Exploring

It’s been nine months since I relocated to Los Angeles. After acclimating to my new position at Cal State LA, I am able to take some time to explore the richness of my new “home town”. One of the best parts of living here is that if I drive 45 minutes in one direction I’m at a beach, and 45 minutes in the other and I’m in the mountains. I’ve felt the push-pull of beach and ocean since I was kid exploring the beaches of Long Island; now I don’t have to choose!

Of course, what is truly outstanding is the cultural richness and diversity of the LA area. With no events on my own campus during spring break, I took some time to branch out this week. I visited: the Kim Abeles studio in Keystone Art Space; sister campus Cal State Fullerton’s Santa Ana outpost, the Grand Central Arts Center; saw Lars Jan’s adaptation of Joan Didion’s The White Album at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance; and today enjoy the culinary arts at the “Masters of Taste” benefit for Union Station Homeless Services, courtesy of a KPCC ticket promotion at the historic Rose Bowl Stadium, which I have never visited. Artistic production, community-arts exhibitions, experimental theatre, and a tony culinary arts festival – I’m in culture explorer heaven.

waterfall

A waterfall in Angeles National Forest in the San Gabriel Mountains

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National Humanities Advocacy Day

Greetings! I want to share with the Creative Infrastructure community this month’s “Letter from the Dean,” (i.e., me) as it connects with many of the themes of the blog.

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March 2019

Dear Arts & Letters Community:

As this newsletter hits your inbox on March 12, hundreds of advocates are on Capitol Hill in Washington DC visiting with their state representatives to talk to them about the value of the humanities and the impact humanities-based activities have on communities. The College of Arts & Letters is marking this day with a big celebration of all things humanities and arts! One of the goals of the advocates in DC is to erase misconceptions about the humanities and make humanities work visible. That is exactly what we’re doing on campus today. Each college department has a table or booth where they are sharing information about study in the humanities and about the professional pathways for which such study prepares you. Some departments are showcasing the public practice of their work in unique and exciting ways. The brand-new BA in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) is working with a community-based artist to run silk-screen prints and make and distribute buttons to celebrate Women’s History Month. The Department of Philosophy will have logic puzzles and games available and an “ask a philosopher” booth. Chair of the Department of English, Linda Greenberg, has designed an exciting Humanities Scavenger Hunt. Our professional student success (i.e., “advising”) team will be on hand to answer any questions students may have about Arts & Letters courses and help you register for an array of summer courses.

While all this activity is happening along the main campus walkway, the State Playhouse features a reading by LA’s poet laureate Robin Coste Lewis at 11:00 AM; later in the day there is a Forensics demonstration by our award-winning and nationally ranked Golden Eagle Forensics Speech & Debate team, a philosophy debate on “Morality for Machines,” a concert by the Villiers Quartet, and an open mic poetry event to close out the evening. In these and other ways, we make the humanities visible.

One of the misconceptions about the humanities is that humanities majors don’t lead to good employment outcomes. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As I’ve noted in this newsletter before, the top three learning outcomes CEOs and hiring managers expect from college grads are: oral communication, ethical decision making, and written communication. Our departments of Communication Studies, English, Liberal Studies, Modern Languages and Literatures, and Philosophy deliver these three outcomes not just by way of general education, but with the disciplinary depth needed to really master these outcomes. Our arts majors also support those outcomes, along with # 4 on the CEO and hiring managers’ list: the ability to work in teams. The pathways for success are clear: our students go on to be teachers, lawyers, public relations professionals, translators, writers, artists and more!

If you’re just waking up on March 12, get ready to come to the State Playhouse for the kickoff of our celebration of National Humanities Advocacy Day, beginning at 11:00 AM…and stick around all day. I’ll be at the College of Arts & Letters Advising table 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM, so please drop by!

Warm best wishes,
Dr. Linda Essig, Dean

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Kim Abeles, Community Impact Artist

It was a sheer joy to spend 60 minutes listening to Kim Abeles talk about her work under the guise of the Academic Senate Distinguished Lecture on Engagement, Service, and the Public Good. Abeles began by describing herself to a room that included very few artists (the Dean of Engineering sat in front of me, for example) as a “community-based” artist. She explained, and as readers of this blog probably know, that sometimes this is called “social practice” or “social impact.” I combine these into a different phrase to describe Abeles, a “community impact” artist.

And impact she has had. Her talk revolved around two characteristics of her work as a community impact artist: that the value of her work is in its ability to incite change and that when you work with communities of people, you don’t really have control of the “inputs” that get used in creating the work. I took note of the longevity of her work, as that also contributes to its value, a topic of particular interest to me.

