Convocation of the Parts to Envision the Whole

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 27, No 2 (Summer 2016)

Eric Booth

September 2021. At the convocation address to every entering student at a US university/college/community college arts program, conservatory, and high school of the arts:

“Welcome to the beginning of your lifelong career as an artist. It’s a new world. A previous generation of artists recognized the minuscule likelihood of making a full living solely from studio work or performing, so the old expectation was that there would be two parts to your career: making your art, and then the other work you had to do to make enough money and keep your life going (work that was art-related, if things went well).

“In that previous generation, however, there were also many artists living a different kind of career. They were art makers, and their additional endeavors went by different names — community artist, teaching artist, artist-in-residence, artist-activist, consulting artist. They were the pioneers of a new kind of career in which there was no split, no duality; they lived a different, sustainable definition of art and artist in which art making with participants in a neighborhood center, a middle school, a political action, or a senior center was all part of being an artist.

“Thanks to their pioneering efforts, this new kind of career is going to be easier for you to create for yourself after you have finished your artistic education. The technical skills you will spend so much time mastering during your training — to get intonation right on the viola, to perfect your jeté, to make the painting come alive, to improvise a strong scene, or to craft a poetic line or animated short — these skills will not be what is needed in some of those non-arts buildings you will work in. But the artist in you is exactly what is needed in all those settings, and more settings that are discovering the power of artists.

“The work in schools and other community settings is an expansion of your artistry, an additional set of opportunities to engage people in the relevance and impact of artistic experiences. If you think your job is to play well for a symphony for a lifetime or to become a celebrity rapper, you are part of the problem, not part of the future. If you think your job as an artist is to find and create pathways for art to make a better world, welcome.”

• • •

That convocation speech in five years is admittedly wishful thinking, but the vision is right. It was an unspoken shared vision, I think, in the room in St. Louis where GIA’s Thought Leader Forum on Artists in Community Settings spent a day of conversation, which Margaret Hasse describes so much better than I could in her article in this issue of the Reader. The forum had all the hallmarks of a great “first” conversation. It was impassioned and complex; it was too preliminary to come to resolutions; it whetted appetites for more exploration as people began to get a feel for the possibility and power of better supporting artists who work in community and educational settings.

Participants clearly agreed that there are a number of historically separate segments to this “field,” subdivisions that are recognized by different names, supported by different means, aspiring to different goals, and proud of their traditions and practices. They recognized that the pathways into and within each of these separate fields is disorganized and quirky at best. Proud claims were made about shining examples of excellence within each field that too few know about. There was a shared sense of the undertapped potential of artists engaged in social, political, and educational change. (This Polynesian adage ran through my head repeatedly: We stand on the back of a whale fishing for minnows.) Participants also agreed that support within those different segments is inadequate, and that no agreement has been reached yet on the best means to begin funding the wider field in ways that build its overall capacity and help artists live the careers described above in the convocation address.

We have much of the raw material we need to move toward such a vision. Toward the end of the day, we were just beginning to move toward suggestions of experiments in new kinds of support. In my view, the time is right, the demand is growing, and the challenge before us is to identify leverage points where we can invest funding that aligns and catalyzes our existing resources. We have thousands of artists (tens of thousands) who are living and crafting such careers, although few are widely known, and fewer still are celebrated for their broad range of accomplishments. Many programs excel in the development and support of such artistry, but few people in the wider public or even in the arts are aware of these accomplishments and how pioneering programs achieve and sustain them. We have a cohort of funders who have found inventive, reliable, atypical ways of supporting artists to engage in non-arts settings, but their successes and strategies are also not widely known. We have a range of cross-sector partnerships that successfully enable artists to create remarkable outcomes for non-arts organizations, but the vast majority of potential non-arts partners have no clue of this potential and what it might do for them. We have a gigantic pool of artists who would be effective in this work but don’t know about it, don’t know how to develop the skills or how to find opportunities. The pieces are there to align, if smart funding can create thoughtful planning opportunities to identify those blockages and powerful connection points, and invest in change.

At the beginning of the forum, I used the old metaphor from India of the blind men describing the part of the elephant they were exploring with their hands as if it were the whole truth of an elephant. We all struggle with this blindness as we begin to sense the field as a whole and not just as autonomous parts. Thank you, funders, for your support of the parts, and it is no one’s fault that that support has not yet been coordinated into a larger vision, a larger coordination that can create more visibility, more capacity, more integration, more equity, more positive change in the world. Thank you, GIA, for inviting us to get the first feel for a whole elephant and begin thinking together how we can ensure its health and help it grow to its gigantic potential.

My Takeaways

I came away with the following conclusions, and these are just my personal views — I know that others came away with different understandings.

