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Where is everybody?

by Paul Hosford

As many readers know, my wife Lori and I are co-directors of the Albion Area Arts Council. Like our predecessors, we do our best to bring a variety of quality arts programming to this area, which often involves presenting artists from far away.

Recently, we presented a group from Nova Scotia, the Sons of Maxwell. They gave a high-energy performance that was both well-attended and well-received. Their appearance was part of a tour of rural Nebraska sponsored by the Lied Center in Lincoln. I was told afterwards that our audience had been larger and more responsive than any of the others so far, which reflects well on our community and its appreciation of the arts.

Despite the good attendance, I heard one audience member comment “Where is everybody?” Someone else responded that such-and-such was on TV. I don’t watch much TV, so I can’t judge the merits of a program I’ve never seen, but I have to wonder which people enjoyed more – watching a TV program or clapping in time to a musical group from another country.

Now I admit to being biased in favor of live entertainment, but there are deeper issues here. Statistics show that TVs now outnumber people in the United States – we now have more TVs than people to watch them! Studies have shown that many families spend their time at home in separate rooms, watching separate TV programs or viewing separate Internet websites.

Studies also show that over time, this shift towards being entertained at home has eroded community involvement. Membership in everything from service organizations like the Kiwanis and Lions to bowling leagues is in decline. This decline has led to less community involvement, less volunteering and even fewer people helping their neighbors.

Not that people don’t belong to groups, don’t volunteer, or don’t help each other out – many still do. But it isn’t as commonplace as it once was. More troubling still, whereas in generations past people have seen community participation as a normal aspect of life, people today see it as optional. We seem to work longer hours than we used to, and women especially have seen major lifestyle changes. Balancing a family with a career leaves little time for outside activities. It’s easier for both men and women to surf the net or watch TV in the evening than to go out and do something with others.

As attractive as it is to curl up with “infotainment” – the mixture of news and entertainment both TV and the Internet provide – it comes at a cost. The representative of the Lied Center who came along on the tour commented that by bringing acts from their stage out into communities like Albion, they’re hoping to lure people away from the TV and the Internet. When people don’t participate in the life of their community, the entire community suffers. The Lied Center and our Arts Council are trying to strengthen a sense of community by bringing people together to share entertaining and enriching experiences.

Communities in rural America have been declining for decades, victims of many forces. Economics play a major role, but so do other factors. A local banker observed recently that one of the most important elements of a successful small town is a sense of community ownership, a sense that everyone has a stake in and benefits from the health of the town they live in. The more time we spend alone, watching what TV producers or web programmers think we ought to see, the less involvement and the less sense of ownership we have in our community. Everyone suffers as a result.

With the coming of Spring, people should find it easier to get out more. And I urge everyone to do so. Not just for Arts Council events, but for school events, church events, whatever events are happening. Coming together at events is a great way to keep our community strong, and costs nothing other than an occasional admission fee and giving up a little time in front of the TV or computer.