A Lot Of People Got A Seat At The Table

Yesterday I got to do something I have been dreaming of doing for a long time.

Now keep in mind, as an arts and cultural policy nut, my dreams tend to be a little different than everyone else’s.

Yesterday I participated in On The Table Macon, a project whose goal was to get people out talking about how to change their community.

The reason I had been dreaming about being able to participate in this was a long time was because I have been enamored with the basic concept since it was executed as 500 Plates in Akron, OH and the Longest Table in Tallahassee, FL.

When I saw there was going to be a similar effort in Macon, I signed up to participate on my second day on the job here.

(Just a little disclaimer, the major funders of the local On The Table, the Knight Foundation and Community Foundation of Central Georgia, fund my organization.)

Instead of a discussion occurring in a single place at a set time, there were dozens of discussions occurring across the community with the first ones starting at 7:00 am and the last one beginning at 8:00 pm. The topics covered everything imaginable, including some which were specifically intended as forums with government officials.  People agreed to act as hosts in parks, private homes, business offices, libraries, churches and community centers. In total, there were over 1500 seats available around the community.

While the general concept emerged from the idea that community bonds are forged over meals, the organizers were empathic that “It’s not about the food.”  I imagine this was in part to prevent those who volunteered as hosts from feeling obligated to provide a gourmet experience for dozens of people. Also so that participants weren’t focused on attending the sessions with the best food choices versus the most engaging topics.

Other than wanting to be part of the basic experience, my motivation for participating was to get a sense of the community to which I had recently moved. The first session I attended was at the public library where the topic was “Preserving Ethnic History.”

Readers of this blog know that I often talk about people desiring to see their stories depicted by arts and cultural organizations. Since I helped Hawaiian artists tell their stories through performance, I wanted to learn if similar opportunities for partnerships might exist in this community.

As much as I was interested in the topic, I as concerned that the subject might have too much niche appeal to attract many participants. I need not have worried as the table quickly filled and needed to accommodate some chairs at the corners.  The conversation that emerged was very interesting as the group had to tease out the differences between culture, ethnicity and identity before we could really define what it was exactly that was important to preserve.

A comment made by a woman who has taught manners and etiquette all her life cut across all subjects and seemed particularly applicable to arts and culture practice. She said her mother always emphasized that she and her siblings were to always consider themselves as sharing something rather than giving because both parties gained from sharing whereas one party always lost something in giving.

The second session I attended didn’t have an announced topic and instead employed some of the prompts provided by the On The Table organizers.

The third session was lead by a group that is trying to educate people about the state budget and how it is allocated. That conversation was focused largely on where the priorities of the society should be rather than talking specifically about the state budget. Those materials were available as hand outs to review at home.

Below is the prompt card from the session yesterday. If you were interested in doing something similar, you might check out the Chicago Community Trust On The Table website. I had read somewhere that they started the effort which has been replicated elsewhere. Certainly, you might want to search out the websites of the different communities that have hosted these events. Every community is different so some iterations may match your community better than Chicago’s.

I also wanted to point to the 500 Plates and Block Party in A Box toolkits which are among many useful tool kits for change being hosted on Springboard for the Arts’ Creative Exchange site.



What Would You Do If A Funder Encouraged You To Push Them To Do Better?

I was skimming some entries on the Americans for the Arts blog when a couple sentences made my eyes visually screech to a halt and shift into reverse because I wasn’t sure if I read what I thought I did.

Lawrence Brad Anderson, Executive Director City of Salina KS Department of Arts & Humanities related a story about a prospective grant applicant in a situation I think we can all empathize with–though with a very atypical ending.

Our new staff member did an excellent job reviewing the grant guidelines and preparing him for the process, but as the meeting was wrapping up, I saw that something was still missing.

“May I share an observation with you before you go?” I asked. “Sure,” the artist quietly replied.

