Erosion

It was a bad week for free speech. The most public event was Sony’s cancellation of the release of “The Interview,” Seth Rogan’s satirical movie about a fictional assassination plot against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Then, the nonprofit theatre community was stunned by the firing of Ari Roth, artistic director of Theatre J, apparently for programming decisions that explored the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than blindly supporting the theatre’s parent organization’s perspective that “the plight of Israelis and the plight of Palestinians simultaneously was no longer welcome in our community centers.” (Theatre J, as are many Jewish theatres, is under the organizational umbrella of Jewish Community Center.) Sixty-one artistic directors co-signed an open letter to the DCJCC clearely articulating why the free circulation of ideas is important:

A free people need a free art; debate, dissent and conflict are at the heart of what makes theater work, and what makes democracy possible.

Also disturbing is another, more tragic, signature event of the last few days: the shooting of two police officers by an apparently mentally man, who indicated he was acting in retaliation for police action against Black people (the officers were not White, but that’s not really part of the story). My concern relative to free speech is the reaction of the police union, which seems to blame peaceful protestors – and the mayor who supported their right to free speech – for the murder of the officers. Police should be defending free speech rights, not criticizing free speech in action.

But I digress. What I am really concerned about here is:

e·ro·sion

əˈrōZHən/

the gradual destruction or diminution of something

We see the erosion of free speech when people or organizations are motivated by money and power rather than the transformative power of art. The DCJCC is the organizational parent for Theatre J and while I don’t know the specifics of their financial relationship, assume the JCC has some control over the theatre’s resources, as it certainly does over its executive staffing. Resources can “buy” speech, as is evidenced by our increasingly monetized electoral system.

The threat of withholding resources can have an equally chilling effect on free speech. Another sad event of the past week is the closing of Actors Theatre of Phoenix. The company’s financial troubles since the 2008 recession have been well documented, but I wonder to what extent they date back even further, to a 2006 production of Albee’s “The Goat: Or, Who is Sylvia” that precipitated the withdrawal of at least one major corporate sponsorship. I applaud Matthew Weiner for not shying away from such material – even in troubled times. But free speech and, most importantly, the ability of art to function as a site of “debate, dissent, and conflict” are eroded when money is used as both a carrot and a stick. The problem with erosion is that eventually, it can lead to a landslide.

Hurricane_Gaston_landslide_damage

Photo by Liz Roll, FEMA (public domain)

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Class. Privilege. Education.

Georgetown_University_entranceEarlier this month, an article on the website of Youngtown State University’s Center for Working-Class Studies struck a cord. The post is written from a faculty member’s perspective and describes the effects of class difference on attitudes toward education among students at Youngtown, a public regional university, and at Georgetown, the private Jesuit liberal arts institution in Washington DC. The author, Sherry Linkon, discusses the different kinds of cultural capital the two groups of students bring to the classroom. The Youngstown students “have first-hand experience with jobs that offer too little dignity or income, and they value higher education because they hope it will give them better choices…Just getting to college feels like an accomplishment for some; doing well sometimes seems out of reach.” The Georgetown students, on the other hand “come to college already steeped in elite culture. In high school, they read and wrote papers about postmodern literature and existential philosophy. They studied multiple languages and took AP courses in half a dozen subjects.”

08-1215-graduation-undergrad-2014spring-ad-147Near the end of her piece, Linkon notes, “For working-class and poverty-class students, college often feels like a site of struggle, while elite students see it as a stage for performance.” During my ten plus years as a faculty member at ASU, my classroom is often a site of such struggle for my students: the single moms who have to keep their cell phones out in case the day care provider calls; the many students who work 40 hour/week jobs while taking 18 credits; the thirty-somethings who are going to college for the first time because they have finally saved up enough to pay even the relatively low in-state tuition; the first generation children of immigrants for whom going to college is as foreign as the language spoken there. I’ve struggled too – especially with designing assessments that are meaningful and rigorous but reasonable for this student body without lowering my high expectations and aspirations for these students.

