The Other Columbus: What it looks like when a city operates with care

Columbus is not yet at the caring stage in terms of the arts, education or social services — or by just about any metric that isn’t commerce and real estate

Scott Woods
Artist Taœ Murphy paints a mural during its unveiling by poet and former member of the Uhuru Dance Company, Charles "Is Said" Lyons, commemorating the dance organization for its contributions to the community, on May 15, 2021.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve spent several columns worth of digital ink interrogating the question of whether or not a city can care about its citizens. Some of that has centered around what care looks like, what it doesn’t and even what we mean when we say “city.” The observations here were about Columbus, but they obviously apply to any city in which the subject is raised. 

A question that comes up a lot is, “Can you point to any cities that do this right?” Most of the time the person asking genuinely wants to know and isn’t just seeking to take some writer down a peg. My answer is always yes, but my explanations tend to be long and nuanced, so they’re not always ideal for social media exchanges. I let my “yes” do its job and keep things moving. 

But let’s make things official. Let’s end this series on a high note and talk about an example that’s happening right now, that proves that a place can care if it wants to, as well as what that means.

I’m going to once again use artists as evidence. I know, I talk about artists a lot when it comes to what cities do and don’t do. There are lots of reasons for that, but an outstanding academic reason for using artists here is because, by most professional metrics, they reside at the bottom of the income ladder. Most of them make no money whatsoever off of their art. The ones that do largely get paid less than almost any other job they could be working over the same amount of time. Artists are considered completely disposable at worst and easily recyclable at best. My point: If you can save the artists, you can save anyone. 

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Considering how often developers use the arts to sell property and front prestige points, you’d think artists would get paid more. The good news in New York is that the Empire State gets it.

Recently in New York, announcements were made about two separate but related initiatives launched by arts advocacy organization Creatives Rebuild New York (CRNY): The Guaranteed Income for Artists program (GIA), and the Artist Employment Program (AEP). 

The first of the two — the Guaranteed Income for Artists program — is simple. Up to 2,400 artists (visual artists, dancers, writers, filmmakers and so on) across the state may apply to receive payments of $1,000 a month for 18 consecutive months. That’s it. It’s not a grant; it’s income designed to help stabilize artists’ lives.

The second program is, to put it mildly, even more impressive. The Artist Employment Program is a two-year program, but it will fund 300 artists to the tune of $65,000 a year plus benefits to use their skills working with community-based organizations. Artists apply alongside their organization of choice, and organizations may collaborate with up to 10 artists. The community-based organizations get between $25,000 and $100,000 each year in aid of their work with their artist. That’s basically like hiring someone who walks in the door with a paid-for budget in hand. Priority is given to organizations that work with populations that include BIPOC, immigrants, LGBTQIAP+, low-income, formerly incarcerated or rural. 

The financial commitment on the part of CRNY comes up to $125 million. $115 million of that comes from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and another $5 million each from the Ford Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The programs also get operational support from the Tides Center, which acts as an incubator for organizations. 

That’s a lot of information at once, but what you basically need to know is that New York has committed many millions of dollars to ensure that art and artists are protected, served and contributing to their communities in concrete ways. No volunteers, no hook-ups, no exposure pay. 

Why is New York doing this? Because elements within the state understand that art is an undeniable and necessary part of what makes New York appealing to both the people who live there and who come to visit. They don’t believe this to be true; they know it’s true. They have industry on top of industry dedicated to the arts pulling in billions of dollars. The arts contribute $119.9 billion dollars to the statewide economy. It’s almost 8 percent of its GDP. 

These initiatives aren’t charity; they’re investments. And at $125 million, someone’s still getting off light. 

For generations, artists and arts organizations have been asking their respective states and cities to meet them at the level of their worth. Columbus artists aren’t even at the starting gate in terms of these kinds of asks. As of 2020, the arts generate $19.1 billion dollars for Ohio’s economy. Think about the last time you heard a local artist getting anything resembling a living wage for their trouble.

Which brings me to the original point about caring.

Do I believe New York — its governing bodies, fiscal platforms, civic infrastructure managers and everything else that makes up the machine of New York that isn’t its citizens — cares about the arts? Not exactly. Caring doesn’t mean the same thing to a system as it does to a person. Sure, you might find a few politicians who really care about opera enough to contribute to it annually, but they’re not legislating real capital toward it. They have to bend to the system where citizens do not. And so systems (like, say, a city), which as I’ve said before cannot care, can alternately decide (or be made) to approximate the effect of care. It can install a value on the arts — or schools, or a political movement, or citizens in a particular field — where we would individually put what we as people call values.

And if you take nothing else away from this series of articles, take this: A city’s values are always expressed monetarily. People project values onto their hearts. Cities house their values in their budgets.

As I write this, New Orleans is in the throes of Mardi Gras, and by all accounts it is off the chain this year. After a couple of seasons being the poster child for civic pandemic loss, the city has come back with its floats a-rolling, filling the air with bleating brass and flying beads. Everyone pours into the streets and parties and celebrates what it means to be a citizen of New Orleans, among other things. To say that the celebration is important to the people of New Orleans is a gross understatement. Mardi Gras represents a body of values, and its practitioners take it seriously. Everyone is all-in on the party, even the system that is the City of New Orleans. But where a social club or family celebrates that from their soul or in the loving construction of a Mardi Gras Indian suit, a city celebrates that from its ledger. 

There may not be a person alive in New Orleans that doesn’t care about Mardi Gras. And New Orleans the City also cares, but it cares the way a system cares. Conversely, the systems that make up the city pay accordingly to ensure that things happen at the levels they must to satisfy all parties involved. If it reads like I’m putting lipstick on a grinding machine of capitalism and self-interest, I am, but that’s because a city isn’t a person. It has an agenda for a heart and income streams for blood.  

Can a city care about its people? We know that cities can function devoid of the desires or wishes of its gatekeepers. Your city may have a mayor who wants to wish away police corruption, but works in a system in which their wishes stay unrequited. So we know a city can be designed not to care regardless of who works its gears. At the same time, it can be made to look as if it cares, if the price is right. A city can care in a way that it understands. Shame doesn’t work. Protests can forestall, but not legislate. Money can reprogram the code, but so rarely comes from sources that genuinely care.

A city as I have defined it here and in previous columns cannot care the way people care, but it can be made to care in the language it speaks. It can be reconfigured to support. It can be pushed to pay out. It can be navigated and the elbow grease of actually caring independent operators can splash back on its gears, causing a fit of “care.” Almost every city that exists can lean more into investing in things that improve people’s lives, or what I like to call “care metrics.” I don’t need the city to think and breathe and act like a person. I need it to do what it does by design as an investment in the health and livelihood of its citizens. It’s the right thing to do, but systems don’t care about doing the right thing. And so they must be reprogrammed, not to lie to us, but to work on our behalf because our well-being is its well-being. We must teach our cities long-game. 

Columbus is not yet at the caring stage in terms of the arts, education or social services — or by just about any metric that isn’t commerce and real estate. When you talk to people who are newer to Columbus and they say, “The city treats me pretty cool,” they’re usually talking about people, not the way the city functions or how it fits them into its priorities. That’s an important distinction, because until we’re connecting the values and behaviors of the citizens to the values of the city as a system, we’re not talking about the same place. 

The question we have to ask, knowing all of this, is whether or not we believe it’s too late to try.

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This is the fifth installment in a series.

Read Part One: Can a city care?

Read Part Two: Cities aren’t designed to care

Read Part Three: On truth, city values and soccer stadiums

Read Part Four: Which Columbus are you referring to?