Food for Thought for Artists and Arts Administrators

For the past few months, I have been a participant in interviews, panels and symposiums that have focused on history, legacy and the future. Most recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the Scholars Symposium, which was one of the features of the 2018 March on Washington Film Festival. Before a live audience, I interviewed Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, and we discussed the importance and value of accurately presenting history and creating legacy through the experiences and stories of the actual participants. “Little Rock” the play is currently running off-Broadway through September 8, 2018, and it’s a reminder of the integral and positive role that the theater can play in the sharing of history.

The culmination of all these experiences propelled me to think more deeply about the role of artists and arts administrators in today’s political and social climate, and the responsibility we have for helping to shape the future. I jotted down 10 points that I want to share with you in this week’s blog:

  1. We need to keep making art and upholding humanistic values, no matter who is in the White House.

The negative impact this presidential administration is having, not only on the arts, but also on culture and behavior, is undeniable. The culture of disdain, discord and disunity is wreaking havoc on our country and the world. “Fear of other” is at an all-time high, as well as the hair-trigger response to “stand your ground.” The political and social climate is definitely having an anxiety-inducing impact on artmaking, artists, arts and culture venues, as well as on audiences. But no matter what we see on television or read in our newsfeeds, we still have the power to resist the temptation to slip into the darkness of despair being fueled by the current political policies and crises. Let’s resist the temptation to simply curse them and become discouraged and blocked from doing our own work. As my life teacher writes, “Hope is a decision” that we each have the power to make. And with hope we can change anything!

  1. Let’s open our hearts to see the world through the kaleidoscopic, cultural paradigm of others.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” This quote from The Little Prince has greater urgency to me because history has documented that the arts are the primary vehicle for universally speaking to the hearts of all people. Just think of the many books, poems, photographs, paintings, concerts, dance or theater performances that have had a transformational impact on your life. That’s why we all need exposure to the kaleidoscope of voices and cultural paradigms that the arts bring to the forefront and “make visible the unseen.” The arts serve as a reminder of the universality of the human desire for love, hope and peace; a reminder that transcends race, gender, sexual orientation, social status, economic means, physical or emotional ability, and even language. As the late writer James Baldwin once penned, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by answers.” I hope you will never forget your mission to help unearth the mysteries and truths that have the power to unite and liberate us all.

  1. The arts are for everyone, including recent immigrants to the United States.

There is such a flurry of people coming and going to the United States—legally, illegally; welcomed or not. What role can the arts play amidst all the confusion and commotion? We must become a part of these experiences—either giving voice to the people seeking safe harbor or sharing their stories. We must insure that our new neighbors are empowered through positive experiences with the arts. I know some of you are saying, “Is she crazy?” But please hear me out. Most immigrants coming to the U.S., especially those from the Middle East, Africa and Spanish-speaking countries, are focused on survival. In many communities around this country, the arts are thought to be a luxury. But I don’t believe that, and we have the mission to change that perception. I believe the arts community should be the first to welcome immigrants, regardless of their legal status. Imagine, for example, how much relief (if given access) and joy we could bring through the arts to the families or youth in detention under the current family separation policy. Let’s become the bridge for all of humanity to see themselves in each other. Perhaps these efforts can help facilitate a greater respect for diversity, less judgment, and less fear about people who are different from us yet share the same of heart.

  1. We must proactively and respectfully protect indigenous cultures and businesses when neighborhood demographics change.

Gentrification is rapidly changing the dynamics of many urban neighborhoods throughout America and for the indigenous cultures and businesses, it’s usually not a positive experience. As a matter of fact, many of these new residents, mainly wealthy and usually white, ignore the existing community and seek to remake it in a way that most suits their needs. Commercial and residential rents soon skyrocket, and to the delight of the real estate community, property values also soar. And soon better amenities follow—upscale grocers, boutique stores, and other unique offerings. Having better shopping options and higher quality merchandise benefits everyone. But at what cost? What cultural connections or heritage is being obliterated in the process? You may have read news reports about the gentrification battle that continues to rage in New York City’s Harlem and Bed-Stuy neighborhoods—ranging from complaints about African drumming in the park to sky-rocketing rents. Dialogue is key to understanding, and I believe it’s important that arts organizations step in and help build bridges between the old and new neighbors and help facilitate a common vision for the revitalized neighborhood so that it benefits all.

