"And the beat goes on……………."
At the post Dinner Vention 2014 de-briefing breakfast (back in October), the dinner guests endorsed the idea of a follow up interview to further share some of their thinking with the field.
Getting consensus on what questions to pose (and how many), and a timeline for responses proved to be difficult. After several mis-starts the guests agreed on two questions of their choosing. Half the guests (four of the eight) responded, and the questions and their responses follow:
(And I'd like to thank the guests who were able to respond to the questions. I think there is much food for thought in their responses and am grateful they were able to advance the discussion with their ideas).
Question #1: What does "partnership with unlikely entities" mean in practice? Have you seen it realized? Can the current arts and culture structure handle a pluralistic approach to arts/creativity in which “unlikely entities’” are welcomed, validated, and honored as affectual? Why is this activity integral to leadership?
When thinking about partnerships with unlikely entities in the context of arts and cultural organizations I believe it's important to keep in mind a series of factors that allow one to define the edges of this sphere of discourse. Without being overly semantical we need to think about the terminology were using here: partnership unlikely entities: words on their own they do not seem terribly remarkable however when strung together can lead to a series of cultural innovations or if executed poorly incredible failure. Let’s think about this idea of partnership: in many peoples minds when we think partnership we immediately think about equity and I believe that's highly problematic. Many times our relationships whether their professional personal or otherwise are far from equitable. There may be times we like them to be equitable. There may be times we insist that they be equitable yet most of the time they are not. We have to dismiss this mythology of equity within the terminology of partnerships. Partnerships are inherently power based: they are about an exchange or an agreement to do something for the benefit (ideally) of both parties. Understanding and accepting that many of these relationships are not equitable is the first step to truly actualizing this idea of partnerships with unlikely entities. When we think of unlikely we also need to understand what exactly are we talking about: Do we mean unlikely exotic? Unlikely off the beaten path? Unlikely overlooked? Often times we see organizations embrace a so called unlikely partnership by looking for the partner it's the least like them. And often they do this in an exotic fashion: the art museum that partners with a software company, the performance space that partners with the local zoo etc. and while these may be unlikely I question whether if it really goes to the heart of having a positive, transformative impact. The idea behind the term unlikely for me is relatively straightforward: Is there an exchange of values that is mutually understood and recognized yet do the entities themselves have vastly different vocabularies? That is a process that rarely takes a single meeting or collaborating on a single event but rather is a process of exchange that occurs through leadership, through programming, and through interstitial exchanges of ideas. When we partner with unlikely entities the final consideration I put forth is in understanding that true partnerships assess and take on a degree of risk. That balance between risk and affirmation of what one is already doing is when things get particularly interesting and when individuals organizations find that nexus between innovation and affirmation. I believe that in order to succeed we must understand that these partnerships if executed correctly are transformative in nature. These types of partnerships in an ideal world should change the nature of the organization itself which also means the organization taking on these types of partnerships should be prepared for that transformation. Often times organizations that think taking on a partnerships with unlikely entities is simply additive in nature: I can try this but I can always retreat back to who I was before. Partnering with an unlikely entity is like making a soufflé: the ingredients are simple but putting it together combines practice, intuition and an understanding of the environmental conditions beyond ones control.
In late 2013, I returned to the Bay Area, after a two-year graduate school stint in London. While abroad, I read Rebecca Solnit’s article in the London Review of Books and countless others like it. I’d gone to graduate school to accelerate my quest to understand the contemporary environment for creative labour as well as learn new strategies for resilience and so I looked forward to being of help in some way when I got back. When I got here, I found that all was not lost and many of the organizations I remembered were still alive. However, undercapitalization seemed to cut even deeper and displacement was a widespread threat.
Within the San Francisco arts community the 2014 budget season was particularly fractious and disagreements over cultural equity and city funding as recounted by various cultural policy bloggers including Barry ran deep. The Arts Town Hall in October, was considered by many to be lackluster due to sporadic Supervisor attention and decreased attendance. The night ended with one city official challenging the arts community to come together to submit budget recommendations. It cut to one of the greatest challenges - How do we begin to get organized? Can we work in partnership? Had working together always been so unlikely?
