Artists Transforming Local Government: Creative Strategies Toward Racial Justice

A few years ago, the City of Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative Team started looking more closely at how the individualist, perfectionist, paternalistic, and compartmentalizing culture of white supremacy within ourselves and across the institution got in the way of the progress toward racial equity that we were making with trainings, policy tools, and interdepartmental organizing structures. We began to develop a strategy to shift that culture. We adopted the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond Anti-Racist Principles as our guideposts. We developed trainings to begin to understand and heal from the dehumanizing impacts of internalized racial inferiority and superiority. And we began working to de-center ego and lift up spirit, collective action and the belief that no one is disposable. We started getting real about practicing grace for ourselves and for each other. Cultivating creativity in our work has become a central piece of this strategy.

Who Are the Naturally Occurring Artists in Your Municipal Agency?

The first time I tried to get a job as an artist in government, I failed. I was recruited for a position focused on community engagement, visioning, and imagination. The hiring agency was excited by my artwork, and sought me out for the skills I’d honed through social practice. But as we negotiated the terms of my position and I asked that my title be “artist,” I quickly got shot down. To call this work “art” would somehow make it harder for it to be taken seriously by other stakeholders. Plus, my colleagues feared, they were already seen as “soft” for their focus on community engagement, and would be further ostracized from the real decision-making work of the agency. I could do the work however I wanted, they said, but I couldn’t call it art. The second time I tried to get a job as an artist in government, I kept my artist identity to myself. 

Creative Strategist Initiative: Embedding Artist in the Bureaucracy

This summer the LA County Arts Commission (LACAC) kicked off the artist-in-residence Creative Strategist Initiative. One of seven recommendations from the Cultural Equity & Inclusion Initiative that were funded by the LA County Board of Supervisors in 2017, the AIR Creative Strategist Initiative places individuals with artistic expertise in County departments to assist in the implementation of special County projects. Creative Strategists are placed as artists in residence (CS-AIR) for a minimum of 12 months, and work alongside department staff. Together, the department and CS-AIR collaborate with project partners and community stakeholders to effect change and impact a specific project or initiative. The Arts Commission implemented extensive field research and months of conversations with these departments to prepare for artist placement, uncovering critical lessons through the process.

Visionary Artist + Judge + Local Arts Agency = Partnership for Restorative Justice

The purpose of the Restorative Justice + the Arts program is to enable artists and arts organizations to provide dynamic program opportunities for youth and families who have interacted with the criminal justice system. Our aim is to equip teaching artists with the tools they need to bolster their practice in ways that lead youth toward productivity, resiliency, and well-being. In FY 2018, the artists have been able to serve 424 youth who have been incarcerated, had other involvement with the court, or who are deemed at-risk due to poverty, school attendance, neighborhood crime, poor school performance, or living in an area where fresh food is scarce. Through this program, Metro Arts is able to live more fully into its theory of change and recently adopted cultural equity statement: that the arts are a tool to create opportunities for citizens to deepen their arts participation, foster vibrant neighborhoods, and cultivate a strong creative workforce. 

Civic Practice: Coupling Government Purpose and Artists’ Imagination in the City of Philadelphia

From 2015 to 2017, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) planned and implemented Civic Practice, a program exploring government-initiated artist-led work in the community. Civic Practice was co-led by myself and Art in City Hall Program Manager Tu Huynh. Working with then Creative Time Artistic Director Nato Thompson, Civic Practice began with the formation of a National Task Force that would come together with local government leaders, artists, and community leaders to learn about best practices and experiences regarding how government can be proactive in civic dialogue through the arts. In many ways, simply gathering this group of creatives and civic leaders in this type of facilitated discussion was a major breakthrough. Innovation and input came equally from artists and bureaucrats and led to many unexpected, but needed and wanted, conversations. 

Inside Artist-Municipal Partnerships

Whether it is a City’s commitment to redress systemic racial inequities, a juvenile court system shifting from penalizing youth to a restorative justice approach, or a local arts agency advancing the power of art as civic change agent, more municipalities are engaging artists to bring new capacities and strategies to government agencies and, in doing so, increasing their effectiveness in achieving civic goals. More artists, too, are moved to contribute their creative assets to the public good by gaining access to and working as partners with municipal agencies and systems. This week, Animating Democracy’s blog salon, Inside Artist-Municipal Partnerships, explores the question: What does it take to make partnerships between municipal agencies and artists work? Leading-edge local arts agency leaders and arts practitioners who are serving as instigators, facilitators, intermediaries, and advancers of these partnerships share principles and practices they’ve tested and lessons they’ve learned that can help guide peer agencies and peer artists toward effective partnerships.

