Introducing the Artists & Communities Conversation Series
Americans for the Arts is excited to debut a new conversation series, Artists & Communities, highlighting the voices of artists and arts practitioners working across sectors and within communities. Over the next ten months, we will publish ten conversations between pairs of established and emerging community arts leaders as they share their visions for, experiences with, and challenges to making healthy, equitable, vibrant communities through arts and culture. As community-based work receives more recognition, and intersections and collaborations become stronger, these conversations illuminate just how artists and community arts leaders can work to sustain and maintain healthy communities through their practice.
Liz and Deana connected by phone in late September—Liz from a residency in La Jolla, CA where a version of Healing Wars, her latest work, is being performed, and Deana from Baltimore—the city both women call home. What followed was a vibrant conversation that touched on: navigating artistic process and collaboration, what it means to be a young leader of color today, and also wondered about, questioned, and affirmed the important role of the artist in a challenged and changing Baltimore.
Read an excerpt from the conversation below, and be sure to check out the full exchange here!
LL: What are you working on right now?
DH: I am working on sustaining my non-profit. I'm trying to treat that more as a goal rather than a daunting task. I went to a conference recently called Hand-in-Glove in Minneapolis that was run by independent, non-commercial art spaces and looked at ways we can think about advancing the field. It was really remarkable because so many topics we're used to hearing were explored: artists should be paid better, thoughts about equity and community, how artists and organizers can work together to advance the field.
It was remarkable to remember that every region, every sector is so different. Artists living in Minnesota are very different from artists living in Texas or New York. We talk about being global and open and yet things are just really different for people in their own worlds. I’m really thinking about Baltimore. I’m thinking a lot about sustaining. And how we are helping artists get their work done in a way that is meaningful.
LL: It's important to get out and come up against other ideas or assumptions. This helps you re-investigate your own purpose in such a great way. I've lived in Baltimore since 2008 and I really feel it's different here. Our city has some very particular challenges in that some of the usual ways you could sustain your institution, or I could sustain my work, just don't work in Baltimore.
DH: Yes. What is it like to travel now, for you? You travel a lot. Do people ask you about Baltimore?
LL: Yes. Well, it's not that people ask. It's if I identify and say, "In my city, Baltimore…” Sometimes, depending on what I talk about after that, it has a certain weight. If I'm talking about Black Lives Matter and I'm coming from Baltimore then people sit up sharp. I think now, since the uprising in response to the death of Freddie Gray, people are very interested.
I’d like to hear your perspective because you're in Baltimore more than I am, but here’s an observation I’ve been making about the uprising: In researching my stage piece Healing Wars, I read Race and Reunion by David Blight. He looks at the US 50 years after the Civil War and lays out the emancipation narrative and the reconciliation narrative. He said the country couldn’t do both. And so the country picked reconciliation, and emancipation was left behind. That really spoke to me when I read it. And in relationship to after the uprising, the speed with which some people said, "Let's get back to normal," felt to me like “let's reconcile.”
I want to say, you’re missing the point. Normal is terrible for a lot of people in Baltimore.
DH: It's weird how many industries tried to do that. It was everywhere. If you were in a public health conversation or law conversation or policy… all of these sectors.
I wonder if that's how the arts can be the most functioning. The industry that will be the first to stand up and go, "No, maybe normal is not where we want to be anymore." I was hearing it more in the arts than I was in other areas.
LL: I think your point is very powerful because it’s one thing to just say “Let’s not go back to normal.” And it’s another thing to hold the curtains open long enough to try to understand what’s always happening. The arts do that.
Liz Lerman is a choreographer, performer, writer, educator, speaker, and the recipient of numerous honors, including a 2002 MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship and a 2011 United States Artists Ford Fellowship in Dance. A key aspect of her artistry is opening her process to various publics from shipbuilders to physicists, construction workers to ballerinas, resulting in both research and outcomes that are participatory, relevant, urgent, and usable by others. She founded Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976 and led it until 2011. Currently, her work Healing Wars is touring across the US. Liz conducts residencies on Critical Response Process, creative research, the intersection of art and science, and the building of narrative within dance performance at Harvard University, Yale School of Drama, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the National Theatre Studio among many others. Her third book, Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer, was published in 2011.
Deana Haggag has been the Director of The Contemporary since the spring of 2013. Prior to her work with the museum, she was the Curator-in-Residence at Gallery CA, which is also located in Baltimore, MD in the City Arts building — home to over 90 artists. Deana received her MFA in Curatorial Practice from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA from Rutgers University in Art History and Philosophy. In addition to her work at The Contemporary, Deana lectures extensively, consults on various public art initiatives, contributes to cultural publications, and teaches at institutions such as Towson University and Johns Hopkins University. Deana was named “10 People to Watch Under 30” by the Baltimore Sun in 2013 and a “Young Cultural Innovator” by the Salzburg Global Forum in 2015.