After several months of coffees and lunches with arts organization leaders, city departments, director of cultural affairs, legislative liaisons, funders, artists, arts education partners, support service providers, and advocacy experts and community organizers from other sectors, Lex Leifhet from SOMArts and I (as a representative of Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA) decided to actively cultivate a network to be powered by members who believed that arts and culture play a vital role in this region’s identity and quality of life.
The evening of Tuesday, January 27th we held the first open meeting of Arts for a Better Bay Area (ABBA) and it was pretty encouraging. Emerging arts professionals, members of the “old guard”, as well as representatives from large institutions, small community organizations and individual artists showed up on the day. (This is the pluralistic make up we are validating and honoring at the moment.) 60+ of us packed the Center for New Music and broke into small groups around issue areas like Access to Space, Cultural Equity, Youth Opportunities, Placekeeping/Neighborhood Arts and Support for Individual Artists & Workers to discuss unmet needs, promising practices and relevant research. People left energized and many signed up to meet over the next few weeks to carry out our ‘beta test’ - recommendations for the city budget.
Once we are more organized we see a great deal of potential in cross sector collaboration with groups focused on areas like youth and tenants rights. Lex and I draw a great deal of inspiration from the success of the Family Budget Coalition and their recent fight to reauthorize and expand the Children’s Fund . I greatly admire the work done at the City-Wide Tenants Convention early last year. However, maybe all of this is just too easy - considering the local climate - would it be possible for us to forge a meaningful partnership with members of the technology community? That sector is made up of more than the big corporations we constantly hear about.
Regardless, right now our first big task is building unlikely partnerships within the San Francisco arts community. As Barry has stated, there are deep and abiding divides to be addressed. With the help of countless collaborators we are on our way to carving a new path. Together our voice is stronger. So yes, in my experience partnership and maybe it also has something to do with my style of leadership - but yes, in my experience partnership with unlikely allies is key.
I wanted to present my own experience and felt compelled to share the work I’m doing at present - it’s rather internal so as a counterpoint I interviewed Ashara Ekundayo Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer at Impact Hub Oakland. I was intrigued by the groups pluralistic approach to creativity and the way it's ingrained within the organization.
[Can the current arts and culture structure handle a pluralistic approach to arts/creativity in which unlikely entities are welcomed, validated, and honored as affectual?]
I think it’s critical that organizers continue to invite professional artists or people who live some of their life as artists on purpose into all spaces and part of that has to do with my desire to not continue to separate artists from the rest of the people as though everyone doesn’t have the ability to tap into that.
The interesting dynamic about how Hub works is that there is no such thing to me as an unlikely alliance because the DNA of a business like Impact Hub [Oakland] or co-working spaces is collaboration. There aren’t any conversations that happen in a silo at Impact Hub Oakland because it’s about the team. The strangest types of ideas end up as hashtags for us. It’s one of those things that we expect and celebrate and look for. Just as it in nature, the diversity is actually what allows a being or entity to be resilient. One idea doesn’t work anywhere. It needs to hit as many touch points or a surface areas as can be touched as possible.
We’re looking for unlikely alliances as part of our business model. We have an actual business model that is designed at intersections. We happen to be a team of founders who are also organizers. We happen to be a team of founders who are all creatives and we’re all community activists. That is unique.
We are also the largest team of founders. Usually there is a team of three people, maybe 4 and we’re a team of 7.
