Edward Clapp’s 20UNDER40 anthology, a publication that will feature twenty chapters from emerging leaders in the arts under 40 years of age, has received an eye-opening 304 responses to its recent call for proposals from 343 authors on five continents. This is, frankly, a pretty astounding yield for a project with no history, financial reward, or major institutional backing. (Note: one of those submissions was prepared by yours truly in collaboration with Chicago-based management consultant and arts policy wonk Daniel Reid.) From Clapp’s email this afternoon:

Given the number of proposals before us, publication in 20UNDER40 can be equally compared to the acceptance rates of the world’s most elite academic and cultural institutions. […] I feel it is important for all of us—whatever our age or experience—to pause and reflect for a moment on the surge of interest from young arts professionals. What does it mean, what does it tell us that such a massive response has ensued from a simple, grassroots call to voice geared towards young and emerging professionals at this juncture in the evolution of the arts? […]

My answer: Clearly, the field has spoken. There are literally hundreds of eager young leaders ready to take the reigns of the arts for the purpose of redirecting the field in a positive new direction—one that greatly differs from the methods of policy and practice we know today. […]

Young leaders have asked to be heard, and through this project and the residual conversations and actions that will emanate from its expanse, they will no longer be ignored.

Clapp has set up a Facebook site to discuss the implications in more detail.

Here’s what I think. The robust response to a project of this nature is reflective of a few things. One is certainly that Clapp and his co-conspirators deserve a great deal of credit for not only coming up with the idea, but also successfully generating serious viral momentum for the project. I had about a half-dozen different people, people with no official connection to the project, encourage me to make a submission through both email and Twitter – and frankly, I probably wouldn’t have done so without that extra push from people I knew. This momentum will carry through to the actual publication, helping to ensure that (hopefully) a great many folks will actually read the thing when it comes out.

Another factor that no doubt plays into this is that there are a lot of young’uns out there who are looking for a leg up. There’s a reason that colleges, grad schools, fellowship programs, grants, jobs, and other opportunities that bring with them exposure and/or the stamp of institutional approval are getting more and more competitive each year. It’s because the world is getting more connected, more people are becoming better educated and dreaming bigger dreams, and also because, let’s face it, the economy sucks. Since no opportunity is any longer a sure thing, and because the financial, convenience, and time barriers to submitting applications are becoming less and less, people try to cover their bases by submitting more applications. Which makes the application pool for each opportunity that much more competitive, and the cycle keeps feeding itself.

And so I agree with Edward–and Adam, and Lex–that our time has arrived. Generation Y (and, okay, the rump end of Gen X – you know I love you guys) is positively itching to take the wheel. But it’s not just because we’re impatient, though I’ll admit, there’s probably a bit of that. If I may generalize extravagantly for a moment, it’s also because this rat race that we’re all in has honed us, forced us to define ourselves by our strengths, encouraged us to seek our passions, and nurtured our entrepreneurial spirit in ways that set us apart from previous generations. I don’t mean to suggest that our elders didn’t face challenges themselves–but they faced very different ones. Challenges like ensuring basic rights for women and minorities in the workplace, like the threat of nuclear war hanging over their heads at all times, like having to type out all those damn fundraising envelopes themselves instead of just doing a mail merge. These challenges were serious, but in many ways their successful (or somewhat successful) resolution has paved the way for the challenges of our generation, which have to do with an intensity of competition amongst our ranks that has never been seen before in history. Population growth, new technologies, the opening up of opportunities to previously excluded groups and classes, and a comparatively secure and peaceful world have all dramatically increased the global talent pool and productive capacity. In order to run down a dream in that kind of environment, one needs to stand out, to find new ways of doing things, and to knock on as many doors as possible. And so this project was perfect for emerging leaders. It only asked us to do what we’ve been doing already, all this time–come up with new ways of thinking about and pursuing our work, and tell everybody we know about them.

  • The world is changing and in this exciting time in the world of the arts we need to make sure we are part of the leadership. Our work now will only help create and sustain a place for arts in our general society. The arts need to be at the forefront of our communities and in education.