The Other Columbus: Stop lying to your city about its greatness

Columbus should follow the example of a recent ceremony honoring the winner of the Thurber Prize and stop being satisfied with 'good enough'

Scott Woods
The Thurber House, where author, humorist and cartoonist James Thurber once lived at 77 Jefferson Ave. in Columbus

With all of the organizational leadership shuffling happening in this city these days, I have been busy doing something that I am both happy to do and warily surprised of when asked: weighing in on cultural institutions. 

I’m happy to participate in these processes because I always have a lot to say about how organizations can improve their work. I am warily surprised because I am almost never asked to do these things to sign off on the status quo of an organization, and it’s so rare that anyone earnestly wants to hear what they could be doing better. 

So few organizations ever do what I think they should be doing, and that’s where the wary part comes into play. I’m always on guard about whether or not my observations are actually being listened to or if the group just wants to say they had me at the table, regardless of whether or not I ate anything. “Well, if we can get Scott in the room, we can say we listened to the community.” This is that seat-at-the-table stuff that I don’t like, and it’s why I turned down a lot of these offers for a while. The city seems pretty satisfied with itself regardless of what I think, so I let folks do their thing. I ain’t got no shortage of gigs or hobbies.

I won’t betray any confidence here, but I will tell you something I’ve said (or intimated) at several of these sessions. It’s not the only thing I’ve said, nor is it the main thrust of my agenda. It is something — a recommendation, really — that applies to pretty much any effort in this city, regardless of circle or mission: Never be satisfied with what Columbus thinks is good enough.

It’s easy to be considered good at something in Columbus. There was a time when the city offered maybe one or two versions of a thing at a time: one jazz club, one hip-hop open mic, one art museum. As you can imagine, you get a lot of credit for just showing up in a city like that. And depending on what that thing is, it could go on to be a lucrative or powerful enterprise if it were something the civic infrastructure could get behind, meaning if it were something the city needed. Cities need to be able to claim certain things to entice tourists and hopeful citizens. In a fishbowl, it doesn’t matter if it’s great. If the city needs it, they’ll make it sound great. And if you take your cultural cues from the many ways a city’s effort attempts to make that sell, you’ll start thinking that what’s there is pretty darn good.

Until you go somewhere else and you see what a real historic theater is like. Or you go somewhere and see what a lovingly funded art scene is like. Or you go somewhere and see what passes for cultural marketplaces or poetry scenes or blues culture in other cities. In some cases, you don’t need to leave the state to catch that awakening. 

I want Columbus — its leaders, CEOs, audiences, artists, janitors — to never be satisfied with what the city says is great. If only your city is saying that, you might not be as great as they say you are. That might not be your fault. There are 100 reasons why your thing may not be as great as people say it is, and half of them are out of your control. What you can control is whether or not you will labor under that impression. It is important to be real with yourself and your people here, because what you believe is what you will commit to, what you will do. 

It is why I don’t throw around words like “genius” or “world class” lightly. If I say a musician is world class, I mean you can drop that musician anywhere in the world and they will impress. If you put musicians Counterfeit Madison or Dr. Mark Lomax II in any theater in the world, they’ll knock the socks off whoever is present. If you give poet Zach Hannah fifteen minutes in any poetry venue, he’s going to blow the roof off the joint. If you put Sadaya Lewis from Modern Southern Table in any kitchen, it’s lights out. These people are not hype.  

I am not saying Columbus is stupid. I am saying it is actively told over and over again by its leadership and organizations that it is amazing when it knows better. Maybe your organization overcame great adversity to exist. Maybe what you create is truly next level, and not just compared to what else is here. But let’s strip away the need to sell ourselves for something better. Let’s be honest about what we are and what we have, and how that stacks up against what can be known, not just what we keep telling ourselves. No one is served by lowering the bar for who gets attention and support in a city sorely in search of an identity.

I know it’s a big ask. Almost purely aspirational, really. But if it will stop just one organization from telling me, despite their many resources, why they can’t level up in this town, I will consider that a win.

P.S. I almost hit send on this article before this last part hit me. I feared that the message above might weigh too heavy for most readers, so I figured I’d offer one very clear example of the kind of level-up I’m talking about so this didn’t come off like a sparring match with people’s weekend plans. 

Thurber House has an annual awards ceremony honoring the funniest book in America. It’s a big deal. Writers who are household names have won it and actually showed up to receive the award: Trevor Noah, David Sedaris, the writers at The Onion. It’s an impressive list. 

Anyhow, the director of Thurber House, Laurie Lathan, wanted to bring the award show back to Columbus (it had been in New York), but felt like the show needed some sprucing up. The goal was to make it something that Columbus folks who had seen big productions could be proud of in their own city, while upending ideas of what Columbus talent was capable of. (Note: I was invited to write on this show.)

So Thurber House went big and turned it into a full-blown award show production. We’re talking original musical numbers, skits, red carpet… the works. And the show was a success. I even ended up on stage at some point making fun of the whole thing. It was a great night, and folks who have been around the awards show block were genuinely impressed. It was a Columbus event, but it didn’t feel like one. And yet it did, because every aspect of it featured Columbus talent and brains. I don’t think Thurber House can go back to small shows again. And good for them. They leveled up.