At Americans for the Arts, we are always looking for stories that demonstrate the transformative power of the arts and how the arts can impact people's lives in positive ways. When I was tasked with creating a video about a statue in Richmond, Virginia, what I had first thought would be a simple project about a public art piece became much more complicated than I had ever imagined. But thank goodness for complications, because I am so grateful to have been able to share the complex story of the monument to Maggie L. Walker, a civil rights pioneer and the first woman to be memorialized as a statue in the city of Richmond.
Americans for the Arts joined 17 national, state, and local arts service organizations urging reversal of a ruling that permitted Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers to remove a painting by St. Louis high school student David Pulphus from a Congressional Art Competition exhibit at the U.S. Capitol. His allegorical post-Ferguson painting depicts a civil rights demonstration and includes two police officers with boar heads; one is pointing his gun at a protester with the head of wolf. The painting was removed under pressure from a small group of Congressmen, with the contention that the exhibition was “government speech” which the government could censor at will.
As an undergraduate student at Wake Forest University studying Health and Exercise Science and aspiring to be a future physical therapist, I was excited when I learned about a pioneering Parkinson’s Disease dance class developed by Associate Professor of Dance Christina Soriano, which is now trademarked as her own IMPROVment™ method. Soriano has crafted a pedagogy of improvisational dance movement that aims to improve the mobility, balance, and overall health of older adults, giving participants a beautiful and joyous way to practice how to handle the challenges that a life with Parkinson’s—or any neurodegenerative disease—brings.
Over the past year, public monuments have been scrutinized and reviewed: What are the roles of these artworks? What relevance do they play in history? In contemporary culture? And, what do they say about the community where they are located? Richmond, Virginia has been looking at their monuments and considering what is missing for quite some time. As Americans for the Arts was looking to enhance the tools we offer to the public art field, the story of a new monument to civil rights activist Maggle L. Walker in Richmond proved to be an ideal subject for a short-form documentary video.
While we all work to serve audiences that are growing in diversity, we cannot prescribe the art that might engage our audience without engaging in conversation. We must be ready to walk with them, to find out through relationship and exploration together what their expectations, needs, and wants are. And that’s how we truly build community through the arts.
Earlier this month, we had the opportunity to speak with Abel Lopez, outgoing Chair of the Board of Directors at Americans for the Arts. As Chair since 2013, Abel has been an instrumental part of the growth of Americans for the Arts, particularly in sustaining leadership, developing goals as part of the organization’s most recent Strategic Plan, and spearheading the Statement on Cultural Equity. In this interview, Abel talks about his history with Americans for the Arts, his experience as Chair, and his excitement for the future of Americans for the Arts and the nonprofit arts and cultural sector.
Nearly a year ago, two members of Trinity Repertory Company’s resident acting company proposed an idea: use the Rhode Island tradition of presenting A Christmas Carol to amplify our institution’s commitment to community engagement. They dreamed of incorporating different community groups every night, connecting our audiences to work and people they might not otherwise know. Fast-forward to now, somewhere mid-run of an unforgettable Christmas Carol. Every three days a new community group steps into a show so full of heart it bursts off the stage. The results of this work are still uncountable, and yet the reverberations are already so easy to see.
As we celebrate the holidays, I encourage you to think of all the ways artists have helped your company, organization, place of worship, community. How have artists bettered your family and your life? Think about the artist behind the public art mural as you pass by while running errands. Take a moment to listen to caroling. Take family and friends to galleries, a live music venue, or small theater production. Let’s all support these artists and community change-makers this holiday season.
For those who are on the ground working directly with communities, we know our work simply cannot be done without a number of partners, including donors; local, state, and federal government; other organizational partners; and of course, the children and families themselves. I’d like to shine a light on one of Pablove’s most important constituents—our volunteers—and discuss why they are so instrumental to the work that we do in the healing arts.
When I began teaching arts management, I remember Robert E. Gard’s The Arts in the Small Community almost leaping off the library shelf at me. His insistence on the importance of the arts to all people, and of communities to the arts, resonated with me from the moment I encountered his work. I have since discovered that as a high school student in Iowa my life was transformed by a summer program he was instrumental in supporting in Wisconsin. Many themes emerge from Gard's writing, and many of my most cherished ideas, among them the role of the “arts establishment” in this work (the need to pay attention to communities) and the role of the arts council.
Twenty-five years ago American orchestras began a conversation about what would happen to excellence in performance if orchestras broadened their missions to focus on education and community engagement. The fear, unfounded, was that excellence would be compromised. The opposite was true. Today, administrators of top performing arts organizations are begging for those of us who train artists to start training like it’s the 21st century and not the 19th. More than new skills—which is certainly part of it—this requires something more difficult: a change in the mindset of musicians. We must understand we’re all in the audience development business.