Celebrate National Shop Local Artists Week 2018

Be part of the nationwide celebration December 2-8, 2018

Thursday, November 8, 2018

From December 2 to 8, 2018, the initiative encourages the creative field to join together in communities across the country to promote the sales of the work of local artists, and to promote to all consumers that art—including tickets to events and organization memberships—makes great holiday gifts.

Search Our New and Improved Arts Services Directories

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

You asked, and we listened: Our online Arts Services Directory has expanded to include searchable, topic-driven sub-directories. The new and improved directories will allow you to quickly find all types of arts organizations throughout the United States, as well as narrow your search to specific interest areas.

Equipping Artists to be Community Leaders

I joined our new staff member in a meeting last week with a prospective grant applicant. We were discussing his interest and desire to get a new keyboard for his work as a musician. This young man humbly presented himself as he shared his professional and educational background that more than qualified him to apply for the developing artist grant we administer. 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.

The Art of Gifting: Celebrating our culture with Shop Local Artists Week

In cities and towns around the United States, people frequently are encouraged to “Shop Local” to support the many businesses that are such a critical part of their communities’ identities, with much of that focus targeted in November during “Small Business Week.” As of 2017 in Louisiana, the rally for support has been extended to the first full week of December, which is now an annual, statewide celebration known as Shop Local Artists Week (SLAW). We have a responsibility to ensure that our creative culture can continue to grow and flourish—especially since our state is among the most celebrated cultural destinations in the world. So another key focus is the development of partnerships between businesses and artists. Merchants throughout the parish are encouraged to consider adopting one or more local artists or authors during Shop Local Artists Week, and to consider hosting cultural events featuring those artists, including meet and greets, book signings and musical performances.

A Necessary Discomfort

When reflecting on the modules I developed for Americans for the Arts' Arts Administrators Essentials: Serving Individual Artists program through ArtsU, I was honored to have been able to guide fellow arts administrators and practitioners along the journey of understanding practical ways to support visual artists and become a well-equipped coach and support system, both individually and institutionally. My favorite part of this experience was the external fieldwork that accompanied the facilitated instruction. More specifically, I felt deeply attached to one specific exercise which urged participants to immerse themselves in an experience (i.e. screening, performance, exhibition, etc.) that featured the work of local artists. Participants were instructed to reflect on audience demographics and engagement, their own reasons for having not attended sooner, and ways that their organization or individual practice could be beneficial to the practitioners and participants that were embedded within these events. While I still believe that these sorts of actions can have a positive impact on administrators and artists alike, I can also identify and acknowledge a blind spot in my own development of the prompts within this portion of my presentation: education on, and awareness of, systemic and socio-cultural injustices.

Breaking Down the South Dakota v. Wayfair Decision and Its Impact on the Arts and Small Business

On June 21, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case South Dakota v. Wayfair. In essence, the Court ruled that state and local governments can require retailers with no physical presence in the state to collect sales tax on those sales. The Court ruled that the standard for determining the constitutionality of a state tax law is whether the tax applies to an activity that has “substantial nexus” with the taxing state; i.e., the Court threw out a previous requirement for “physical presence.” Previously, if the vendor didn’t have physical presence in the state where the buyer was, there was no requirement on the business to collect the tax.. Now, practically, how does a seller know in which state to collect tax? Is it where the seller is shipping it? Is it the billing address? And what does this mean for artists and art sellers?

The Path to Financial Fitness: Membership is Free

Is a secure financial future possible if you pursue a life in the arts? The answer’s a resounding “yes.” The savviest arts professionals recognize that financial wellness is critical to creative freedom and career longevity. People in the arts have often had less access to financial planning resources than those in business and industry. To address this gap, Darren Sussman, co-founder and former president of TheaterMania & OvationTix, recently established The Institute of Financial Wellness for the Arts to offer artists and arts organizations free financial education and planning solutions to enhance fiscal fitness. 

Denver Arts & Venues is the city’s local art government agency that seeks to enrich the community of Denver through supporting public venues, the arts, and entertainment.  The agency is responsible for the operation of some of the Denver area’s most popular and important cultural venues, including Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the Denver Performing Arts Complex, Denver Coliseum, the Colorado Convention Center and McNichols Civic Center Building.

