Why Teaching Artists Will Lead the Charge in Audience Engagement

As a self-proclaimed enthusiast in audience engagement, I felt compelled to respond to Michael Kaiser’s Engaging Audiences article in the Huffington Post last month. Rather than debate point-by-point Kaiser’s position that audience engagement is possibly new window dressing for an old issue or that arts organizations are using this jargon to target selected audiences, I’d like to put forth my own perspective of audience engagement, supported by others in the field, and declare that teaching artists should be leading this charge. I believe if we can utilize the expertise of teaching artists in strategic decisions and core programming within arts organizations, we will make serious inroads to connecting more authentically with our communities and audiences.

Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin in a recent report, Making Sense of Audience Engagement, define audience engagement as:

A guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant.  Others refer to this vein of work as “enrichment program­ming” or “adult education.”

In their view, an audience engagement philosophy:

  • Encourages each audience member to be a co-creator of meaning
  • Respects the many pathways that people take through the art form
  • Appreciates that not everyone relates to art on an intellectual basis
  • Integrates ‘engagement thinking’ into artistic planning
  • Values audience feedback as a means of engagement

As Richard Evans notes in his response to Michael Kaiser’s blog, many who are truly entrenched and committed to audience engagement do not even use the term. They “describe the pursuit of broader reciprocal relationships with community members – expressive relationships created through, and embodied in, art.”

This notion is reflected in Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum, which is all about audience engagement, yet doesn’t regularly use the term (if at all):

I define a participatory cultural institution as a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content. Create means that visitors contribute their own ideas, objects, and creative expression to the institution and to each other. Share means that people discuss, take home, remix, and redistribute both what they see and what they make during their visit. Connect means that visitors socialize with other people—staff and visitors—who share their particular interests.

So if audience engagement is about utilizing the work of art to facilitate authentic, personally-relevant connections with others and the work of art itself, it seems we have an army of individuals waiting in the wings to be asked to the party. Teaching artists, still frighteningly in the margins of our quest to reinvent arts institutions, are experts in audience engagement. They do the following things exceedingly well:

  • Teach cognitive skills needed to think artistically and creatively
  • Teach aesthetic education, or the ability to make sense of art, not skills-based art-making
  • Understand how to create questions and activities that are relevant to diverse ages and levels of arts education
  • Work across the community, from performing and presenting works for discerning adult audiences as well as in schools in rural and low-income neighborhoods
  • Understand that what they do is spiritual in nature, and help create a link to individuals’ higher selves.

This is a distinct discipline from learning one’s art form to produce finished works of art. A teaching artist is not just an artist or an art teacher; they study and are inherently interested in how others experience art. They are able to craft lesson plans, events, and performances that help facilitate deeper intrinsically-motivated experiences for all types of audiences.

Historically, teaching artists have been relegated to education departments across the nation. In Eric Booth’s The History of Teaching Artistry, the “first national marker of (a) teaching artist commitment was the 1970 launch of a modest Artists-in-Schools Program at the recently established National Endowment for the Arts.” Since then, educational departments and professional development for artists working in public schools have grown tremendously. There is now a generation or two of experienced, highly-professionalized teaching artists who are clawing their way into artistic conversations at large institutions and creating their own non-profits to work with adult audiences.

Programs such as Carnegie Hall’s songwriting program for homeless shelters, led by master teaching artist and composer Tom Cabaniss, are rich with experiences for participants that deepen their relationship with music and each other. (It’s not surprising that Sarah Johnson, director of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, began her career as a teaching artist.) Classical Jam, a young ensemble led by NY Philharmonic teaching artist Wendy Law, performs orchestral works with the audience as performer – in this video the connection between the school audience and performers during the performance is palpable.

The point here is not that teaching artist work exists – it certainly does and has been around for at least a couple of decades. The point is that teaching artists can offer the kind of thinking needed for core artistic decisions and even market strategy to help develop truly innovative programming. Designing the experience with a work of art is now as important as the work of art itself, and we need new kinds of talent making key decisions if arts organizations are to survive.

In August, the Seanse Art Center in Oslo, Norway will hold The World’s First International Teaching Artist Conference. With teaching artists from all over the world convening to discuss this still-emerging discipline, I am eager to see how they view teaching artists’ role in the equally adolescent field of audience engagement.

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Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem

Art Cars Attack, photo by M Glasgow

Art Cars Attack, photo by M Glasgow

(Note: a follow-up to this post, “In Defense of Logic Models,” is now available here)

“I feel like whenever I talk to artists these days, I should be apologizing,” says Kevin Stolarick, Research Director for the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. To most in the arts community, Stolarick is better known as Richard Florida’s longtime right-hand man and research collaborator on his bestselling book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Stolarick, who first met Florida just after the academic had cashed the first check for the advance from Basic Books, proceeds to recount how the book’s success led to an explosion of interest from mayors all around the country wanting to redefine their cities as welcoming meccas for Florida’s new Starbucks-drinking, jeans-wearing idea people. Unfortunately, the mayors’ collective interpretation of the lessons from Florida’s book boiled down to, “all we need is to get us some gays and artists and a bike path or two, and our problems will be solved! The problem,” Stolarick tells us, a decade after The Rise of the Creative Class’s publication, “is that it’s a trap.”

This scene is unfolding in a basement auditorium in lower Manhattan, the site of a panel and presentation hosted by the Municipal Art Society of New York to give audiences the first public preview of the ArtPlace vibrancy indicators. ArtPlace, as many readers know, is a private-sector partnership among nearly a dozen leading foundations to support “creative placemaking,” a term invented by officials at the National Endowment for the Arts. Spearheaded by leadership from the NEA, the creation of ArtPlace is perhaps this Endowment’s, and by extension the Obama administration’s, signature achievement in the arts—despite the fact that it doesn’t distribute a cent of government money.

Stolarick’s presence at the event was appropriate, for in many ways it was The Rise of the Creative Class that made the current creative placemaking movement possible. For a time it was the kind of book that smart people buy for all of the other smart people they know – a genuine ideavirus. Florida, more than anyone else, was responsible for conflating creativity, innovation, and artistry in the popular imagination, and among the measures that he and Stolarick developed for the book was a “Bohemian index” associating the concentration of artists in a given metropolitan area with population and employment growth. Though the empirical claims in the book turned out to be built on shaky foundations, they were intuitive (and well-argued) enough that municipal leaders started taking notice. In fact, Carol Coletta, the current director of ArtPlace, was one of the first people to invite Florida to help put his ideas into practice in a real city context as co-organizer of 2003’s Memphis Manifesto Summit. Florida, Stolarick, and their associates became the first widely acknowledged spokespeople for the idea that a vibrant set of opportunities and amenities for creative expression could lead to regional economic prosperity.

But Florida wasn’t the only one drawing public attention to the economic power of the arts over the previous decade. Separately, the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania has been studying the relationship between concentrations of cultural resources and various social and economic outcomes since 1994. As then-Associate Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, Joan Shigekawa commissioned a groundbreaking collaboration between SIAP and The Reinvestment Fund to study the dynamics of culture and urban revitalization, work whose influence can be seen clearly in much of the policy that Shigekawa has since helped develop as Senior Deputy Chairman of the NEA.

