Feb 03 2012

Future of the Arts Putting it All Together: Tracy Hudak, Arts Impact Director at Large

Tracy Hudak is one of those rarities: an artist who is also an effective arts advocate and professional facilitator who can work effectively across the entire bureaucratic spectrum. One of the things that makes Tracy’s ideas so compelling right now, is that she seems to have figured out why what we’ve been doing in the arts has stopped working and has come up with an approach that works.

TracyHudakpicWhile the Arts Impact Director for the Oxnard Development Management District (ODMD), Hudak developed their charter for economic development for downtown Oxnard; then, quickly established a series of interconnected programs to kick-off implementation of that plan. This included a branded artwalk in downtown Oxnard, called Art Beat, a newsletter, and an Art Pub monthly meeting and networking event.

Once launched, all three programs quickly caught fire, bringing in new players and an a broad range of responses from not only within the Oxnard arts community but across the region. The arts pub events drew artists and arts supporters from across Ventura county. One of the things that the Society805 staff noticed was how many of these movers and shakers in the arts meeting in Oxnard had not known or met each other before. The uptick in cooperation and planning across the community was exciting to see.

One of the first things Tracy did that got a lot of attention from artists was conducting an Artists Space Needs Assessment survey for Oxnard. That and the extremely well-put-together ArtsPub online newsletter created a general feeling amongst the artists’ community that Tracy was doing everything right. Serious artists were considering Oxnard as a place to show and focus on for the first time.

Oxnard has a long history as a source of artistic talent and many of its artists have gone on to significant careers and importance far beyond Oxnard. But they usually have had to go far outside Oxnard to do this. The result: their success is rarely connected to Oxnard in any way and rarely gets back to Oxnard itself or helps the next generation of Oxnard artists. Hudak quickly saw the need to close the loop, to bring things back home to Oxnard.

A key element in Tracy’s plan was to exploit the fact that Oxnard has a contained, very-well-defined downtown loop with a major Arts institution anchoring it: the Carnegie Art Museum. First, the ArtBeat art walk was focused on the very walkable downtown core. Second, by creating the Arts Pub networking meeting, Hudak was able to get people from all over the county to come to downtown Oxnard and start thinking of how to make things happen and work in downtown Oxnard.

Hudak talks about her interest in “connecting people to place” and creating the “necessary connections that make a place somewhere people want to be and work.” She points out that recent research has overwhelmingly demonstrated that the driving factor that makes a community thrive today and be such a desirable place is the presence of a vibrant local arts and cultural scene.

The fact that Hudak’s efforts instantly touched a county-wide audience and beyond is important: a small city or town’s local economy only really grows and benefits when it can attract money and resources from outside itself to be invested or used within its local micro-economy. If you just lure people from the other side of town, to, say, an art walk, you are just moving money around inside the same micro-economy. The end result, economically, is a wash. Some arts consultants feel this may be one of the greatest mistakes small towns and constituencies make in their approach to the arts: spending too many resources to merely move money around within their existing economy instead of developing new economic resources and luring big money from elsewhere into their local micro-economy so that they expand the local economy. Ultimately, without increasing population or increasing infrastructure and resource drain. The result: bigger economy per person, bigger impact on standard of living.

What was amazing about Tracy’s work for the ODMD was the speed of the success. Within months of launching, she had established a branded art walk in the Oxnard downtown core and substantially increased the perception of Oxnard as a viable arts and culture destination across the region.

Art walks typically take a minimum of two years or more to get established and even then, few result in an art walk with a significantly recognized brand or branded name like Art Beat. By the second Art Beat, artists and arts patrons across the 805 recognized and associated Art Beat as a regular event in downtown Oxnard. Part of this was due to Hudak’s integrated, multi-prong approach: The ArtsPub newsletter quickly jumped to the top of the list as one of the best arts-related newsletters, if not the best, in the entire 805. Hudak complemented the newsletter with an ArtsPub salon, which involved meetings in an Oxnard arts-supportive business to meet, network, and brainstorm ideas. “The Arts Pub salon was Jerry Yoshitomi’s idea, “ Tracy says, and it was a huge success from the very beginning.

sacre pina bausch

Pina Bausch Tantztheater Wuppertal, Rite of Spring, featured in Wim Wender’s tribute to Pina Bausch, “Pina” playing at local theatres.

By October 2011 there seemed to be a sense of real momentum for Oxnard arts. Oxnard artists who had never been recognized outside Oxnard were exhibiting and being seen by people outside Oxnard; people who had never visited Oxnard before were coming to the Art Beat, Art Pub, and Oxnard events; new businesses with arts orientations or connections had started up in the downtown core.

