Friday, February 24, 2017

Taking Our Shot: What Now for Art and Artists

Is President-elect Trump’s reaction to the Hamilton cast’s shout out to Vice-President-elect Pence just another example of his ‘deep need to respond to every [perceived] slight’?

Or is it a signpost for where we’re heading? The way we react could have significant implications.

We’re at a point where we need to keep taking the temperature to ensure we notice when it rises.

One possibility: Trump’s response is just more evidence of thin skin and lack of impulse control.
Or, as many people have noted, Trump’s #HamiltonTweets might instead (or also) be a strategic move to distract the public and media from multiple examples of trading on the election to promote his own businesses, as well as the near-admission of wrongdoing when he agreed to pay $25 million dollars to settle the Trump U case. (Or, you know, maybe not.)

But there’s a third explanation. One that we should all consider carefully as we think about what’s next. There’s good reason to worry that @realDonaldTrump intends to inform us that artists are obligated to confine themselves to entertaining.

In case you haven’t seen the rundown of what happened at Hamilton: An American Musical in NYC, Drew McManus has a good summary on his blog. The cast and producers of the show shared this plea with the VPE.
“We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
The President-elect posted four tweets in response. (He, or someone, deleted one of the four almost immediately.)

The VPE on the other hand seemed to take the curtain call comments with more ease.

He said “It was a joy to be there” and that he wasn’t offended by the comments. Then he remarked, twice, that he would “leave to others whether that was the appropriate venue to say it.” That last part might be important.

Public and Media Reactions
In the days since the curtain call, social and mainstream media have been full of debates over whether the statement was rude or just the cast “taking their shot”, whether the comments should have been made from the stage or elsewhere, as well as speculation about Trump’s motive for reacting as he did.

Many commenters made the case that people who are paying for ‘entertainment’ should not be subjected to an artist’s political perspective.

The panel on MSNBC’s Morning Joe went after the artists for choosing the wrong place to make these remarks. Even Ed Rendell, former chair of the DNC among other theoretically progressive roles, was adamant that the comments should not have come from the stage. “Public officials have to have some space that’s off limits,” he said, relating a story about being booed at a college basketball game with his son.

People Naturally Think of Art as (Just) Entertainment

Here’s the danger. It’s easy to make the case to cut funding for arts when the dominant way of thinking about the arts is as ‘entertainment’ — something other people (mostly rich, white, old people) do. (This was a finding of Topos’ research on how to build broad support for the arts.)

People naturally default to thinking of the arts as one of the things we choose to do with our free time and our money, depending on our taste. Looked at this way, an arts experience is no different from eating out or going to a ball game.

The current debate about whether artists should speak to policy or politics from the stage is framed to reinforce the default thinking about the arts as entertainment.

We see this in reaction to the Hamilton event from commenters on both the left and right: people coming to be entertained shouldn’t be subjected to a political commentary.
Defining Art as Entertainment in Policy

Is it possible that the government would limit public support to art that entertains and does not comment on current events?

David Brooks signaled us when he criticized civic-focused artists in a New York Times column that praised the beauty of art while simultaneously faulting artists who “…prefer to descend to the level of us pundits. Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of the evidence).”

It was worrisome last January when Brooks wrote this. Now it seems like a warning.

His framing supports an argument for cutting arts funding and eliminating arts organizations from the charitable deduction altogether, or at best, limiting the deduction so that organizations that create political art or act politically cannot receive deductible donations. (We’ve long been at risk for not being a good fit with the IRS charitable definition anyway.)

Building understanding of the arts as a public good has been the work of many people since 2010 and before — a new focus on building community through the arts is a high priority at the National Endowment, ArtPlace, LISC, The Kresge Foundation, Americans for the Arts, local arts agencies and organizations, and many more.

Our research shows that providing a new way of connecting the dots between the arts and places people want to be can pay off in more support, and in broader understanding of why the arts should receive the benefit of public funding (or public dollars foregone in the form of a tax benefit).

If the new holders of the national microphone choose to frame the arts as just entertainment, they can (at the very least) undermine that nascent understanding of the arts as community builder.


What now? We’re left with big (huge) questions about where to lay our collective energy and leverage.