Due to the tragic and I believe unjustified deaths of several Black young men at the hands of law enforcement recently, the country is finally talking about race again in some meaningful way, including discussion of “White privilege.” My colleague Jason Scott reminded me that class privilege (which often correlates with race, but not always) extends to a kind of educational privilege as well: “It’s not so much realizing the different demands on their time as it is the way in which education has always been presented to them as a necessary task that must be endured – like a low-paying job – rather than an opportunity to blossom as human beings.” Many of our working class students do not have the privilege of viewing education as a means to something beyond a higher paying job; for many that is all it is. Perhaps the best thing that I can do as an educator is to instill in these students the idea that education is a means toward many unknown ends, including both the higher paying job and “the opportunity to blossom as human beings,” rather than a hurdle one is required to jump.Larry_Wade_110_hurdles

Photo of Georgetown University from WikiMedia, GNU Documentation License

Photo of ASU Commencement by Andy Lisle

Photo of hurdler Larry Wade by Flickr user Doublepillar, CC license

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Translation, Part 4: MVP by MVPs

SAMThe Udacity lectures featuring Steve Blank on new venture creation are serving as a kind of textbook for my “flipped” graduate arts entrepreneurship class. Blank’s entrepreneurial process, shared by others in the lean start-up movement, advocates for getting a minimum viable product (MVP) out to its customer/audience as soon as possible in order test hypotheses about the product and to minimize risk (if you fail early, you fail cheap). My students, each one an MVP of the other kind in my book, launched their MVP on Saturday: SAM Student Art Market.

Once the students selected a date for their prototype event, they quickly translated their theatrical production experience as dancers, actors, designers, managers, and directors into the context of their prototype marketplace: these people got it done! They organized the space, procured the supplies, finalized the partnerships, recruited the artists and craftspeople, marketed, tracked expenses and revenue – they did it all – and in a very short amount of time. Most of the semester has been about translating the “business” of entrepreneurship into an arts context, but for the past three weeks, I witnessed the translation of their artist/producer skills for the business context. They capitalized on their existing knowledges, skills, and abilities, embodying the effectual approach to entrepreneurship that has been a through-line all semester.

We don’t meet as a class to debrief for a few days, so won’t do that here just yet (come back later in the week), but you can read one participant’s perspective on the course blog.

(Photo of SAM Student Art Market by Shelby Maticic)

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Barriers to Entry

I had the good fo800px-Egon_Schiele_-_Selbstbildnis_in_oranger_Jacke_-_1913rtune to spend a weekend in my hometown of New York City recently and visited several museums while there. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I trekked to the Upper East Side to see an exhibit of portraits by Egon Schiele, an Austrian Secessionist artist who died too young and whose work I have admired for a long time. Housed in an extraordinarily beautiful mansion once owned by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III, the Neue Galerie was founded by Ronald Lauder and Serge Sabarsky for the purpose of exhibiting early 20th century Austrian and German art and design, much of it collected by Mr. Lauder, who serves as the president of the museum.

We waited on a line outside as entry was limited to a small number of visitors at a time. It was windy and damp, but given the unique exhibit decided to stick it out. There were two guards in the very small foyer. One guard rudely told two women to step outside to make room, while another informed me that I could not bring my water bottle into the building. No, I could not check it, no I could not pick it up on the way out; it had to be discarded. My companion and I started to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into. Water bottle discarded and umbrellas sheathed in plastic baggies, we were escorted to the cloakroom to check our coats and umbrellas. Standing in front of the adjacent admissions desk, we were mildly surprised to learn that the cost of admission is $20 per person. I thought this a bit steep for such a small museum and for the first time that day – but not the last – began to consider the ways in which each phase of our experience thus far created a barrier to entry; we might have stepped away at any time. A $20 admission charge is admittedly not all that uncommon. The nearby Frick Collection, for example, also has a $20 entry but is a larger collection and opens its doors on a “pay what you can” basis every Sunday, removing that particular barrier to entry. The Neue Galerie, in contrast, is open  for free only for two hours once a month on a Friday evening. An individual membership at Neue Galerie is $275! (At the Frick only $75.)

Having paid our fees, we were taken by elevator to the third floor gallery where the Schiele portraits are displayed. It is an extraordinary collection of work, which I will remember for years. A good memory is imperative, as there was a guard in each small room (sometimes two) to remind visitors not to take pictures. (Yes, one could purchase an exhibit catalog, but that does not do justice to a wall covered by two dozen or more pencil drawings, each speaking to the one beside it.) I understand fully the prohibition against photography, but its enforcement could have been more…polite. I was starting to feel like I was actually in Vienna, where I had had similar experiences. Yes, I would be allowed to view the art, but I was not made to feel welcome to do so. I was not alone in the feeling. We walked a few blocks downtown to the Met where the docent, upon seeing our Neue Galerie buttons asked if we had enjoyed the Schiele exhibit. “Well…we had a kind of outputting experience…” I started to reply when the docent said, “It’s so funny you felt that way. I tried to go the other day, but they wouldn’t let me even check my water bottle, so I just decided to leave.”

