Artist Waits 50 Years For A Wrong To Be Righted

Quick post today since I am going to link to something longer worth reading.

The venue I run is associated with a university across town that made things right for an alum after it was deferred for 50 years. One of the first Black women admitted to the university back in the 60s was pursuing a career in medical illustration and so was majoring in both biology and art. However, as a result of some racist motivations, the chair of the art department at the time denied her an opportunity to mount a final exhibit. As a result, she was able to graduate with the biology degree, but not the art degree.

That student, Gwendolyn Middleton Payton, had a chance midnight meeting at the Atlanta airport with one of the university history faculty and happened to relate her story. The faculty member advocated for her leading to Payton receiving her final exhibit and degree last Friday.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) wrote an extensive story I referenced earlier. If you are interested, there is a video on Facebook of Payton’s remarks at the exhibit.

Our marketing director was responsible for shepherding a lot of the details along, including the AJC interview and had mentioned Payton’s son was on The Walking Dead. For some reason, I didn’t make the connection that her son is Khary Payton, who I actually knew better as a voice actor for a lot of superhero cartoons, until his mother mentioned him in her talk.

Through our marketing director, I learned some roadblocks and assumptions that thwarted her earlier efforts to get her full degree that illustrated people did not appreciate the enormity of the challenges Payton faced. She said she had to pick her battles and if you read the AJC article, you will see she fought a lot. She just chose not to fight the final exhibition battle when graduation was imminent.

The Man Who Decided To Raise Artists Instead of Chickens

It was with some sorrow that I learned this week that a great man who has literally been part of the grassroots effort to provide arts experiences to young people died last week. Albert Appel who, with his wife Clare, founded, or he might say floundered, into establishing an arts and music camp just turned 98 on July 5. A tribute to his life appears on the Appel Farm Arts and Music Campus website.

When I say he was literally part of a grassroots effort, it is because when he and his wife started giving music lessons to neighbor kids back around 1960, he was running a farm with 20,000 chickens, feed crops, and other animals. Gradually, the chickens began to be replaced by children. Again, literally. When I worked on the concert presenting side of the organization back in the early 2000s, two of the camp dorms were still refurbished chicken coops and were referred to as North & South Coop.

Albert, and his wife Clare, who had passed away before I started working there, are an admonishment against making assumptions about the artistic interests and capabilities of farmers. Albert trained to be a farmer, but he also played violin. He actually met Clare when friends told him they needed a violinist to fill out their string quartet.

The way Albert liked to tell it, he and Clare started the camp because kids would come over for music lessons and would never go home so he started charging their parents to let them hang around his house.

When I moved to South Jersey to take the job in winter 2000, I was told I could live in Albert’s house until I found a place of my own. I was given two room that used to be offices for the camp. As you moved through Albert’s house you could see that they had continued to add on to the house to accommodate camp activities. There were also some out buildings behind the house that got used. Finally, they moved a lot of the operations across the road–into the chicken coops, among other buildings. However, some of the original rooms continued to be used as living quarters for the camp counselors and staff during my tenure there.

The founding philosophy of the camp was that every kid has the capacity for creative expression. Come to think of it, working there may have serve to form my own views along those lines. A camper’s day was spent pursuing one major and two minors. The major was the area they identified as their core interest or area of experience and the minors were things they hadn’t really done, but wanted to explore. The subjects ranged from acting, dancing, music, ceramics, painting, photography, creative writing, video production.

Due to security concerns, folks like myself who didn’t work for the camp program weren’t generally allowed on the grounds past the administration building. However, I frequently helped distribute the mail and even without hearing them say it, it was clear that for a lot of those kids camp was a place they felt they could be themselves surrounded by people with similar interests versus who they had to be at home and at school.

But as I said, I wasn’t directly involved with the camp. My job was to run the operations for the concert series and music festival as well as to support the school outreach efforts. I count myself lucky to have lived in Albert’s house for a short time because even after I moved out, I would get invited to join him and his second wife, Peimin, when they were entertaining guests. Often it was groups like the Corigliano Quartet who were staying over in preparation for school residencies.

