Ten Pounds of Arts Funding Doesn’t Yield 20 Pounds of Peace

So like me, you may have been driving home Monday night and heard an interview on NPR conducted by host Mary Louise Kelly with poet Tess Taylor discussing art as civic repair.  Taylor talks about how a plethora of festivals in Belfast have helped people to come together peacefully since the Good Friday Agreement brought about a general cessation of violence in Northern Ireland.  She draws some parallels to political division in the United States.

She tells a story about being assigned to write a travel story about Virginia shortly after the 2016 election. She arrives in Floyd, VA, a mecca of bluegrass and is torn between being upset at the election results and wanting to square dance.

KELLY: You write, (reading) I realized I could either be mad or I could dance, but I can’t do both, so I’m going to dance.

TAYLOR: There might have been so many people right then at that square dance with whom I really had nothing to say about politics. But while we’re doing this dance, we’re actually partaking in a community action that takes place with an old pattern, and people swing around, they have to change partners, nobody can be left out, everybody is called in, and I understood the square dance is a ritual meant to build community and meant also to be sure that people had some relationship with one another so that they were kind of agreeing, perhaps, in a rural, small community to care for each other in some way. But I also felt very amazed by the ability of the dance itself to make me feel more able to work with people around me and to feel as if somehow, in that moment, we had put aside our differences and come together into something bigger.

As the interview closed, it was mentioned that Taylor had written a longer piece on this subject for Harper’s this month so I sought the article out.

There was a great deal of nuance in Taylor’s piece which was careful to say while there were similarities between the friction in the U.S. and Northern Ireland, there were differences that made them, and thus the solutions, distinct.

What I really appreciated was just how much Taylor’s article paralleled my post yesterday about viewing the arts as a prescriptive solution for problems. While Taylor cited research that showed how arts activities can create bonds of friendship, empathy and cooperation, she also noted arts weren’t, and will likely never be, the totality of the solution for Belfast in and of themselves. (my emphasis)

…Artists knew that arts programming was an effective means of weaving people together; they had written many grants justifying projects in these terms, and some were tired of the process. Some expressed concern about instrumentalizing art. “It’s not as if you put in ten pounds of arts funding and get out twenty pounds of peace,” said Glenn Patterson.

…But Durrer is the first to say that investments in reconciliation are naturally hard to quantify: “It’s not as if you can count the number of Protestants and Catholics who sat next to one another in a theater and know anything about how well people are actually reconciling.” My friend Stephen Connolly, a poet, warned me that the festivalization of Belfast can at times feel like a “manufactured peace.” Others felt uneasy about looking to anything in Northern Ireland as a model. Everyone stressed that what had been achieved in the north of Ireland has since frayed and grown tender.

But FitzGibbon, who has collaborated with Boyd on outdoor performances and directed the Belfast Children’s Festival for thirteen years, also emphasized the giddy feeling of making interventions that seemed to result in collective delight.

There is a lot of thoughtful reflection in the Harper’s story and it bears looking at regardless of whether you are considering connecting the arts with social change.

Cleaning Up Litter Never Looked So Cool

Video came across my social media last month about the litter picking samurai of Tokyo.  These theater performers call attention to the trash dropped in the streets of the city to generate a sense of responsibility and pride in keeping things clean.  Some commenters to the video wonder if they set things up for the performance given the timing and spacing of some of their movements. That may have been the case to create some drama for some of the shots, but I found other videos of them cleaning and sorting the trash they collect before disposing of it so it appears they are committed to putting in a full effort.

During Covid the arts community has become thoughtful about ways in which they can contribute to change in the world. These folks in Japan seemed like a good example of how performance skills can be employed in informal settings, (as opposed to performance spaces), to model positive actions.

Additionally, since there is so much uncertainty and tentativeness regarding the status of events and the return of audiences, the format of these types of performances can help the arts remain relevant and visible in communities.

Not to mention emphasizing the fact that the arts can be used in efforts to solve problems.



Similar efforts can be intentionally employed to achieve a specific goal. Back in 2014 the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and Sojourn Theatre partnered on a project to call attention to the fact that crosswalk signals were timed too short to allow senior citizens to traverse intersections.

What Do You Perceive As Biggest Impediment to Equity Efforts?

Advisory Board for the Arts had sent out a survey on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access (DEI&A) efforts that non-profit organizations were undertaking. They released the results in infographic form this week.

Keeping in mind that the respondents were self-selected so there wasn’t a lot of rigor behind the process, the results are still an interesting preliminary view of what organizations perceive is going on with their efforts.

I was particularly interested in the pressures and challenges section where respondents indicated there was a lot of pressure to do more in relation to DEI&A across a number of internal and external constituencies. The biggest perceived source of pressure to do less is among board members and individual donors. Still there wasn’t perceived pressure either way from unions, donors, corporate sponsors, and audience members.

This all makes me yearn for a more complete study of the question. My suspicion is that groups who were already very interested in implementing DEI&A chose to answer the survey and so they were either inclined to view their efforts favorably or their constituencies were aligned toward DEI&A efforts to begin with.

However, it would be great if these results were close to reality because that would mean the impediment to change couldn’t necessarily be blamed on external groups. They are shown as largely indifferent in this area. Even board members who were seen as most in opposition to DEI&A efforts were more likely to be for or indifferent to them rather than against.

In terms of challenges and hurdles, the survey found that developing an authentic, rather than performative, stance and creating meaningful metrics to hold the organizational accountable were among the top concerns people had.

Stuff to ponder so take a look.

They Are Serious About Play

I didn’t properly record the source, but last week someone tweeted a link to the LEGO Foundation’s document, Creating Creators, which has the subtitle: “How can we enhance creativity in education systems?”

The document is a collection of seven essays on the subject. What interested me was the more international perspective on the topic than I had really previously seen. There are pieces written by the Minister of Basic Education for the Republic of South Africa as well as one by a student of that country’s University of Pretoria. Apparently teaching to the test is also perceived to be a problem in South Africa.

There was also an essay discussing how the  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) will test for creative thinking for the first time in 2021. The PISA is the cause of much hand wringing over how students in the US compare to students in other countries in different subject areas so it can be worth paying attention to the results when they are issued and using them to initiate conversations.

That is if the PISA is administered next year. I was surprised there was no acknowledgement of the impact of the global pandemic in any of the essays. It turns out that while this document is new to me, it was actually published in 2019. With so much learning disrupted this year, they may decide to postpone the administration of the test for awhile longer.

I poked around the LEGO Foundation’s site a little bit and was not surprised to find they had created “A guide to playful distance learning – online and offline.” While it is focused on educational institutions it has a lot of fun ideas that arts & cultural organizations and libraries can use for their programs –or individual parents can use with their kids.

As the title of this post indicates, LEGO Foundation is serious about play and the Knowledge Base section of their website reflects that. It is a good place to visit for research and ideas on the topic.

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