SIAP, which is led by Mark Stern and Susan Seifert, cites The Rise of the Creative Class frequently in its publications dating from that period, usually to position its approach in opposition to Florida’s. In fact, in 2008 SIAP published one of the most hilariously brutal program evaluations I’ve ever read, following the attempts of Florida’s Creative Class Group (CCG) to turn around three Knight Foundation communities by inspiring volunteer “catalysts” to drive toward the “4 T’s” of economic development (technology, talent, tolerance, and territorial assets). In that evaluation, Stern and Seifert offer a single overarching criticism: CCG forgot about its outcomes. Much like South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, the project team had a clear idea of what it was putting in to the process and what it hoped to get out of it, but a much vaguer sense of how it was going to get from Phase 1 to Phase 3.

South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, image courtesy Wikipedia

Which brings me to my central point: despite all of the attention paid to this issue in the past year and a half, despite all of the new money that has been committed to the cause, creative placemaking still has an outcomes problem. As a field, we have not yet learned the lessons of the Underpants Gnomes. And until we do, I’m worried that we risk repeating Stolarick’s apology to practitioners a decade hence.

Leaving the dots unconnected

“When times were good,” Kevin Stolarick explains at the ArtPlace vibrancy indicators convening, it was easy for city councils, funders, and others to buy into the ideas in Florida’s book on the strength of his celebrity and qualitative arguments. But now that cities are facing more economic pressure, Stolarick continues, “they’re saying, ‘we need proof – and that’s going to take more than Richard Florida’s next book.’”

“Proof” is a word that seems to give creative placemakers hives these days. Less than two weeks prior to the ArtPlace event, I had participated in a webinar given by the NEA to introduce its Our Town Community Indicators Study. Our Town is the Endowment’s public-sector counterpart to ArtPlace – likewise the brainchild of Rocco Landesman, it granted some $6.6 million to communities for creative placemaking projects across the country in its inaugural round last year. The Community Indicators Study is a multiyear data collection effort whose chief purpose is to “advance public understanding of how creative placemaking strategies can strengthen communities.” Yet when, prompted by researchers who were listening in on the call, the NEA’s Chief of Staff, Jamie Bennett, asked the Deputy Director of NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis about causation vs. correlation, this is the exchange that resulted:

Bennett: …Are you going to in some way be able through this project to prove [for example] that arts had a direct impact in causing the crime rate to go down?

Shewfelt: A lot of the language I’ve used today has been very carefully chosen to avoid suggesting that we are trying to design a way to specifically address the causal relationship between creative placemaking and the outcomes we’re interested in.

As a matter of fact, the NEA has chosen to forgo a traditional evaluation of the Our Town grant program in favor of developing the aforementioned indicator system. The project will no doubt result in a lot of great data, but essentially no mechanism for connecting the Endowment’s investments in Our Town projects to the indicators one sees. A project could be entirely successful on its own terms but fail to move the needle in a meaningful way in its city or neighborhood. Or it could be caught up in a wave of transformation sweeping the entire community, and wrongly attribute that wave to its own efforts. There’s simply no way for us to tell. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we can’t accomplish the goal of “advancing understanding of how creative placemaking strategies can strengthen communities” without digging more deeply into the causal relationships that the NEA would prefer to avoid.

The vibrancy indicators that were the subject of the ArtPlace convening face a similar quandary. The purpose of the indicators is to help ArtPlace “understand the impact of [its] investments.” And what is that desired impact? During a webinar delivered to prospective applicants last fall, Coletta declared that “with ArtPlace, we aim to do nothing less than transform economic development in America…to awaken leaders who care about the future of their communities to the fact that they’re sitting on a pile of assets that can help them achieve their ambitions…and that asset is art.”

ArtPlace Theory of Change

ArtPlace Theory of Change

ArtPlace’s investments all have a singular focus on “vibrancy,” a concept defined in its guidelines as “attracting people, activities and value to a place and increasing the desire and the economic opportunity to thrive in a place.” While that was as specific as things got during ArtPlace’s first two rounds of grantmaking, the indicators project, which examines factors as diverse as cell phone use, population density, and home values, will go a long way toward concretizing ArtPlace’s primary lever of community transformation. Even so, ArtPlace doesn’t seem any more eager than the NEA to connect the activities of its grant recipients to the broader vibrancy indicators directly. Though the projects themselves are supposed to have a “transformative” impact on vibrancy, ArtPlace isn’t requiring its grantees to collect any data on how that impact is achieved. Furthermore, ArtPlace’s guidelines state clearly that the consortium has no plans to invest in research on creative placemaking beyond the vibrancy indicators themselves, despite its advocacy goals and a desire to “share the lessons [grantees] are learning to other communities across the U.S.”

To be clear, I don’t mean to question the value of research of the type ArtPlace and Our Town are leading. Efforts such as these, Fractured Atlas’s Archipelago data aggregation and visualization platform, Americans for the Arts’s National and Local Arts Index, Western States Arts Federation’s Creative Vitality Index, and others help to draw a clear picture of a community’s overall cultural and creative health and can serve as an essential tool within a broader research portfolio. But in order for those tools to really come alive in a grantmaking context, they have to be grounded in a clear and rigorous conceptual frame for the how the specific funded activities are going to make a difference, and then integrated into the actual process for selecting grant recipients. And that’s the part still missing from the vast majority of these efforts. In an upcoming article for the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus (who co-authored the original Creative Placemaking white paper for the NEA with her mentor, Ann Markusen) writes, “it’s probably unreasonable to expect that a modest, one-year Our Town grant will move the needle, at least quickly….Because the geographic scale, time horizons, and desired outcomes vary across creative placemaking efforts, one-size-fits-all indicator systems may prove inappropriate.”

Without a clear and detailed theory of how and why creative placemaking is effective, policy and philanthropy to support creative placemaking is hobbled. Attempting to predict and judge impact based on indicator systems alone carries with it at least four problems:

  • It doesn’t give a clear road map for project selection that will identify investments most likely to make a difference. Without previous research demonstrating causal interactions between grants given and differences made, it’s hard to know what effect a new grant will have – much less how to compare the potential effects of hundreds or (in ArtPlace’s case) thousands of competing investment opportunities.
  • It doesn’t give us the tools to go back and analyze why certain projects did and didn’t work. Maybe a public artwork succeeds in drawing people to a neighborhood, but real estate values stay stagnant. Maybe development along a transit corridor was executed on schedule, but ridership is lower than expected. Broad, sector-level indicators will only tell us that the project didn’t work – not why.
  • It doesn’t acknowledge the complex nature of economic ecosystems and the indirect role that arts projects play in them. Many economists agree that talented, highly educated individuals are key to community prosperity. But numerous considerations likely play into their decision to (re)locate in a particular place. When are the arts truly catalytic for a community, and when are they merely icing on the cake? Indicator systems would have no way of telling us on their own.
  • It provides little insight on how to pursue arts-led economic development while avoiding the thorny problems of gentrification. Any thinking around policy interventions must acknowledge the possibility of negative impacts as well as positive ones. In the case of creative placemaking, an attendant worry is that longtime residents of transformed neighborhoods won’t have asked for the change, and may be adversely affected by it. To date, there is little shared understanding of how creative placemaking projects that benefit all community residents are distinguished from those that simply replace poorer residents with wealthier ones.

