Embracing the Velocity of Change (Part 5)

Posted by Ms. Barbara Schaffer Bacon, Nov 01, 2011 1 comment

Barbara Schaffer Bacon

Our Paradox, Now Available on YouTube!

With bold headlines generated by the release of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change, the appetite was high at the Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) Conference for an opportunity to address the charge of being elite so often leveled at the arts. Do we want to own it or change it? And, what about the progressive label? Don’t artists generally lean left?

The session "Too Progressive, Too Elite: Public Value and the Paradox of the Arts" turned out to be that opportunity. Marete Wester, my colleague and director of arts policy at Americans for the Arts, and I organized the session based on our own interests in exploring the truths and challenges inherent in these labels--but we wanted a fresh conversation. So, why not start with art!? After all, connecting art and dialogue has been Animating Democracy’s cause and mantra for over ten years. GIA’s own Tommer Peterson signed on and spent the summer conducting 45 interviews on the theme.

A Night at the Opera, a short play by Tommer and KJ Sanchez of American Records Theater Company, was performed to open the salon session held at Emerald Tablet, a community arts center in San Francisco's historic North Beach neighborhood.

The lively 24-minute documentary work did not deconstruct the issue as a panel might do. Instead, it unfolded, unpacked, and laid bare everyone’s admissions, frustrations, and beliefs using some of art’s finest qualities--humor, irony, and juxtaposition of divergent ideas. Actors Britney Frazier, Elise Hunt, and Sean San Jose’s fine performances made us laugh, think, and readied us for an honest conversation and meaningful dialogue.

As we discussed the role this paradox plays in our work there were definitions (elite vs. elitism), confessions, generational nuances, and questions like "What if it was all free? Would we be having this conversation?" There were touring proposals for the play; lots of laughter; calls to adjourn for drinks; and a fabulous close out thanks to Bill Cleveland’s poem made from our collective expressions. It was fun and it got deep. Creativity worked! What is the report out? Well--it wasn’t a panel--you kind of had to be there.

But the paradox lives on with the #OccupyWallStreet movement as a prime example. As reported yesterday by Amanda Alef here on ARTSblog, “the arts have become a unique tool in the movement’s development and have played a central role in the creative expression of the movement’s message.” And yet Occupy Museums supporters are simultaneously calling out art and institutions as elitist.

So...watch the video, share it with colleagues, or watch it with some folks who don’t work every day for the arts and have a conversation of your own.

We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

1 responses for Embracing the Velocity of Change (Part 5)


Janet Brown says
November 01, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Thanks Barbara for the work that you and Marete put into this session and now for this blog. Also thank you for shouting out our talented Tommer Peterson and his play, based on real conversations and interviews with artists, arts administrators and funders. This is a huge question for us all. I am fascinated by the Occupy America movement and where arts and artists are perceived in the mix. There is no doubt that artists drive the message and communication of the movement but at the same time, there are, as you say, perceptions that some arts are part of the 1%. Is there a split between major institutions and street art? When you even say the word artist or art to those in the tents...what comes to their minds? Everyone should watch Tommer's play and let the discussion begin.

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