The 64-Cent Question 

"Do you support the arts, sir?" Michael Blackwell asked a businessman with hunched-up shoulders on Michigan Avenue. The day was sunny and crisp, and Blackwell and the man were a study in contrasts: Blackwell, wearing a green cap made of artificial turf, was loose-limbed and dressed in de rigueur artist black; the man, trying to resist the windy cold, was stiff in his blue business suit and yellow power tie.

"No!" the businessman spit back, then hurried down the street.

"Yes you do, sir, you do!" Blackwell shouted at the figure disappearing into a mass of Saturday shoppers. "You pay 64 cents a year in taxes that go directly to the arts--64 cents!"

The man vanished, but Blackwell was smiling. Two young women, hearing him shout, had slowed their walk enough for him to catch up to them. "Do you support the arts?" he asked, shuffling a handful of index cards, petitions, and preaddressed letters to congressmen in front of them as if he were cuing up a magic trick.

"Yes," said the blonder of the two.

"Yes, of course, you do," Blackwell told the women. "Each of you pays 64 cents a year in taxes to support the National Endowment for the Arts. That's less a year than the government--with your tax dollars--spends on military bands."

"You're kidding," said the darker-haired woman.

"No, and can you believe that Congress is trying to eliminate that?" he asked, warming up to his subject.

The women were genuinely stunned. "That's it?" asked the blond.

"That's it," said Blackwell. "What we're doing here is trying to raise consciousness about the NEA and make some art, too. What I want to do is give you this index card, ask you a question, and then pay you a penny to write down your answer."

The two women looked at each other skeptically.

"I'm going to do a big mural with the index cards," Blackwell explained. "It'll be in the shape of a flag. The blue part will have the question."

"What's the question?" asked the brunette, starting to look bored.

It was Blackwell's moment. He cleared his throat and stood up straight. "If NEA funding is not reauthorized by Congress, how are you going to spend your extra 64 pennies?"

"Big Art on Small Change," the brainchild of N.A.M.E.'s performance committee, drew about 60 volunteers, who started the day at the gallery's River West space. "Sixty-four cents won't get you a cup of coffee individually," Lynn Book, one of the organizers, explained to the crowd. "But together with everybody else's 64 cents, it supports a lot of art." The "action" planned was for each volunteer to spend 64 cents exactly in a shopping spree on Michigan Avenue. In the meantime, N.A.M.E. also hoped to raise people's consciousness about the NEA and arts spending.

Most of those who came to participate were young, white, and decked out in big, black, baggy T-shirts that read "64cents" on the front and "Big Art on Small Change" on the back. One young woman, a pale Joni Mitchell type, wore a shirt that read: "'Penises will not be exposed at the taxpayers' expense'--Mr. Helms."

"You have to spend 64 cents," Book explained as she passed out little change envelopes. "It's real important it's not three quarters."

A tall guy named Roger winced in the bright sun as he listened to Book's instructions. All around him the volunteers were snapping pictures and shooting videos. When a friendly cop pulled his paddy wagon to the curb, the would-be protesters climbed all over it, posing as the cameras clicked and the tapes rolled. The cop grinned and posed too.

"Jesus, why is he being so friendly?" asked Roger, flicking ash from his cigarette with a long black fingernail.

"I don't know," Book said, surprised but pleased. "Who cares, so long as he stays friendly?"

"I don't think I'm going to go," Roger said to a small, frail woman who was staring up at him. He took a long, dramatic drag on his cigarette. "I thought we were going to do something radical, you know? This is too...radical chic. I didn't realize we were just gonna shop."

"Do you support the arts?" Blackwell asked a guy leaning up against the side of the Hotel Inter-Continental, who assured him that he did and went on to tell the story of his recent move to Los Angeles.

"Do you know how much you spend in taxes on the arts?" Blackwell asked, trying desperately to stay on the subject.

"Not much, not the way Mayor Daley runs this town," the man said, crossing his arms.

Blackwell raised an eyebrow. "You pay 64 cents," he said.

"Typical," said the LA man. "Daley and those guys, they all just pocket it for themselves."

Just then a tall, lumbering hotel valet came toward Blackwell. "Hey, you," he said, eyebrows knotted, his finger pointing straight ahead. Blackwell cringed, still holding an index card for the LA man. "I want to buy one of those T-shirts," the valet said, pointing at the big "64cents" across Blackwell's torso.

"You do?" Blackwell asked, incredulous. "They've got 'em at N.A.M.E."

"Yeah, but I wanna buy one right now!" the valet demanded, standing nearly a foot above Blackwell. His name tag read "Benjamin."

"I don't have one right now, but I'll check it out," Blackwell said.

He turned his attention back to the LA man, giving him the full 64-cents spiel. The man nodded, blathered about the mayor some more, then started to write his answer on the card. "How do you spell superintendent?" he asked. Blackwell helped him out. The man finished, looked up, and grinned at a pair of women passing by. "You know," the LA man said, "it's so nice to see wholesome girls on the street again; LA is so different."