Stem Cell Capacities

This concept first occurred to me at the first International Teaching Artist Conference in 2012 (held in Oslo), where artists from twenty-three countries shared their practices in education and communities — the widest possible spectrum of purposes and practices, labeled with a wide array of artist titles, from theater for social development in a rural Tanzanian village to aesthetic education approaches to a Merce Cunningham dance from Lincoln Center Education. I identified thirteen tools that every one of those artists used, whatever their moniker, place, or practice, and began to think of them as “stem cells” of creative, community engagement and pedagogical practice. Looking just at the practice of US artists who work in communities and education, I know there are a small set of “stem cell” understandings and practices deep in artists who are good at this work; these stem cells must be nurtured in the development of all artists and can be guided to grow into many kinds of skills and expertise in different areas and participant groups. We need to know the stem cells better, to focus on their development in artists, and to make new partners aware of what those stem cell capacities can do for them.

Purpose Threads

I come away from the forum convinced more than ever about the utility of organizing the “whole field” around the purposes for which artists are deployed. Rather than the more traditional understanding of a field organized around the locations of employment or kind of employer, which tends to entrench silo thinking and confirm the differentness of “teaching artists,” “community artists,” and “artist activists” (even though the same individuals often serve in multiple roles), we can understand the field as comprised of “purpose threads.” Before the forum, I proposed six major threads that describe the goals of the field, and we had sent participants a short essay that laid out the theory. After the forum, I added a seventh thread, and I am working with colleagues to refine the wording further to better weave the threads to hold the “whole” field.

Semantics

While palaver about semantics can become academic quibbling without practical consequence, we do have some key words with connotations that hold and entrench the sense of separateness. We don’t need full agreement around terms, but we do need to loosen the tight grip on a few to allow empathy to flow, so that synergy and collaboration can naturally arise. With more reflection and time together, the associations around the words teaching, community, and even artist can ease, I am sure.

I have special interest in our field’s understanding of the word excellence. The connotations here are serious and need to be addressed over time, because they represent a tectonic issue marking the place where two value systems meet; there is latent friction and disruption because of the depth of the issue. The two value systems are those of the arts institution establishment, which feels it owns the definitions of aesthetic quality, and those of the many others who feel there are multiple definitions of excellence that cannot be owned by elite “experts” and that are discovered and valued in specific contexts. To many in the wide-view field of the arts, the question instantly arises when discussing the quality of artists’ work in various settings: According to whose definition of excellence?

The 2021 convocation speaker believes that there are multiple kinds of excellence, and each one matters a lot. The speaker also thinks that the criteria of excellence need to be transparent for learners and participants, not to make them feel good but to build muscle in the artistry of participants.

Cautionary Notes

We should note two cautions that arose in considering experimentation in new ways of funding this fully inclusive field. One was the importance of watching for unintended consequences (first, do no harm): being alert to the outcomes in which supporting the field in one way hurts it in another. The other was the importance of social justice: making sure that historically inequitable funding patterns are avoided to ensure inclusive advancement of the field. This field of artists who work with participants in many settings is organically diverse in a healthy way that is rare in the arts industries, and funding experiments must be attentive to expanding this inclusivity to those who are often left out.

Bracketing the Conference

Two serendipitous moments framed our day and reinforced the themes of our hypothetical convocation speaker. In the morning, as we were settling in, I chatted with a poet who had come to the Regional Arts Commission (our host) for a meeting and was curious about all these out-of-towners. He runs a lively poetry-in-the-schools program he devised eight years before, but he had never heard of teaching artists or community artists before. How poignant a metaphor to start the day — an artist who is living the vision of that 2021 convocation speech who had never even heard of the field that we were looking to grow. Shame on us for leaving him on his own for so many years, unaware that he is a valuable part of a larger whole.

Just outside the windows, another metaphor unfolded during the day. In opening the forum, Janet Brown challenged us with the analogy of taking a large area that is currently traveled by many gravel and dirt roadways, and putting in some more solid infrastructure, some roads that all can use to ease and speed movement — infrastructure that is essential if we are ever to arrive at that convocation address. Outside of the building where we met, a light-rail line was being constructed. Our forum room had a wall of windows that enabled us to observe the concrete being poured for the segment directly in front of us. What a hopeful metaphor — an efficient piece of infrastructure being built right in front of our eyes, as Janet envisioned. Light-rail is an old technology that proves to be brilliantly effective to solve current problems, just as the ancient power of artists can be used to answer the most complex current social problems. The concrete advance we witnessed was hyperlocal, just one block, but it was part of a larger infrastructure plan that will change the life of a city. The GIA forum provided the first stakeholder meeting to look at the possible challenges, to consider a possible plan for how we might create highways to that “convocation” and to a new beginning for the arts in the United States.

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