Much of Abeles work encourages people to recognize the impact they have on their environment and, due to that recognition, change their behavior. She is perhaps most well-known for her “smog collectors,” a variety of work that use a process of printing with atmospheric smog. When she started making this work in the late 1980s, smog was even more of a problem in LA than it is today. She has done smog collector projects with cities, schools, and soon, an art museum in Moscow. Her work with the California agency that regulates automotive smog and enforces the smog testing program commissioned her to create a series of smog collector pieces and muffler-based sculptures to raise awareness about the smog-check program. She told a story of how a state legislator called a hearing to investigate why an artist was commissioned by the state Bureau Automotive Repair. She was waiting outside the hearing room in Sacramento when she received word that the hearing was cancelled. Why? When the legislator learned that the project had generated $3million in free press and publicity, he realized that the $3000 commission was probably a good value after all.

Another series of works, undertaken with community partners such as a school or a the Science Center is the “Paper Person” series. In these works, Abeles collects the paper trash from a facility over the course of a specific day (in the case of the Science Center, it was Earth Day, April 22), takes it back to her studio, irons it, and laminates it together to make a giant paper person, a visual manifestation of waste.

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Photo (c) Kim Abeles

I could go on and on describing Abeles’ projects, including one piece recently on display in Cal State LA Fine Arts Gallery show “School of Endurance Work“, but I’ll stop here and just encourage you to visit her website, invite her to your school, or see her work around town. She is an exemplar of a “community impact artist.”

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Place and Income Inequality

In the research I was doing today around place-based or geographic idiosyncrasies of local arts economies, I came across an interesting 2005 paper by Mark Stern published as part of the Dynamics of Culture series by the Social Impact of the Arts Project. “Artists in the Winner-Take-All Economy: Artists’ Inequality in Six U.S. Metropolitan Areas, 1980 – 2000”[i] looks at the Gini coefficient, a widely accepted measurement of inequality, across artists in 6 metropolitan areas over three sets of census data, 1980, 1990, and 2000. I read the paper because I am trying to write something about the unique characteristics of New York City and why the artists I interview for An Ouroboros: Art, Money, and Entrepreneurial Action make conscious choices to locate – or not – in art hubs like New York or Los Angeles.

I find two of Stern’s findings particularly interesting. The first is that “artists’ inequality did not increase as quickly between 1980 and 2000 as that within the rest of the labor force.” So, during a period when income inequality increased rapidly across the US (remember the 1980s?), it actually increased less rapidly among artists. Reading further into the paper, Stern finds that this is not because artist incomes continued to be much lower than other professions; instead, he finds that the median of artists’ incomes rose significantly closer to that of the rest of the population during the period of his study. But to reiterate, income inequality did increase, as this table[ii] from the paper illustrates:

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The second finding of note, particularly with regard to my current topic of interest, place-based arts economies and the place-based economic decision-making of artists, is

the analysis finds significant variation in artists’ income inequality across metropolitan areas. The winner-take-all hypothesis would lead us to expect that metropolitan areas that are ‘global cities’ in the arts world—notably New York and Los Angeles—would have greater inequality than other cities. This is not the case, however. On the one hand, Los Angeles displayed the highest level of income equality among cultural workers. New York, on the other hand—even though income inequality among all workers was generally higher than elsewhere—had among the lowest levels of artist income inequality. (Stern, 2005, p. 2)

I can guess as to why this is the case for LA, my newly adopted home. There is a robust nonprofit arts economy similar to other cities but layered on top of that a large commercial arts industry potentially skewing the results for several of the artist categories Stern considers in his analysis: actors, directors, producers, writers, and musicians. Of course, this is only a guess, and I have no data to back it up. Chicago is also a bit of an outlier, and also by far the city with the largest increase in artist income inequality between 1980 and 2000. I can’t even hazard a guess as to why. New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and San Francisco are all more similar to one another with regard to income inequality despite differentiated arts and culture sectors. Perhaps geography is not destiny after all despite

Stern’s research predates the Great Recession. He has done some work quite recently on equity and inequity among New York City cultural organizations, but I can’t find any research that includes post-recession analysis of income inequality among artists using 2010 census data or the CSS. If you know of any, please drop me a line.

[i] You can download the paper from SIAP’s digital repository: https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=siap_dynamics

[ii] Steven Ruggles, Matthew Sobek, Trent Alexander, Catherine A. Fitch, Ronald Goeken, Patricia Kelly Hall, Miriam King, and Chad Ronnander. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 3.0 [Machinereadable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor], 2004. http://www.ipums.org.

