Time out

Creative Infrastructure is going on a short hiatus while I take some time to breath, see a lot of art, and focus. In other words, I’ll be doing some care and feeding of my “personal infrastructure.” Look for new posts in late October. More soon…

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Safe Places = Sanctuaries

News-Gates-of-Heaven-Vandalism_crDylanBrogan09202017On the eve of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, hate-mongering vandals desecrated the monument that marks the entrance to Gates of Heaven, one of the oldest synagogue buildings in the country. For over a decade, I would walk the 2 miles around Monona Bay from my house to attend lay-led High Holy Days services in this building, restored and conserved in a public park. As a public park space, I felt more sense of community there than in a traditional congregation-owned building. Each fall, the tiny space would be packed, mostly with people I knew, some sitting outside the open windows listening because there was no more space inside. I felt safe.

Synagogues, like churches and mosques, are sanctuaries, literally “places of refuge or safety,” which is why violence against them and the people in them, such as the bombing of churches in the 1960s and the massacre of bible students in Charleston, is particularly egregious. There is a wide difference between the cowardly act of vandalism last week and the terrorism of Birmingham and Charleston, but they are on the same spectrum of violence against innocent people who are hated simply for being different than the perpetrator. Having worshipped at Gates of Heaven for years, I feel this act of violence against me personally. That it was perpetrated in the name of the man who currently occupies the White House makes it not just a hate crime, but a political act as well, and one he is unlikely to disavow.

With this, I wade into the stormy waters of “safe places” and “safe spaces” on college campuses. A firm believer in free speech and that education should involve “lighting a fire, not filling a bucket,” while also wanting to make all students feel valued, the “safe spaces” issue is a complicated one for me. But something crystalized when I read the story of the vandalism this morning because it is personal, because I feel personally violated; sometimes, even for a progressive thinker, it takes that shock to the system to achieve necessary clarity. If I were a Jewish student or faculty member at UW-Madison [although the synagogue building is in a city park and not on campus, Madison is very much a college town], I would be looking this week for a literal sanctuary, a safe place where I can be with other Jews, knowing that we would not be attacked. Although I knew it intellectually before, I now know that such places are necessary in my very bones; I feel it, beyond just knowing it.

I have intentionally been using the word “places” instead of “spaces.” “Place is a space imbued with meaning,” Walter Benjamin wrote. It is not enough to have a “space” where people – on campuses, online, and elsewhere – can aggregate safely. People need “places,” dedicated physical locations, where they can worship, speak, and think without fear of attack; places that are “sanctuaries”. Those places, however, do not include my classroom, where students are encouraged to look at multiple viewpoints, question their assumptions, and argue their opinions respectfully. My classroom is safe in a different way; it is a space where all ideological viewpoints are valued, even if they may not be shared.

Gates_of_Heaven_Synagogue_2013There is a phrase from the liturgy we read inside Gates of Heaven and elsewhere: “Hold your dear ones near to you and your near ones dear to you.” Sometimes, we all need a place to hold those dear ones near and without fear so that when we leave the sanctuary to enter the wider world, we are ready to resist the hate that appears bent on making our safest places feel endangered.

Shanah tovah to you all.

[top photo by Dylan Brogan, Isthmus newspaper; bottom photo by James Steakley, CC 3.0]

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Lip Service

Do you remember the scene in Hidden Figures when the characters portrayed by Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst find themselves together in the recently de-segregated women’s restroom? The Dunst character says something like “I know you don’t believe me, but despite what you all must think, I’m not a racist,” and then the Spencer character replies, “I believe you really believe that.” This scene was playing on HBO when I turned on the TV in my room at a hotel on a large Midwestern university campus last night, the scene memorable for its biting irony. And for its truth: well-meaning white people (a category to which I admittedly belong) can honestly believe that they are not racists even as they support the structures of systematic oppression that limit opportunities for people of color, such as the heroines of the film.

spencer dunst

As events of the last year- or five – have made blatantly clear, those structures of systematic oppression are still in place more than fifty years after Katherine Johnson calculated John Glenn’s trajectory. I was on the campus of the university, coincidentally home to a school named for the astronaut and Senator, as part of an external departmental review team. While it would be inappropriate to publicly share the observations and conclusions of the review of the department, I feel it is appropriate – or even necessary – to share my observation of a disjuncture between the university’s mission and university structures because it is a disjuncture that I have seen throughout higher education and throughout many arts organizations. Here is an excerpt from the university mission statement:

“Preparing a diverse student body to be leaders and engaged citizens;
Fostering a culture of engagement and service.
We understand that diversity and inclusion are essential components of our excellence”

If diversity and inclusion are essential components of excellence as defined by this university (and so many others), why was there no (as in “zero”) observable diversity among the midlevel and upper level administrators we met with (deans, vice provosts, and so on) and why were so few of them women (maybe 20%)? I love a good mission statement, one that guides decision making, leads to action, and explains why an organization exists, what it does, and for whom. But a mission statement is just lip service if it is not reflected in the people charged with executing it.

