Is Artistic Authority Being Eroded?

I was glancing at an interview with Arti Prashar on Arts Professional UK site as she departs her position at Spare Tyre Theatre Company. I had come for the title of the article, “Exit interview: ‘We’re asked to follow a business model that just doesn’t work'” but it was something else that really caught my attention.

She says,

“…I began to observe, slowly but surely, that the authority of artists was being eroded. I wasn’t having that, so I negotiated becoming the Artistic Director and CEO.”

It struck me that she felt she needed to become CEO in order to retain authority. (Her first 8 years at Spare Tyre was as Artistic Director.) It made me wonder if this was the case globally outside of the UK. I suspect it is.

I have discussed the problems with the sentiment that “arts should be run more like a business,” in a number of blog posts over the years. I wonder now if that concept, combined with the sense that artists should be more business minded might be contributing to the erosion of artists’ authority.

Artists should definitely be knowledgeable enough to monitor the health of their own careers so that their work is not exploited by others. But if an artist is not perceived as possessing authority in their own realm independent of their business acumen, that is troubling.

Prashar doesn’t give specific examples of how she felt artists’ authority was being eroded. As I thought about how this problem might manifest, I began to wonder if this was actually related to the question of why we value art.

If an artist doesn’t feel they have the authority to say a work has value on its own, but needs to cite relevance in connection with social and political movements to convince others it has value, that may be just as problematic as economic impact and ability to raise test scores being the only rationale for granting funding.

You may be thinking that these elements are all important for getting people to participate in an event or other opportunity. People need to either perceive something is relevant to them or is worth their time and money as part of their decision to be present.

But can an artist walk into a room and say this thing is important and worth doing and be believed simply based on their authority as an artist? If not, why?

Is it because we have come to doubt or suspect their authority to make that statement despite 15 years of practice?

If I walk in and say the same thing is important and worth doing because 1000 people will pay $50, do you doubt my authority to make that statement? Do you think to inquire how much experience I have in making these predictions if I am waving a spreadsheet around instead of a violin bow?

Seeing Our Stories Told: The Hero At The End of Your Story Is The Victim At The Start of Mine

I saw a movie this weekend which embodied so much of what we talk about when we discuss empowering people to tell their stories and prominently displaying their stories.

In documentary Liyana, South African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe works with orphans in Swaziland to create a story as a way to help them process their trauma. As they go to work on creating the story, it is depicted in a gorgeous storybook illustration/animation. (Much to my surprise, there isn’t a print book. They are working on turning into a graphic novel.)

The film cuts back and forth between the animation, the orphans working with the storyteller, and telling Liyana’s story to interviewers. It is difficult to say which is more animated since the children (looking to be between 6-9 years old) narrate the action of the story with expansive gestures and vocalized sound effects.

The storyteller guides the children through a process that one might use in a U.S. classroom as part of a multi-disciplinary approach to instruction. (Unfortunately, a school in the U.S. would have to use “multi-disciplinary” as a rationale for engaging in such a time intensive project.)

Once they decide to name their hero Liyana, they assemble a picture of her from a collection of magazines. The children create animals out of mud (with much greater skill than I did as a kid) to represent the bull that accompanies Liyana on her quest to retrieve her twin brothers and the hyenas and crocodiles which threaten them on their journey. The illustration of the imaginary final monster closely resembles something they created from discarded metal found near the orphanage.

Unfortunately, Liyana’s life is a reflection of that of the orphans. Her father beats her mother and then both parents die of complications of the HIV virus, leaving her and her twin brothers in the care of their grandmother. We are told that of the 1.2 million people living in Swaziland, 200,000 are infected with HIV. Later we see the orphans being tested for the virus at a clinic.

Near the end, the children talk about how real life does not have a happy ending like many stories do. Part of me was hoping they had been coached to say that or things had been edited in that manner but I suspect that was a lesson they had already learned too well in their young lives.

Earlier in the movie, the storyteller asks them to decide why Liyana must leave her grandmother to make a journey. The first suggestion was that grandmother was sick and Liyana had to get medicine but the vote ultimately favored robbers came and kidnapped her twin brothers. I was wondering why they would choose the more severe of the two options when we learned the orphanage had recently been the target of a violent robbery. There were audible gasps and groans in the theater as the orphans calmly talked about how the robbers came in, held Liyana down and abused her.

It was a beautiful example of storytelling and story making. In addition to the more traumatic elements the process was meant to help the orphans deal with, you could easily identify the association between elements of the story and their lives.

Liyana is accompanied on her quest by a noble bull because the orphans care for cows and chickens. A grove of mango trees represented a life of ease that tempted Liyana from completing her quest because the orphans reveled in climbing mango trees and letting the juice run down their faces. It was the voice of a peacock sounding like Liyana’s grandmother that got her back on task.

I don’t want to give it away, but if there was anything that illustrated the value of people telling and seeing their own stories, it was the ending. For the children and the audience, it was a happy ending because it reflected an idealized vision of lives they could lead.

But in the U.S. the same basic scenario is synonymous with misery and is the starting point of many stories that the hero seeks to overcome. If the same storytelling program was run with orphans in the U.S. there would be a very different ending.