In her Reader article, Nicodemus writes that

The answer to the question “What is creative placemaking, really?” is that funders and practitioners are making it up in real time. We’ve entered an exciting period of experimentation, which makes sharing information absolutely critical.

In the interest of sharing information, then, I will report out below on some lessons I’ve learned from my own research on the topic over the past five years, as well as from a collaboration with ArtsWave, a funder supporting vibrancy through the arts in the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region.

Toward a unified theory of creative placemaking: Filling in the blanks

The major deficiency of the Underpants Gnomes’ business plan was that they attempted to connect their activity (stealing underpants) with their intended impact (profit), without really considering the steps in between. To take an extreme example, if I start an organization called “Artists for World Peace” (there is such an organization, by the way), get some artists together to stand in solidarity, and put on a show, it would be unrealistic of me to expect world peace as the next logical result.

Yet most studies of the connection between the arts and economic development have attempted to measure the direct relationship between arts activities (whether single or in the aggregate) and economic outcomes. For example, the Social Impact of the Arts Project examined the correlation between cultural assets and poverty decline in Philadelphia, and a groundbreaking study by Steve Sheppard compared employment levels and real estate values in North Adams, MA before and after the opening of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. These research efforts have done much to shape our collective understanding of urban revitalization through the arts. But they share in common an unfortunate tendency to gloss over the details of exactly how creative activities are responsible for making neighborhoods and communities more attractive, and therefore, more valuable. This gap is especially problematic when one tries to apply the lessons of these studies to a policy or grantmaking context, where the details of how projects are implemented can make all the difference in whether a particular intervention is successful or not.

When I was in graduate school, before I came into contact with any of the research above, I created a simple model of arts-led gentrification to illustrate the specific case of a neighborhood lent a young, “hip” reputation by newly relocated artists. This model is different from others I’ve seen in a few ways. First, it casts neighborhood development as an iterative process, starting with tourism on the local level among artists. In other words, the people who are going to be checking out the happenings in a struggling outpost of the city are not, by and large, yuppies – they are other artists who are colleagues of the ones living in that neighborhood. Second, it emphasizes the role of bars and restaurants as attractors for other neighborhood visitors (including yuppies), whose viability is only made possible by the modest foot traffic generated by arts activities. And finally, it places at the beginning of the process not just arts activities, but specific kinds of arts activities: visible, storefront spaces like galleries and performance venues that signal the presence of art and draw visitors to a particular location.

The Artist Colonization Process

Three years later, some of the thinking reflected above found its way into my grantmaking strategy work with ArtsWave, an local arts agency based in Cincinnati, OH. First, some background: in late 2008, ArtsWave had commissioned a research initiative designed to develop an inclusive public conversation about the arts in the region. Based on hundreds of conversations, interviews, and focus groups with area residents, two key “ripple effect” benefits emerged as especially valued by citizens:

  1. that the arts create a vibrant, thriving economy: neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists are attracted to the area, etc…and
  2. that the arts create a more connected community: diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better.

To its immense credit, ArtsWave didn’t just sit on these results and continue in the status quo. Instead, the 83-year-old united arts fund underwent a total transformation, taking on a new name and organizational identity, and most importantly, adopting these two themes as the new goals for its grantmaking.

My task, starting in January 2011, was to assist ArtsWave in creating a new framework for funding arts & culture activities based upon the ability of organizations to create vibrancy and connect people in the region. With the help of a volunteer task force consisting of ArtsWave board members, staff, community leaders, and grantee organizations, we worked backwards from the idea of “vibrancy” and ended up with an extraordinarily complex theory of change. Here’s the part that specifically deals with cultural clusters and neighborhood economic development:

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: cultural clusters

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: cultural clusters

Some elements of this model will certainly look familiar, though with some new wrinkles added: evening and weekend hours for storefronts, for example, as well as decreased crime and improved physical spaces (in general, not just arts spaces). ArtsWave, however, extended the concept to apply to regional economic development as well:

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: regional development

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: regional development

Note here that the principal lever for the regional development model is that the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region is “differentiated” through the arts. That is to say, it attracts people from outside of the region because it gains a (deserved) reputation for being a more interesting place to be than its peer cities. And what helps differentiate Cincinnati is something we call “extraordinary cultural experiences.” We attach a very specific definition to “extraordinary,” focusing on its literal meaning of “out of the ordinary.” For ArtsWave’s purposes, experiences are extraordinary if they are associated with one of the following:

  • Events or productions with a national or international profile
  • Events or productions that feature something uniquely special about the region
  • Events or productions that feature innovative programming or presentation

Not only do experiences meeting the above criteria help to differentiate the Greater Cincinnati region in the eyes of tourists or prospective residents, they also contribute directly to ArtsWave’s notion of “vibrancy” (the green arrow in the diagram).

What this approach does is explicitly connect the activities of grantees to the broader community change that ArtsWave hopes to create. A key innovation that came out of this process was the distinction between “Sector Outcomes” (in blue) and “Grantee Outcomes” (in purple). We defined grantee outcomes as the farthest point out in the model to which individual organizations could reasonably be held accountable—and those outcomes feed back into the evaluation and selection process at the grant application stage. All other outcomes, the sector outcomes, are a reflection on ArtsWave’s overall strategy, rather than on any one particular investment. This allows us to “aggregate” impact from the level of the individual project to the level of the broader context.

The beauty of designing a model like this is that it allows each assumption embedded in each link on the causal chain to be tested, if necessary. Of course, it would be impractical to do so for every investment a grantmaker might make. But that isn’t necessary. In order to provide the kind of evidence that mayors and other officials are looking for, you only need a few examples to demonstrate replicability. But we have to be sure that those examples really do show the effects of intentional creative placemaking strategy, rather than just a lucky coincidence.

Where We Go From Here

Despite the challenges I discuss in the first part of this article, I’m heartened to see creative placemaking funders taking some positive steps toward a more rigorous theoretical foundation for their work. In particular, ArtPlace is beginning to move in this direction with a list of ten signals grantees can use to judge whether their projects are making a difference. The challenge will be to unpack those relationships with the same rigor as is currently applied to collecting data.

Meanwhile, we would love feedback on the models we have created to describe economic development through the arts. While we are hopeful they can help to move the conversation towards a deeper consideration of the complex mechanisms involved in creating place-based vibrancy, we readily acknowledge that they aren’t perfect. Do they accurately reflect creative placemaking goals and processes? Which aspects of the model are best backed up by existing research and which are shakiest? Which seem intuitively right but have not been studied in depth? What are we leaving out?

If you have comments, questions, or resources to offer, please leave a comment here or get in touch at ian.moss@fracturedatlas.org. And in the meantime, Fractured Atlas will be eagerly researching how emerging evaluation methods in other sectors, such as outcome mapping, most significant change technique, and complexity science, can potentially be applied to the arts.