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What Mr. Rogers Can Teach about Equity Practice

I’ve written about “values” here many times, especially last spring as I was considering a career change that would help me connect more directly to my core values, especially around social equity and integrity. I’ve been thinking about these values a lot lately and how hard they are to achieve.

While I was thinking about this blog post, I happened to turn on the HBO documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor. When I was a small child, each day I would watch Mr. Rogers change into his sweater, summon Mr. McFeely, and lead me into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. No doubt Fred Rogers helped me learn the values that guide me today. There was a snippet from an early episode that seems prescient today. In this selection, we see Mr. Rogers reading a newspaper with the headline “King Friday the 13th Establishes Border Guard: King Against Change.” We then enter the Neighborhood of Make Believe and see King Friday charging his minion to “remember our battle-cry: Down with the changes.” The two then sing, “we don’t want anything to change…because we’re on top.”

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Sound familiar? It probably does if you’ve read a newspaper in the last two years. It may also feel familiar if you’ve sat in on the meetings of a nonprofit board that is constituted predominantly of members from one particular group or another, some of whom may lose seats if changes are made and barriers are opened. It is really hard to ask someone with power to cede some of it to someone else, but only when power is authentically and transparently shared can an organization feel inclusive and practice equity. And that’s a valuable lesson.

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n=1

The following has been previously published as a chapter in Theatre, Performance and Change edited by Stephani Etheridge Woodson and Tamara Underiner (Palgrave, 2018). Now that a year has passed since the publication of the book, I am happy to share the text with you here. 

A theory of change is about causation: we theorize that if we undertake action “A” it will cause impact “B.” When public funding underwrites “A,” the impact, “B” may be measured in the return on the investment of those public funds. Sometimes all it takes to tell the story of cause and effect (or return on investment) is an “N” of 1 and a means of connecting that “1” to the many.

“At Home in the Desert: Youth Engagement and Place” embedded nationally renowned visiting artists and Arizona State University 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 (Phoenix, AZ) in April 2012 and subsequently in an expanded site-specific performance in December 2012 as part of the Desert One Festival in Tempe, AZ. This collection of activities consisted of three inter-related performance projects. In this comprehensive and innovative program connecting 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. As director of evaluation for the project, I wanted to assure our community partners and our funders, the National Endowment for the Arts and the ASU Institute for Humanities Research, that the project caused positive change and was a good use of public funds.

Statistical analysis in this situation has significant limitations. There were 60 youth participants and approximately 25 university students, staff and faculty, too small a group to achieve truly significant results, although we did conduct pre- and post surveys of participants that indicated a positive correlation between program participation and some changes in perception of their desert homes. As the saying goes, correlation does not prove causality.  What does?

An individual, unsolicited, telling another person, “I did this because of that;” or “that helped me to do this” sounds like one way of showing causality, albeit only for that one individual. The fall after completing the Home in the Desert pilot residency at a local high school, I ran into one of the youth participants at a university freshman orientation event. He volunteered, “yeah, that really helped me understand where I am, cause you know, I’m not from here.” Project goal number one, to broaden and deepen participant perspectives on the desert as home, had been met for this one participant.

The project was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Is the impact on this one person a good investment of public funds? To answer that question, it is helpful to combine the small data (n=1) observations with big data conclusions. The young man I ran into addressed another goal of the program: youth participants would envision college in their future. Here I was, talking to a newly minted freshman 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,” the young man added. On the same day I write this, I watched him walk across the stage at undergraduate convocation.

But one student’s decision to enter—and complete—college is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Big data helps explain the scope of the return on public investment. A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center indicates that the median income of a young person with a bachelor’s degree is over 50% higher than someone who attains only an associate’s degree and such a person is also far more likely to find full time employment (Pew 2014). Not even accounting for the fact that the gap between the college educated and those without a college education will increase over time, if he works for 42 years, the young man I ran into at the incoming freshman event will earn $735,000 or more over someone who just has some college. He will return in taxes more than three times the $32,000 investment made by the NEA. Further, as a college graduate he is more likely to vote, more likely to send his own children to college, and, as a dance major, is likely to have high levels of job satisfaction.[1]