  1. Acknowledge and engage diverse opinions or perspectives without fear or judgement.

Diversity of opinion can either lead to growth or conflict. The outcome is determined by all participants, based on their willingness to listen and learn from each other. Our society has enculturated us to be dismissive and judgmental of difference—people of color, other genders, other cultures, as well as accents. This limits our ability to hear the valuable contributions other people can add to a conversation or the role they can play in creating a plan of action. When any minority in a room shares a point of view, let’s listen and acknowledge their point of view. Sometimes, it’s hard to hear the truth and honesty being voiced; it’s difficult to acknowledge the pain of others, especially when we don’t perceive ourselves as being the cause. But it’s so important for us to create the space in the room and in our hearts for their voices to be heard. As Executive Leadership Coach Lolly Daskal writes, “Listening with the heart is not a passive skill but an active art.” It is the art of acknowledging the dignity, equality and truth of all the people seated at the table, and of those who aren’t privileged enough to be in the room.

  1. Create the narrative and share across multiple platforms

Technological advancement and wider access to a greater audience has led to innovation and significant changes in the media, and its spreading to the arts, including the area of community engagement. Think “Facebook Live” or other live stream platforms and podcasts. However, as artists and arts administrators, we need to do a better job of sharing with each other what we’re learning—what works and doesn’t work. Arts organizations are just beginning to codify this area of work, and there has been a growing interest in establishing partnerships between cultural institutions and communities they seek to serve. I’m currently witnessing the creation of new positions on the level of manager, director and/or Vice President to help corral this new infusion of energy. This is very exciting to me because it indicates the recognition that this is a field that is unique unto itself, and consequently deserves a dedicated staff, budget and the expansion of opportunities to develop and cultivate new leaders to sustain this endeavor.

  1. Loudly proclaim and celebrate your institution’s work that fosters Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

Make your commitment to the values of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion an organic part of your daily conversation—from your newsletters and events postings to your social media updates. Arts organizations invariably report that there is an increased interest in digital posts that highlight events in the neighborhood and not just performances. I share this based on first-hand experience—I manage two newsletters and when the information highlights the social connection or impact of the event, exhibition or performance there is increased response and participation.

  1. Lead by example

I hope you will do your utmost to take the lead in your arts organization to open wide its doors and expand access to all. However, all transformation begins within—with conviction, resolve and personal goals. Do this because you believe it’s the right thing to do, and not because your board of directors, lackluster ticket sales, or neighboring community pressures you to change. When you demonstrate your convictions (in all aspects of your life), and make Equity, Diversity and Inclusion a part of the DNA of your organization, people you invite to the party will also get it and they will support your efforts.

  1. Focus on mentoring the next generation of arts administrators and providing them with the support they may need to help them stay engaged and committed.

If our arts and cultural institutions and organizations are to survive, those of is in the business now must take responsibility to foster the next generations of arts administrators. Don’t think of them as competition; instead, they are the future of what each of us has dedicated our lives to create. I constantly think about passing the baton, and I hope that every arts administrator considers themselves (or will begin to consider themselves) a mentor. As the United States further diversifies, please keep in mind that the United States Census department projects by 2045 that the majority of the U.S. population will be people of color. That’s just 23 years from now—those potential, future arts administrators are in kindergarten and first grade. So, it’s essential that we proactively reach out to and mentor young people of color and help them build a stake in the future of the arts—in both traditional and non-traditional institutions. Diversity in leadership begins at the executive level, with the commitment to seek out existing talent as well as create opportunities for more of them to apply for and acquire jobs on the management track. Given the shift in demographics, the old answer of “I can’t find them” is no longer acceptable. We have to dig deeper and look harder.

  1. Appreciation

As tough as it is to work in the arts, especially as tough as it is to carve out a sustainable living, we still have the best jobs in the world. Our work illuminates the human experience—the good, bad and ugly—allowing us to promote the universal bonds that unite us all. It celebrates our innate and limitless potential to learn and grow, as well as our unbounded capacity for love, joy, transformation and redemption. It is an honor to do this work and make it accessible to the widest possible audience in order to build the bridges that can heal our hearts and heal the world.