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Let Your Folk Flag Fly: Folklore Research and the Informal Arts

Over the last decade, you’ve probably known someone who took up dance or music classes, or maybe someone who joined a knitting or craft group, or started a novel. According to a 2008 NEA study, 74 percent of Americans participate in the arts through attendance, art creation, or media. Whether you call it the Pro-Am Revolution, the Long Tail, or participatory arts, foundations and arts leaders are taking notice of people getting together to be creative. Currently, however, theory is ahead of practice regarding collaboration between these casual groups of individuals and their more professionalized counterparts.  As a result, the world of formal arts institutions (nonprofit arts organizations, grantmakers, and arts agencies) remains apart from that of the informal arts (pro-am participatory groups, classes, and networks).

Folklorists are uniquely suited to bridge the gap between these two worlds. Their research methods address uncovering artists outside the nonprofit arts infrastructure, a factor essential to building a sustainable local arts network.  If foundations and arts policy decision makers want to build such an environment for the arts, folklorists can aid them in taking steps towards authenticity and sustainability.

The Importance of the Informal Arts

Several studies over the last ten years have emphasized the importance of informal arts as well as nonprofit arts organizations, commercial arts, arts education, government, and businesses, in creating a healthy environment for the arts.

Cultural Development in Creative Communities (2003) came out right after Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class. Published by Americans for the Arts, it cites Portland, Oregon as an example of the new creative city, having “an especially large number of mid-sized and smaller organizations . . . [where] informal arts activities thrive . . . [and] many arts spaces sponsor project based collaborations . . . .” The authors (among others, Bill Bulick and Carol Coletta, current ArtPlace spearheader) continue: “Community asset mapping must encompass this breadth [commercial, nonprofit, and informal] in order to ferret out nodes and catalysts of cultural vibrancy, synergy, and impact.”

The authors recommend developing funding for project-based creative work with individuals and informal groups. They conclude,

The opportunity for our field is to broaden our definitions of culture, maximize participation and engagement, develop a climate that encourages creativity among all citizens, and channel that creativity towards building-and sustaining-our communities.

One of the key findings of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Research into Action: Pathways to New Opportunities (completed as part of a study of culture in Philadelphia in 2009) is that “Personal practice (including creating music or dance, painting or drawing, and sharing photos, music or videos online) is a gateway to attendance.“ The report goes on to cite Steven Tepper’s book Engaging Art, in which he predicts that “the twenty-first century will be shaped by the Pro-Am Revolution.”

In Informal Arts: Finding Cohesion, Capacity and Other Cultural Benefits in Unexpected Places (2002), Alaka Wali and colleagues make a convincing case that there is mutual benefit and reinforcement flowing between the informal and formal arts. The formally trained teachers and group leaders often derive benefits from teaching, such as new ways of thinking about techniques or ideas and hands-on experience in organizing and administrating. The students and less skilled artists benefit from the formal training of their teachers and gain inspiration from performances and exhibitions at formal arts institutions. Informal activities can also serve as incubators for experimental ideas in the arts.  Wali et al. recommend that the informal arts be incorporated into community development, that institutions that already intersect with informal arts be supported in expanding that activity, and that arts advocacy be built across informal-formal divides.

Barriers between Theory and Practice

It’s clear that many grantmakers and arts agencies agree that the path to a healthy, sustainable local arts ecosystem will necessarily include informal artists. Yet, their strategies by and large remain focused on nonprofit arts organizations. Research into Action hammers home the need for more programming that encourages personal participation in the arts, but it doesn’t even mention informal arts groups. A recent solicitation of perspectives from of regional arts councils participating in Americans for the Arts’s Local Arts Network yielded several examples of individuals who happened to be amateur artists serving on planning and advisory committees, but little targeting of “informal” artists specifically. Although many informal groups are led by professional artists, it is important to focus on the activity of the informal arts and their amateur practitioners, not simply viewing them as another source of revenue for practicing artists.

To be certain, there are significant barriers that have up to now kept funders from partnering with the informal sector.

  • Visibility Barriers

In the Informal Arts report, Wali et. al. found that informal arts activities tend to fly under everyone’s radar. Activities occurring in “artsy” neighborhoods were more visible in the media than activities occurring in neighborhoods lacking that reputation. Additionally, researchers found no widespread recognition of informal arts practice as a concept within the informal arts world.

This means that it takes considerable effort just to find these groups. Combined with the economies of scale offered by larger nonprofits (enabling them to reach a larger number of beneficiaries), it should come as no surprise that informal artists often seem to escape the notice of arts leaders engaging in cultural planning and policy development efforts.

  • Structural Barriers

The informal arts are—by definition—informal. Most groups are casual in attendance, unselective in ability required, and run by volunteers. They come and go according to availability of resources, popularity of the activity, and dedication of volunteers.  Some have organized leadership and discrete financial accounts, but many do not.

These factors make informal arts groups challenging to work with, especially for funders. Grantmakers are under heavy pressure to show exactly where their grants went and what kind of impact they had. This is difficult if not impossible to do with a group that may or may not exist from year to year. No wonder that when grantmakers do get involved with participatory arts, they often end up “formalizing” the group—building it into another institution.

  • The Quality Barrier

Many, if not most, of the funders that support the arts have the word “excellence” in their mission statements or program guidelines. They want to support, and be associated with, high-quality art. The problem is that high quality participation and high quality art can’t be measured by the same factors. Some informal art is amazing, and some is amateurish in every sense.  If the goal is to create a more sustainable arts ecosystem, however, that means encouraging more people to experience the process of art-making, not just consume amazing art.

Barriers of structure, visibility, and perceived quality keep the informal and formal arts from collaborating at a strategic level.  The result is that informal artists’ voices are rarely heard in discussions about regional development, robbing grantmakers and arts agencies of the valuable information they could contribute about regional culture and what resources they need to thrive.

Folklorists Can Bridge the Gap

As Brendan Greaves points out, folklore is all about process—both the research process and the artistic process. Folklorists first locate practitioners of traditions and ask them about their involvement, in a method known as fieldwork. Some of this fieldwork is structured—that is, a folklorist will start with a list of persons of interest and gradually grow that list by ending each interview with “Who else should I talk to?” Unstructured fieldwork, by contrast, involves exploring an area through any means possible: attending festivals and talking to people, perusing community bulletin boards, and shuffling through the stacks of business cards at gas stations and talking to the attendants. The first result of such investigation is a list of arts practitioners, making that which was previously invisible, visible.

The second step in this process is to articulate why this tradition is practiced (the artistic process). What motivates the artist? Through interviews, folklorists get the answer to this question in the practitioner’s own words. This is extremely important because it ensures authenticity of the study.

Most often, folklorists have been asked to document cultural traditions that are rooted in community identity. However, the skills and methods described above don’t have to be limited to the realm of folk art. The North Carolina Arts Council demonstrated this when they worked in collaboration with the North Carolina Folklife Institute to map the cultural assets and needs in Wilmington, NC. Folklorists Sarah Bryan and Sally Peterson conducted structured and unstructured fieldwork, along with academic research and a public survey, resulting in a series of documents that outlined existing informal arts groups and distinctive regional traditions and recommended steps to be taken to grow these assets. Notably, this work uncovered informal arts practice across the spectrum of creative activity, including a network of artists employed in the film industry and a genre of music called “holy hip hop.”

Wayne Martin, Senior Program Director for Community Arts Development at the North Carolina Arts Council, explains that involving folklorists in this project enabled the Arts Council both to identify and begin engagement with artists outside the nonprofit infrastructure, and to understand community culture in an authentic way. “Folklorists are trained to seek out and recognize creativity in a variety of forms,” says Martin. “Folklorists understand how artistry is a window onto a community. They are able to articulate how the art that is produced there reflects the values of that community and makes it distinct.”