Do we put a lot of resources and time into saving the (relatively small) national funding programs, like the National Endowment for the Arts? Is the symbolism of these programs worth the heavy lift despite likely reduced funding levels? If so, how far do we go? What compromises would we have to make to get help from art-loving people with access to the new administration?

What will happen to arts organizations more dependent on public funding and private donations if they defend their right to comment on public policy? The federally supported Holocaust Museum leaders said this recently: “The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.” Will they be criticized?

Do we continue to put advocacy of the nonprofit arts toward policies important to our communities and democracy, but threatened by the new administration: Obamacare, immigration, Medicaid, equitable development, climate change, programs that provide benefits to people in jobs that don’t pay enough, opposing racism, free speech, free press…. and so on?

Investing a lot of effort into saving art funding streams will look (and be) self-serving. And it diverts valuable energy and resources and power that could affect the outcome on other important issues. 

Working with people to enhance their lives and the places they call home IS the public value of the arts.

Government Controlled Art? 

We have to talk about the even darker possibilities. It’s not just the threat to funding or supportive policy. The Nazis decided what true art was and removed art that didn’t match their view of culture. Jews were not allowed to create art. Museum directors were fired, books banned, authors fled. Personal taste became law, which preferenced one race. Government controlled art. It started with small statements. And ended in the murder of millions.

There’s no reason to think we could end up there. But it is time to be very awake.

We have big choices to make…right now. 

Originally published on Medium November 22, 2016.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Does This Sound Like a Community Organization You Know? 👀

Illustrator: Rod Hunt


In my last post, I listed a series of questions inspired by reading Nina Simon's new book The Art of Relevance.

Shortly after posting, I attended a board meeting of the community group on my mind when reading the book, the board that inspired my questions.

And it was frustrating. As documented in this tweet storm.

So, I resigned.

About to apply that energy elsewhere, as Nina suggested.


Friday, August 12, 2016

My Questions

The other day at the beach, I devoured Nina Simon’s new book: The Art of Relevance.

The website (where you can also buy it) offers this shorthand description: "The Art of Relevance explores how mission-driven organizations can matter more to more people."

It’s an easy read with short, punchy chapters and Nina uses lots of storytelling, great examples to make her points. Not kidding—good beach read.

This is an important book for •anyone• who is working in community development and community building. It’s especially great for anyone who works in a nonprofit or local government. It will make you think hard about whether you are focusing on the right things and people—once you decide what/who those are, and this book can help you do that.

And if you’re like me, this book might make you wonder if maybe it’s finally time to move on from a community group that feels like it really doesn’t matter enough to the people of the community. [⚠️ Insert vague-blogging alert here. ⚠️]

It’ll make you consider whether, despite a major investment, you can’t any longer justify continuing the bang-your-head-against-the-wall effort to start a conversation about relevance with organizational leaders. (Get over your cognitive dissonance.) Sometimes that’s just what has to happen so you can sleep at night, knowing that the way you invest your time at least seems to be paying off.

As I read the book, I made notes in the margins—asking questions that I need to answer. And that I’d like for trustees and nonprofit leaders who are my partners to ask of themselves. And yes, I have a particular nonprofit arts organization that is on my mind these days. I’m struggling with participating on a board that feels like it needs to, but won’t, focus on the importance of relevance.

I imagined sharing my questions with my fellow trustees.

Here they are:

     ● Do we all know and share the same understanding of our mission? What is it? What do we care about?

     ● Who is in our community? How do we define that community?

     ● Who do we want to engage?

     ● Are we opening the doors to people who don’t know us? Our community? The people we want to engage?

     ● Are we introducing the art to people who don’t know it? Are any of the people coming finding something new? Something they can’t find elsewhere already?

     ● Why are people coming? Do we know or are we guessing? Are we asking them?

     ● Are people returning? Why? Or why not?

     ● Who are our ‘outsiders’, the people helping us introduce the art to their community? Are they helping us make decisions?

     ● Do we all understand that donated money represents a public resource because the charitable deduction is revenue forgone for tax dollars that could support other public services? And that charitable dollars we use for our programming could be spent on other community goals?

     ● Do we agree on the value of spending public money this way? Is this the best way to spend  scarce resources to achieve our goals, to reach and serve our identified community?

     ● Are we creating connection to our place?

      ● Are we offering something that is valued? Would anyone care if it went away?

I rarely make recommendations like this. But there it is. Read the book. Find your questions. And then your answers.

