Last week the Chicago Art Blog picked up what I called an "Artful Wager," an agreement between the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Indianapolis Museum of Art where the winning team/city/museum of the Super Bowl would receive a prominent painting from the other as a loan.
The idea for the wager began on Tyler Green's blog. After the wager was agreed on Green reflected, "I've always liked the way cities rally around their sports teams, the way a team becomes a point of commonality. Why shouldn't art museums try to do the same thing -- and in the process become somewhere that more people in their communities think about visiting?"
Green's comment about how museums should be "a point of commonality" reminded me immediately of a conversation I had with Mario Ybarra, Jr., in 2008 for his installation at the Art Institute of Chicago, "No Man is An Island." In that exhibition Ybarra explored the unexpected similarities between Chicago and his hometown of Los Angeles. Ybarra's studio in LA is a short distance from Catalina Island (you know, where the Catalina Wine Mixer was held in Step Brothers?) that at one point was home to "Wrigley Field West," the Spring training facility for the Cubs from 1921-51. In fact, the stadium still stands and is still used for local sports events, though it is not in the best condition anymore apparently.
In our interview Ybarra talked about how sports (baseball specifically) brought people together, creating unity out of a friendly rivalry: "even though there are rival teams and most big cities have their own team, [there is a sense of unity]. Before professional baseball, each little town would have a team, even though there was a sense of rivalry or competition, the people were brought together as spectators to cheer on their team. So even though there was a site of conflict, it wasn't like it was Rome and gladiators were getting fed to lions [laughter]. There is a sense of sportsmanship [. . .]"
Though it never made it into the final transcript, Ybarra went on to speak about how sports were especially important to children and their development. Through sports and competition kids learn how to interact and work as a team. They learn to be gracious, in winning and in losing; Ybarra specifically mentioned the tradition of teams shaking hands after a game as an important aspect of sportsmanship. For Ybarra, sports are where communities find identity, children grow up and the citizens come together for a common cause.
Like Green, I think that museums have a responsibility to become "a point of commonality," even to become indispensable to their cities. The inestimable value of culture and art aside, indispensable in itself, if museums do not become indispensable they will cease to exist. In Chicago it's a little different. It's as impossible to imagine the city without the Art Institute, as it is to imagine the city without baseball (pro baseball predates the museum by only eight years, the Chicago White Stockings playing pro ball in 1871). I've been on the El and heard high school kids talking excitedly about their recent trip to the museum. But elsewhere it's a bit different, the citizens may not feel as connected to their institutions as we do in Chicago. However as Ybarra indicates, museums and arts, like sports and baseball, are an important area for development and socialization. They should be as integral a part of the community just as sports teams are. To start though, a fun wager on something super big like the Super Bowl is a good way to connect the population of a city to their cultural treasures.
I'm interested to hear what others think about communities, arts and sports. What does each mean to you? Which ones build community the best or in what way? How could museums and art become more wide-reaching, like football and sports?