Things To Ponder When Endeavoring To Tell Other People’s Stories

There is a lot of conversation about the need for people to see themselves and their interests reflected in arts and cultural experiences if arts and cultural organizations were going to remain relevant.  I saw an article on Arts Professional UK that gave examples of what organizations across the Pond were doing along these lines. Many of the observations about the challenges involved which are just as true in the US as the UK.

Tamsin Curror opens by citing, Glenn Jenkins, who has collaborated on projects with her organization,

“Imagine a scenario where all of the creative choices in your own home, the colour and style of the decor, the music you play and the films you watch were all up to somebody else to decide. This would be pretty disempowering, yet in our neighbourhoods or collective homes this is exactly how it is…”

This is the perception people can have when entities create a work purporting to reflect the experience of a group of people without the involvement and input of those who are/were part of the experience.

As much as we in the arts and cultural sector believe that what we offer contains a degree of universality with which everyone can identify, that may not be the perception in every community.

Project Director, Nancy Barrett, says: “A lot of touring work didn’t ‘speak’ to diverse urban communities and we needed to create something that would resonate with the intended audience.”

As I was reading that I wondered if this has always been the case and the greater arts and cultural community hasn’t recognized it because the focus of work has been so oriented toward a middle-class, Caucasian experience. Or if perhaps the isolating effect of social media has magnified the feeling that no one else shares your experience.

If you are only seeing the best selves of those around you rather than engaging in conversations about the boring, difficult situations they face, and therefore don’t feel you have much in common with your neighbor, it may be doubly difficult to discern shared universal themes in a creative work.

It isn’t saying anything new to observe that the time and energy required to build an authentic relationship with the communities with whom you wish to be involved in telling their stories is pretty prohibitive for most non-profit arts and cultural organizations. Added to that is something I hadn’t fully considered – the disconnect between relationship building and the funding cycle. (my emphasis)

“You need to build good relationships with people on a permanent basis, not just be pulling people in…. because if they think you’re just someone that comes in and then goes… you’re a one trick pony,” said a resident of Mereside Estate in Blackpool.

We’ve learnt that you can’t underestimate the time needed to really listen, facilitate and build mutual trust and respect. Being transparent and open about the process and budgets is also key. There’s got to be a genuine, long-term approach, and this raises questions about responsibility to the communities we work with and how to sustain this work over long periods within shorter-term funding contexts.

What Is The Value Of Fire? How Do You Know?

Friend o’ the blog, Carter Gillies recently had a piece appear in the Arts Professional UK noting some of the problems with focusing on the instrumental value of the arts.

One of the issues he raises is the danger in making general claims about the value of the arts based on individual examples. One thing he cites that has been noted in other conversations on this topic is that if you tout the benefit of the arts to solve problems, you run the risk of something else coming along that does a better job and can be adopted as a replacement for the arts solution.

However, he points out that this also applies to employing problematic examples to make general statements about the lack of worth of arts and culture,

In fact, scepticism about the arts often does make exactly this type of argument: doubting their value in general, because there are obvious examples of offensive artistic work. They take these instances as being representative of the arts as a whole, when clearly they are not. And if we are combating such scepticism merely with the idea that some art actually does benefit society and individuals, then we have made the same mistake. The general case is not made or defeated with individual examples.

He also warns that an instrumental view of arts and culture can easily lead to the parsing of which forms of expression in particular are more effective at solving a particular ill. What is best at improving test scores? Does the same thing work for economic stimulus? (my emphasis)

Let’s think about what would follow if the point of art is its instrumentality. If it turns out that painting rainbows and unicorns is the most beneficial artistic practice, then we should start emptying museums right now. We have all the justification required to shed collections of Rembrandts, Picassos, and more.

My point is that the arts are valuable far and above their instrumental benefits. They weren’t invented to improve health and wellbeing outcomes. That they do is a happy coincidence. The arts aim at many things, and hardly ever directly at a particular cause. That is far too narrow a scope for understanding what the arts are, and why they matter.

