Tucson is losing yet another local genius. Artist, intellectual, community activist, guerrilla arts administrator, small businessman, friend to all – Dave Lewis is moving to New York City and Tucson is the poorer for it.
Not only are we losing a great artist, we also are losing just the kind of person Tucson needs to create the kind of economy it wants.
Recently, the Harvard Business Review published an article titled “The MFA is the new MBA,” arguing that a master’s of fine arts degree “is now perhaps the hottest credential in the world of business.”
The article noted that “corporate recruiters have begun visiting the top arts grad schools” in search of innovative thinkers who can compete in a volatile global marketplace.
The “artist-as-entrepreneur” model pioneered in Paris in the 1850s ushered in the modern marketplace – what we now call globalization – and it’s been fueling economies ever since.
Take, for example, a case study from a New York City branding agency circa mid-1990.
A branding exec lands a multimillion dollar corporate account. The research phase consists of inviting artists into fancy offices and offering free food in exchange for chat. (Artists embody an “open source” ethic and with an endless supply of creative ideas, needn’t hoard them.)
The exec writes up a report based on “extensive market research,” sends a six-figure bill to X Corporation, which happily pays an exorbitant tab to gain access to the “next big thing.”
There is a reason entrepreneurial billionaires in all fields – from insurance to books – collect cutting-edge art. They know where to look for innovation and they know they’re not going to find it among a sea of gray flannel suits.
Don’t trust ideas coming from scruffy, hipster artist-types? Well, by the time the suits hear about it, it’s too late. You’ve missed the boat, marketwise.
Lewis is one of those “scruffy, hipster artist-types” whose work is collected by those same entrepreneurial businessmen.
He came here from Maine in 1991. There was a “Prague spring” feeling in the air and the revitalization of downtown Tucson seemed inevitable. Artists, just as they have across the country from SoHo to LoDo, began repurposing rundown buildings for arts use.
Lewis was instrumental in creating the Tucson Arts Coalition, the Shane House, the Toole Shed Studios, The Museum of Contemporary Art, the Julian Drew studios and the Temple of Music and Arts. Few people did more to build the infrastructure of the downtown arts community.
In addition to these activities, Lewis used his artist-as-entrepreneur skills to start new business initiatives, most of which were frankly too progressive for the Old Pueblo power structure.
Lewis was branded part of the lunatic fringe by city officials for wanting to help fuel buses with low-emission spent french fry grease. Now, with skyrocketing gas prices and global warming blamed for Western wildfires, even our president is pushing alternative fuels such as biodiesel.
If Tucson’s business and government leaders are serious about growing our economy, they must take the arts sector more seriously. Arizona recently triumphed over the other states in the nation, chosen to participate in a New York City-based initiative that brings a venture capital model to the arts.
Why? Because after exhaustive market research, our art community was deemed the most promising by a single criterion: innovation.
Leaders, are you paying attention?
Tucson initially attracts creative thinkers such as Dave Lewis, but they soon realize we do not have an economy that can sustain innovation in the marketplace. Inevitably they leave Tucson for greener pastures.
Let’s hope New York City is more appreciative of Dave Lewis’ talents than Tucson was. Better yet, let’s hope Tucson moves in the right direction. Then we can entice Lewis and others to move back.
Anne-Marie Russell is executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.