Then, astoundingly, the ODMD and Oxnard city council pulled the plug. Hudak’s contract was not renewed, publications could not get confirmation in November and December that the next Art Beat was even going to happen, professional artists began pulling out of Oxnard arts events, a major arts producer, Pistol Productions, had a downtown Oxnard venue double-book its space and force an event to move at the last minute.

All of a sudden there was a perception that artists and the arts were getting the wrong end of the stick in Oxnard. A representative for the ODMD, in an interview with this publication in November, when asked about the situation told us “that everything was under review at this time and that they were looking to going in another direction.” At the time of this writing, things still seem to be “under review” and it is not clear who is going to continue the coordination for these events

Here at the Society805, it is difficult to see, at this point, what Oxnard could see as a better alternative direction. In a few short months, Hudak had engineered more change in the perception of Oxnard as a viable arts center and place to do business than the city has probably seen in decades.

Further, it is no secret that Oxnard has, in the past, has had a serious image problem. Getting cold feet at this juncture will only confirm old perceptions and beliefs about Oxnard, correct or not, and create a new perception that it is a town that is not willing to step up to the plate for the arts when opportunity strikes.

Granted, some of the real impacts of Hudak’s work is hard to see in the short-short term. Art walks almost always take two to three years to get any sort of meaningful crowds. Typically, the major growth of such events, once established, is during the three to five year marks. Further growth at that point seems to depend on further infrastructure changes, such as the creation of major commercial galleries, greater regional coordination and marketing, more enhanced cross-arts coordination, and lighting and parking infrastructure, some of which Oxnard has already implemented.

But everything that Hudak was doing seemed to be working and her plans were firing on all cylinders. Hudak’s work also inspired other arts-entrepreneurs and artists and administrators across the 805. Planners in Camarillo and Ventura and other entities across the 805 were watching the situation. Hudak seemed to be on to something and everyone wanted to make sure they understood what it was. One local arts-administrator, who did not want to be named since they have to continue to work with Oxnard city hall, said that “Oxnard didn’t realize what they had. And how good a deal they had. Now they’ll never know because they’ll never see the results. It’s a real tragedy.”

As far as being a good deal, in an online discussion with Margaret Travers, of the Ventura County Arts Commission, regarding what kind of value the programs Hudak had brought to Oxnard would normally cost, she pointed out that even a feasibility study, let alone actually implementing working programs, could cost in the $200,000 range for a town the size of Oxnard. Society805 research shows that similar programs for cities of a similar size cost upwards of $300,000 and there is still the need for ongoing maintenance and support. But the results are worth it as the long-term impacts on the local economy can easily run into the millions of dollars a year. Reviving the downtown core of a small city alone can totally change that city’s future for the better. Permanently.

But the real story and buzz around the 805 today is not the Oxnard story, but rather, a keen interest in where, and how, Tracy Hudak is going to apply her considerable talents next.

It is no accident that Hudak is onto something. Her methods come from a serious consideration and re-thinking of how the arts work in our current world. In talking with Society805, Tracy outlined the core of her vision around three major points.

The first point involves looking at the recent history of the economic successes, or lack of, in our cities. Then combine this with a look at the underlying problems regarding the continuing economic struggles of our arts organizations. Tracy feels there are some deep connections between the two that have been supported by a significant amount of recent research.

It is no secret that many people feel that the arts, the arts economy, along with the greater economy of the world, is currently undergoing a profound shift. This shift means we need new vision and new models.

In terms of cities and the vitality of their economies, Hudak points out that the old model called for attracting the “Big Business” to the area to build plants and jobs. This was the key to increased prosperity and the future viability of a city.

Current studies, and the news, tell us that communities taking this approach are struggling. This model isn’t working anymore. In fact, it often made the recent economic downturn more painful as these places frequently experienced the deepest and most painful job lay-offs.

Tracy points out that the research now shows that it is the arts and culture of a place and the parallel enriching of life, schools, and environment that are the key indicators of whether a community thrives or not, and whether people want to work there, create new businesses there, create new kinds of jobs and so forth. Arts and culture, the creative culture of a place, is now considered the new driving force.

This theme is read-hot right now in urban planning circles world-wide, from Richard Florida’s runaway international best-seller Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Lifeto seminars and gatherings the world over such as the Arte-Polis: Creative Culture and the Making of Place being held in Singapore.

Tracy’s second point is a look at another, parallel, social phenomenon: Recent statistics tell us that people aren’t coming to things anymore, especially certain art events. People are trying to figure out why.

The answer, Tracy suggests, is that people are not satisfied with merely “feeding at the trough of Genius anymore” but want a more personal and interactive experience.

