An NEA Story: #SaveTheNEA

arizona_desert-1218One of the most impactful projects I have every worked on would not have been possible without a modest $32,000 investment from the National Endowment for the Arts*.  The project embedded nationally renowned visiting artists and ASU Herberger Institute faculty artists in Phoenix and Mesa youth communities to create a series of original, meaningful, multi-disciplinary performance works showcased at South Mountain Community College in April 2012 and subsequently in an expanded site-specific performance in December of that year. This comprehensive and innovative program connected art, science, technology, culture, and communities. Young people examined their desert city and their experiences through an artistic lens and used collaborative, creative tools to find new ways of knowing and understanding their desert home. Some even decided – against all odds – to go to college because of it. This collection of activities entitled “At Home in the Desert: Youth Engagement and Place,” consisted of three inter-related performance projects.

The three strands of the program were:

  1. Desert and Land/Desert and Place: Cassie Meador of Dance Exchange (Washington, D.C.) with Mary Fitzgerald (ASU) and Elizabeth Johnson (ASU) partnered with youth from the Arizona Cactus-Pine Council Girl Scouts and South Mountain High School as well as ASU students to create dance work that encouraged young people to re-imagine and re-enliven their relationship to the desert via an unconventional solution to environmental education. Their experience was enriched by site visits from ASU scientists affiliated with the School of Sustainability. High school dancers worked with ASU students and faculty to create a site specific performance from their experiences of the ‘Moving Field Guides’ in the BioDesign Garden on the ASU campus during the Desert One Festival.
  2. Hip Hop Oasis. Pop Master Fabel (NYC) Raul Yanez (Phoenix) and Sarah Dimmick (Phoenix) with Rick Mook (ASU), Melissa Britt (ASU), and The Gabel Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix (BGCMP). This thread explored the many points of connection between desert life and hip hop culture through collaboration between leading figures in hip hop and members of the Boys and Girls Club of Phoenix. Guest artists collaborated with local D.J.s and spoken word artists and youth in the Warren A. Gabel Boys and Girls club of Phoenix to create original music and lyrics through the lens of the desert. The metaphors of light, heat, space, and flow were explored in the creation of the music and choreography. Participants related these elements to desert adaptation/survival, the cultural development of new music forms and their personal experiences and subsequently added urban dance forms to their beats. A selection of the products of these fruitful collaborations was performed by the youth for a public audience at South Mountain Community College and as part of the Desert One Festival.
  3. Story Geocaching, Locative Digital Storytelling. Stephani Etheridge Woodson (ASU) with Center for Digital Storytelling (Berkeley, CA), Mesa Office of Arts and Culture (Mesa Arts Center, Mesa History Museum, Mesa Natural History Museum), and the Mesa Boys and Girls Club. Acknowledging that youth are producers of culture and community assets, locative storytelling is a fresh way to engage an intergenerational public with art. This strand partnered ASU artists trained by the Center for Digital Storytelling with local youth. The partners created digital stories exploring cultural history that were showcased for the pubic audience at the Desert One Festival.

Yes, just $32,000 was able to catalyze all of that activity. By the numbers:

  • Youth participants: 60
  • Guest artists: 5
  • ASU-based artists: 12
  • Family-members of youth participants: 100+
  • Scientists and other collaborators: 5
  • Community members: 50+

Results:

  • In a post-performance discussion, one youth commented, “Now I think about keeping things not so dirty. I think about heaven, how you would want it to be in heaven, and make it so.”
  • A Girl Scouts staff member noted, “They loved being here; they felt so special.”
  • From a Boys and Girls Club staff member: “This is the first time any of these kids have had a chance to perform anything – even for friends and family. The boost it has given to their self-confidence is awesome.”
  • One fourth-grader from the Girl Scouts, who had never envisioned college, said: “You mean I can go to ASU?”
  • 100% of the Boys and Girls Club participants chose to remain with the program, as did a majority of South Mountain High School participants, despite the program moving from within the school day to after-hours even after the initial NEA funding sunsetted
  • A South Mountain High School student commented, “it really helped me understand where I am, cause you know, I’m not from here.” And my favorite…
  • Running into an alum of the program who had not been sure he would attend college six months earlier: “When I worked with the ASU students, it really helped me want to come here.” This young man decided to attend college because of this NEA-funded project.

For those of you keeping financial score, because an adult with a BA will earn approximately $650,000 more in their lifetime over someone who just has “some college,” just this one participant will likely return in taxes more than 3X the initial NEA investment; there were 60 youth participants. Furthermore ASU Herberger Institute and its partners directly invested an approximate 3:1 match of federal dollars (only a 1:1 match is required), with additional indirect investment in facilities.