In the United States, 1 in 10 adults age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s dementia. As the size of the U.S. population age 65 and older continues to increase, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s or other dementias will escalate rapidly. Although cultural institutions have created programs for this population for many years, how these programs are created—how educators are intentional in the works of art they select for the program, how much research and evaluation is put into a session, etc.—are growing and becoming more substantial. So, how are we doing it? And are these programs effective?
The arts are important to me, and if you’re reading this, I bet they’re important to you too. I know you’ll agree that the arts help communities heal, learn, and grow. And that’s why I'm proud to support Americans for the Arts: because they help make it possible for arts organizations and artists in communities all over the country to do what they do better, through education, advocacy, professional development, case-making research, and more. I hope you'll join me.
November is Veterans Month, a time to celebrate, honor, and reflect on the contributions of the men and women who have served our country in peacetime and in conflict. Earlier this month, I made my way to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for their 14th Annual Healing Arts Exhibit and Symposium, where I was met by the champion of this effort, Captain Moira G. McGuire, and had an opportunity to explore the art on display. My job there was to give the opening speech about the long history of connection between the arts and the military going all the way back to the days of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, but being surrounded by the incredible artwork produced by the wounded, ill, and injured members of the armed services and their families was the real benefit of being there.
To recognize the important role of the business community in advancing the arts, Americans for the Arts annually presents the BCA 10 awards celebrating ten businesses for their innovative partnerships with the arts. These businesses range in size and location but share a passion for engaging with the arts to advance their companies and communities; and from our work around the country, we know that they are not alone and that there is increased engagement from the business community in support of the arts. That is why it is not surprising to see that the 2017 edition of Giving in Numbers produced by CECP, in partnership with the Conference Board, showed an increase in arts funding from the corporate community between 2014 and 2016.
Our filter bubbles and gated communities (both suburban and barbed) divide us. In this intentional division, it is our responsibility to seek that which is different, to engage with what is uncomfortable, and to soften to our own tenderness in order to grow, together, into the promise of America. This America has not yet existed but the potential is there. How, in this time of rapid and sometimes overwhelming change, can the arts alter the face and heart of America?
I recently joined an arts high school community, and I live in awe of the complexity, depth, and flexibility that the arts school model provides. I’m enamored with the space we create when we design schools for students who have a demonstrated passion and aptitude for the arts. Arts schools allow our most creative young people in society to feel supported, celebrated, and encouraged to grow. I contend that the confidence, skills, and sense of community students gain from attending arts schools helps them to become the best version of themselves.
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The role of the artist is changing. In the midst of these challenging times, civic engagement has become the focus of attention across many sectors and fields. More than ever, the arts are promoting greater awareness and understanding of community issues, contributing to shifts in thinking and in attitude. I see artists and arts organizations across the country being integrated into practices of civic engagement, and applying the power of artistic imagination to inform, inspire, engage, and motivate social action. And I continue to applaud state and municipal governments across the U.S. for embracing such collaborations.
The Business Roundtable is part of a series of convenings Americans for the Arts hosts to gather insight and best practices from leaders in all sectors, and is designed to address the needs of businesses across industries looking to engage and retain a diverse workforce by incorporating the arts into their portfolios, and to strengthen and diversify their talent and their brand. The roundtable was bookended with an example of an arts-based experience that the Arts & Business Council of New York encourages the corporate community to employ in its approach to addressing DEI goals in thoughtful and innovative ways.
For many artists, making art is a coping mechanism to find inner calm and some kind of understanding about a confusing, chaotic world. So how might art heal our world? How might the artist become the healer?
Art has the power to transform our lives and strengthen our communities. In spite of this, the future of our beloved arts has experienced a hair-raising roller coaster ride over this past year. Like many of you reading this post, a fire has ignited within me to stand-up for what I believe in—and, I believe in the arts. When the going gets tough, we must speak loud, stand up tall, and refuse to back down. The arts are the most vibrant and expressive of the vital pillars that make up our great nation. In this fight for the brightest and most prosperous future for the arts, we all have skin in the game.
As we approach the upcoming National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Memphis, I’m excited to enter a new conversation about the possibilities for our sector that can be unlocked by embracing a designer’s mentality to address the critical need to diversify our audiences, our leadership, and our organizations.
By wishing to incorporate youth and their communities in decision-making for initiatives that are intended to engage them and their peers, organizations and program managers are (knowingly or unknowingly) giving these young people a lesson on power dynamics, the power of organizing, and policy development via focus grouping, researching, and consulting with experts (aka themselves). By welcoming youth into the decision-making process, we can begin to show them how decisions—within our organizations and more broadly in society—could be made differently. Let’s lean into it and, in fact, give these young folks more power over programs that are meant to be for them, particularly in organizations that have little or no history of incorporating young people in admin-level spaces.
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