Albert would often pull out his violin to play or talk about his children’s music lessons on various instruments. Nearly all of Albert’s children play an instrument to some extent or another. His son Toby is a violist on the Julliard faculty. One story I recall involved inducements for him to practice piano. There are also a couple wild stories about Albert I heard from his kids.

Albert was definitely a character. Even though the livestock and poultry mostly departed the farm, all campers were required to work in the camp garden and the vegetables all made it to the kitchen for meals. Albert often gave the gardeners a hard time about how they were going about planting. A farmer can never really retire. He was just as passionate about creating an environment for people to cut loose with creative expression. At 80, he was pulling out his violin to play beside the campers. You would also hear the low drone of the instrument across the fields in the middle of the winter.

Obviously at 98, his death wasn’t unexpected but it is still saddening. Though at his 80th birthday party, he kept joking that if he had known he would live as long as he had, he would have taken better care of himself and he might have already made it to 90. Apparently someone was taking good care of him if he was so seriously pushing 100.

His legacy runs much deeper than thousands of kids attending arts camp over 60 years. As I mentioned, when I worked there the other nine months of the year were devoted to a concert series, school outreach programs and a pretty active conference calendar. Shortly after I left, Appel Farm started offering afternoon and evening arts classes to kids and adults and were the arts content provider for a local school district.

Now they have added a Families to College program that works with the whole family to provide an environment aligned with increasing the chances of success for college bound students. They are also involved with providing a charter school STEAM program. In a rural portion of southern NJ, programs like these can have big impacts.

I am sure there has been some positive impact on the economy of Elmer, NJ and Salem County that wouldn’t have existed if Appel Farm Arts and Music Center wasn’t there. But when we talk about the value of the arts, few would have the patience to wait 90 years, or smaller increment thereof, to see the result of giving 8 year old Albert music lessons. (Or his wife Clare for that matter, I am told she eclipsed him in passion for the camp’s mission.) And yet, there are thousands upon thousands of people who will attest to the immeasurable value of their experiences.

What’s This Soft Landing Thing You Speak Of?

This week Vu Le at the Nonprofit AF wrote a pretty thought provoking post about the way the left-leaning non-profit sector consumes, rather than supports, its leaders as more conservative focused groups do. Le had recently left his job when someone reached out to ask if he had a “soft landing.”

I got to understand what Angie meant by “soft landing.” This is what conservatives do for their leaders. They provide them with support to ensure that their work continues….They understand that their most effective leaders are their greatest weapon, so they do everything they can to protect and invest in them and their ideas.

The progressive side, meanwhile, treats people like batteries. Batteries are only as valuable when they have any juice left to power machines. As soon as they are empty, they are worthless and you toss them and you get fresh batteries. People burn out, they leave and are sometimes never heard from again, and we are OK with it, because we just find new people/batteries to replace them with…As Pia Infante of The Whitman Institute said, “The right invests in people and ideas; the left invests in projects and programs.”

Le goes on to enumerate how this manifests. It isn’t just that arrangements might be made for a conservative to get a book deal, a job with a think tank, or a seat on a company’s board of directors where a progressive won’t. He notes that if organizational leadership transitions, funders will take a wait and see attitude before continuing to support them as if the good work the organization had done was inseparable from the leader.

Le speaks of his own experience working with foundation program officers for decades and having them tell him an innovative idea he has to expand the impact of his organization work doesn’t align with the foundation priorities. He says if funders sincerely want to make the difference they profess they do, they need to at least trust those with whom they have a long relationship to execute what is needed.

He provides a good number of other examples that are worth reading and considering. He ends his post with a bright bit of hope. The woman who had contacted him about his soft landing came through with a grant that will support Vu Le during a time when his speaking engagements were cancelling.