As beneficial as folklore research is, it has its own set of advantages and disadvantages relative to other methods of community research. This is a labor-intensive method that takes adequate time and human resources to be done well, and some communities that are extremely cosmopolitan might be too overwhelming to take on comprehensively. Furthermore, while folklore research can paint a rich picture of a subset of the community using qualitative data, quantitative data can be more useful for seeing the “big picture” in a region. That being said, folklorists can aid grantmakers and arts agencies in collaborating with informal arts groups by addressing the barriers of structure, visibility, and perceived quality.

-          Research addresses barriers of visibility

Through structured and unstructured fieldwork, folklorists uncover informal artists and groups that don’t have the resources to advertise themselves, making them visible and bringing them to the attention of grantmakers and arts agencies.

-          A collective approach addresses structural barriers

Instead of asking informal arts groups to propose projects that will fit a foundation’s mission, folklorists ask what resources they need to operate and grow and who they collaborate with.  By approaching the informal arts as a collection of individuals and groups, folklorists could help foundations and arts agencies identify resources the sector needs as a whole, instead of trying to work with each specific group.

-          Focus on process and participants addresses the “quality” barrier

The informal arts place more of an emphasis on the process of creating and experiencing art, not only on the “excellence” of the finished piece. A folklorist’s focus on the artistic process (why art is created, how it is created) as well as the process by which it is shared and experienced with others, gets at the reasons people participate, and how and why they bring their art to their community. It is imperative to know why and how people participate in these informal arts if foundations and arts policymakers seek to encourage such participation.

The Irvine Foundation’s new Exploring Engagement Fund, accompanied by a white paper written by WolfBrown, is an exciting step towards foundations supporting participatory and informal arts. The study points out various projects being undertaken by arts organizations around the world that embrace and encourage participatory art  (e.g., the Art Gallery of Ontario’s In Your Face open submission art exhibit;  inviting community members to create, perform and witness Headwaters, produced by the Sautee Nacoochee Community Association in rural Georgia; enabling anyone to learn to dance, together, at The Big Dance (2012) in London and the Bal Moderne in Brussels). Although the informal arts are certainly nothing new, it is novel for a leadership institution like the Irvine Foundation to actively encourage this kind of arts participation.

In the 21st century, technology continues to make it easier to learn and practice art. The Pro-Am Revolution has blurred the lines between audience and artist, making arts participation more important than ever to the strength of the arts as a whole. The problem is that funders operate in a wholly different world from the informal arts. Because folklorists already work with the informal arts subgenre of folk arts and music, they are uniquely suited to seek out and find informal artists and groups, learn from them, and report back to grantmakers. Funders and arts policy leaders would do well to turn to folklorists to help them work with and strengthen the informal arts for the benefit of the sector as a whole.

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On Trey McIntyre Project and Both/And Creative Placemaking

Rat City Watching the Trey McIntire Project's Half-Time Show / photo by Kenneth Freeman

(David B. Pankratz, Ph.D., is the Principal of Creative Sector Research in South Pasadena, California. He can be reached at creativesectorresearch@gmail.com.)

In TINA vs. LOIS: Bringing the Arts Back Home, community arts advocate Scott Walters applies a concept developed by author Michael Shuman in The Small-Mart Revolution to cultural economies in American communities. TINA (There is No Alternative), in the broad economic and social terms that Shuman discusses, refers to develop strategies that emphasize: 1) luring large corporations to locate in your back yard, e.g., Wal-Mart, a Toyota plant, or a major studio movie production; and 2) exporting goods as widely as possible. LOIS (Local Ownership and Import Substitution), on the other hand, refers to: 1) local ownership of businesses, and 2) whenever possible, locally-focused distribution of goods and services, e.g., farmers markets, alternative newspapers, and artists space collectives. The LOIS imperative is to maximize the dollars generated locally and to minimize their subsequent departure.

A TINA cultural economy, according to Walters, features passive consumption of the cultural products (the commodities) of large non-profits (many with edifice complexes), merging media companies, and other “outside experts.” The LOIS cultural economy is characterized by the growth of “citizen-artists” who are equipped with the skills needed to extract joy, meaning, and achievement from the practice of art. Walters argues that this kind of personal creativity begets personal empowerment among citizens, unleashes a “creativity multiplier effect,” and can lead to a community’s transformation toward self-sufficiency and sustainability.

Despite these important distinctions, it seems to me that TINA and LOIS are not mutually exclusive, a point Walters acknowledges by saying that “a complete isolation of local economies from the globalized one is not possible or desirable.” In cultural terms, finding meaning in the creations of professionals surely has its place within a community’s cultural ecology. Nor does it seem to stifle “personal creativity,” which is on the rise, exemplified by the proliferation of community choruses, the “curatorial me,” and omnipresent craft festivals.

To be sure, not everyone will be convinced that TINA and LOIS can co-exist peacefully. That said, these kinds of either/or distinctions in the arts sector are softening and blurring. For example, thousands of crafters both exhibit locally and, via Etsy.com, export their wares to national and international buyers. The City of Chicago, in its 2012 Cultural Plan, will seek to promote its major cultural assets worldwide and to attract affluent “creatives” to the city, while also providing ample opportunities to all citizens for personal creativity in neighborhood-based venues. The Irvine Foundation, a major funder of large arts nonprofits, also aims to increase citizens’ engagement in the arts by supporting their making and practicing of art, through its new Exploring Engagement Funds initiative.  Finally, as an example of mutually advantageous blurring of TINA and LOIS distinctions, the Baltimore Symphony’s Rusty Musicians program gives non-professional local musicians the chance to perform in side-by-side concerts with its Symphony members, who are recruited from around the world.

Still another way to look at bridging either/or distinctions is through the practices of individual arts organizations. The Trey McIntyre Project (TMP), I think, provides an especially strong example. TMP is a modern dance troupe that, since its founding in 2004, has toured extensively to national and international acclaim, led by a mission to advance the form of dance “in innovative and ground-breaking ways.” In 2008, TMP conducted a nationwide search to identify a home base of operations, which it had lacked.

In making this decision, the Troy McIntyre Project ranked the locale itself as a significant selection criterion. Boise, Idaho, with its growing arts community, its aspirations to become a regional center of innovation, and its status as one of America’s most livable cities, scored high. And it appeared that Boise would support TMP’s artistic mission.

But Mr. McIntyre wanted more. He had originally placed San Francisco and New York City at the top of TMP’s list of possible landing spots. However, he reasoned that in these and other large cities  TMP likely would just get lost amid the flurry of dance activity. Instead, he wanted a city that needed the troupe, and that wanted it to become part of its civic identity. It wasn’t enough just to make the best possible work. TMP wanted to both reflect and engage its local community AND to tour to and work in other locales in the U.S. and worldwide. (To illustrate, once TMP settled into Boise in 2008, it soon thereafter undertook a 25-city tour).

