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.

Are Church Planting Techniques Suited To The Arts?

I was recently listening to an episode of This American Life on church planting and found it a little strange to be listening to people use venture capitalist terminology to describe efforts to build new worship communities as “target the unchurched.”

Reporter Eric Mennel mentions attending a conference where the conversation is

“…about “kingdom return on investment.” Or “evangelistic networking” is one I’ve read, or “corporate renewal dynamics.”

“Launch” is a big word that they use in both worlds. They talk about “launch Sundays” and “launch budgets” in church planting. And the framing of what they’re doing is in business terms, right?

As I continued to listen, they started to mention that these efforts were heavily bankrolled by established churches,

So a lot of the startup capital comes from the biggest denominations. The Southern Baptists– they spend tens of millions of dollars a year on church planting. But a lot of church plants actually get their funding directly from megachurches– established churches that have thousands of members.

That got me thinking that you don’t see many large arts organizations doing something similar where they provide seed funding to enable more nimble arts organizations to go out to target the un-artsed.”

It wasn’t long ago that Nina Simon made a similar point about church planting and the arts on her blog.

Perhaps I should have known there would be parallels with the arts because This American Life titled the episode, “If You Build It, Will They Come?” evoking the “Field of Dreams” mentality we have been urged to abandon.

However, what I really found fascinating was the parallels between the problems one church planter had with diversifying the demographics of church planting and those of arts organizations trying to do the same thing with their program participants.

This American Life (TAL) spoke to Watson Jones III who became really excited by the church planting model, but noticed that pretty much everyone at this church planting conferences was Caucasian. The TAL reporters confirmed that most church planting happens in gentrifying or affluent urban neighborhoods or suburbs.

Jones felt things were wide open for planting churches in urban neighborhoods for people of color.  As I referenced before,  there is some surprising infrastructure for church planters. Jones got training in budgeting, fundraising, creating a business plan and mission statement for his church, plus an 18 month residency at a church plant site. He ended up landing about $100,000/year funding for three years to support his planting efforts.

They ended up doing a lot of things arts organizations do when trying to attract new audiences– handing out flyers and candy on the streets trying to get people to attend gatherings at homes, coffee houses and other non-traditional venues.

While the non-traditional worship services at funky, cool locations are pretty much the core identity of the church planting process that helps attract new members, it had the opposite effect for communities of color.

Watson Jones

….And one lady told me– she said, you guys are a cult. You call me when you get a church. Especially, I think, among black people, the more out of the box or avant garde you are, the less likely you are to be trusted.

Theologically, we say all day long, the church is the people of God. The people in your city, in your neighborhood, does not understand church apart from a building, a preacher, a choir or a praise team, and something that looks like a church service, period.

[…]

AJ Smith

Yeah. I mean, we were going to be the people who were out there on the streets, pastors who were very much present with the people. And that’s how we’ll grow the church. That didn’t work.

As I am listening to all this, I can’t but help think about how this is literally out of Nina Simon’s TEDx Talk on the Art of Relevance.

I mean look at this still. If you can’t see the stenciled sign on the bottom of the slide she is showing, it says “House of Worship In A Den of Sin.”

Nina uses this picture to discuss how some people will see this as a welcoming  place and others will see it as scary.

These guys trying to plant a church are running into a similar situation where the lack of a formal building and familiar experience was an impediment to people’s willingness to commit to this fledgling church. (Unfortunately, even when they did get a physical place in which to hold services, they had problems attracting a consistent group.)

This podcast provides many things to think about regarding the efforts of arts organizations to diversify the groups they serve. The foremost of which may be whether the design and execution of impromptu experiences in non-traditional spaces reflect affluent Caucasian ideals about what outreach efforts to those underserved by the arts looks like and subsequently serve to largely appeal to a similar demographic.

#NotMyMetric

Carter Gillies shared the unabridged version of a piece he wrote for the Arts Professional UK on his website this weekend.  As Carter is wont to do, he examined statements about quantifying and measuring the value of the arts made by Simon Mellor, the deputy chief executive for arts and culture at Arts Council England.

I was particularly drawn to Carter’s second entry where he addresses this statement by Mellor (my emphasis):

“At its heart, the Quality Metrics system is about enabling arts and cultural organisations to enter a structured conversation with audience members and peers about the quality of the work they are presenting. It allows them to capture valuable data that they can use to understand how their intentions for the work are aligning with the experiences of their audiences and peers and, hopefully, to use that information to plan future programmes and improve the quality of their work. It will also enable those organisations to provide more evidence to current and future funders about the quality of their work.

Let me first state that I don’t believe these metrics will really have any ability to measure the quality of the work done by the arts organisations. If you have read any of my previous posts on the matter you probably knew that already.

I was taken by the idea expressed in the bolded sentence above. One of the biggest challenges facing arts organizations in the last few years is the recognition that what they are doing might not align with the interests of the community. In surveys like Culture Track, people say they aren’t attending arts events because they don’t see themselves or their stories depicted on the stages, walls, and spaces. They don’t preceive what is happening in arts spaces to be relevant to them.  Nina Simon wrote a whole book about making experiences relevant for people.

So if the Arts Council of England could actually deliver some real insight into how to make the experience more relevant for people, that would be a pretty valuable service.

However, as Carter points out later in that second entry, there are many examples of artists whose work was initially rejected before being lauded. Some died before others began to recognize the value in the work they missed before. We see this sort of thing happen all the time in our lives. Movies and shows that did poorly both critically and economically suddenly become cult classics.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show became immensely popular after it initially flopped. But it is also a good example of something whose value exploded after people were able to participate and take ownership of the experience.

Even if it is an accurate reflection of how people are receiving something, the research is only going to be valuable to a point.

The problem, however, with creating a metric is that often that metric becomes fetishized as the measure of value rather than one element among many that can help us understand how an art work and the experience surrounding it is received.

As Carter notes, quoting Oscar Wilde, even when we talk about a metric someone else is using, the meaning of that metric may not be shared by both parties. Thus the #NotMyMetric title of this post.

(my emphasis)

There is a reason bean counting number crunchers have so much authority in the arts, and mainly it is for the good. The arts are a business and need to function as such. But it is also important to not let that world view overreach itself. We need to be careful in not putting the cart before the horse. In many ways the arts are the exact opposite of what the counters are, and see, and value.

The ever impish and ironical Oscar Wilde understood this predicament:

“When Bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When Artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.”

There is a mutual interest, in other words, but neither does it mean a banker thinks of art as an artist does, values it for the same things in the same way, and equally true of artists’ attitude towards money, but especially that this does not mean they should be left in charge of one another’s concerns. A ‘dinner table’ acquaintance is insufficient for the real work that needs to be done.

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