The NEA is a good investment for the United States. #SavetheNEA

*This is just one of dozens of stories I could tell about work on NEA funded projects or NEA funded organizations or state arts agencies.

Project co-director Elizabeth Johnson created this video:

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Outrage is Easy; Strategy is Hard

“Outrage is easy; strategy is hard. Outrage provides necessary motivation. But only strategy can deliver victory,” writes Tony Blair in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times. I wasn’t a particular fan of Blair when he was Prime Minister of the UK, but am a fan of this opening line. I am not a left-wing radical, but am outraged by the head-spinning flow of news and non-newsworthy tweets flowing out of Washington recently. In fact, my centrist rationality is the very reason for my outrage.

When I teach “strategy” to arts managers I refer to the classic concept of goal attainment through the establishment of specific, measurable objectives for which action plans are developed. In this process, the goal might be, for example, maintaining or growing support for the National Endowment for the Arts, currently a target for elimination by the current administration. Objectives could include: secure support of a legislator who is currently undecided; raise $X funds for a social media campaign in support of the agency; organize 100 friends to write postcards; and so on. However, when I teach Greyhound_racing_turnstrategy in the creative enterprise context, it is more recursive, incorporating malleable inputs, cognitive processes, and iteratively generated outputs. It seems like this kind of an openly adaptable model is what is needed now. The challenge is to employ such a strategy model responsively but not in an overly reactive way because when the rabbit is zigzagging all over the track, the greyhounds need to keep their eyes on the finish line and help pace one another.

In my creative enterprise strategy model, inputs include scans of internal assets and the current environment as well as traditional research. As an individual working in the arts and culture and education sectors, I have developed an action plan for responding to outrageous actions that is based on my internal asset scan (e.g., how much time do I have to devote to advocacy work; what skills do I have that can be deployed in advocacy work); an environmental scan (e.g., stay rationally up-to-date on social, cultural, and political developments; assess organizations that can help me achieve my advocacy goals); and research (e.g., keep empirical evidence at hand for deploying in policy arguments; know where to find information). Sometimes we forget that “strategy” can be deployed at this level, the level of the individual, to make change; enacting strategy is not something that only organizations do.

[Note that I do not condone greyhound racing. Image by Alex Lapuerta, CC 2.0.]

 

 

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Symbols Matter

Several years ago, I walked onto my campus and saw a swastika and two SS signs scrolled in chalk on a wall. They were high enough on the wall that whoever placed them there had to do so with some thought, intention, and a ladder – or at least an accomplice or two. I reported the sighting to campus police who said I should call facilities to have it removed. “I’m reporting it to you because it is hate speech that creates a hostile environment for faculty, staff, and students.” Surprisingly, the intake officer replied, “it’s not directed at a specific group or groups so isn’t our responsibility.” I replied that it is very much directed at a group that I belong to and thus it created a hostile environment for me. The markings were removed that day and, eventually, I received a personal apology from the university police chief.

swastika-trash-canI bring up this incident by way of reminder that the recent spate of hate directed against people of minority faith – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and so on – is, sadly, nothing new. It does, however appear to be more prevalent and more public now than it has been at any time since the last “America First” movement in the 1940s. The hateful rhetoric of the election campaign, now enacted in policies and executive orders, seems to have given people permission to express their biases with pride (White pride). Yesterday, I was on the campus of a central Phoenix public high school as a volunteer judge for a speech and debate tournament. I sat down under a ramada to eat lunch and noticed a red marking on the trashcan next to the table. Yes, a swastika, hastily scrawled with paint marker.

Symbols matter. Artists are uniquely qualified to not only communicate symbolically, but to convey symbolic meaning. When artist Ana Teresa Fernandez paints a border wall the color of the sky, she both makes it seem to disappear as a symbol of the border, and conveys meaning about the ephemeral nature of the border itself. As I continue to gather background material for An Ouroboros: Art, Money, and Entrepreneurial Action, I keep coming back to a 2007 article by Galloway and Dunlop that critiques definitions of cultural and creative industries in terms of, well, industry, and instead write that arts and culture products “are about the production and circulation of symbolic ideas. Cultural activities thus play a central role in the freedom of human expression, and this provides a direct link to questions of democracy.” We need artists now, more than at any period in my lifetime, to convey symbolic meaning in support of democracy and inclusion and to fight back against the symbols of hate that are far less artistically deployed.

