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.

Posted in Arts entrepreneurship, Arts funding, arts infrastructure, Arts policy, Culture and democracy, Institutional Infrastructure, Physical Infrastructure | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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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The Morning after Charlottesville

The morning after Charlottesville I woke up thinking about my father. He endured an anti-Semitic beating during basic training at Fort Dix before shipping out to Europe to fight the Nazi expansion into Brussels and France. Wounded twice, he came back with a Purple Heart and an Oak Leaf, but missing a body part. Decades later, when I was a young child, I was noodling around in an old cabinet in the basement of our suburban home and found a Nazi armband. He wouldn’t tell me anything about how he came by it, but he must have disposed of it because I never saw it again, even after helping him move twice and packing up his belongings for donation after he died.

Despite his experience as a victim of anti-Semitism and a soldier against Nazism, my father was not a particularly tolerant person. He lived most of his life in middle class secularly Jewish neighborhoods working in an industry where there were lots of other middle class secular Jews. He knew plenty of people who were not like him, but he didn’t engage with these “others” socially. A few years before he died, we went to an Arizona Dbacks game together. The pregame announcements were delivered in both English and Spanish. “That’s awful,” my father said. Shocked, I asked him what he meant. “Why should they be making announcements in Spanish?” he replied. I explained – or tried to explain – that the nearby border was just a line in the sand, that people were speaking Spanish – and indigenous languages – in this area long before anyone spoke English, and that in all likelihood 1/3 of the people in the stadium had Spanish as a first language, so shouldn’t they be able to understand where the emergency exits are? By way of follow-up a few days later, I shared a statistic with him that indicated that a majority of Americans of all races have never invited a person of another race into their homes (a more recent report indicates that 40% of White Americans do not have any friends of another racial identity) and that never once had their been someone of another race in our home when I was growing up. A lifelong Democrat, he got defensive about his liberal/moderate bona fides, and reminded me that our Black mailman came over for coffee. In turn, I reminded him that the only reason he did was because he was buying our car. (I was quite young, but remember that the car was white and had fins.)

engagement photo

Five years after WWII, my father met my mother.

My father’s brand of social liberalism – and perhaps it is endemic of his generation – was to tolerate others as long as we all kept to our own groups. It’s not really a surprising perspective since he was raised by a woman who had fled Ukrainian pogroms with her parents and huddled with others who were like them in self-defense. My generation and especially my children’s are much more mobile. We move fluidly from region to region and neighborhood to neighborhood. I am very much in a religious minority in my current neighborhood; there are more Muslims and Hindus in my kids’ high school than there are Ashkenazi Jews. Despite his faults, my father and the men of his generation fought and died so that the Muslims, Hindus, and Jews in my neighborhood could live peacefully among its Christian majority. Now a few – and I hope it is only a few – of their children and grandchildren have somehow gotten it into their heads that that isn’t such a good idea, that justice and equity for all somehow diminishes their very manhood.

My world view is different from my father’s not only because he fought in a war and I didn’t, but because I have lived in different places, places where public schools aren’t closed in observance of Jewish holidays, where Spanish is spoken in public gathering spaces, and where my children were taunted on the playground for their ethnicity.

But on this morning after Charlottesville, I am not thinking about what divides us, but what unites us. What unites us is not religion (religion is a dividing line), not race (race is a divisive social construct), and certainly not geography. What unites us is that we are all human, with the capacity for love (and, unfortunately, its opposite). How can we build love in our communities? How can we understand what it means to be human? For the biological answer, we have science, but for the spiritual one, we have art. Art questions, art explores, art answers, art loves.

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Arts Entrepreneurial Mindset

[I continue to develop essays on art, innovation, entrepreneurship, and money as part of my book project. Here are a couple of paragraphs from this morning’s writing:]

The independent self-determined mindset, the sense of one’s own responsibility and accountability toward career is born, in part, from necessity in the scarce environment, thus making the artist and others “subjects” (to use Foucault’s term) of neoliberal governmentality. But independence and self-determination are not solely reactions to given conditions; they go to the root of the motivations of the artist to make work that has impact despite the given conditions, not because of them. Even Abraham Maslow, in his famous A Theory of Human Motivation published in 1943 recognized the unique case of the artist, making work self-determinately: “There are other, apparently innately creative people in whom the drive to creativeness seems to be more important than any other counter determinant. Their creativeness might appear not as self-actualization released by basic satisfaction, but in spite of lack of basic satisfaction”

In The Artist as Culture Producer, a collection of short essays by artists about how they sustain their artistic practice, artist Alison Wong discusses the mindset necessary for entrepreneurial action as “an artist’s mind, with a focus on doing and making.” Another characteristic mindset that emerges from a review of the artists’ essays is a proclivity for seizing unexpected opportunities. One archetypical story, from Austin Thomas, begins, ”One day, while riding the elevator to my studio, I ran into…” From what was quite literally an elevator pitch, Thomas made several thousands of dollars in sales and, “invested that money back into my work,” enacting the ouroboros of arts entrepreneurial action. Ouroboros with text

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