If you just look at 3 of us who run the Hub, myself, Konda and Lisa - Lisa has a PhD in chemistry, she’s a classicly trained pianist, she’s a glassblower at The Crucible. She has all of these things that she does in addition to being the COO of Impact Hub Oakland. Konda who is a filmmaker who used to manage musical artists, who is the co-founder of the Berkeley Jazz Festival and travels all over the world, happens to be a master yoga teacher and a dharma teacher and myself who is the only one on the team who has ever run a non profit organization. I’m the one who has done international food justice work and been a curator without a PhD. I’m the only one who had children and raised them and they’ve been around the world with me. We all have very different backgrounds. We seem unlikely to put on any sort of project together, but we have. We are a very real example of an unlikely trio to have started a business. And then you have the other 4 people
It’s about the triple bottom line and it is about being authentic and not having to separate yourself as a parent and an artist or a minister or a yoga teacher from the work that you do everyday because what we ask people to bring is what makes them come alive. We didn’t say come over hear and try to do the same thing everybody’s doing - business as usual.
And so we’re going to have to move differently in our business practices and so a good thing to do is to model and unlikely alliances are the only way that we see our business thriving. And we are about thriving.
This question has been on my mind a long time, well before the 2014 DinnerVention. This is likely due to the fact that I no longer work in the arts on a day-to-day basis (which is not to say I don’t support the arts in other ways!). For the last 15 years I have worked on various aspects of urban planning, design, and development, a career that has afforded me a broad spectrum of intersections between the physical and social infrastructure of cities. This spectrum has ranged from housing and transportation to economic development and arts and culture. Nonetheless, even after completing numerous technical projects and completing several urban planning and design degrees, I was consistently pegged an arts administrator more than anything else. This was certainly not an error (I worked in arts administration for nearly a decade). I just felt it was just too narrow a description of my interests. My persistent struggle was getting other cultural workers to see that my work went beyond the traditional arts and cultural setting (and that this was a good thing!).
Today the intersection between urbanism and arts and culture isn’t as much of a stretch as it was over a decade ago, when mixing the two felt quixotic and unicorn-like. My decision to return for my first graduate degree in urban planning and design garnered comments like “Wow, John, you’re making a big career switch” from people who worked in formal arts and culture settings (museums, galleries, theaters, and opera halls). I often responded that I always worked in planning, just with an arts and culture focus. Where my more traditionally arts-oriented friends saw my career trajectory as detracting from the norm, I saw it as an opportunity to create a necessary bridge between otherwise “unlikely entities.” During graduate school my interests naturally swayed towards economic development, housing, law and policy, urban design, and local finance. The more I dug deeper, the more I realized how essential it was for the arts and cultural sector to break out of its shell.
Today the association between urbanism and arts and culture still feels nascent. I regularly receive emails from arts and cultural institutions working to “improve civic life” or defending the arts as an “essential components of quality of life.” I could not agree more, but I can’t help but feel that the arts and cultural sector have much more work to do on this front. Whenever I attend an arts related event I see the same arts patrons. Whenever I see petitions to support an arts-related issue, I see the same arts advocates’ signatures. It feels as if a lot of effort is invested on ensuring the longevity of support among the believers. What I would like to see is more effort spent on developing relationships with the non-believers, or non-arts specific focused advocates. For me, this contingent represents perhaps one of the greatest untapped resources for arts and culture support in the 21st century. A friend and long-time arts advocate recently told me “You never see hospitals and schools go through the budget cuts suffered by arts organizations. What protects them?” “Relevance,” I responded. “The arts have the same opportunity, but they have struggled to cement their relevance in the way other functions of civil society have. I consistently see housing developers and transportation groups garner support by tapping into non-traditional networks such as healthcare, the sciences, universities, and youth development. But I rarely see the arts do the same.”
I’m fortunate to have seen many successful partnerships with unlikely entities in practice (far too many to list). Here are a few of my favorite ones, categorized by their “unlikely sector”:
Housing and Urban Development: I first learned about the Portland, Or.-based Sojourn Theater at an American for the Arts conference in June 2009. They presented on BUILT, self-described as “A devised, participatory, site-specific show staged in a new Condominium tower show floor that included an original civic planning multi-phase board game based on a community engagement research process.”
Homelessness: In 2007/2008 the Los Angeles County Arts Commission launched Artful Solutions: Pathways From Homelessness: ”the nation’s first regional effort to include the arts as an important component of support services for homeless populations and to provide data that can be used in the future to help solve the challenges of homelessness.”