As I have said many times, just because you can measure an effect doesn’t mean that measurement reflects the actual value of something. If there were more hot dogs and beer sold at the Super Bowl this week than the previous year, does that mean it was a better football game? Whether it is true or not is only a happy coincidence as Carter says, but it has no bearing on why people play or enjoy football to begin with.

Kids don’t organize games in their backyard or try out for local teams in the hopes of increasing hot dog sales in their community. Sure they had a winning season and exciting games before sold out crowds, but most people insisted on bringing potato salad from home instead of buying at the field, so sports are bad for the community by that measure.  You may laugh because it seems ludicrous to use the sales of picnic food as a measure of success, but it is easy to get confused when presented with a measurement that is very important in some instances that isn’t necessarily relevant in others.

Which is the worse forest fire? The one that totally burns 50000 acres where no one lives or 50 acres with 15 houses valued at $2 million each?  Which is more likely to cause people to denounce the value of fire in our lives?  There are so many factors that contribute to forest fires and the discussion of management and prevention is complicated and nuanced. Not only can’t you use a few examples to make general statements about forest fires, the use of fire is so integral and entwined with our lives and who we are that you can’t use forest fires as a measure of the value of fire.

Trees Come With Unexpected Baggage

In my post yesterday I referenced the difficulty non-profit arts organizations have with conducting outreach activities that have relevance to communities. I and others have also frequently written about the problems with the way arts organizations approach relations with underserved communities, especially communities of color.

The honest truth is, a lot of non-profit organizations find the work they are doing has poor resonance with the communities they hope to serve. I was reading a piece on CityLab today about an organization that is trying to plant trees in Detroit. You would think this is a pretty non-controversial endeavor, but many neighborhoods in Detroit had a narrative of distrust in which trees figured prominently.

But as I read the article, I felt like so many phrases and terminology were exactly the same ones that crop up in discussions about how arts organizations need to frame their approach and relationships with underserved communities.

For example,

Elliot Payne, described experiences where green groups “presumed to know what’s best” for communities of color without including them in the decision-making and planning processes.

“I think a lot of the times it stems from the approach of oh we just go out and offer tree plantings or engaging in an outdoor activity, and if we just reach out to them they will come,” Payne told Taylor.

Cut out the references to tree planting and outdoor activity and it immediately sounds like a conversation at an arts conference without even needing to insert arts terminology.

Then there was this passage:

However, from reading excerpts of Carmichael’s interviews with TGD staff members, it’s clear some of the tree planters thought they were doing these communities an environmental-justice solid. After all, who would turn down a free tree on their property, given all of the health and economic benefits that service affords? Perhaps these people just don’t get it. As one staff member told Carmichael in the study:

You’re dealing with a generation that has not been used to having trees, the people who remember the elms are getting older and older. Now we’ve got generations of people that have grown up without trees on their street, they don’t even know what they’re missing.

How many times have you been part of a conversation where those advocating for the value of the arts talk exactly along these lines? – People don’t understand the value of the arts and the benefits they afford. The younger generation isn’t used to attending/participating in arts experiences. They have grown up without arts educational classes or opportunities to attend performances, they don’t even know what they’re missing.

What was really interesting to read was how residents of neighborhoods and the city were operating from two different narratives about trees. A researcher was surprised to learn that nearly a quarter of the 7500 residents the tree planting organization approached rejected the trees. When the researcher spoke to residents, they told her about how the city cut down the elm trees that used to line the streets after the 1967 race rebellion so that it was easier for police to conduct helicopter surveillance. The city, on the other hand, said they cut down the trees and sprayed them with DDT from helicopters in order to stem the spread of Dutch Elm disease which threatened during that time.

It was this conflicting narrative that motivated residents to reject the trees. They were already well aware of the benefits of trees in providing shade, improving home values, filtering air pollution, etc., it was just that they didn’t trust the motivations of the city.

