only $15.2-million, barely a smidge over last year's miserly $14.1-million. Long, who has long fought the vicissitudes of Florida's fickle funding for culture, is aiming higher. She wants the whole $47-million — and restoration of funding sources for the raided trust fund. "It's an election year," she says, "and we're more organized and united."

One of the biggest challenges they face, says Long, is term limits. It takes a while to educate lawmakers about the benefits of arts funding. "By the time you get people up to speed, they're gone."

My own personal epiphany notwithstanding, there are good reasons to support her efforts: Cultural industry creates good jobs and attracts creative, energetic enterprise and cultural travelers, who stay longer and spend more money than the average tourist. Art can give kids goals, discipline and something constructive to do with their time. It can heal the spirit, build international trust and understanding where business and government fail, and reveal truth in times when despots would rather not hear it.

There will always be potholes, endangered natural habitats and people in need of food, shelter, education and medical care — in good times and bad. We must meet those needs. But that's no reason to neglect everything else. We must find creative ways to preserve our culture and provide access to people at every level — without sacrificing necessities. If we don't do it in the lean times, it may be too late by the time prosperity returns.

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Contact Contributing Editor Susan F. Edwards at [email protected].