“What’s the catch?” I asked Angie skeptically. Funders had reached out with encouraging words, but almost none had offered financial assistance. “Are there metrics, outcomes? Do I need to pay it back?” I asked. “No,” she said, “just keep writing or working on your sketch comedy show or whatever. Your voice is important, and for everyone who wants to see the nonprofit sector and its funders change, we need you.”

Talking More About The Real DNA of Your Successes

Nina Simon was recently a guest on a podcast hosted by Culture Reset. As always, I find anything she has to say increases my contemplation about the way arts organizations, including my own, operate and interact with the community.

There was one part of Nina’s commentary about her career that caught my attention because it resonates closely with a central topic I have been writing on for a couple years. (By the way, MANY thanks to Culture Reset for providing a transcript of the podcast, I was not looking forward to having to transcribe this by ear.) (also, my emphasis)

…I identify very quickly the board cared about attendance, dollars and good press. And so I said, ‘OK, I’m going to make change in the direction I want, that generates those outcomes, and then I’m going to show them those numbers on a platter. And I’m going to tell them here are the activities, the weird activities we did that led to those outcomes. And I am going to buy myself more and more space to pursue this strategy as long as it delivers these outcomes.

But the fatal mistake I made is that (and this is very personal for me. I actually haven’t talked about this before) is that as the years went on and we did more and more of this work, I kept delivering those same outcomes to the board and I delivered the strategy where we shared that area of change, we shared all the data, blah, blah, blah, blah. But when I was getting ready to leave and when they started to recruit my successor, there was a real battle that was rooted in the fact I think, that the board had never fully internalised these strategies, led to those outcomes. And that is my fault because it was easier for me to sell them those outcomes and have them nod and be happy and for me to go on with my team doing the great work we were doing than it was to really say to them, we’ve got to talk about how different this is and what we are willing to do to keep this, you know, that what is in the DNA of the success that you’re so proud of.

While anecdotal, this is another example of why we can’t continue to simply use economic value of the arts as a justification of its existence.

As I have quoted Carter Gillies a number of times before in connection with this idea:

But this never teaches them why we value the arts. It is not a conversation that discusses the arts the way we feel about them. Its not a picture of the intrinsic value of the arts, because in talking about instrumentality we always make the arts subservient. That’s never only what they are to us. Sometimes we just have to make the case for a lesser value as the expedient means to secure funding or policy decisions. It’s better than not making any sense at all.

Nina basically says at first she used these metrics to help her gain some room to operate so that the board would be more open to some of the more orthodox approaches she was looking to implement. If you know Nina’s history, with the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, you know it was in dire shape when she took up the mantle of executive director so there was a need to implement a turn around couched in the terms that met the board’s criteria of success.

But even in the face a wondrous revitalization which included a growth in staff and attendance and a expansion into adjoining property, she and the board never got around to having a serious conversation about the fact that it was those wacky ideas she and the staff implemented that made people feel the museum was a place made for them. The metrics they were looking for followed that effort, but the metrics weren’t the measure of the organization’s success.  The measure was that people felt heard, represented, and respected. To them museum was more invested in them than before, and they became more invested in turn and showed up at the door.

The conversation Nina regrets not having needs to happen more often and it will get easier with each attempt. (Not to mention it is the stuff of good grant narratives.)

Success isn’t a matter of good budgeting, advertising and the highest quality programs the organization can afford. From what I remember, I think some of the stuff Nina did that people engaged with most involved activity prompts, paper, and magic markers.  Success is a matter of the highest quality experiences and interactions.

One of the stand out memories I have of this past Friday is a conversation our marketing director had while asking permission to take the picture of three little girls in a very unsocially distanced hug where one declared “She is practically my best friend!” There wasn’t any special investment on our part, though the father appreciated being asked if we could snap the photo, but it was pretty clear that despite all the Covid related signs and paraphernalia, the group felt good about the interactions they were having.

It often doesn’t take much to help people feel they, their family and friends are welcome. What can be tough is asking and correctly discerning what the things that make them feel welcome are and deciding to effect the changes to include them.

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