Community Arts of Elmira
Elmira, New York
September 28, 2007
All the beauty and sublimity we have bestowed on real and imaginary things I wish to reclaim as the property and product of man—as his fairest apology. Man as poet, as thinker, as god, as love, as power: O with what regal liberality he has lavished gifts upon things so as to impoverish himself and make himself feel wretched! His most selfless act hitherto has been to admire and worship and know how to conceal from himself that it was he who created what he admired.
Transforming trouble into beauty since 1951.
-My personal motto.
A remarkable coincidence occurred three weeks ago. Two of Elmira’s native sons published their strikingly different observations about their home town on the very same day. The Elmira Star-Gazette columnist Jim Pfiffer titled his remarks “How can we save our city?” With blunt frankness Pfiffer lists the obvious decay that surrounds us: the city is in debt, stores are empty downtown, the place is growing ugly, and riffraff are spreading drugs, mayhem, and shooting up the streets. What Jim told us is true.
The other native son is our friend Joe Caparulo. His remarks were presented in this room. Joe told us a story. He made up a future for Elmira, based on the truth of our past and present. As opposed to Jim’s despair, Joe finds in that truth the seeds of something bigger and far more glorious.
I want explore with you a big idea that kind of hides behind what Joe presented. His story is called “Present at the Creation: Urban Revival and the Arts.” In my welcome I called the story a seductive vision. I ask each of you: are we ready and able to sense and appreciate a vision of urban revival through art? Are we able to feel the seductive pull of that vision? Are we courageous enough to expand the vision so that we ourselves, individually and collectively, fit squarely at the center of the vision?
Having such a vision is what it means to be a creative community. Listen once again to what I just said. Having a vision of urban revival through art, a vision that seduces us to be pulled individually, collectively, and actively into the center of that vision, this is what it means to be a creative community. Visioning together is a real, effective, and even powerful means of transforming the world.
Where we are and what we are doing is proof that it works! The Community Arts of Elmira is the result of a shared and sustained vision. This vision attracted the resources and shaped them into what we are all doing here together this evening.
Let me explain a bit further. This organization, CAE, has an exciting, inspiring, and open vision of itself, its members, its community, and the future for all of these. Part of the vision has to do with this building and part with what can take place here.
The outside world, comprised of those who have not been touched by the magic of the vision, has been sharply critical of the practicality of having another arts organization in our community with another building to maintain. In fact, things have looked pretty grim from time to time in the short history of CAE.
Fundraising, although vigorous, was insufficient to make the purchase of the building we now occupy. An original, and substantial, down payment appeared to be money thrown down the drain. There was a disturbing fire, and the first executive director moved away. Discouragement seemed a wise bet. And the pundits among us were eager to discourage. “Settle for less than your vision,” they seemed to say. “Why put your hopes in another doomed attempt to save Elmira?”
Yet did CAE give up on its vision? No. They continued despite setback after setback. They did not have the money to procure this building, but they kept pursuing what they believed in. They displayed and sold art. Met and continued to encourage one another. And lo and behold, a miracle erupted. An angel appeared to buy and give to CAE this property. You can’t plan on miracles but you can be ready when they occur.
Let’s get back to Joe Caparulo’s story and Jim Pfiffer’s lament. Jim urged politicians to give us specific plans, no generalities but concrete realities with real, objective results. He wants elected officials “to tell us what we private citizens can do to help.” I’m not sure that’s what we need.
When an expert from elsewhere comes to town to give us a pep talk there is some buzz for a few days, and then it all goes away. After awhile, it seems better if those experts just stayed away. They get us raring to do something, get started, and the more practical among us urge us to list projects and prioritize them so that our slim resources don’t get squandered on “pie-in-the-sky” wishes. The trouble with all of this is that it misses the real point.
The real point is that before you can do anything genuine, sustainable, and significant, you’ve got to know what that is. Joe’s story has power because he paints a word picture of how Elmira might look thirty years from now. That picture is not the Elmira before the flood of ’72. Nor is it the Elmira of today. Yet it stretches from the real past (pre-flood) to the real present (a part of which Pfiffer spotlights) and reaches toward a future.
This is why it matters. Try as hard as we might, eradicating what we don’t like, what don’t approve of, and what we fear, will not get us anything better. Getting rid of stuff leaves merely a hole that other, usually unwanted stuff will soon begin to fill. We need to have a sense of something we want so we can fill the hole as it opens, keeping it open for the many visions that long for a place to take root. Directing all our energies to eliminating the bad only leaves empty lots, empty buildings, and empty souls.
Strangely enough it is not so important what the vision is. It only matters that someone truly cares about it. It only matters that the vision reaches toward something worthy of our care. My vision may be different than Joe’s, yours may be different from mine, and someone else’s vision may be different from yours. Yet, if we can share our visions, they grow and blend. To share means not just promoting your own vision, but actively reaching out to others. To share means to assimilate the beauty and value of the visions of others. When we seek to understand one another, we can feed each other encouragement, which builds excitement, energy, and commitment. Real things happen. Action and works spring from vision.
I propose that what will save Elmira is for us to engage in as many visioning conversations as we can possibly have. A rational approach to problem solving is to ask first: what are your resources? The practical belief is that available resources will limit your possible objectives.
But suppose this is not where to start. Suppose the belief isn’t even true. What if you cannot possibly know what counts for resources until you have an objective, that is, an emotionally vibrant vision? How does one make an inventory, calculate a budget, set a definite strategy without knowing where one is headed and why? Perhaps one can’t do these things in advance, unless what is wanted is to stifle, smoother, or kill the nascent vision, the vision that wants to be born?
Our community is not a business. It is our home. We ought to be far more like a garden than like a factory. We are not here to order each other about, dislike one another, hold each other in scorn, or compete, as if someone’s life could be better, worth more, than someone else’s.
None of us asked to be born. Certainly we did not ask to be born as we are, in our very particular circumstances. Nor did we ask to be here together. Yet here we are. So how do we behave together?
A couple of years ago the economist and author Richard Florida spoke in Corning. He said, “Every human being is creative.” The way to unleash this creativity is through sustained communal visioning.
To commune together, to be a community, is the great work that awaits us. The task will not be easy but the results are guaranteed to surpass anything isolation and animosity have to offer.
Thus I suggest we create and build a visioning conversation. Intentionally. On purpose. The only ones to be left out of the conversation are those who choose to exclude themselves. There is a process for structuring these conversations and it is called Dialogue. I even have a name for our dialogue: the Chemung Valley Community Visioning Conversation.
My vision is to convene this conversation wherever conversations normally take place. I suggest that this communally creative effort will do far more than save our city. It will nourish and renew the spirit that has been our community’s heritage.
Art is a spiritual appliance. We engage with it, plug ourselves in, and enhance our excitement, energy, and appreciation. The Chemung Valley Community Visioning Conversation has the potential to transform the community itself into a work of art. It will be a work in which we are all artists and all connoisseurs. What a place to live!
Think about it for a moment. Are you ready to play such an infinite game? The stakes are high, but should we settle for less?
Joe’s story takes place in the year 2037. Thirty years from now, how wise and wonderful will we appear to have been?
The Easy Motion Institute
for Creativity Research