Ben Gall is out of business this weekend. The lights are off. The art that hasn’t been crated for storage hangs mute and neglected on the walls, and the grand piano near the stage is silent. Ghosts and the echoes of songs haunt the place, but no one goes in or out the door anymore.
Ben, an entrepreneur who originally came to America from Holland, was the proprietor of one of the area's most beloved establishments; a combination art gallery, café, and performing arts center called “The Arts Scene”. For a little over a year Ben went to work every day trying to sell wonderful three dimensional mixed media and metal sculptures, stunning photographs and colorful oils from all over the world. He supplemented his art business with his second passion; music. The art didn’t sell very well, but the music…the music often drew overflowing crowds.
It was the atmosphere, not just the entertainment they sought. This was a place where grownups could spend an edifying evening surrounded by the work of passionate people from all artistic genres. It was a cocoon you didn’t want to leave, and Ben could often be found after midnight discussing some South American painter’s work with a couple of folks who wandered in out of curiosity, stayed for the music, grabbed a bite to eat, and forgot the hour. That’s the kind of person Ben is, and to his credit no one heard him complain as he struggled to keep the doors open from month to month. In spite of a lack of art sales, he loved what he’d created in his little Mecca in the suburbs of West Chester, PA.
I did many shows at The Arts Scene. The room was always packed to capacity because Ben loved to promote musical events and music fans loved to hang out there. The Kennedys played there recently, as did Mark Erelli. But on any given night you’d be just as likely to encounter Al Bien and a group of friends gathered in a large circle in the center of the room trading songs and singing together. Sometimes there'd be an open mic night, or a showcase for a music school and it’s students. Al recognized the potential of The Arts Scene before anyone else and he brought the community together at many of his regular Wednesday night gatherings. Ben loved it all, and his fellow entrepreneurs at Café Menta in back made sure everyone was well fed.
We’ve lost a treasure this weekend, and the loss represents part of a much larger problem in America. Ben made the point when he spoke at his closing party on Wednesday evening. Our entire budget for the National “Endowment” (a silly word in this context) for the Arts in America is $125,000,000. Less than $.50 per capita. By contrast, in Ben’s much smaller homeland of Holland with its population of just 30 million people, the National Endowment for the Arts is more than ten times that amount. Think about that for a moment, and try to wrap your head around the concept that we’re willing to pay more for one morning’s cup of coffee than for an entire year’s worth of art grants. It’s nothing short of criminally negligent on our part.
What does it say about America that we don’t fund our public schools well enough to teach our youth about art? What does it say about us that we’ll spend billions on bridges to nowhere and almost nothing to help keep havens like The Arts Scene thriving?
It says we've lost the understanding that the imagination is essential for the good of all. Without programs that nurture the imagination, our youth fails to develop the inventiveness that drove America to it's peak productivity in the mid-twentieth century. Art is a product of the same process as utilitarian invention, and you can't lose one without damaging the other. We're creating a society gutted of it's creative spirit, which leaves little hope for the soul of our nation as a whole. Sure, we'll produce lots of experts in the paper chase, but few who excell in the pursuit of substance.