This young man was just one of 60 youth participants. While we can’t assume the same positive outcome for every participant, it is safe to assume his story is not the only story of success. Formal observation and informal conversations with participants indicate that youth participants were deeply engaged in the creative process across multiple artistic media at all three sites.  At the Gabel Boys and Girls Club, youth were observed creating “beats” that used poetry they had written. Using an “I am” poem format, one young teen wrote  “I am hard like a rock; bright like the sun…am I me?” while another wrote of God the creator.  They listened to each other respectfully, all while in the context of learning how to digitally edit their text with recorded percussion. The sessions at the South Mountain High School site, both with the site faculty and guest artists, were rich in creativity and artistic expression.  For example, guest artist Cassie Meador led the high school youth and ASU participants through an exercise in which they explored that which is visible in the desert and that which is invisible.  Two weeks prior, the group had been visited by a member of the ‘Ecology Explorers’ team from ASU who provided a primer on desert ecology.  The youth combined their new knowledge of desert ecology with their own subjective impressions of their lived experience in the urban desert to develop text for “Above the streets/Below the streets” poems that developed over the course of months into choreographic material.  One youth participant commented that a “mirrored pair” reminded her of the bulldozer on her street, in an example of how the students synthesized new creative experiences with their real lived ones.

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.” This is a good example of the “broadening perspective of desert as home” objective of the project.  Also at this showing, family and other community members participated in a post-show workshop, exploring their relationship to the desert and its sustainability in a kinesthetic embodiment of their experience. A Girl Scouts staff member noted, “They loved being here; they felt so special.”  This comment echoed one made by a Boys and Girls Club staff member during preparations for the earlier showing: “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.” Youth, college students, faculty and guest artists were deeply engaged in art-making and in exploring their desert home through a variety of artistic media. They were changed by this program, one individual at a time. Each of these “1s” is a wedge, leveraging their own entry into culture and education.

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Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute with South Mountain High School, Arizona Cactus/Pine Council Girl Scouts and Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Phoenix. Tempe AZ. Photo from http://www.ejengagethroughdance.com/photography/

References

Pew Research Center.  2014. “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.    http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college/. 11 Feb. 2014.  Accessed 1 Oct. 2016.

Strategic National  Arts Alumni Project.  http://snaap.indiana.edu/. Accessed 1 Oct. 2016

[1] For more information on job satisfaction levels among arts graduates, visit the Strategic National  Arts Alumni Project at http://snaap.indiana.edu/.

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Reconnecting in Repurposed Buildings

One of the great advantages of “maturing” is that along the way, one’s circle of acquaintances and friends expands and grows to include people near and far. Sometimes, someone you meet through a friend relocates and then you relocate, and then you find yourself within 30 miles of one another and reconnect. When I first met Shannon Daut several years ago at a party in Phoenix, she was director of the Alaska Arts Council but now is manager of Santa Monica Cultural Affairs. I am immensely grateful to Shannon for spending a few hours introducing me to Santa Monica’s “creative infrastructure.”

18th streetOur first stop was the 18th Street Art Center, the largest artist residency program in SoCal. I first came across 18th Street when doing preliminary research on arts incubators as it has, over the course of its 30 year history, also served as an arts incubator. Executive Director Jan Williamson was kind enough to give us a personal tour of the campus of artist live/work spaces, a campus that is also home to Highways performance space.

As I drove up to the area, I was struck by its resemblance to the neighborhood where one of the incubators I studied in some depth is located: Arlington Arts Incubator in Virginia. Both are in light industrial areas in medium-sized cities populated by single story commercial buildings or double-height warehouses, some of which have been repurposed. Even the rural incubator I studied, Mighty Tieton, is in a repurposed warehouse and so too was the central city Intersection for the Arts in a repurposed building (they have since moved). I hesitate to draw a broad conclusion, but it does seem – and not only from these four examples — that arts incubators, unlike performing arts facilities, are not generally purpose built, but instead in-fill. More on that in another post…

After 18th Street we visited Santa Monica Airport Studios, located in a re-purposed (it’s a theme!) hangar building adjacent to the soon-to-be decommissioned Santa Monica airport. Twenty-three artists’ studios and a gallery will soon be managed by 18th Street in a partnership with Santa Monica Cultural Affairs.

Our last stop was Bergamot Station, a complex of several buildings, repurposed (of course!) warehouses and trolley station buildings, now housing about 30 different commercial galleries, one nonprofit gallery, and a performance space. Our timing was excellent as many of the galleries had coordinated their efforts to open shows all on the same evening, an evening when broken rains clouds were lit up with bright sunset colors and, for a brief moment, a rainbow! (Pictures could not capture the spectacle.) Confirmation of Bergamot Station’s reach beyond the borders of Santa Monica was that we happened to run into the director of Cal State LA’s own University Gallery, Mika Cho, who was there scoping out the gallery openings.

What seems clear from just this brief introduction to Santa Monica is that its cultural infrastructure, under Shannon Daut’s deft leadership, is vibrant and multi-faceted. I owe Shannon a debt of gratitude, of which this blog post is but a small part. (Shannon, if you read this, I promise there will be wine too.)

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