It is true that we’ve just come through an era of exceedingly pre-packaged art. The big business of major cultural events and traveling franchises created in the 1970s and expanded through the last quarter of the last century, seems to have burned itself out. In its wake we see audiences numbed to cold, over-hyped, block-buster extravaganzes thrown at them, costs that have exploded beyond our arts institutional infrastructure; and last, but not least, the rise of new generations who have grown up with social media and an aggressively interactive media environment. So the spoon-fed arts model of old creates a huge mismatch with people’s personal emotional needs and their expectations for an arts experience.

It is at this point that Hudak interjects a key idea: that if you can emotionally connect people to place and get the arts experience to work from that, you can reconnect audiences and art. This means addressing the problems in a natural, organic way that people can relate to. Not only that, you can develop new, young, energized audiences for the arts. And you can do so in a media-savvy manner that younger generations can relate to.

One of the implications of this approach is a more informally construed arts infrastructure and presentation. It also means a more dynamic approach, capable of responding quickly to needs as they arise. It is “not so formal,” Hudak emphasizes. Tracy asks us to “think of how people are already creating art and culture; and the institutions need to connect to that, to the people already involved,” and then grow programs out of that in a natural way. This approach really resonates with the artists. There are so many of them with things already to present and once they see that someone is trying to give them a forum, they respond.

Hudak says the first thing she looks for is to “identify who has the desire.” Follow the desire and you will find the artists and people who will make things happen. Fast. The key, says Hudak, is “engagement, engagement, engagement,” getting everyone and everything connected. Her recent work in Oxnard demonstrated that this is indeed possible, and in a startlingly short time. This means finding both the people with the deep desire to create, and identifying the desires people, as audiences need to fulfill. Then connecting the two.

In one way, it seems simple; but it is amazing how many arts organizations do not work this way.

It also means a more economically feasible orientation. Gone are the big staffs, block-buster shows and over-produced programs. The big budgets are already gone.

Instead you get a nimble, lightweight, fast-moving, arts infrastructure. You get one-shot events; electronic publications and marketing. You get temporary re-purposing of physical infrastructure such as guerrilla galleries [also known as pop-up galleries] using un-rented commercial real-estate and empty buildings to produce one-shot art events and exhibitions, music, and performance events. These in turn re-vitalize neglected commercial real estate, giving you rejuvenated city cores. You get nimble fast-moving arts production entities that then quickly exploit this re-vitalized physical infrastructure, such as Pistol Productions, which has been producing many such events each month across the 805. You get hard-hitting online publications and newsletters and fast-moving networking. You get in-expensive viral social media promotion, in the moment, for events, even as they happen. You get flash crowds showing up for arts events.

To complete the picture, Tracy came to her third point: in the past, especially the most recent past, we have seen a world where the benefits, especially economic, of the arts usually do not make it back to the artists’ pockets. It is well known that artists transform entire sections of cities, yet are eventually pushed out by high rents, taxes, and costs, on to the next ghetto to revive. Their businesses suffer and their lives deal with a host of personal problems created by poverty, harsh living and working conditions, and neglect. Tracy says that “what I would like to participate in or create (are) new agreements and strategies for how the benefits circulate through the economy,” and, eventually, help not only the community at large, and better compensate the artists for their work.

The Society805 finds this a compelling vision. If Hudak has any flaws, it is that her ideas and technique are so cutting edge that bureaucrats who are behind the times might have difficulty getting the point and not see how effective and all-encompassing her programs and vision really are. If you’re looking for a propeller, you may miss why the jet engine is such a great idea. When reviewing the situation in Oxnard and the response of certain people in the Oxnard city administration, for example, this writer is reminded of the old cartoon showing a bronze-age general with a sword in his hand, walking away from a sage standing beside a 50 caliber machine gun. The general is saying, “Don’t bother me, I’ve got a war to fight.”

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image003Born in Seattle, U.S.A. in 1952. Attended Whitman College, majoring in mathematics; the University of Washington in mathematics, art history and studio art; University of California, Berkeley. Studied art history with Rainer Crone, painting with Jacob Lawrence and Michael Spafford, sumi-e with George Tsutakawa, Chinese brush with Hsai Chen. Wrote on art for Vanguard, ArtExpress, High Performance, ArtWeek, Bellevue Journal-American, Seattle Voice. Seattle Arts Commission Special Task Force for media, and Special Task Force for educational Institutions in the late 70s. Taught art history, color theory, life painting, and design at Seattle Central Community College for 5 years before leaving Seattle in 1984. Current studio is in Ventura, California, north of Los Angeles.

Website: erikreel.com/

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