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“…The Art That Is In You Has Only Faintly Touched The Lives Of Your People.”

Last month, Americans for the Arts blog was printing excerpts from the writing of Robert E. Gard who primary focused on manifesting the Wisconsin Idea through theater and creative writing starting around 1945.

I first became enamored of the concept of the Wisconsin Idea about 10 years ago. The idea that a state government and university system would be focused on a holistic improvement of the lives of the state’s citizenry is pretty inspiring.  Even though political opposition began work to undermine and unravel elements of it almost immediately, people have hewn to the Wisconsin Idea for over a century.

There was an excerpt on Americans for the Arts’ blog of a piece Gard wrote in 1952 that illustrates just how long some themes and debates about the arts in the U.S. have endured.

Your struggle, America, has matured so rapidly that the quaint folkishness of your village has been swept into an almost common molding, and the economic fruit of your struggle has been so plentiful that we, your people, have tended to shun the responsibility of art, sometimes to scorn it, and to look at it askance as a manifestation unworthy of our virile American manhood. You have put down deep taproots, America, that have given us the stuff of wondrous plenty, but these same roots have starved off the expressiveness of yourself. For those of us who have loved you best have not completely understood your struggle, and the art that is in you has only faintly touched the lives of your people.


It became suddenly and completely apparent to me that we could no longer pretend that theater, to have its true vital meaning, could be fabricated and foisted upon the people as entertainment alone, or as sociology, or as an art form practiced by the few for the satisfaction of individual egos. But that theater must grow spontaneously from the lives and the necessities of the people, so that the great dream of a few men and women who saw true visions might come true: the dream of an America accepting the idea of great popular art expression without question, as a thing inherently American.

So there you go, in 1952 Gard expressed concern that: 1 – America has a slightly hostile streak when it comes to the arts or creative self-expression; 2 – Arts needed to be viewed as more than just simple entertainment; 3- Yet not viewed as the province of an elite few, but as place where people saw their own lives reflected.

In 60+ years since Gard wrote that, little has changed. These topics still dominate conversation and are cause for hand wringing.

I am optimistic that things are headed in a constructive direction. Given all the attention focused on programming, casting and employment choices being made in theater and movies, there is a greater opportunity to see oneself and one’s stories.

The same with the effort to build public will for arts and culture I have been writing about recently which has creative self-expression at its core.

I am sure Gard was pretty optimistic back then too, and with good reason if you look at all that was created and still endures in the name of the Wisconsin Idea. It is also pretty clear that the effort has to constantly be sustained against both external forces that seek to oppose and erode it, as well as simple internal neglect and entropy.

To some degree, I see the effort to build public will for arts and culture as a spiritual successor of the Wisconsin Idea. The Idea was always meant to become a national influence. While its spread hasn’t been as prevalent as initially hoped, the folks in Wisconsin have been really good about actively keeping the torch lit and the light has indirectly had a positive influence on others.

If you are looking for a guiding principle to help you speak about arts and culture to those who have negative associations with the concepts, you could do worse than to meditate upon and internalize the empathy and ambition of the last line in the first paragraph I quoted:

For those of us who have loved you best have not completely understood your struggle, and the art that is in you has only faintly touched the lives of your people.

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Oh, You Want Us To Teach It, Too?

Last month on Americans for the Arts’ Arts Blog, Elizabeth Laskowski, wrote about how she welcomed standardized testing for the arts because it was making her school finally take her seriously.

My first thought was that she was basically embracing the philosophy of the kid who always acts up in class–even attention in a negative context is better than no attention.

Because students will now be tested in the arts area, Laskowski will now receive regular evaluations of her teaching, attending her class will no longer be a “carrot and stick” privilege afforded well-behaved children, students will get up to 135-180 minutes a week with her instead of 30 and the grades in her class will actually count.

It probably goes without saying that I think it shouldn’t take the threat of testing to create a situation where a music teacher is thrilled that:

“We will no longer be simply a prep time for general education teachers, or a way for the kids to blow off a little steam before they get back to work. The arts will be full fledged, real, and valuable subjects, worthy of time, money, and respect.”

Elizabeth Laskowski’s post illustrated for me that it isn’t enough to just advocate for arts in the schools, requiring that they be treated seriously and taught is also apparently necessary.

Parents may have to scrutinize claims of arts classes being offered. It appears all classes are not created equal and one should not assume that three years of music class provides roughly equivalent instruction hours as three years of French.

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Your Mouth Says Innovative, Your Pictures Say Status Quo

Yesterday I alluded to one of my pet marketing peeves, the claim that a work of art reveals “what it means to be human.” The phrase has mercifully fallen out of frequent usage these days (or at least I am not being sent those press releases and brochures any more).

However, Lucy Bernholz at Philanthropy 2173 reminds us about the importance of such buzz phrases to the non-profit arts community. She cites the (tongue in cheek) grant proposal by Michael Alexander of Grand Performances. Here is a taste:

“The Innovative Art Jargon Creation Project – An Activity for the New Millennium”

Project Synopsis
Grand Performances respectfully requests a grant of $37,500 to manage a program to develop new Art Jargon which will be necessary for effective grant writing in the next century.

Each passing decade since the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts has seen a geometric growth in the number of “buzz words” used by arts grant writers in their applications. To date, there has been no formal development program to insure consistency of quality of these new phrases, nor a system for dissemination to insure that grant writers throughout the country had access to the new phrases at the same time, often giving grants writers in one geographic region or one discipline an unfair advantage over those writers not familiar with the new phrases. Certain regions and certain disciplines have been consistently underserved due to their grant writers’ inability to gain access to the new phrases in a timely manner.

