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.”

Americans For The Arts Unleashes A Pinwheel of Arts Power!!

Americans for the Arts just rolled out their Social Impact of the Arts pinwheel this week. Instructions and ideas about how to use it may be found in a blog post and/or video made by Clay Lord, Vice President of Local Arts Advancement.

As you know, I apply a pretty critical eye to anything that might make prescriptive claims regarding the ability of the arts to solve all sorts of problems.  As always, I am concerned about people using data like property values increasing 20% due to the presence of a cultural organization and a correlation between taking arts classes for four years scoring 100 points higher on SATs as a primary measure of value of the arts.

I will say that it is clear A LOT of effort went into assembling the data and putting these materials together. It can provide a valuable resource when advocating for the arts and finding practices to emulate.  Between the amount of data points and ease of use, my pinwheel of arts power moniker is pretty deserved.

The topics covered are much wider than the economic and educational benefits we often see cited in relation to the arts. There are sections on diplomacy, innovation, faith, infrastructure, health and wellness, social justice and yes, culture, economics and education. Each of the 26 “slices” of the pinwheel brings up a “Learn More” button in the center that allows you to download a printable PDF specific to the topic with footnoted sources that you can bring to meetings with policy makers to show them what is backed by research.

Arrows on either side of the center hub will take you to examples of practice, reading lists and organizations associated with the topic. According to the video presentation Lord made, they were still populating that content.  Since that video was made at the conference back in June, they have likely added a lot more content since then.  I haven’t checked every slice of the pinwheel, but haven’t been able to find an area that lacks any of those three categories.

The downloadable PDFs have reading lists, examples of practice and organizations included, but the respective categories accessed via the pinwheel hub provide more direct access to the information in each section.

My hope is that the easy availability of data and examples of impacts in a wide range of applications will enable people to advocate for the arts cross a broader spectrum of rationale. Likewise, I hope people find it easy to draw inspiration from the successes organizations have had making artistic and cultural practice part of their effort to create connections and impacts in various endeavors.

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