Urban River Revitalization: In 2009 the ongoing revitalization of the LA River became the focus of Cornerstone Theatre’s Touch the Water, the fourth play in Cornerstone’s Justice Cycle series exploring how laws shape and disrupt communities.
Juvenile Justice: NeON Arts is a program of the NYC Department of Probation, through a partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. The program takes place in DOP’s Neighborhood Opportunity Networks (NeONS) and “offers young people in New York City, including those on probation, the chance to explore the arts through projects in a variety of disciplines, including dance, music, theater, visual arts, poetry, and digital media.”
Additional initiatives led by organizations such as ArtPlace America, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mayors’ Institute for City Design, and foundations such as Bruner-Loeb, Surdna, Kresge, and Irvine illustrate why transformational leadership is integral to the success of these projects. Transformational leadership is leadership that isn’t afraid to take risks, even when it’s uncomfortable. When successful, it is this type of leadership that serves as an example by encouraging creative ideas and calls to action.
I previously coordinated the nation’s largest summer arts internship program, the LA County Arts Internship Program (over 100 interns at performing arts, literary arts, music, and dance organizations across Los Angeles County). I’ve been a great fan of the program given my personal experience as an alumnus of its companion program, The Getty Foundation’s Multicultural Undergraduate Internship Program. The beauty of the program was its overall goal. Our job in leading the internship program wasn’t just about developing a new generation of arts administrators. It was about instilling in interns the value of the arts, whether or not the interns pursued future cultural work, either independently or as staff at an arts organization. Over time I saw that many interns became doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs, all professions that afforded them the financial ability to support the arts as a season subscriber to their local opera, as a financially savvy board member at a community theater, or as a major donor to the capital campaign for a museum extension. Unlikely partners are essential to the future of a healthy arts ecosystem where people aren’t fighting to prevent arts-related budget cuts – they’re fighting to increase it.
Three examples of partnership with unlikely entities:
My first job out of college, I assisted the Kellogg Foundation supported artist-in-residence in Battle Creek, MI. He was a painter and activist-artist, a recovering alcoholic, prone to abrupt mood swings, and very groovy. I was a theatre maker and youth worker, well-organized but under-experienced, looking to find her way and make an impact. Despite cultural, age, style, knowledge, skill, name-your-area difference, we successfully mounted two large-scale, outdoor community art projects, working across town with everyone from Parks & Rec department to the local mall. Joy, art, imagination, community.
When I was at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, I created “The Claque” a community of highly dedicated volunteer audience members, focused on creating, facilitating, and advancing the theatre’s connectivity initiatives. Essentially, they were the connectivity department’s army. The theatre staff (at that time myself and my assistant) worked in partnership with a group of fifteen audience members who were previously unassociated with one another. They were unlikely because they were strangers; some of whom had little-to-no investment in the theatre before joining The Claque. They transformed into my associates, complicit in the work of engaging other audience members in productions. Curiosity, expertise, dedication, community.
If I’m working through a business problem now, I have three go-to sources: a systems designer/analyst; a political fundraiser; a tax lawyer. All of them are able to work with me to dissect and strategize different approaches than the list of go-to solutions provided by the “sector” or “field” (heretofore “sector/field”). It is to their advantage to see an ambitious, passionate arts-administrator dedicated to strengthening and diversifying the area theatre community succeed. It’s a return on their friendship and their individual donation “investments” in local organizations. Knowledge, problem solving, infrastructure, community.
