Take the Arts Out of the Box

I once said to a gubernatorial candidate, “I want you to take the arts out of the box you’ve put them in and think about it differently.” The state senator who had set up the meeting looked at me like I was crazy. I knew I was in risky territory. This was an elected official who wasn’t an “arts” guy. You wouldn’t find him at the symphony, opera, museum or theatre, at least not willingly. I knew I had to approach asking for his support in a different way. We went on to discuss the place of artists in rural communities, the economic impact of small arts businesses in closed schools and abandoned store fronts, access to arts education for at-risk children in poverty and the inspiration the arts can be to keep kids in school. We talked about how government funding can mandate access. He talked about his daughter who was a visual artist.

Long story short, it was a successful conversation and laid the groundwork for eight years of his support after he was elected governor. But it began with my realization that this individual had a very narrow view about the arts that I represented and believed artists impacted a very small percentage of people in his state. He wasn’t thinking about neighborhood or community festivals, music on the football field, the organist in his church, the children performing plays at school, the graphic design for his business logo or the interior designer who remodeled the historic home where we were meeting. None of that came to mind when I mentioned, “the arts.”

This was about 20 years ago and today, in my role as executive director of Grantmakers in the Arts, I see funders, artists and arts organizations working “outside the box” in increasing numbers with growing support. We are talking about the power of the arts to teach, inform, celebrate and inspire.  There isn’t a segment of our society (environmental, medicine, history, architecture, human services, military, education, commerce and more) that isn’t reliant and/or supported by artists in some way. Whole industries and associations have grown up around artists working in “other places.”

This year, at Grantmakers in the Arts, we will dig deeper into the role of artists in healthcare and aging by participating in a Health, Aging and the Arts Strategic Session with Grantmakers in Health and Grantmakers in Aging. We will host a preconference on the same subject at our annual conference in Miami. Organizations like the National Center for Creative Aging and the Society of for Arts and Healthcare are the wealth of information on successful programs using artists in hospitals, hospice, nursing homes to help those in need but also in healthy aging in retirement communities. This is just one segment of society where artists are making a difference.

When we think and talk about the arts, it is helpful to take them “out of the box” that most Americans have put them in and talk about arts in our own lives, in the lives of all Americans, in our churches, our schools, our neighborhood festivals, and as a “safety net” for peoples whose art has lifted them out of poverty and despair and into hope. It all forms the eco-system in which we operate, whether you’re in the box or out of it.

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Janet, your "Out of the Box"

Janet, your "Out of the Box" concept has aroused some almost dormant thoughts in me. For years I worked in community theatre and traditional worship, all the time
lamenting the fact that we were not breaking "Out of the Box" and, therefore, not reaching whole new generations of children, youth and young adults. In theatre, we have continued to regurgitate lines from many wonderful plays, but have not ventured boldly into the creative realm.

I was first awakened in the 1970's a when I attended a workshop which featured the Bread & Puppet Theatre with Peter Schuman. Peter utilized large puppets and street drama that he first experimented with in NYC. Quite a few groups have picked up on the puppet idea, but not so many on the concept of creative street drama to poke the human conscious regarding important social/world issues. At the conference the troupe presented a 12 minute piece on Viet Nam that was indelibly planted in the hearts and minds of those present.

I returned home and wrote a similarly styled play that I prepared for presentation at a youth conference utilizing an hour a day for five days. Since we employed a narrator, masks, dance, drum, simple props, etc., there were no lines to recite--most of the attention was on movement. My observation was that the dramas were as effective, if not more so, than the majority of three-act plays that require months of time and preparation.

In the 1960's many of us attempted to contemporize worship using multi-media, dance, drama, creative arrangements, etc. Many of these attempts were blocked by religious traditionalist who wanted no change in the "Old Time Religion". The result has been the decline of the main-line churches which could not reach the younger generation. Then there developed a desperate, somewhat half-hearted, attempt to appease younger congregants by offering alternative "Praise Worship Services" which in many cases is little more that warmed-over church retreat/campfire songs from the 40's and 50's--acceptable to the hard-core traditionalist though hardly embraced by them. It was a "carrot" which likely will wither with time.

I don't know where I am going with this, but just felt the need to let off some steam. I still have the hope and the dream that our communities/churches/schools will get on a more meaningful, creative, productive tract and start reaching lives and attacking injustice in refreshing new ways.

And so it is--or could be!
Bill Sharpe

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