A Perspective for the National Endowment for the Arts’ American Canvas
by Phillip Bimstein, Mayor of Springdale, Utah
As a composer, arts council volunteer, and mayor of a small town, I have three vantage points from which I see the enormous benefits the arts have on this community. Springdale is in many ways an extended family, and the arts play a vital role in holding our whole family together. They strengthen the emotional bonds not only within families, but between families. Personally, the arts enable me to find family: the family of friends, the family of community, the family of home.
When I moved from Chicago to rural southern Utah eight years ago, I didn’t know a soul. Some of my old friends thought I would always be an outsider, but I was welcomed into the community. The vehicle that introduced me to my new neighbors, and which allowed me to get to know them, was my music.
I composed a work about the history of the area for the local church choir. At rehearsals I was warmly received, even though I am not a member of the church. At the 4th of July premier my wife sang in the choir, my parents drove in from California, and most of the town was there. I knew then that Springdale had truly become my home. I was especially touched by the letters I received from long-time residents. For me, the arts had surely extended my sense of family.
While researching texts for the music, I became friends with two of the original pioneer families who had settled the area a century ago, the Crawfords and the Giffords. J. L. Crawford and Moses Gifford wrote poetry about Springdale and Zion Canyon. These poems memorialize the love, the struggles, the joy, and the history of their families. They are a testament to the ways the arts interpret, express, and preserve family tradition. Quilting circles are another way these families use the arts to pass down lore and wisdom and to strengthen generational relationships.
The Giffords are a very musical family who gathered on their front porch after a hard week of farming to sing and play guitar, harmonica, fiddle, saws, pots, pans, and anything else they could get their hands on. Neighbors came by to listen or join in. These informal sing-a-longs are excellent examples of the ways the arts enable a family to celebrate themselves, express who they are, and pass on these expressions to their children. This Gifford family tradition, begun a hundred years ago, continues to this day.
For several years I served on the board of our local arts council. From that vantage point I saw our town transformed by the arts. Springdale had become fractured and polarized, divided by growth and development issues. People had lost respect and trust for each other, and were losing faith in our ability to get along. Town council meetings were hostile environments, and citizens hated to go. Our dialogue had broken down.
Stepping into this breach, our arts council presented a series of roundtable discussions entitled, “Embracing Opposites, In Search of the Public Good, ” which helped us to develop a language of cooperation. Poetry readings, creativity workshops, and concerts became our positive meeting places, where we strengthened our social bonds, sustained our spirit, and nurtured the health back into our community. The arts provided the breeding ground for the cooperation and communication which brought us back together.
As the arts renewed our community as a whole, they also strengthened the bonds within our families. The arts teach us how to communicate with grace, sensitivity, awareness, all of which help to foster stronger family relationships. I have known many families who developed understanding, self-esteem, and self-reliance, who learned the value of planning and perseverance, and who were inspired to pursue and accomplish their dreams–all from their involvement in the arts.
One example is the little girl and her single mom who were shy and not very social. They lived by themselves, isolated from the community. When the girl started singing in the chorus in first grade, the mother was delighted to see her daughter on stage. This experience built their self-esteem, and they started going out into social settings. Through the arts, their family became a part of the community.
In another family, the father used to stay home and watch television. When his son sang in the chorus, he’d come out to hear him sing. As the mother said, “When the child is involved, the whole family is involved.” The arts strengthened this family’s appreciation for each other.
In another example, a young man had a role in a community performance. His father, who had not spoken to him in years, saw his son’s name in the paper and came to the performance. His son beamed, “My father came to hear me sing!” The arts gave this family an opportunity for love and reunion which they may not have otherwise had.
The arts help me to be a better mayor, furnishing me with techniques which strengthen the bonds of our community. As a composer, I know that dissonant notes have value, and that even opposites can be orchestrated together. From a musical perspective, our community is engaged in a collaborative improvisation. If we play it well, a good work emerges, a constantly evolving composition.
There are songs to be sung about the history and heritage of every family and community. We are all part of a narrative, a wonderful opera on which the curtain never falls–together we create the next act. The arts give us the tools and perspective to sing the songs of ourselves, of our families and our community.
Whether a small family or the extended family of community, families are strengthened by the arts because family itself is an art, an act of creative collaboration, the practice of which benefits from skills and insights gained from familiarity with the more formal arts.
Painting. Music. Sculpture. Dance. Family. Each one is an art. Each begins with the original seeds of creativity, which are cultivated, nourished, and gradually molded into form and structure. Each is a discipline, requiring study and constant practice. Each art strives for the fullest expression of our highest potential as individuals, as family, as community.