Blackwell plucked the card from the man's hand, thanked him, and started walking away--until he ran into Benjamin, the valet. "Whatcha doin' anyway?" the big guy asked.

"Buying people's opinions," Blackwell answered.

"For how much?"

"A penny apiece."

"And I bet you got takers," Benjamin said, completely serious.

Over at Bloomingdale's, a blue-eyed, corn-fed gal dressed in an incongruous red flamenco dress, complete with sweeping black lace headdress, was energetically telling Lynn Book about Estee Lauder perfumes. "We're doing make-overs today, too," the woman said, shoving a small tray of bottles at Book.

Book fluttered her eyelashes, for her most innocent look. "But all I have is 64 cents," she said.

"Well," said the flamenco woman, suddenly a lot less enthusiastic, "the make-over's free."

"Can I get a little squirt of perfume--say, 64 cents' worth--on my wrist?" Book asked.

"Well, no, I can't do that," the flamenco woman said, pulling the perfume tray protectively close to her bosom.

Book took this as her cue and began her performance, finishing off with a request for the flamenco woman's signature on a petition supporting the First Amendment. But the woman was absolutely horrified, stepping away from Book, shaking her head no. "I can't," she said. "I just can't."

"You can't sign the First Amendment?" Book asked.

"I'm on the clock," she said, looking around nervously.

"Well, what time do you get off?" Book asked.

Flabbergasted, the flamenco woman shrugged. Her mouth opened a few times but no sound came out.

"You don't know when you get off?" Book asked, trying hard to be gentle.

"I suppose when the store closes."

"Well, here's what I'm going to do," Book said. "I'm going to give you one of these preaddressed letters to your congressman. All you have to do is sign it."

"Oh no, I can't do that," the flamenco woman said, signaling that she had no pockets in which to keep the letter.

"Then I'll leave it for you at the counter," Book said.

"Well, I don't know if they can hold it for me."

Book sighed. "Is this what you do for a living?" she asked.

"Modeling? Yes," said the flamenco woman.

"What agency are you with?"

"Oh, we're not allowed to say."

Finally, Book laughed. "You know," she said, "you really do have a lot of restrictions on the job."

"Do you support the arts, sir?" Blackwell asked another businessman speeding by him on Michigan Avenue.

"No," the man shot back. "There's enough art already."

Blackwell spun around, unfazed. "Do you, sir, do you support the arts?" he asked another man who went by him like lightning.

"I want to support the arts," said the man, staring at Blackwell from a distance. "But I want to know what I'm supporting. Like this--I wouldn't want to support this, but they probably got tax money to come out here and do this reverse panhandling."

Back at N.A.M.E., Book and executive director Irene Tsatsos laid out all the purchases against a wall. The little change envelopes that Book had passed out earlier had explanations written on them. Somebody had bought 53 cents' worth of crayons and given the change to an Afro-Cuban drummer at Water Tower Place; somebody else bought a turnip; someone else bought a small chain at Vogue Fabrics. One woman bummed one cigarette apiece from 44 different people, then spent her 64 cents on one match.

"This was never meant to be an installation in an art gallery," Tsatsos said. "We wanted the stuff returned to us for documentation, so we could take it to other spaces." The idea is to continue the consciousness-raising process. As she talked, somebody was making a video; somebody else was taking a Polaroid. At the space's one table, dozens of photographs were spread out for inspection.

"Did you spend your 64 cents?" Book asked a prodigal shopper who came in now, pink-cheeked and breathless.

"No," said the kid, "it's so hard."

"Yeah," said Book, "it's one of the hardest things you'll ever do."

About half of the 60 original shoppers made it back to N.A.M.E. for the postaction party, sitting around on the floor, exchanging stories, eating pizza, and drinking beverages that Tsatsos's staff was selling for--naturally--64 cents.

In the middle of it all, Blackwell was reading through his index cards. "I got 64 people, no problem," he said. "But I think I've lost 13 cards." He patted down his jacket.

Blackwell spread the cards he had out on the floor. One respondent said he'd buy two bananas with his 64 cents, another figured he could only buy a half cup of coffee. Someone wrote "TUMS" in small block letters on a card. Somebody else got ambitious and wrote "Bail out the S & L."

A few weren't terribly supportive. One card read: "[I'd give] sixty-four lucky pennies to sixty-four lucky people. Everyone whose been any good has done it w/o patronage, w/o support!"

"What we'll do with all this remains to be seen," Tsatsos said. "Our idea was to draw attention to censorship issues."

"Michael, what are you going to call this thing?" Book asked Blackwell, who'd turned over all his cards to her and was now explaining what he wanted to do.

"Let's see..." he said. "How about 'A Penny for Your Thoughts--The American Way'?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Barry Summers.

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