And if the book makes you decide to bail on something you can’t change and that’s not relevant: Score! That’s OK. You can now invest in creating or supporting something that matters more to more people of your community.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Serve, Support, or Save?

After many months of New Community Visions Initiative conversations, my stand out memories are mostly people talking about how we should use words like community and equity.
At the Charleston, West Virginia, gathering, friends from the place I call home were in the room. And one of those friends, Jai Washington, gave us her truth about one of the tensions in the conversation about community and equity.
As he did at every gathering on the New Community Visions Initiative tour, Michael Rohd, who designed and implemented these discussions with Clay Lord, asked us to discuss and interrogate the meaning of community.
He told us that Americans for the Arts had provided a starting point for the definition.
This slide was intended only as a place to begin the conversation, and Michael was clear that this is not their adopted definition.
After people in the room spent a few minutes in one-on-one discussion of the definition with a person sitting nearby, Michael added: This is a learning context for Americans for the Arts. They are listening for and want to understand: what are the questions you feel need to be asked before an organization or agency can use the word community in their mission, or funding or grant applications, or before an arts organization can assert that it serves the community? What are some questions people should think about before using the word community? What is ethically necessary before we use that word? If you had the power to insist that people ask questions of themselves first—what would they be?
And this is when my friend Jai dropped her verbal bomb.
Jai Washington. Photo by Mirna Colon.Jai Washington. Photo by Mirna Colon.
The question she wants everyone to ask themselves before using the word community, before saying they are of the community, or proposing to do something in or for a community, is this:
“Are you here to serve, support, or … save?”
I’ve heard Jai ask this question before. We both live in a rapidly changing Cincinnati neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine (OTR). Perhaps you’ve read about it. Politico recently published a controversial article, “How Cincinnati Salvaged the Nation’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood,” as part of its “What Works” series. Another group just rated OTR as one of the top fifteen coolest neighborhoods in the country.
Historic Over-the-Rhine Rooftops. Photo by Chuck Eilerman.Historic Over-the-Rhine Rooftops. Photo by Chuck Eilerman.
For sure, I’m glad that people are saving and reusing the architecture and infrastructure of this uniquely beautiful 19th century historic district.
But we’re living in a place that is still transforming, where new people enter every day who don’t know or appreciate the history and culture of the neighborhood, or that some current residents have been here making it a place for decades already.
Jai has lived here a long time. I moved in a few years ago. We’re both troubled by what we observe happening—or really, not happening—on sidewalks between newer and long-time residents, and by how visitors—who are primarily here for entertainment—seem to disregard the residents and culture of our place. And by disregard, I mean literally seem to not see us.
These days, Over-the-Rhine feels very different to Jai. She told a reporter: ”It feels like someone has walked into your home, hung up their coat, made dinner, kissed your husband and started playing cards with your kids without you. That’s hurtful.”’
At our monthly residents’ council meetings, there have been times when we cringe over the tone of the conversation. There are so many requests for our input on plans for development that most months there’s a difficult debate between the pro-developer crowd—which seems to view any questions of for-profit developers as rude—and others who are promoting historic preservation, affordable housing options, a mix of retail and services, and equitable development.
Even more uncomfortable moments happen when people assert their privilege like a salve, offering to assist, and othering the people who came before them to the neighborhood.
The residents’ council should be a place where everyone can come together to build a strong(er) neighborhood. Every resident has something to offer. But too often, someone implies that newer residents are there to help the long-term residents. Or even that the council itself is there to serve the long-time (and mostly people of color) residents working in jobs that don’t pay much.
It was one of those moments when I first heard Jai ask: “Are you here to serve, support, or save?”
Think about that. If people are working together for their community, they can be equals. If one part of the group is saving and the others are being rescued, they can’t be equal. If I’m here to save you, you must be needy or deficient.
When we propose to contribute toward making a place more healthy, equitable, and vibrant, we should be in and of the community—but not saving the people in it. This is true in gentrifying places and everywhere.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Size 9 Shoes for Everyone

Eighty people from six states met at the Harriet Tubman Museum in Macon to talk about arts + community.
Sometimes the most exciting and memorable speakers at the New Community Visions Initiative regional meetings are—like many magical things in the rest of life—serendipitous and unplanned.