“I sense that you feel you may not be worthy of funding for your expressed need. This couldn’t be further from the truth. You have prepared as a professional in your field, you are active in musical performances, and your passion for what you do is evident. In addition to your own individual expression, I want for you also to consider being a mentor and artistic leader in this community. We need people like you to be a positive voice as an artist and a valuable member of this town. We may not always be able to anticipate your exact needs, but you have my permission to push us, ask questions, and encourage your peers to step up their game and get engaged.”

As I completed my statement he lifted his head and I could see that he was silently weeping. Whether this recognition was the cause, or as a man of color in a largely white community, he was unaccustomed to being affirmed in such a strong way. The experience served as an important reminder of the role and responsibility arts administrators serve in their community.

As I say, I think we can all identify with feeling despondent that our programs or organization is not suited to the particular criteria of a funder.

But it is pretty dang rare for a funder to tell us explicitly that we are well suited for their program, challenge us to expand our leadership role in the community and encourage us to push them as funders.

I think we would all join the artist in silently weeping.

Literally Prescriptive Arts

I have been extremely busy preparing for the sponsor reception capping off a $3 million facility renovation at my day job.  (It really well tonight, thankfully)

I wanted to briefly call attention to an article Michael Rushton cited about the literal prescriptive use of the arts. What caught my eye was the following sentence:

Doctors will each be able to assign up to 50 museum prescriptions over the course of the pilot project.

Rushton quotes an article in the Montreal Gazette that conflates benefits observed formal arts therapy programs with self directed museum visits.

Rushton goes on to point out the problems inherent in making this comparison:

My problem with these sorts of stories, though, is not just the hyperbole. It’s about what it says about “art”. The story has not one single mention of any work of art these doctors’ patients might encounter at the MMFA (save for a photo indicating there is a Calder retrospective currently on exhibition). The actual works have no importance, it’s just “art”, or, as they say, whatever. The museum is a place with hallways and rooms that have framed pieces of canvas with paint on them hung from the walls.

And we can see why this is the approach, for what if we did pay attention to what art? What happens if researchers discover (as we know they ultimately will) that impressionist works increase the viewers’ levels of cortisol and serotonin more than do works of post-expressionism? That landscapes generate more hormone secretion than abstract works? Will doctors then start to advise the museum on its curatorial policies? Will the arts council?


…A part of the hidden, evil genius of “economic impact” studies was to embed the claim right from the start that the actual art itself doesn’t matter at all, so long as money is spent on it. But I don’t see how advocacy on health benefits, or empathy, or entrepreneurial creativity, would be able to get away with that.

Pinatas Today, Politics Tomorrow

Maybe there is something in the water in Texas.

In July I wrote about an artist who created a fake campaign promoting the restoration of El Paso’s trolley system as a thesis project. That campaign garnered so much enthusiasm, the trolley system actually ended up being restored. The artist parlayed that success into a successful campaign for a seat on El Paso’s city council.

Now over in Dallas, an artist who started using pinata houses to draw attention to the way gentrification was displacing the Latino community has declared his intent to run for Dallas city council.

According to another article in the Dallas Morning News containing more detail, as part of the project the artist, Giovanni Valderas, leaves the back of the pinatas open and has placed postcards with the same sad house motif bearing the message, “All I want for Christmas is affordable housing,” that people can mail to the mayor. (Though he said he also leaves the back open so people can see there is no reason to break it open for candy.)

Valderas, thinks more artists should become involved in politics.

…since placing the houses and doing a few other artistic projects around the issue, his neighbors began asking him what’s next.

“I wish more artists ran for office, because they are often the most creative problem-solvers,” Valderas told the Dallas Morning News. “We know how to run a shoestring budget. Through art, we already know how to engage and motivate people. This city could benefit from more creative people running. We can’t leave it up to developers and business people who are all about the money aspect of things. Imagine how much a community could change with an artist at the helm. There would be some crazy ideas, but it would be pretty fantastic.”

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