Partnership is a broad term that’s become, along with a number of other words, hopelessly jargonized. Every organization or individual is “partnering” or in “partnership” with another entity, but are these really relationships of mutually agreed upon goals, risks, and benefits? Because that defines a partner. It’s a reciprocal give-and-take toward achieving a shared vision, not a resource exchange in order for one party to achieve his vision. Partnership is vital to leadership because the lone genius leader has been revealed to be a myth; because regardless of industry the most exciting companies and projects, the most rewarding workplaces, the most innovative solutions result from the mixing of multidisciplinary, cross-sector minds. The culture underlying Generation X and exploding from Millennials runs in opposition to the image, theory, and praxis of great, singular leader. If we embrace “partnership with unlikely entities” at all levels of operation as the key practice for being a great 21st century leader in the arts sector/field(s), the other behaviors and practices on our list inherently come into play. However: if we continue to faux-partner with everyone from colleagues to communities, the status quo prevails and, I believe, the arts sector/field(s) will stagnate and grow more obsolete in the lives of a majority of U.S. citizens. I endorse a take-back of the word “partnership” by having arts leaders approach all relationships as partnerships.
Question #2: Ron (Ragin) wanted at the outset to discuss structures of power and how that impacts the models the field uses. He also talks about the social, political and economic consequences of 'place' and borrowed Roberto Bedoya’s “Sovereignty of Place” concept, and opined, as has Bedoya, that culture can be a tool and also a weapon. What are your thoughts on how structures of power impact the application of the various models the sector uses?
When thinking about ideas around models of power and its connection to place I can think of no better technological analogy than one that has become literally, figuratively, and conceptually so embedded in American vernacular then the drone. In a not so recent past figment of science fiction the drone has rapidly become an entity which defies the identity of an individual technological device. The drone is also an incredible symbol of the contested space around innovation, power, cultural development, and the ability to critique the state. From the exotic large wingspan to images of it flying over Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and other places of United States military intervention to the recent crash of a small $500 drone on the White House lawn to organizations like Code Pink utilizing drones at protests to survey police activities these devices act as a fulcrum in which there are no clear answers as to who controls what they are. Power itself has become both more concentrated as we see with wealth in the increasingly powerful 1% and at the same time more diffuse with entities from micro finance organizations like Kiva to college students being able to overthrow decades long kleptocracies in the Middle East. While this contradiction may strike some with a degree of unease I believe this is the perfect time for cultural organizations to engage in a power / placed based self-assessment to see if they have the ability to create shifts in what they see as unequal structures of power. For the earlier part of the last decade we saw on drones as synonymous with the military industrial complex: big, fearsome objects with its oblique gray paint and missiles mounted underneath the wings- nothing could be less likely to be used as a tool for social change. Now we see drones performing in ways that assist communities in need, communities that feel voiceless, individuals that have experience significant trauma. I'm reminded of the short yet tremendously poignant video shot by a drone by a neighbor of a large scale industrial pig processing plant in the Midwest showing the acres upon acres of untreated raw sewage that was inaccessible to the public eye and was to stay that way (from the owners perspective). Now with over two million hits on YouTube this video has forces the owner of the pig farm to make changes and engage in the neighbors demands for a more environmentally responsible and transparent operation. The ACLU flies drones when permissible over specific protests to record abuse by authorities. This ability to watch the watchers is a significant one and is a key too for individuals and organizations that are able to be adaptable, savvy, and interested in pushing the boundaries around the establishment and dominant paradigms of power. Maybe all leaders of innovative cultural organizations need to take drone flying training classes. Learning how to fly a drone is frustrating and daunting at first: one feels all thumbs until at a certain point when the device takes flight it becomes incredibly liberating. An assistive tool allowing one to perceive and see and engage with a world that was originally beyond you- this is not merely about power this is about the identity of one's own ideas and ones organizational mission in the context of a rapidly changing and contested world.
Writer Elaine Scarry, wrote in 1985 that what separates the weapon and the tool is “a gulf of meaning and intention, connotation and tone”. Culture is often spoken of in conjunction with the arts, but it’s also behavior, attitudes and ways of living of a particular group or people. With this definition I can start to understand how culture shapes the selection of a goal and how it’s pursued. What differentiates a Jane Jacobs, who called for “diversity, density and dynamism in cities” or a Jan Gehl, who argues that cities should support human needs for intimacy and inclusion from a Robert Moses who seemingly favored highways over public transit and automobiles to humans? Can culture be conceived as intention, attitude, behavior and tone?
When Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tuscon Pima Arts Council, spoke at the 2013 Creative Time Summit he cited the development of American reservations, the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882, the World War II internment of the Japanese and the present day militarization of US/Mexico border as powerful examples of containment and displacement fraught with very real social, political and economic consequences. This is culture wielded a weapon by government structures. Currently, Bedoya’s PLACE (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement) initiative funds projects that explore the aesthetics and ethos of belonging and disbelonging and speaks to his philosophy of cultural and civic stewardship. PLACE supports projects the surface “antagonisms and tensions” within the region and invests in local agency that negotiates with and challenges power. Grantees include a theater piece called No Rooster in the Desert which chronicles women’s journeys across difficult terrain. Other pieces explore the border patrol’s use of racial profiling as well as desert ecology and water scarcity. For the originators of these projects culture appears to be a tool for liberation.
Late last year, I had the opportunity to hear MacArthur Genius and Project Row House Founder Rick Lowe speak at UC Berkeley’s Art Research Center last year. He spoke of the ethical decisions one makes when deciding to make artwork and the politics that lie behind one’s choices. “Who gets to determine what is art and what’s not? And let me tell you it’s of no little importance who gets to make that decision,” he warned. The same could be said for creative placemaking efforts of course. I believe this is the point.
Lowe referenced Lucy Lippard’s description of land art as focusing the gaze on landscapes too immense to absorb. He compared it to social and community engaged art, and for much of the talk described ways that he concentrated his time and resources on the “social and community actions that we’ve lost the focus to take in” in order to shift people’s perspectives, often of themselves.
Starting with the most blighted houses in the neighborhood, Lowe recognized the beauty of genuine, authentic and practical need, but being an artist, he sought a symbolic layer as well. After conducting research the staff at Project Row Houses discovered a high number of single mothers lived in the area. Understanding that, the renovated spaces became transitional housing for single mothers who’d previously lived in “very raw” situations. Many had given up on these women. In this way, the spaces and the women who came to live there came to symbolize the potential of improbable transformations.
Lowe also set his sights on noticing the value in everyday experiences. He talked about quirky older gentlemen whose audacious stroll and theatrical flick of his cigarette seemed akin to individual, improvised performances. He also described his encounters with a formerly incarcerated man in the neighborhood whom he described as a kind soul. The man confessed to Lowe that if he had it to do all over he would be a cook in a café. Lowe designed posters depicting the man as a quality cook and hung them around the neighborhood. This helped the aspiring chef envision himself in his “highest form” and as a valuable member of the community. He became a community caterer of sorts until his death a few years later. “These are people,” Lowe said, who are “obviously trying to express something to the world” in the way they hold themselves and showcase their creativity. In Lowe's work there is often a practical issue that needs to be addressed, but his focus and investment reaches deeper and raises higher. In the latest issue of the Community Development Investment Review from the Federal Reserve of San Francisco, the Ford Foundation’s vice president for economic opportunity and assets Xavier de Souza Briggs, maintains that there is a shift from a fixation on “the hardware of place” to a “much deeper appreciation for the role of human capital, knowledge and creativity.” I can only hope so.
Both Roberto Bedoya's work in Arizona and Rick Lowe's work in Houston highlights the role that culture can play in empowerment, liberation and the celebration of human potential and creativity. Though structures and opportunities like this are not the norm, perhaps little by little, in micro fashion they soon will be. Coming to a neighborhood near you?
It’s difficult to answer this question without resorting to theories in political economy, democracy, or political philosophy (we were explicitly told not to get “too academic” – which is a tall order for a hybrid academic-practitioner like me!).
The first idea that comes to mind is the role of legitimacy between arts organizations and individual artists. 501(c)3 organizations historically and consistently have had more opportunities for grant funding when compared to individual artists. This inherent wave of power has manifested in a disconnect between loosely based arts collectives who choose to do less formal, less bureaucratic, and riskier projects without being beholden to a board, donor, or government agency. As foundations and government agencies adapt their guidelines to remain current (connections with unlikely partners!), individual artists wonder if “arts for arts sake” still has a place, especially when their intentions aren’t to create transformative change in a community.