In the past few years, TMP has also become well-known for the many ways it engages citizens and institutions in Boise—from its SpUrbans (Spontaneous Urban Performances) to an artist in residence program at St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital, where dancers go bedside to bedside. An array of LOIS-like engagement activities are known collectively as the Boise Bright Spot Project.

Boise’s political leaders, following TMP’s lead, bought into both/and thinking as well, naming TMP the city’s Economic Development Cultural Ambassador and their emissary to the world while also making grants to the company annually to support local engagement projects, which now number 40. For their part, Boise citizens treat company members as local heroes and rock stars, offering them a wealth of in-kind services and spaces, reductions in health care services, and driving the price of TMP performance tickets into the $100s on Craigslist.

Some might say that Boise lucked into a mutually beneficial relationship with TMP. After all, it’s not as though Boise tried to lure the company to town, in TINA-like fashion, with a bevy of tax breaks or other incentives. But, in ways that many cities might not have, Boise certainly has  leveraged TMP’s presence. And that goes back to TMP’s thinking in choosing a locale aspiring to be an innovation hub and that needed them.

TMP set a high early standard for itself saying that it wanted to generate local identity and pride equivalent to that fostered by the by the university football team, the Boise State University Broncos. The Broncos regularly rank in college football’s Top 10 and were the authors of one of the most dramatic upsets in college football history, beating the University of Oklahoma Sooners, a perennial power, with highly innovative play-calling in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos head coach, Chris Peterson, along with TMP’s John Michael Schert, is a member of “The Gang,” a select, eight-person group of innovative, high-achievement leaders in Boise.  They are drawn from law enforcement, athletics, business, education, and the arts, and meet to discuss the importance of creativity in their work. Mr. Schert sees parallels between TMP and Boise State football, saying that they both have “a lot of nuance, layers, and integrity and a lot of sense of…[themselves]. They know what they’re trying to achieve and they go and achieve it, and that’s art really.” Participation in The Gang is yet another example of TMP engaging multiple segments of Boise, even if equaling the iconic status of the football team may yet take some time.

In any case, do the examples of recognition, support, and engagement outlined here prove that TMP truly reflects the Boise community, bridging TINA and LOIS orientations? Mr. McIntyre acknowledges that connecting with the city and its residents is an ongoing, unfinished process. And Mr. Schert admits that “our time in Boise is limited. Touring takes us away so frequently that we are not able to fully commit ourselves for long stretches of time to the Boise Bright Spot Project.”

Still, it seems hard to dispute that the Boise community is indeed reflected through the creative dialogue between TMP and community members. Some connections occur in participatory, open rehearsals during which comments from citizens are encouraged, while others are rooted in opportunities for personal creativity fostered in TMP classes at, as one example, the Treasure Valley YMCA.

Further, several of TMP’s new pieces reflect cultural practices in Boise. One example is Arrantza, a piece created for the city’s Basque Festival, an annual event involving Boise’s Basque population of 15,000. McIntyre, out of respect for these local residents, functioned as cultural anthropologist as much as a choreographer, attempting to capture the authenticity of Basque dance, music, and mythologies in Arrantza. In a more whimsical vein, when a local couple discovered a cache of bowling pins, they thought to call and ask if Mr. McIntyre might want them. He did and, not surprisingly, made a dance, called Tenpin Episodes.

Now that it has been awarded funding from the National Endowment for the Arts’s Our Town program and the ArtPlace initiative, the Trey McIntyre Project may well to be able to deepen its connections to Boise citizens, for example, in hospital settings, local watering holes, and many more venues. But these community connections and TMP’s artistic reach are far from mutually exclusive.  Accordingly, TMP, in 2012, will represent the U.S. Department of State in a tour of China, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam; in 2013 the troupe has  week-long residencies in Orange County, CA, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

TMP’s story raises a final question: What can other non-profit arts organizations in the U.S. learn from TMP’s lead? On the one hand, the TMP experience, says Mr. Schert, has ”led other cities in the U.S. to look to the TMP/Boise model and ask how they can create projects similar to Boise Bright Spot in their own city.”  It appears that TMP is being asked less about its artistic innovation or international profile and more about its extensive and diverse community engagement programs.

However, are there other lessons to be learned? Some might be hard to apply. For example, most arts organizations, even if they hope to locate (or re-locate) in a new city, no matter how receptive that locale might be, do not have the standing, reputation, or  assets to do so. Nor is it always the case that organizations with the capacities to choose a new home should do so. All things considered, there are advantages to being part of an extensive artistic community, even as a small fish in a big pond rather than the reverse.

That said, TMP’s approach, grounded in an intentional strategy to both reflect local culture and engage with regular citizens while also pursuing artistic innovation and broad geographical reach, likely can be adapted by other arts organizations.  To do so, such organizations would do well to consult a recent interview with Mr. Schert, who cites several lessons that TMP has learned through its Boise experience:

  • Define your values and set your parameters. For TMP, definitions were about how best “to make an impact on the community in which we live and the greater nation, really create new models and systems, and do it in an innovative and entrepreneurial way.  It became apparent to us that Boise was a community that was really ripe ground for this sort of creative leadership to step in.”  
  • Invest time and energy to cultivate and steward local relationships. Mr. Schert points out that Boise citizens did not spontaneously embrace the troupe.  Retail relationship-building is hard, time-consuming work.  One of TMP’s signature partnerships, in which a local bar named a cocktail after each TMP dancer, happened only after 30 to 40 hours of planning meetings.    
  • Resist the scarcity paradigm so common in the arts. In its first two years in Boise, TMP, says Mr. Schert, “did not approach a single major patron in Boise or…any of the tried and true families that have supported the arts in this community for decades. We created new sources of income: new projects, new patrons, new relationships with certain businesses.”
  • Grow the local funding pie. TMP worked closely with a local foundation affiliated with Boise’s performing arts center (the Morrison Center) to revise its distribution policies to include each of the Center’s resident companies and user groups.

In summary, the overarching  message of TMP’s  orientation-spanning work amidst these many lessons,  it seems to me, is for individual arts organizations, and/or a locale’s artistic community, to define and pursue long-term strategies to think and act both locally and globally.

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Is Federal Money the Best Way to Fund the Arts?

That’s the title of a slightly silly “debate” on the Huffington Post Culture section in which I am featured, perhaps surprisingly, as the spokesman for the “no” camp. The debate is with former dancer and research scientist Carla Escoda, whose writing I had come across thanks to Thomas Cott’s highlighting of a very good article she wrote on the same topic a couple of months ago on the website ballettothepeople.com.

I had some subversive motives in taking on this assignment. As you’ll see below, my post takes advantage of a technicality present in the question to position myself as actually for increasing federal appropriations to the NEA even while arguing against the adoption of a full-on Western European model of arts support. (There’s plenty of room in between, believe me.) Part of the reason I agreed to do it was that I knew I’d be boxing out a perspective that might be more hostile to the idea of government funding the arts at all. And judging from the frustrated comments from some readers, it seems my little gambit worked:

(You are so welcome!) Anyway, I guess I can take a bit of grim satisfaction in knowing that, so far, I’ve “convinced” more readers than Carla of the rightness of my position. Perhaps I’ll regret this post one day, but it was a fun challenge to play devil’s advocate and write a bit outside of my comfort zone while still maintaining my integrity. What do you think, dear readers?