Presenting Historical Works of Art in the #MeToo Era

Recently, we saw a performance at the Met Opera of the classic Mozart opera Cosi Fan Tutti, restaged and mounted with a new production set in the 1950s. In the program, the director stated it was restaged so that it would be “[easier] to buy into the conceit” of the show. It was so real, in fact, that it was easy to draw comparisons to every man who has ever persistently ignored a woman’s denial and blamed rejection on the woman. So real, that when the women are literally saying they are frightened and terrified of the unwanted men sneaking into their rooms, it was easy to think of the hundreds of thousands of women who said #MeToo. As such, we began questioning the role of cultural institutions, particularly large and leading organizations to which others look for inspiration or leadership. What is their responsibility in reconciling classic works in modern times?

Americans for the Arts will continue this conversation at our upcoming Annual Convention in Denver, Colorado June 14-17, 2018, during the session “The Arts Community in the Time of the Women’s March and #MeToo.”

Great Minds See Alike

I am a Colorado native and a third-generation artist. I work in illustration, photography, jewelry, lapidary, painting, printmaking, sculpture, assemblage, and installation art. I’m also the founder of ReArranging Denver, a ten-year-old zero use self-sustaining project that has engaged over 50,000 people, connecting communities to their local business and neighboring cities through creative reuse workshops, installations, and events. I also travel to universities, libraries, art coalitions, and low income and private schools, giving living artist lectures. I always had the impression that most artists died before seeing success, so I decided to start seeing myself as a living artist sharing my secrets of success. As the Americans for the Arts staff learned more about my work, they asked me to share my story with them, with you, and with those about to join forces in Colorado at Convention.

Arts and Gentrification: Potential for Change

In informed discussions about the role of the artist when communities undergo change, words like privilege, displacement, and tools of gentrification often come up. The point is not that the blame for the detrimental effects of gentrification lies in the artist—of course there are much larger forces at play. Rather, the arts are being used as a tool on the path to displacement. If national trends are any indication, the artists who encroach as community outsiders in fact have a stake similar to longtime residents in the process of gentrification. Across the country, the artists initially involved in neighborhood “transformations” are themselves pushed out as rents rise. Artists and arts organizations have an opportunity to recognize their place in the system, and to take responsibility in it.

Incubating Art for Social Impact: An Interview with Halcyon Arts Lab in Washington, DC

This spring break season has seen an increase in the numbers of students, teachers, and arts advocates choosing civic engagement over a hedonistic week at the beach. As engagement in the arts for positive impact towards civic engagement and social justice continues to trend up, community building around organizations and practitioners working in social practice becomes increasingly important. So I reached out to Nicole Dowd, Program Manager of Halcyon Arts Lab—a newly launched residency and incubator program for artists working in social justice in Washington, DC—to learn insights gained from the first full year of the program. With local influences and resources ranging from Capitol Hill to an actively engaged tri-state area with interests in arts, policy, civic engagement, and everything in between, visiting artists to the Halcyon Arts Lab are welcomed into a profoundly energetic creative environment.

Eight for 2018: New Obstacles and Opportunities in the Arts

Over the first quarter of 2018 I’ve had the great opportunity to spend time listening to the wisdom of my colleagues in the field. From these gatherings, I continue to see first-hand the spectacular array of work and service offered by the non-profit arts community in our country. It is a vibrant, effective, optimistic, inciteful, and growing field that uplifts our communities across the country. Despite challenges in funding and support, the creativity of our arts field surges forward. There are new benchmarks to celebrate and new obstacles to overcome, all leading I hope to new opportunities for the arts. Here are eight observations for 2018.

Americans for the Arts Joins Federal Amicus Brief in Support of Free Speech Rights of Congressional Art Competition Student Artist

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. 

Americans for the Arts Announces Inaugural Johnson Fellowship

Johnson Fellowship Awarded to Los Angeles-Based Artist and Designer Tanya Aguiñiga

Thursday, January 18, 2018

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Americans for the Arts announces today the inaugural Americans for the Arts Johnson Fellowship for Artists Transforming Communities. The new annual fellowship celebrates the legacy and work of the late Robert Leroy “Yankee” Johnson. Americans for the Arts also announces that Los Angeles-based artist and designer Tanya Aguiñiga has been selected as the inaugural fellow. 

Americans for the Arts Launching Monthly Public Art Showcase on Facebook

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Join us on Facebook the last Tuesday of each month from 1 to 2 p.m. (Eastern Time) for one of our theme-based Public Art Showcase events. These are your opportunity to share the public artworks in your neighborhoods, towns, cities, or wherever!

We Should All Value the Artists and Their Vital Role in Our Communities

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. 

Enacting Change in the Performing Arts World Begins with Changing the Conservatory Culture

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.

For Artists, By Artists: Supporting Each Other Through Business

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

New York City’s own, artist and business owner Craig Costello—also known as KR—founded Krink, a company that surfaced in the 1990s as a response to the lack of appropriate tools and ink for graffiti artists.

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