Observation having been made, what can be done? In Hidden Figures, Spencer’s character is given managerial responsibilities without the title or salary to accompany them; she spends much of the movie waiting for an overdue promotion. So here’s a simple way to change my observation: promote more people of color and women. “But,” says the academic administrator on my shoulder, “what if there are no qualified people of color or women in the pool?” Two responses: 1) create a professional development pipeline and 2) actively seek out and recruit, rather than waiting passively for the strength of the mission statement to draw people. Then there’s the third step: hold the people responsible for executing the mission statement accountable. If the middle-aged white men who currently hold 80% of these positions (nationally, not just at this one university, which is merely a representative sample) are not doing the job of fostering diversity, hire people who will. Perhaps this particular university has a leadership development program already in place that will eventually help to diversity its leadership ranks; if so, I applaud the effort.

As I write this, I acknowledge the Kevlar vest represented by my long tenured position and that the untenured, precarious positions of women younger than me and people of color just entering the professorial ranks make it harder to talk publicly about this issue, much less suggest that administrations should be held accountable to metrics and missions in much the same way that individual departments undergoing revision are.

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Pay Artists!

I recently attended the “Artists Thr!ve Summit” hosted by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. Artists Thr!ve is a rubric, a tool, to help organizations in the arts services sector determine if and to what extent their work supports artists: do artists give up, struggle, survive, or thrive? The summit’s program was peppered with visits to studios and galleries, as well as an all-day bus tour of cultural organizations in Eastern Kentucky. Both the Appalachian Media Insitute, a program of Appalshop, and the Berea Artist Accelerator seem to have figured out a simple but impactful way to reach the goal of “artists thrive” – PAY THEM!!

The newer program, the Berea Artists Accelerator, supports early career artists and artisans with space, training, and a monthly stipend that amounts to a living wage with enough left over to buy their materials. In an “artisan’s town” the program is community economic development initiative. Appalshop’s AMI program has been around for almost 30 years. It provides PAID summer training internships:

The work of AMI youth producers has been heard on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Sundance Film Festival, and recognized with the Coming Up Taller award presented by Hillary Clinton. While documentaries made by AMI youth producers have been seen by audiences from across the United States and across the world, many pieces have had their biggest impacts in local dialogues and debates surrounding issues such as domestic violence, prejudice, drug abuse, and youth activism.

As a consequence of these programs, young artists and artisans stay in their community, stay off drugs (a big problem in rural Kentucky), and produce work of lasting impact. In short, they thrive! And, while the communities around them are certainly distressed, Berea and, too a lesser extant Whitesburg, seem to be doing OK too.

(photo of artisans working in the Berea Artists Accelerator)

EDITED FOR CLARIFICATION: These programs are, notably, supporting *early* career artists and artisans, in the Accelerator case giving them small business training, so that they can go on to be independent creative producers in a sustainable way after “graduation” from the respective programs.

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A *Real* “Sharing Economy”

I heard a co-founder of AirBnB on the TED Radio Hour this morning talking about how his app is part of “the sharing economy.” Apps like AirBnB, Uber, or Lyft, are said to exemplify the so-called “sharing economy” in which an apartment owner “shares” their square footage through a web app like AirBnB or a car owner “shares” rides through Lyft. What this misnamed economic relationship really is is a commodification of private goods; it is purely rent collection.

I had an opportunity to visit a real sharing economy recently: Whitesburg, Kentucky. Whitesburg, and its anchor cultural institution Appalshop, were on a tour of Eastern Kentucky cultural infrastructure during the recent “Artists Thr!ve” convening hosted by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, held at Berea College September 6-9 2017.appalshop

Whitesburg is a small town, population ~2200, the county seat of Letcher County, population ~23,000. Since 1969, Appalshop has housed media production and training facilities that are deployed to amplify “new and often unheard voices and visions from the people of Appalachia and rural communities across America and abroad.” During my brief visit, we met with a panel of people from across the community and across the political spectrum who talked about the way they shared resources and knowledge, on a grounding of trust. The volunteer fire department shares its space, time and talents with the community; the farmer shares goods through the “Farmacy” program, which actually prescribes fruits and vegetables to people in need of healthy food; Appalshop shares its space with its community, operating a drop-in youth center; and more. Here in Whitesburg, by necessity, intention, and tradition, people from health, public safety, culture, and agriculture share their time. Mostly, I observed, they share love: love of each other and love of place.