 

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Public arts funding update: April

FEDERAL

Breaking news: the government is cutting its funding to PBS! Wait – sorry – hold that. It turns out the NEA is cutting its funding to PBS - to the tune of more than $1 million, to be exact. Talk about irony! The money had been earmarked to support organizations that produce arts-oriented programming on public television through the NEA’s Art in Media program. The grants are large by NEA standards – one organization was receiving $400,000 – and the media program received more than twice as many applicants this past year in part by opening up the guidelines to include interactive forms.

Facing potentially deep cuts to defense spending should the parties fail to come to agreement during this winter’s “lame duck” session, the US Air Force is planning to shutter three of its 23 military bands and downsize two others, eliminating 103 positions in total. An attempt to reduce the Pentagon’s spending on bands by $120 million (note that this is only a little less than the entire budget of the NEA) failed in the House last year.

STATE

The Arizona Commission on the Arts has been reauthorized by Arizona’s state government for another 10 years. In another state that might have been a routine win, but Arizona’s arts commission has been cut to the bone by Republican legislatures and governor Jan Brewer since the start of the current recession, and had been threatened with de-authorization earlier in the process. The cynic in me wonders if conservatives are happy to keep the Commission around as a political punching bag as long as it doesn’t have any real power, but at least if the infrastructure is there the hope of growing it in the future is ever-present. Congratulations to Bob Booker and Arizona Citizens/Action for the Arts for shepherding this one through.

Meanwhile, it looks like much-maligned Kansas may be on track to restore funding to its state arts council this year. Rebranded as a creative industries commission, the agency is slated to receive $700,000 in the state’s yet-to-be-passed budget. Of course, it wasn’t until the budget got to Governor Brownback’s desk that the arts commission was vetoed last year, but after the political firestorm and that caused, one hopes that he will see things differently this time around.

Otherwise, things continue to be quiet on the state front. Is no news good news? I guess we’ll find out in a few months.

LOCAL

In the city of Portland, ME (yeah, the other Portland), two arts and creative economy agencies are merging, and the community is seeing the benefits. Creative Portland and the Portland Arts & Cultural Alliance will become the Creative Portland Corporation as of July 1, and will be the official arts agency of the region. Creative Portland has also successfully applied for a Community Development Block Grant to bring Blair Benjamin’s Assets for Artists program to the city.

INTERNATIONAL

The UK is considering a cap on the tax incentives offered for major charitable gifts, and some folks in the arts community there are not happy about it. Similar proposals for this country have been floated by the Obama administration for the past few years, but have gone nowhere to date. Meanwhile, Britain’s Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is implicated in the growing scandal concerning News Corporation’s cozy relationship with the British government. Hunt is accused of acting as a “back channel” to Rupert Murdoch’s news empire during its bid to take over full control of the broadcasting network BSkyB, which it was Hunt’s job to approve.

Hunt isn’t the only minister of culture in the news lately. We had Sweden’s Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, who found herself in the worst photo op of all time the other week. And now, Bahrain’s culture minister is in some serious hot water for calling her conservative critics “not real men” for opposing an arts festival that her office is organizing.

At least these countries have culture ministers. Bosnia and Herzegovnia’s most prominent museums, galleries and libraries may have to close indefinitely due to a dysfunctional, leaderless government that failed to appropriate any federal funds for their operation last year. At Sarajevo’s National Museum, employees haven’t been paid in seven months. Amazingly, it’s still open – for now.

Finally, this is a novel take on the “day without art” concept: an apparently insane museum director in Italy burned one of the paintings in his museum’s collection as a protest against debt-driven funding cuts, and is threatening to destroy three more each week until the Italian government stops to listen. (So far, there’s no indication that it gives a crap.)

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Around the horn: American Bandstand edition

ART AND THE GOVERNMENT

  • The California Arts Council is in danger of losing its right to solicit voluntary contributions from California citizens through their state income tax returns. Though that wasn’t proving to be a very effective way of raising money anyway – the agency banked only $165,000 from CA’s nearly 40 million residents last year.
  • Arts Council England has published an evaluation of its ambitious program to give out half a million free tickets to the theatre (in actuality slightly less than 400,000 were distributed).

MUSICAL CHAIRS

  • Heather Pontonio has joined the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation as its new arts program officer.
  • Welcome Ayanna Hudson, new director of the NEA’s Arts Education program.

IN THE FIELD

  • Whew! The Los Angeles Times published a brutal exposé earlier this month of problems at Watts House Project, a darling of the fledgling creative placemaking movement that attracted nearly half a million dollars in grants last year from the NEA’s Our Town program and ArtPlace and others. (Update: the NEA wrote in to clarify that while Our Town has supported projects around Watts, the grant is not associated with Watts House Project specifically.) According to the article, the Project and its founder Edgar Arceneaux have alienated some of the residents the organization is supposed to be helping by failing to deliver on promises and succumbing to mission drift. I found  this little bit of gotcha journalism particularly cute:

    As for [Rocco] Landesman, reached by phone in Washington, D.C., he said he based his positive impressions on a slide show by Arceneaux as well as a tour of the block, “and it all looked good.” He also talked to one enthusiastic 107th Street resident, Rosa Gutierrez, whose home received a bright flower mural as part of the program. He said he was not told she was on staff at Watts House Project.

    Consequences were swift. Arceneaux didn’t last the weekend as executive director of the organization, though the announcement leaves the door open for him to remain involved in another capacity. However, another former board member disputes elements of the article, presenting a compelling case that it was unfair to WHP. Nevertheless, the problems don’t seem like they’re going away anytime soon. (Interestingly, I heard Arceneaux’s replacement, Will Sheffie, keynote the Rustbelt to Artist Belt conference in St. Louis just a week after all this went down. He got a warm welcome from the audience, but avoided addressing the controversy in any real depth.)

  • The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is upping the ante again on its radical drive to democratize classical music. The latest move is to offer members tickets to every single one of its concerts for just $5 a month. The article is worth reading in full; essentially they’re saying they’re all but giving up on earned revenue as a serious income driver.
  • Is there a future for cash mobs to support local arts organizations?
  • RIP San Antonio Opera.

RESEARCH CORNER

  • The NEA has a new literature review out on audience impact, conducted by WolfBrown as part of a larger project to study audiences at NEA-funded events.
  • The Nonprofit Finance Fund has released its 2012 State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, which reports that nonprofits are still feeling the economic pinch of the recession even though we’ve officially been in recovery for almost three years. (As an aside, I always have this funny cognitive dissonance whenever I read about nonprofits having a hard time because they’re “unable to meet demand.” If only arts organizations had such problems!)
  • Now conservatives are making a stink about the American Community Survey (the government’s annual replacement for what used to be the long-form Census) because of the nature of its questions. They want to make it optional to fill out, which of course would make it just another poll and destroy its statistical usefulness.
  • Americans for the Arts’s Randy Cohen offers a 2012 update to his popular Top 10 Reasons to Support the Arts post. AFTA also released the latest edition of the National Arts Index this month, and this time, there’s a new website–and a nifty new Local Arts Index–to go with it.
  • The Center for Effective Philanthropy finds no major differences between how grantees of color and others experience relationships with their funders.
  • The Ford Foundation has made its internal records from the 1950s and ’60s available for review at the Rockefeller Archive Center in upstate NY. This was a fascinating time in Ford’s history during which it was largely responsible for the growth of symphony orchestras and the regional theater movement across the country.
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Uncomfortable Thoughts: Can Left-Wing Art Be Racist Too?