…During the national economic recession of the early 1990’s grant writers hit “a brick wall” as funding decreased for the arts and the available supply of new “buzz words” diminished…A privately funded study involving independent arts grant writers, arts consultants and representatives from government funding agencies from throughout the country provided evidence that one of the major causes of the diminished funding was a scarcity of exciting and useful “buzz words” that could be used in arts grant applications.

I got some pretty good chuckles off this.

However, over on ARTSblog, Megan Pagado reflects on her experiences attending the National Arts Marketing Project Conference noting that the choices arts marketers make often perpetuate the status quo even as they express a desire to change it.

“Slowly, though, the conversation shifted from marketer-created messages to marketer-perpetuated messages. A picture of an all-white, male orchestra elicited the most memorable response: “They’re all dudes!”

Therein laid the dilemma for many of us in the room: What is our process of reviewing materials from artists? What if an artist doesn’t have a better, less stereotypical photo for a marketing team to use? And, as Amy Fox (@museumtweets) tweeted: Do artists always understand the stereotypes they perpetuate when they create?

Some marketers walked away with an action item: creating a diverse committee to review artist materials, for example.

But I think many, including myself, walked away with more questions than answers: How can I be inclusive while avoiding tokenism? When does utilizing inclusive language achieve its desired goal of making all feel welcome, and when does it simply brush issues under the rug and avoid conversations that need to be had?

I will admit I had never really thought about whether an image an artist supplied was perpetuating a stereotype. Most frequently my concern is whether the image communicates that the performance will be interesting. I just had this conversation today about an image in which a pianist appears to have dozed off at the keys.

Taken together, these two blog posts remind us to be cognizant of the impression conveyed by the words and images we employ to promote our organization and activities. Are we saying we are innovative because we are or because innovative is the trending term? Do the images we use back up that claim?

I think it can easily slip our notice that while we may be explicitly saying, “we want to include you,” the images we use may implicitly be saying “No we don’t.” Certainly the environment and attendance experience in a performance hall can communicate this as well. But I think people recognize that dress code and knowing when to clap are already sources of anxiety and have taken steps to address this. It is probably time to start paying attention to the pictures too.

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We’ve Discovered Creativity!

Creativity is getting A LOT of play lately. I have written on the subject at least six or seven times since the new year, including a discussion about the IBM study that found corporate executives value creativity over pretty much everything else. Thomas Cott features a cross section the subject in his You’ve Cott Mail today. There is the Creativity Post site which devotes itself pretty much entirely to the subject.

You’d almost think no one was aware of creativity until Richard Florida discovered it in 2005 launching a mad scramble to mine it.

Of course, it existed long before that..and we have proof! Maria Popova posted a videos of a talk John Cleese gave on Brain Pickings this weekend. At first I thought he just gave the talking in the last month, so timely did it sound. But he looked a lot younger than he did when I saw him a couple months ago. But you know, despite sounding so recent, he gave the talk in 1991.

Those of you who recognize Cleese’s name from Monty Python probably have no doubts about his credentials to talk about creativity. You may not know that Cleese also has a series of really good management videos, which come to think of it, I believe I first saw around 1991. He was the first to introduce me to the idea that good leadership means creating an environment which can effectively function in your absence, rather than requiring you to make every decision.

One of the things that Cleese says in the creativity video, which is borne out by research and recent writings on the subject, is that creativity is something you have to work at. He mentions that there was another member of the Monty Python troupe he felt had far more creative talent than he, but who would give up on an idea very quickly compared to Cleese because, in his view, there was a lot of discomfort associated with spending time working with a weak idea to make it stronger and more original.

Apparently research shows that people who are deemed more “creative” do spend more time playing with a problem trying to find a solution. These people learn to tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty rather than reaching for the easiest solution in order to gain the satisfaction of completion.

The need to be decisive runs counter to the process of creativity because creativity requires weighing many options. Earlier in the video Cleese talks about how it is easy to do small things that are urgent rather than taking the time to do big things which aren’t so urgent, like giving yourself the time and space to be creative. In the same manner, it is difficult in today’s work environment to escape the sense that you should be doing something (be it internal or external) long enough to stimulate creativity.

It has been suggested on Americans for the Arts Artsblog’s Private Sector Salons that the arts community has a lot to offer the private sector in terms of training in creativity.

My concern is that the arts community doesn’t really know how and why they are creative. There are things that we do that elicit creative thoughts like improvisation games, walks in the woods, etc., but we may not realize is that it isn’t the activities per se that make as creative as much as that they represent the carving out of time, space and environment separate from our daily lives in which we can be creative.

Teaching people to do improv games or telling them they should take long walks in the woods isn’t going to make them creative if they aren’t allowing their minds to leave their desks. If they don’t have the courage to embrace uncertainty, be wrong and appear indecisive, participation in playful activities won’t help. If arts groups are going to help private sector businesses become more creative, they need to be clear that the exercises they are teaching them are just tools to help them attain a creative mindset.

The activities are meaningless of themselves and interchangeable with many others that you may find convenient and enjoyable. Some are certainly more conducive to group interactions toward creativity than others, some may better suit the corporate culture, but no one activity is necessarily the key to magical creative synchronicity. You can be creative sitting at your desk if you have the discipline and courage to allow yourself to be.

The most interesting thing Cleese talks about is the importance of humor to solving problems. He notes that people may not feel humor is appropriate when addressing serious problems, but that it absolutely is. That is why I found it interesting. I would be afraid to interject humor into a serious discussion. Serious should not be confused with solemn he says. You can talk about serious matters of the day while laughing and it wouldn’t make the problems any less serious. Cleese seems to say that the use of humor can help mentally insulate you from the problem enough to arrive at creative solutions.

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