1280px-Gustav_Klimt_046The Neue Galerie’s permanent collection is on its second floor. Work by Klimt, Kokoschka and others fill what was once the grand salon of the mansion. It was here that I was saddened to learn of yet another barrier to entry: nobody under 12 admitted. I thought of this the following Monday as I visited the Museum of Modern Art, where there were groups of school children (eight-ten years old, mostly kids of color) sitting in front of Wyeth’s Christina’s World, Di Chirico’s Serenity of the Scholar, and other works, talking with young docents about the art, engaging with it, and really seeing it; some were sketching, some were shouting out answers to a young guide’s questions. I wish that they could see Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer up close. I wish they could see the detail of her eyes juxtaposed with the flat pattern of Klimt’s rich background. But these ten-year-olds can’t see this sublime work: there are too many barriers to entry.

(Images of Egon Schiele Self Portrait in Orange Jacket, 1913 and Gustav Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907 are in the public domain. These small images on the screen are a mere sign; they are no substitute for the real thing)

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Student + Art + Market

Artists want – need – to make art. One of the hardest concepts to teach the young artists I teach is that when they send that art out into the world to meet its audience, they are doing so in a market environment. How can young artists learn not just about “marketing,” the skill, but about “market” as a social system? Without realizing they were doing so, the students in my graduate seminar have created an opportunity to do just that.

SAMThe primary assignment in the course is to work collaboratively to launch a venture: a venture that they ideate, innovate, and actuate. The venture they are creating is SAM – Student Art Market. Not only are they learning about new venture creation, but the students who exhibit and sell work at the event will be able to experience, albeit on a small scale, the social system of the market. They will interact with their audience, get feedback from it and, hopefully, earn some extra cash for their holiday shopping. The lesson: their work has value to people other than themselves and they can have control over its production and distribution.

Thank you Kara, Mollie, Ashley, Emily, and Shelby for creating a microcosm scale laboratory not just for your entrepreneurial ideas but for those of all the participating students.

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Guns Over Speech?

Bill_of_RightsFrom time to time, I range away from Creative Infrastructure’s focus on “thoughts and ideas about infrastructure for the arts” to other topics about which I am passionate, and this is one of those times — but not really.   The First Amendment to the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This is widely understood to mean that the state (I mean this in the sense of organized political community) cannot infringe on people’s right to speak or to peaceably gather together. It’s not until the second amendment that we get to “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” These rights came into conflict this week when Utah State University cancelled a public talk by cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who critiques the gaming industry through a feminist lens. As I understand it, credible threats of a “bloody massacre” led Ms. Sarkeesian to request that no guns be brought into the venue but Utah’s open carry laws “the campus police could not prevent people with weapons from entering her talk.”

WHEN DID WE START PRIVILEGING GUN RIGHTS OVER FREE SPEECH RIGHTS AND THE RIGHT TO PEACEABLY ASSEMBLE???

Somehow, I don’t think this is what the framers had in mind when they crafted the Bill of Rights. On the contrary, we need to consider that a domestic terrorist threat has shut down the ability of a woman to speak in a peaceful assembly. This is when the state is obligated to step in to protect people.

What does this mean for the arts? Imagine if a theatre in Utah or another open carry state with similar ALEC-crafted legislation started to receive threats over their programming? Would Pioneer Theatre have to cancel a production of, for example, Angels in America, if there was a threat of violence against the performers and audience? Or, should a theatre or any other organization have the freedom to keep out guns so that the right to speech and assembly are not threatened by terrorist violence? The First Amendment is the most important arts policy we have. It needs protecting.

(image of The Bill of Rights placed in the public domain by the National Archives and Records Administration)

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Translation, Part 3: Empathy

Empathy-MapOur adventure in translating entrepreneurial tools for the arts domain continued today as I introduced my graduate seminar to the concept of  an “empathy map.” Empathy mapping asks the entrepreneur to consider how potential customers think and feel, what they hear and see, what they fear, what they hope for, and so on. Although the empathy map is itself a kind of thought exercise, I asked the group to expand the thought exercise to consider what it would mean to use empathy mapping in a traditional performing arts production or presenting context. What might mean to sit down at the coffee house and get to know the people in the neighborhood before programming a concert series or trying to sell them a ticket? Rather than looking at demographic data about so-called millenials, what if an artistic director took three millenials to lunch and asked them about their fears and dreams? A focus group led by a marketing consultant isn’t good enough – empathy happens between people authentically, without a consultant mediating that relationship. There are of course people in the performing arts who engage deeply, directly, and empathetically (I think of Michael Rohd and his Sojourn Theatre or Rachel Grossman at dog & pony co, for example). It is not the norm – at least not yet – but we’re getting there, one entrepreneurial artist at a time.

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