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The Field of Cultural Production – Pacoima

I recently re-read Pierre Bourdieu’s influential essay “The Field of Cultural Production.” Just before, I had spent 36 hours in Pacoima (a northeast LA neighborhood) consulting on an arts incubator project there. The latter helped me to understand – and understand the limitations of – the former.

Bourdieu is a French sociologist and philosopher (I am neither) who developed a theory of the “field of cultural production” based on the positions and dispositions of the actors (or agents) who are the producers, consumers, and gatekeepers of culture. He applied his theoretical constructs of “the field” and “the habitus” well beyond the artistic and cultural realm, often writing about power relationships and social positioning in societies writ large. According to Bourdieu, the artistic field is contained within the field of power, in a dominated position in that field (at its negative pole) which is itself situated at the dominant (+) pole of the field of class relations, as illustrated below.

field of cultural producyion

This seems true when discussing artistic agents who are actually in a dominant class position, where the field of cultural production is situated within the field of power, as are the actors in the French literary field that Bourdieu studied in the development of his theory. Within that field, cultural capital and economic capital are literally polar: the poet creating “art for arts sake” for little or no audience is at the opposite end of the field from the bourgeois dramatist producing boulevard theatre for a mass audience. I find this polarity to be, quite literally, two-dimensional and therefore limiting (more on that later), but reproduce Bourdieu’s diagram here:

Bourdieus French literary field

However, what happens when cultural production is not in that dominant position in the field of power? This seems to be the situation in Pacoima, where an amazing 20-year-old grass roots economic justice organization, Pacoima Beautiful, is working with the LA Department of Cultural Affairs to create an incubator for its local arts and culture and the artists who live and work there. I was privileged to be part of a panel convened by Urban Land Institute-LA to advise Pacoima Beautiful on the launch of the incubator program. Neither Pacoima Beautiful, nor its native culture producers, from muralists whose work created an open-air museum to folklorico dancers to the poets supported by Tia Chucha Press, fit neatly into Bourdieu’s field of cultural production. The field of cultural production in Pacoima sits largely outside the field of cultural production of greater LA, which, if we include LA’s extensive media industry, extends significantly closer toward the positive pole of the field of power and is further separated from Pacoima in Bourdieu’s field of class relations. The small overlap on the field map below represents Sony Pictures, a potential partner in a youth workforce development initiative in the arts incubator.


field of cultural production Pacoima

Bourdieu’s theory suggests that there is a constant movement of agents in the field from position to position across it, but it is not clear that an entire field, like the field of cultural production of a culturally rich but economically distressed community like Pacoima can move, at least not solely through the work of its own agents. And when it moves, in part through the actions of an organization like Urban Land Institute or the planners, developers, and investors who are ULI’s members or others, how do the very real people working in that field, the people we interviewed in order to make our recommendations, keep from falling off of it in the throes of gentrification? If an article in today’s LA Times is an indication, they will need to start answering that question now.

ULI panel Pacoima

The panel convened by Urban Land Institute-LA to assist Pacoima Beautiful and LA Department of Cultural Affairs in arts incubator planning, in front of murals adjacent to Pacoima City Hall

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Novelty, Uniqueness, Originality

My work on An Ouroboros: Art, Money, and Entrepreneurial Action continues, sometimes at a pace of one or two paragraphs a day. Framing paragraphs are important, so this one took a while; it is the first of the fourth essay in the developing collection: “Novelty.”

“Creativity,” according to Mihaly Csizkzentmihalyi and others, “involves the production of novelty.”[i] When that novelty – the creativity – is deployed in a way that makes lasting change (i.e., “impact”) the novelty can be an “innovation.” The product of the generative work of the artist, whether in the studio, on the stage, or in collaboration with the community, is by its nature unique. But that uniqueness on its own is not enough to make it an innovation. To use a common social science term, it is necessary, but not sufficient. Economist Richard Caves, in his influential 2000 study of the “creative industries,” defined uniqueness as one of six characteristics of the sector. Yet, as Walter Benjamin points out in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible.[ii]” There is a tension between what art fundamentally is, a unique work that expresses symbolic meaning, and the reproduction of that work. Yet, there are artists who harness reproducibility as a way to produce an innovation (a creative idea that has impact), enact entrepreneurship (connect work with audience through a mediating structure) and make the money they need to feed their art, enacting the ouroboros of art and money. But, reproduction also feeds the capitalist urge to exploit the labor of the artist for financial gain, albeit sometimes to the benefit of organizations that themselves support artists or are part of the cultural fabric of a city. Like everything else about the relationship between art, money, and entrepreneurial action, this notion of novelty is complicated.

marilyn pixelated

[i] Csizkzentmihalyi (1996). Creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention, p. 113.

[ii] Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in Arendt (ed,; Zorn trans; 1968) Illuminations, p. 219.



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