Recently, this story popped up in my Facebook feed, via one of my former teachers from high school:

STOCKHOLM (FRIA TIDER). A macabre scene with racist undertones took place on Saturday when Swedish minister of culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth attended a tax funded party for the Stockholm cultural elite. The self-proclaimed “anti-racist” Liljeroth declared the party officially started by slicing a piece of a cake depicting a stereotypical African woman.

Oh, but it gets better – soooo much better. Because the whole thing is supposed to be a comment on female genital mutilation, Liljeroth sliced the cake from where the woman’s clitoris would be while the artist whose actual head, in blackface, was on top of the cake, screamed in mock pain.  Now THAT takes some serious chutzpah! The pictures have to be seen to be believed, but what truly takes the cake (if you will) is the video, which is below. Warning, it’s not for the faint of heart:

I find this whole thing interesting on so many levels. My high school English teacher, who happens to be black, was deeply offended by this episode, seen as it was through the lens of a conservative online rag that was jumping at the opportunity to savage a government official of which it didn’t approve. (Choice quotes include “The shocking photos show several established left-wing members of the Stockholm cultural elite watching and laughing as Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth slices a cake depicting a black African woman with minstrel-esque face.”) His Facebook friends all felt the same way, at least those who commented, and I imagine many readers of this blog will as well.

The full story is a bit more complicated, however. The artist, a fellow by the name of Makode Linde who is no less black than Barack Obama, turns out to specialize in “revamping the blackface into a new historical narrative” by exaggerating racist stereotypes to grotesque extremes. In the Skype interview below with Robert Mackey of the New York Times‘s The Lede, Linde claims that he is interested in “problematizing racism” and defends the organizers of the World Arts Day event for which he created the cake sculpture.

For her part, Liljeroth has refused to resign over the incident and posted a statement on the Ministry of Culture website that reaffirms her commitment to free expression, averring that “art must…be allowed room to provoke and pose uncomfortable questions.”

Wow. Before we go further, let’s take a moment to consider this: can you imagine the shitstorm that would have ensued if Rocco Landesman had found himself mixed up in something like this? Folks, this is why the NEA does not support individual artists. This, right here. Exhibit A. Trust me, it’s better this way.

Anyway, to the piece itself. Aside from disgust and revulsion, the other dominant response I’ve observed so far is the one from defenders of the work like New York Times commenter Brian, who writes that “The piece, the reaction to it, the reaction to the reaction…all of this is part of what makes this ‘art’.” I see where Brian’s coming from, and obviously the fact that I’ve decided to write a blog post about it counts as evidence that it’s been successful in provoking dialogue. But I’m not sure that it’s the kind of dialogue that the artist had in mind. He complains himself in the Skype interview about the images being taken “out of context,” but how could they not be? Has he not heard of Facebook? The fact that this has apparently taken the folks involved by surprise is mind-boggling to me.

My problem with art that deliberately sets out to shock is that, all too often, it’s just bad art. I believe in respecting an artist’s intent, but assuming the label of “artist” doesn’t let one off the hook for accountability. If the intent is to shock, my question is “to what end?” It’s not a rhetorical question. Is it to raise awareness of some important social issue? To gain attention for the artist himself? Or just for the sheer thrill of seeing the shock you’ve created on other people’s faces? Some of these goals are more virtuous than others, and frankly sometimes I’m not so sure where the real motivation lies. But even assuming a virtuous goal, we have to ask the question of whether it succeeded or not. Has this raised awareness of female genital mutilation, and in anything resembling a helpful way? It seems to have raised awareness of Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth more than anything else.

But, in fairness, I’m open to being convinced. Digging around for material on this turned up some pretty racist stuff on Swedish websites, so maybe it will ultimately be successful in driving a dialogue about that rather than FGM. And the piece does raise some fascinating questions, even if unintentionally. Like the one in the title of this post, for example. Can art that’s supposed to be ironic in its racism end up being earnestly racist by accident? That seems to be what has happened here, at least judging by the reaction of my former teacher and his friends. Not to even mention the whole man-acting-out-female-genital-mutilation bit – all I can say is that someone’s going to have a lot of fun writing their critical race theory/gender studies dissertation chapter on this whole mess.

[UPDATE: here's another perspective, the most interesting I've found from among many others that are out there.]

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Cool jobs of the month – UPDATED

(Reminder: the Fractured Atlas Research Fellows deadline is this Friday!)

Executive Director, South Arts

South Arts seeks a dynamic, multi-talented executive director to build on its exceptional 37-year track record of strengthening the south through advancing excellence in the arts, connecting the arts to key state and national policies, and nurturing a vibrant quality of life. South Arts, a nonprofit regional arts organization based in Atlanta, GA, was founded in 1975 to build on the South’s unique heritage and enhance the public value of the arts. South Arts’ work responds to the arts environment and cultural trends with a regional perspective. The organization works in partnership with the nine state arts agencies of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, and is funded by those member states, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), foundations, corporations, and individuals.

Deadline: Accepting applications through April.

[NEW!] Program Manager, General Operating Support Program, Cuyahoga Arts & Culture

Cuyahoga Arts & Culture [ed - in Cleveland, OH] seeks a creative, energetic, and detail-oriented manager for its General Operating Support (GOS) program. The program manager will oversee the day-to-day management of CAC’s GOS grantmaking program, which in 2012 awarded $14 million to 66 arts and cultural organizations. S/he will work closely with the director of grant programs to develop and implement program strategy.

No deadline provided.

Project Coordinator, Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, Indiana University

Job Summary: Prepares annual application, amendments, and reports, and monitors compliance of the SNAAP project with the IUB Institutional Review Board. Prepares documents for internal SNAPP use, including survey response rates and analyses, and makes recommendations to improve survey procedures and protocols.

Serves as a liaison between SNAAP and its partner institutions, responding to requests for information and recruiting institutions to participate in the annual survey. Works closely with the SNAAP analyst team throughout the survey process, including the development of institutional reports and in management of any requests for special reports from institutions. Serves as primary liaison with the IU Center for Survey Research.

Deadline: April 26.

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St. Louis

Any Createquity readers from the Show Me State? I’ll be in town for a brief visit to speak at the Rustbelt to Artist Belt: At the Crossroads conference on Friday. Organized by the Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute of the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission (RAC) in partnership with Cleveland’s Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC), the convening is a forum to consider best practices and novel approaches in achieving social and economic goals through the arts. I’ll be presenting with Mary McCullough-Hudson, CEO of ArtsWave in Cincinnati, on the work we did together last year in helping the now 85-year-old united arts fund develop a new impact agenda and accompanying grantmaking strategies in response to the findings of the Arts Ripple Effect report.

April 12-14
From Rustbelt to Artist Belt: At the Crossroads
Chase Park Plaza Hotel
232 North Kingshighway Boulevard
St. Louis, MO
Info and registration
(My session is titled “Moving Beyond the Tip Jar: Arts Funding and Collective Impact,” and takes place at 2:45pm on Friday the 13th.)

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