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, “...beauty 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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Nine Predictions for the Arts in 2016

1) People will continue to use their digital devices during performances. Arts management will find a way to make it work for engagement, and artistic directors will see the benefits and stop whining about the 'preciousness' of the art.

2) Orchestra management and players will encourage clapping between movements. Signage in symphony halls will signal the new rule: “No Shushing."

3) Everyone will understand that they’ve been “creative placemaking” all along.

4) The economic impact benefits of the arts will be known by all and arts administrators will be able to eliminate the labor-intensive collection of that data for leaders who used to insist on seeing it.

5) Board members of old institutions will notice all the heads around the table that are bald or white, and all the pale skin. And they will feel itchy. Some will resign, making room for younger and more diverse trustees.

6) Event organizers will offer to pay artists a living wage for their contribution to entertainment and community. Asking artists to donate their work will be a thing of the past.

7) Traffic engineers will meet their artsy selves and support community-designed, creative crosswalks. The traffic slowing, public safety benefits of this arts-infused infrastructure will be universally acknowledged.

8) Co-created art made by citizen artists will be known as….ART. Donors and funders will start supporting artists and arts groups that meet community where it lives, bringing the art—music, dance, theater, paintings, sculpture—to the people, and sometimes—yes—even creating art with the people.

9) THIS.

Monday, November 23, 2015


12th and Vine Streetcar Stop, Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati

I’m grateful for artists. They create the opportunity for us to celebrate our place and come together to get to know each other in new ways. They build the platform for sharing joy.

In the city where I live in my Tiny Row House, many people worked long and hard to save the unique architecture in Over-the-Rhine. This neighborhood is one of our top differentiating assets, a piece of history and beauty that no other comparable city has to share with the world. Thanks to Cincinnati’s status as the first boomtown of the West in the nineteenth century, our geography, and a combination of factors (not all good at the time) that saved the buildings from demolition—we had a chance to create something special. And we grabbed it.

As in many other renovated urban places, the people of this neighborhood—old and new residents alike—are challenged by the changes here. We don’t know each other as well as we should, making it harder for us to address these issues. 
It is our artists who are leading us to a more connected place— creating a pathway to our future with art in the streets. They do this in neighborhoods across our region. Here are a few examples from Over-the-Rhine.

When city staff wasn’t ‘able’ (read: allowed) to plan the fireworks to celebrate the first tour of our new streetcar around the tracks, some lovely artists (professionals and citizens together) created a great, happy piece of welcoming street art at the 12th and Vine stop. Since chalk art is technically an illegal activity here, we won’t name any names. But you probably know some of the artists. Important because: everyone should know what’s happening in our community and that we’re super happy about this new asset!

Streetcar workers and fans admire the "Welcome Streetcar" guerilla chalk art.

Early Sunday, artists at work.


This cutie looks familiar, Pam Kravetz.

Dancers from DanceFix and Spirit of Cincinnati led citizens in a serendipitous coming together at Cincy Summer Streets on Pleasant Street. Important because: our sidewalks and streets are the place people meet, and dancing together is an easy way for people who don’t know each other to to connect.

Pones Inc revived their outdoor Over-the-Rhine immersive dance and video experience, introducing people to each other and the neighborhood streets at night. Important because: This show shines a spotlight on changes in the neighborhood through the eyes and words of residents whose voices aren’t heard often enough.

Artists are one asset that every community enjoys, as Jamie Bennett says. They are up near the front of the big parade creating memorable and equitable places. #GRATITUDE 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Video from Cincinnati.Com: Life Happens on Sidewalks, The Power of Art in Public

Thanks to the Enquirer and Cincinnati.Com for the invitation to be a storyteller at their Downtown Dreamers event. This is my talk about the WHY for art in public places and how it can change our sense of place and the way we SEE each other.

Art connects people - especially co-created, human-centric, place-based, serendipitous art.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Mapplethorpe + 25: Sheriff Simon Leis Likes Art

Sheriff Simon Leis' Photograph of Paint the Street
Over-the-Rhine 2010

This weekend, FotoFocus hosted events at the Contemporary Arts Center for the 25th Anniversary of the acquittal of the museum for obscenity charges related to showing photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The conversations reminded me of a more recent art experience with Sheriff Simon Leis.

Simon Leis was "the sheriff whose deputies cleared out the Contemporary Arts Center...and hand-delivered indictments on obscenity charges to its director, Dennis Barrie," marking the first-ever criminal charges of a museum for an exhibition. But many people thought Leis was more culpable than that. He was the one who helped set the stage for the case by prosecuting numerous cases of obscenity and clearing the area of adult book stores and peep-shows, and was the first county prosecutor to take on Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine.

The Simon Leis Campaign Sign on My Wall: Is it Art?

In the Mapplethorpe case, it took a jury of eight only two hours to acquit. And this was a jury of people who’d never to be the Contemporary Arts Center, only some of whom had ever been to a museum at all. Only one of them had ever given to the local campaign for the arts, the Fine Arts Fund—a workplace-based fundraising group like a United Way for the arts.

In 2010, as part of the relaunch of the Fine Arts Fund as ArtsWave, we painted six blocks of street pavement on 12th Street in Over-the-Rhine with 1500 people coming together to co-create the mural designed by artists based on community input. 

Paint the Street 2010: 1500 People Painting Six Blocks of Pavement

While we were painting, and the street was becoming a vibrant riot of colorful art, someone asked whether we’d hired a helicopter to capture the artwork from above—this being before the days of drones.

In fact, we’d tried to find a news helicopter that might let us send up a photographer, but none of the local outlets had a helicopter at that time. And we didn’t have a budget to hire a private operator. Hearing this, someone suggested that I call Sheriff Simon Leis’ office because he had a ‘bird’.

Back in the days of the Mapplethorpe fight, the opponents of the Contemporary Arts Center had targeted the Fine Arts Fund. Contributors threatened to withhold corporate contributions to the annual campaign unless the museum was left out as a beneficiary. The museum is said to have voluntarily withdrawn from the campaign rather than forcing a decision that could harm other arts institutions with declining overall funding. Sheriff Leis was largely seen as the driver behind the overall campaign against the photo exhibit.

But what the hell, we decided to call the Sheriff’s office and ask about a helicopter for some art photos.

The answer? It was a Sunday and they’d have to wait until the ‘aviation team’ was back on Monday and then the Sheriff himself would have to approve. 

Now I was doubtful. But the Sheriff’s office assured me, “Sheriff Leis likes art!” Sure, I said, “That’s what I hear.”

A few days later, a disc of photographs was delivered to ArtsWave. The Sheriff had sent his own photographer up in the helicopter and they flew back and forth capturing multiple views of the streetart.

So yes, you might say Sheriff Simon Leis likes art.