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Art, Entrepreneurship, Innovation

I’m finally catching up on some of the background reading I need to do for An Ouroboros, including a 2014 working paper by Laura Niemi that demonstrates that an interest in the visual arts is predictive of occupational innovation (as indicated by business ownership, entrepreneurship, and patent filings). The paper shows what my colleagues and I who work at the intersection of arts and entrepreneurship understand intuitively and, as research is beginning to demonstrate, empirically:

If we are to understand innovation, after Csikszentmihaly, to mean a novel idea or product that has impact on a domain, then artistic creativity, in which unique ideas are developed in an environment of ambiguity and uncertainty, can lead to innovative and creative outputs that may have both positive cultural and economic impacts.

Steven Johnson, in his video introduction to the book Where Good Ideas Come From reminds us that those unique ideas don’t become impactful innovations in a vacuum. He looks at innovation from an environmental perspective: “what are the spaces that have historically led to creativity and innovation?” He talks about how innovative ideas, historically, were created in places where ideas could “mingle, and swap, and create new forms.” He credits “our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people” as the “primary engine of creativity and innovation.”

khwarizmi_amirkabir_university_of_technology

I thought about Johnson’s argument quite a bit last week as a ban on travel from seven majority Muslim countries was enacted. Many business leaders, especially in the technology sector, immediately expressed concern about the ban for both practical and this more philosophical (but historically supported) reason: innovation comes from the cross-pollination of ideas. Algebra, after all, was invented by a Persian living in Baghdad; would we have gotten to the moon if his ideas had been (metaphorically) trapped behind visa regulations?

(image: Statue of al-Khwarizmi in front of the Faculty of Mathematics of Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran by M. Tomczak, CC 3.0)

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Support for the Arts

libertatea_presei_nikipercea_1859The phrase “government support for the arts” is often understood to mean, “funding for the arts,” and by extension, at least for some, “funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.” This last made headlines last week when reports surfaced about the new administration’s intention to eliminate the NEA, NEA, and CPB. But “support for the arts” is more than just funding. The most important support for the arts is a free and open society. More than funding the NEA, it is threats to our free and open society about which I am most concerned.screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-7-33-42-pm Those threats seem most insidious when they are indirect, like the travel ban enacted by executive order over the weekend. What does that ban have to do with the arts? Creativity and innovation are fueled by the open interchange of ideas. Perhaps that — more than any potential and highly unlikely terrorist threat — is what the new administration is really afraid of.

Regarding the other kind of support, the direct financial kind, I encourage people to work with their local and national arts advocacy organizations but also to take direct individual action. Our congressional representatives make it easy to contact them online if you live in their district – they put up barriers to messages from Americans at large, but you can get around them. Last week, before the more immediate news of the travel ban hit, I wrote as a private citizen to the entire congressional delegation of my mostly red state, admittingly generalizing for that audience more than I would in an academic setting. Here’s what I wrote:

The cultural industries represent about 5% of US GDP. That’s a pretty good return on investment considering the federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities combined represent just 1 1 hundredth of 1 percent (NOT 1 percent, 0.01 percent) of the federal budget. It was surprising, therefore, to read that the presidential transition team intends as one of its very first acts to de-authorize both the NEA and NEH as a budget cutting measure, along with a list of other small dollar programs. I commend the intention to trim the federal budget, but cutting the NEA and NEH are funded at such a low level that their defunding won’t have an effect on the budget beyond a rounding error. Yet, defunding these agencies will cause thousands of Americans to lose their jobs and thousands upon thousands of schoolchildren and elderly to lose access to arts programming in schools and community centers. Almost half of the NEA budget goes to states as block grants; this is a good way to enact Republican principles like local control. It is ironic that the new president, while vowing to save American jobs would do something that eliminates them, while vowing to make America great again will do something that will diminish its cultural capital, and that a president that has vowed to return power to states would cut a program that does just that. I urge you to reject any efforts to defund or de-authorize the NEA and NEH.

 

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The End of a (Really Long) Era

ringling_bros_and_barnum_and_bailey_circus_gunther_gebel-williams_1977Like many people, I was stunned by yesterday’s news that the Ringling Bros & Barnum & Bailey Circus will be closing up shop at the end of its current season. I have long credited Ringling Bros for kindling my interest in theatre and stage design. When I was quite young — 5, 6, 7 years old — Ringling Bros would play at Madison Square Garden each April and my mother took me to the circus as a birthday gift. My most vivid memories of the show are of Gunther Gebel-Williams and his big cats and also, most magically, of the moment when the lights went down and all the kids were asked to take out the miniature flashlights we were given (or bought) and swing them around on their lanyards so the entire arena was filled with twirling stars of light. On the way out, my mother bought me a circus poster as a memento; several of these built up over the years as the prevailing decorative motif of my otherwise bland bedroom.