Museum 2.0 Gets Writer/Convenor 2.0

Hey all – You may or may not know that some months back Nina Simon, writer of Museum 2.0 blog, announced she was leaving her position at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) to devote herself more exclusively to OF/BY/FOR ALL which strives to “make community organizations.”

What does this mean? It means that if you want to be FOR your whole community, you have to be representative OF them and co-created BY them. If people don’t see themselves as part of your work, they won’t see your work as an essential part of their lives.

Putting up a “welcome” sign is not enough. To involve people in meaningful, sustainable ways, you can’t just make programs FOR them. You have to involve them in their creation. And that means becoming OF and BY them too.

Nina recently made her final post on Museum 2.0 saying she was handing the blog over to Seema Rao. Rao had actually done a few guest posts back in July. By quirk of the feed I use to read blogs, I caught her first few posts and, not realizing it wasn’t Nina, wondered how the heck Nina had had the time to visit all these museums she was talking about AND run MAH AND be hitting the speaking circuit so much.

Since I was already intrigued by what Rao was writing under a mistaken identity, needless to say I think the blog is being left in good hands. I look forward to seeing what she posts.

In her final post, Nina reflects on her 13 years of blogging and how conflicted she was with her sense of obligation to the blog and readers. Then how she came to accept the trade-offs of going to a more infrequent, but perhaps more satisfying publishing schedule.

I can relate with her feelings on the subject having had many of the same thoughts myself throughout the years. Like her, I have often regarded blogging as a way to “think out loud” and organize my thoughts on different subjects. When I go back through the archives, I can certainly see how both my personal philosophy and the collective mind of the arts and cultural industry have evolved over the last decades.

I write this post as a tribute to the difficult and thoughtful work Nina has done over the years, providing leadership for many of us in the arts community as she is likely to increasingly do in the future. I am also writing to encourage people to pay attention to Museum 2.0 as a blog because Nina’s choice to transition it to a new writer is really a manifestation of the philosophy and intent she has long espoused:

Nina writes:

1. Museum 2.0 is about participation, but I never fully succeeded in making it participatory. Because I’d built the blog originally to do my own writing and learning, I rarely invited guest writers. I never experimented here with models for collective writing. … I wished Museum 2.0 could break free of me and become more dialogic, led by a strong writer AND online convenor. I believe Seema Rao is this person and I hope you’ll join me in reading and participating as Museum 2.0 grows. There will be new experiments and approaches – alongside the archive of what we’ve built thus far.

Arts Not An Indulgence When So Many Social Justice Issues Need Attention

Apparently Vu Le of Nonprofit AF blog spoke at Association of California Symphony Orchestras last week. (those lucky dogs) In his post this week, he addresses the question about whether arts and culture have value when there are so many health and social justice problems that need to be attention. As the executive director of a social justice non-profit, he knows very well just how much organizations like his need funding and attention.

He says yes, arts and culture definitely play an important role in society and helping to address the problems we face. He mentions that as an immigrant from Vietnam, both music and art saved his life and made him feel valuable when he was doing poorly in school due to his lack of English literacy.

“I began to look forward to the art projects. For so long I had sucked at everything that required English, including gym (I could not understand the rules of various activities, like volleyball). With art, I felt competent and respected and sure of myself. My being good at something changed the way the other kids saw me. Art motivated me to continue to learn, to explore. It gave me confidence. It kept me in school.”

In blog posts throughout the years, I have often pointed out that people turn to art, music, theater, etc to help them cope with tragedy and difficulty in their lives. But of course, as a person in the arts, I am predisposed to look for those connections. So I was happy to read that Le had observed similar situations.

He is definitely aware of all the places arts and cultural organizations fall short of serving all segments of their communities. But he disputes the argument that the arts are indulgent in when there is such need in the world and expresses gratitude for the work arts practitioners do.  As long as the following excerpt is, a number of his expressions of gratitude are edited out so it is worth reading the whole post just for that.

I’m telling you these stories because when there is so much going on, so many problems to solve, sometimes we think of art and music as indulgent. Who has time for singing and dancing and stained-glass snowflakes when kids are starving or locked in cages? By thinking this way, we forget about art and music’s power to heal, mobilize, build community, and so much more.


Art and music are critical in our work for social justice, as frequently they are the only things that can reach people, that can provide comfort or generate the visceral, raw emotions needed for social change. After the election in 2016, when many families and children were terrified, Families of Color Seattle gathered the kids and used art—having the kids draw themselves as superheroes, for example—to help them process their feelings. And this year protesters in Hong Kong, are singing “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables as they do a sit-in at the airport.

Yes, there are plenty of things to improve on. Art and music are not always accessible to marginalized communities. Resources are not equitably distributed to artists of color, artists with disability, LGBTQ artists. And in public schools, art and music programs are always the first to get cut, and the schools with the most low-income kids and kids of color are disproportionately affected. Symphonies, orchestras, ballets, and other art forms continue to struggle with diversity and community engagement.

While we work on those challenges, though, let’s take a moment to appreciate the organizations and professionals who are creating art and music, whose skills and dedication bring beauty and hope and happiness to a world sorely in need of it.

Send this to a friend