One of those inspiring moments occurred at the meeting in Macon when Reverend James Lawrence Wofford gave us words we needed to hear about equity.

Defining Equitable—Outcomes or Offers?
At all of these regional meetings, curated by Clay Lord of Americans for the Arts, designed and implemented by Michael Rohd of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, participants—only about half from the arts—are invited to consider definitions as we talk about the role of arts in creating the future’s more healthy, equitable, and vibrant communities.

We always start with a prompt, a definition to parse, dismiss, or edit. Michael shares this slide:

In Macon, as in other places, people provided a number of responses, many of them questioning whether we have a responsibility to guarantee opportunity for all.

      When talking about equitable, are you talking about the opportunity or the outcome?
      How can you guarantee ‘guaranteed opportunity’? Is it about the opportunity being there or people taking the opportunity?
      Can you talk about equity without talking about history?
      What are the costs associated with creating an equitable state?
      Who gets to determine what is equitable and how it is measured?
      What are costs of not creating an inequitable state?
      Is the end game about breaking down barriers or changing outcomes?
      Does equitable mean fair?
      Does advancement for everyone work if we aren't all starting at same place?
       What in life is guaranteed?

What’s implied in these questions? They suggest that personal effort can trump systemic barriers. Some people believe that if we create the opportunity we ourselves would take, that’s enough. As if everyone’s experience in the world could be the same if they just try hard enough.

But it cannot be. And it’s incumbent upon us to remind ourselves of this reality when we attempt to address community goals. If we mean to guarantee opportunity, then we have to find offers that work. Just offering without regard to outcome isn’t enough.

Size 9 Shoes for Everyone
Imagine you want everyone to have shoes. You get a whole bunch of size 9 shoes. And you post on Facebook and twitter that people can come get some shoes at a special party. But then you notice that some people walk away from your event without any new shoes.

What’s your next thought? “Well, I offered shoes. It’s not my fault if they don’t want them. I’m done offering shoes.”

Nooooo. You know that people have different sized feet. Just offering the one-size-fits-all option you picked out isn’t likely to work for everyone. So, you don’t walk away. You have to try again. And you might want to talk to people about what they like and need before making the next offer.

As one person in Macon asked: “How do you address genuine inequity when it’s systemic? And in the process of addressing it, how do you avoid the illusion of inclusion?”

Reverend Wofford’s Powerful Words
Reverend Wofford of Salem asked us all to walk outside the Harriet Tubman Museum to look at a monolith created to inaugurate a park in the early part of the 20th century.

The large rock is engraved with a dedication that says, in part, “In trust for the sole, perpetual, and unending use, benefit, and enjoyment of the white women, white girls, white boys, and white children of the city of Macon….”
It’s shocking to see it.
But the Reverend’s words about the engraving are the perfect reminder about privilege and responsibility.

Listen to Reverend Wofford’s words.
“When you see pieces of art, of history, like this, don’t get discouraged. But remember that many of you are children of privilege. Don’t get mad about that—I’m not going to get mad at you because you were born to privilege. But always remember that because you’re privileged, you have a responsibility. And part of that responsibility, the way I see it, is not to be arrogant, but always to be reminded of where some of us started at.
“We didn’t start in the same position as you did. We started in a whole different position.
“I’m 66 years old. I’ll be 67 on the 22nd of March. I was born in Dallas County, Alabama in 1949. I could not drink from a white water fountain. I could not go into a white restaurant and eat a hamburger.
“But I’ve also lived long enough for my children to never have experienced that, and for my children to know that there has been a black man who has occupied the highest office in this nation. If you don’t think that’s change, you’ve got another thing coming.
“We bring change. That’s the business of being in this work. We have to recognize that we have been blessed, and that we are fortunate, and that we have a responsibility to ensure that this kind of stuff is not perpetuated in the work we do, consciously or subconsciously.
“We have to always be asking the question: who am I helping? Not only who am I helping, but why am I helping?
“That’s the work. Acknowledge this history, and then go to work.”

Cross-posted on ArtsBlog by Americans for the Arts.

Monday, January 18, 2016

David Brooks and the Proper Goal of Art

Photo: by Liza Voll via Linda Nathan

In his commentary about beauty and art, David Brooks proclaims, “ is a big, transformational thing, the proper goal of art and maybe civilization itself.”