This made me wonder if people were more aware of the benefits of the arts than we believe and there are narratives that inform a sense of distrust. Ideas about what the arts are and who they are for may comprise a large part of that narrative.

There was also a far more practical consideration fueling the rejection. People felt someone else was deciding what should be planted and where without having any conversations with the people who would have to live with the trees —and rake the leaves and branches that fell. The city doesn’t have the resources to trim the trees or remove dead ones that threaten the fall so the residents would bear the consequences.

What I could really empathize with was that The Greening of Detroit, the organization planting the trees, probably felt like they were doing a lot to have conversations and involve the community in a discussion about the tree planting.  In retrospect, there were missteps in their approach and they didn’t dedicate enough staff resources to outreach. However, they held community meetings and placed door hangers, both of which discussed their plans and their commitment to maintain the trees for three years following the planting.

Unfortunately, none of these things made the right connection with the residents but I could see a lot of arts organizations in similar circumstances feeling that making the investment to take those steps was doing a good job by residents.

It seems like the really, really retail, one-on-one interactions that were part of the researcher’s follow up was what was needed to make residents satisfied they were being heard.

One Detroit resident whom Carmichael interviewed for her study told her: “You know what, I really appreciate you today because that shows that someone is listening and someone is trying to find out what’s really going on in our thoughts, the way we feel, and I just appreciate you guys. And maybe next time they can do a survey and ask us, if they would like to have us have the trees.”

Is Art Dishwasher Safe?

After long correspondence (both in years and text length), I finally had an opportunity to meet with Carter Gillies over Thanksgiving weekend.  On at least one occasion I dubbed Carter “potter-philosopher,” because he has studied and practiced both disciplines.

Carter has been a big proponent of measuring the value of the arts on their own terms rather than their instrumental value to stimulate economies, raise test scores, cure cancer and bring world peace.

We spoke and debated for many hours on these ideas. However, the really challenging conversation was the one I had with myself days later. It is a conversation that millions have had and never concluded satisfactorily.

Before I left Carter’s house, he took me back to his studio and told me to pick out whatever I wanted. I grabbed a bowl that caught my eye and Carter discussed why he liked the glaze he applied to it, pointing out the subtle golden flecks that dotted different places.

A few days later he wrote me thanking me for visiting and hoping I enjoyed eating out of the bowl.

I was mortified. How could I eat out of that bowl? It was a piece of art that represented the culmination of our relationship to this point. I had it prominently displayed on a table in front of my sofa.

But then when I thought about it, I have two mugs given to me by one of the directors of the art museum back where I previously lived in Ohio. I drink out of those all the time. In fact, I am drinking out of one of them right now, totally unplanned. To leave them in the cupboard and not use them would be a small betrayal of my relationship with her, implying they were not good enough to eat out of.

I have endowed both the bowl and mugs with value derived from my relationship with the makers. My conclusions about what the appropriate treatment of each are completely opposite and pretty illogical.

I am not even sure the question here is “what is art?”

Does mundane and common use diminish an object’s identity as art while preserving it in an untouched and stationary state except to dust it impart greater identity as an object d’art?

The makers are both in my mind and heart when I see and use these objects which is part of the value for me. Does sentimentality contribute or detract to the objective value of these items?

These are questions that can be addressed forever. But this also illustrates why it is so much easier to talk about the value of art in terms of instrumentality. Instrumental measures are things people can grasp on to much easier.

The big problem, however, as Carter points out is that we never really try to introduce the conversation with policy makers about why we value the arts.  It can be really easy to talk in a passionate way about why you value the bowl on your coffee table and the mugs in your cupboard as well as the stuff hanging on your walls.

Yes, there is no facile way to empirically say the bowl is more valuable than the mug. There is a whole lot of complicated factors that contribute to record breaking auctions at Sotheby’s .

People value art and creativity in their lives for reasons that have nothing to do with what they can sell it for or enhancing their test scores.

The first step is opening your mouth to mention that the true value of a creative expression is divorced of these measures and potentially even divorced from another person’s perception of that creative expression.

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