The issue is further complicated when analyzing how organizational scale affects power within 501(c)3 organizations. Despite their ups and downs, the classical SOBs (symphonies, orchestras, and ballets) tend to have greater resources than the community theater or the neighborhood after-school art center. Power not only creates legitimacy, but also opportunities to assert more power. How does an individual artist or a small-scale arts organization with an annual operating budget of less than $50,000 compete with an endowed opera undergoing their second capital campaign within the last 10 years?
When I think the “sovereignty of place” in the context of planning I think of how the value of any place goes beyond its official owner. When I think of “sovereignty of place” in the context of arts and culture I think of how arts are often seen as a place-based weapon that either empower or disempower. Who gets to use a parcel of land for their arts project? Are artists the victims or purveyors of a gentrified neighborhood? Is the goal of arts personal transformation or economic development on commercial corridors? Are we really making new places, or “re-making” existing places in an entirely a new image? The list goes on. If space is territory and place is territory overlayed with meaning, one must ask who assigns that meaning? Is it a market fueled by capitalism or is it the non-economic interests of creative people who inhabit these areas?
As a person who studies cities I am no stranger to how global events, economic forces, migration, and overall urbanization and globalization affect place. For me, the key question is what does a democratic place look like? Philosophers have entertained this question ever since Henri Lefebvre conjured his notion of “The Right to the City.” These thoughts have fueled numerous sociologists, geographers, and political economists to develop theories and enacted policies on a local-scale in Los Angeles to national-legislation in Brazil.
It is clear that for artists it is not enough to own or inhabit a place. What is necessary is the ability to produce in a place, to assert cultural values and how places connect with other sites, people, and civic issues. The recent Occupy Movement reminded everyone of this place-based, yet distributed and re-appropriated notion of power all across the world. It taught us that people need to be empowered to use their creativity produce their own places.
As the Dinner-vention date closed in last fall, I began to wonder what the hell I was doing going to this event. Don’t get me wrong, I was honored to be invited; thrilled to be meeting Barry, Shannon, the WESTAF team, and the other guests. But why was I invited, why did I want to go, and what would people want to hear from me? And more to the point: what do complete strangers across the country need to hear, to be motivated, inspired, or even curious to reconsider their current Modus Operandi?
Eventually, I was spiraling into a rabbit hole of philosophical questions about the entire model of Dinner-vention and my participation as a demonstration of my complicity in a broken model system. Why was I being flown halfway across the country for one night? Housed in a nice hotel? Wined and dined? How much was this costing? What was the desired outcome for the eight guests? What was the actual impact on “the sector”?
Two days before Dinnervention I had worked myself up to the point that I almost couldn’t attend. Almost. But I got on the plane that Thursday morning, flew to Denver, and had a whirlwind evening because it was an honor to be invited to participate and it was a platform to begin openly speaking questions and statements I’ve been previously told not to.
What I didn’t say at the dinner, but what was bubbling inside me was ultimately my reaction to Ron’s request: the structures of power that support “broken models” in our sector are ones that emphasize expert over artisan, talk over action, players instead of doers. With all due respect for myself, my hosts, and the other guests, I felt trapped inside the thing we were examining. The 300lb gorilla in the room was that on a micro-scale we were demonstrative of many of the “broken models” we were speaking against. In this way we were a weapon. We were the proof that “people were trying to change the system,” but proof that lulled everyone back to sleep so they could wake up Friday morning and return to their positions as if nothing had happened.
Maybe next time I won’t get on the plane. Maybe next time I’ll answer a request like Ron’s more directly and loudly. The structures of power—hierarchy, capitalism, industrial production, male-white-able-bodied-educated-privilege, it’s-who-you-know nepotism—ultimately induce fear of conflict and chance, which leaves us embracing the models we know and “trust.” Until we question why we’re getting on the plane, say something, and then possibly not get on it, we’ll continue to hold those models dear.
Have a great week everybody.