His essay appeals because he’s a (relative) conservative writing in the paper of record about the importance of beautiful art, an idea that seems pure common sense. We’re inclined to nod along, enthusiastically.

Perhaps my time in DC, researching social policy in a political environment, left me skeptical. David Brooks writing about art in this way seems a little bit like Paul Ryan taking on poverty.

This essay could turn out to be an unwanted gift in pretty wrapping. While proclaiming the awesomeness of beauty, Brooks is sharing another, frightening big idea: There are too many artists advocating for social change, and they are doing it wrong.

For some reason many artists prefer to descend to the level of us pundits. Abandoning their natural turf, the depths of emotion, symbol, myth and the inner life, they decided that relevance meant naked partisan stance-taking in the outer world (often in ignorance of the complexity of the evidence).

Why wouldn’t it be possible to utilize “emotion, symbol, myth” etc. toward art that offers a view of the world as a more equitable place, or painting the painful picture of inequality? Beauty can make us cry, make us see things more clearly or in a new way altogether. Why is Brooks criticizing stance-taking by artists?

There’s one more sentence in this paragraph and it’s an odd jump to a new topic with no explanation. He writes, critical of arts advocates: “Meanwhile, how many times have you heard advocates lobby for arts funding on the grounds that it’s good for economic development?”

Why is this reference to arts advocacy here? It sounds like he’s criticizing the proposition. True, it may not be an effective statement with the public (they don’t buy it), but how does it fit into this discourse on beauty? Does Brooks believe that, like stance-taking, economic development is not a proper goal of art? Perhaps. But that doesn’t make its economic impact less true—or at least any less true than any other sector’s claims about economic impact.

This throw away comment bolsters my sense that Brooks is not just writing about beauty, but criticizing art when—by design and on purpose—it contributes to culture change.

He seems to soften the criticism in the next paragraph.

In fact, artists have their biggest social impact when they achieve it obliquely. If true racial reconciliation is achieved in this country, it will be through the kind of deep spiritual and emotional understanding that art can foster. You change the world by changing peoples’ hearts and imaginations.

I’m inclined to agree. It’s true that we’re often able to reach more people on a difficult topic—like poverty, or race, or gun safety, and so on—when we meet them with it sideways, when we bring it to them in a fresh way, a way that makes them reconsider, or at least willing to hear us out.

Too often, when we talk of poverty or race directly, people turn away. Who goes to see a play about racism and gentrification? Mostly people who are troubled by racism and gentrification, people willing to spend a couple of hours being challenged. We don’t reach the people who’ve stopped listening to the direct appeal. On the other hand, the direct, or even provocative, approach offers a chance to inspire and activate the already persuaded. Isn’t that a worthwhile endeavor?

What is Brooks’ point? Does he mean that artists should only take on social issues if they can do so in a beautiful and oblique manner? We can appreciate his recognition of the power of art in the comments about race. But we shouldn't be blinded by the positive things he writes, and thereby miss seeing his narrow view of arts' goals.

Brooks starts the piece with a description of his own experience seeing unexpected beautiful art.

Across the street from my apartment building in Washington there’s a gigantic supermarket and a CVS. Above the supermarket there had been a large empty space with floor-to-ceiling windows. The space was recently taken by a ballet school, so now when I step outside in the evenings I see dozens of dancers framed against the windows, doing their exercises — gracefully and often in unison.

It can be arrestingly beautiful. The unexpected beauty exposes the limitations of the normal, banal streetscape I take for granted every day.

This is what I call serendipitous art, the art you see at times or in places where you don’t expect it—happen-upon art. My theory is that this unexpected art is especially affecting, changing the way we feel about places and connecting us to others. Brooks’ description is moving (although it created some controversy among the commenters on the New York Times website) and the experience is familiar to readers.

Unfortunately, Brooks’ uses this lovely description to wrap his disconcerting view of the role of artists and community change through the arts. It’s a troubling perspective, particularly when so much of our national conversation is about the contributing role of arts in changing the future of places.

We’ve suffered through years of attacks on funding for nonprofits that advocate for more social services and civil rights. Will there be a similar proposal to prohibit public spending for art that directly (or insufficiently vaguely) promotes more affordable housing, opposes gentrification, advocates for gun control or body cams, and so on?

Stay tuned.