My mother became very ill shortly after my 7th birthday and I don’t think she ever took me to the circus again. However, her mother, my grandmother, subsequently took me to see the famous New York City Ballet rendering of The Nutcracker and once to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. I am very privileged to have been exposed to these very different kinds of performances at a young age; without this exposure, I may never have become a lighting designer. In retrospect, though, I wonder if it was the performances or that fact that I was taken to them by a beloved caregiver that was most important. I may have witnessed the pinnacle of production values by being in New York, but a child raised, like mine, in Madison WI or Phoenix AZ, can have equally impactful experiences. It’s not really about it being the biggest and best circus that was important to me; it was sitting in the dark with my mother, creating a shared memory, that caused it to stick. That can happen anywhere.

It is worth remembering that Ringling Bros. is just one of several spectacle performances owned by Feld Entertainment. The company has not, for example, been forced into bankruptcy by animal rights activists (a narrative some on the political right would have us believe). Feld has just decided to end the circus. That they chose to retire their elephants is just one of the reasons to end the run; in his announcement, Kenneth Feld mentions declining ticket sales that predate the elephant retirement, although the decline sped up immediately following.

Circus – as a form of art and entertainment – punctuated my life in another way in addition to childhood birthdays. In 1988, a few weeks before I moved out of New York City for Madison WI, I went to Battery Park and sat under a blue and yellow big top to watch a new kind of circus, one that relied on acrobats, clowns, spectacle, and storytelling. The company came from Montreal and was called Cirque du Soleil. I remember thinking while watching it that it was so totally different from the circus I saw as a child, but even more magical for the lack of animals. Competition from what has become the Cirque entertainment behemoth likely played a role in Ringling Bros. declining ticket sales.

screen-shot-2017-01-15-at-2-55-04-pmI did return, in a way, to Ringling Bros as an adult as a parent. When my own children were very young, 4, 5, 6 years old (so young they say they don’t remember it now) I took them once a year to the Circus World Museum, which was only an hour away from Madison in Baraboo WI. Circus World is a living museum of the Ringling Brothers, including its own big top show.

I regret that I won’t have a Ringling Bros show to take some future grandchild to, but circus lives on not only in worldwide extravaganzas like Cirque du Soleil, but also in the kind of one-ring family show that was at the root of the Feld Entertainment extravaganza that closed. Shows like the Zoppe Family Circus, which has as long a history, or Bindlestiff, which has been around for just two decades are just two examples.

Circus lives! Take your children.

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LA LA Land of Broken Dreams

mv5bmzuzndm2nzm2mv5bml5banbnxkftztgwntm3ntg4ote-_v1_sy1000_sx675_al_La La Land has gotten a lot of very good press and tonight may be awarded the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture comedy or musical. I, on the other hand, left the theatre saying “meh, but the costume design was really fun.” My 19 year-old companion nailed it for me when he said, “perhaps they should have re-evaluated their professional goals in order to achieve a happy relationship instead of re-evaluating their relationship in order to achieve their professional goals.” After a couple of days I realized that what really bothered me about La La Land is that it amplifies – in cinemascope and beautifully designed Technicolor – every myth about what it means to be an artist in the US that I work every day to debunk.

First, it is not necessary to move to LA or New York to have a successful life as an artist. It is necessary to do so to have a Hollywood career as a movie star, but Mia could have stayed in her small Nevada town after her LA stint and created, for example, an after school theatre program in the library across the street and positively impacted her community.

Second, having a successful career as an artist doesn’t mean doing just one thing, like touring in a jazz fusion band when you don’t want to. Sebastian could have bundled his night gig in the jazz club into a portfolio career that included, perhaps, a part time administrative job with the Jazz Society of LA.

Third, having a successful life does not necessarily mean putting your professional goals first. It instead means viewing your professional and personal lives in symbiosis with one another. That my 19 year-old companion recognized this immediately, gives me hope for his future happiness, which is very important to me (full disclosure: I’m his mom).

There are more myths to debunk, but I’ll stop here. And, I don’t want to imply that the movie wasn’t any good – it is beautiful to look at with two engaging stars who themselves are beautiful to look it, but remember that Hollywood endings, even alternate ones like in the movie, are Hollywood endings; real life is richer, more complicated, and has infinitely more possibilities for artists.

 

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