"Don't Judge Me" (Janet's Blog)

(03-16-2011) “Don’t judge me” is a line that my daughter started using in high school. It usually came after ordering dessert, talking about a party or spending money on something crazy. I’ve always liked it. It’s pretty honest. Whenever she saw “that look” on my face, she would say, “don’t judge me.” This made me stop and think about why I was being critical. Was it because she was doing something differently than I would do it or was there really an issue to be discussed? In our work in the arts, we might need more voices saying, “don’t judge me.”

I think the concept of “judging” is one that has kept the arts community from taking a united stand in making our case with the general public and decision-makers. Let me explain. We are quick to judge artistic value and excellence, not just in performance or artwork, but in the perceptions of where we believe good art exists and how good art is defined. Just the other day, I read a tweet that said “a day without art is like a day in a small town.” I thought, “That’s a pretty damn arrogant statement.” Having spent years working in the heartland with artists and arts administrators who believe that art should be a part of everyone’s life and work hard to make it happen, I think this kind of judging stinks.

I spent an amazing couple of days recently in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. In the perceptual pecking order of cultural Meccas, these cities probably don’t land on many people’s top ten list. But, whoa, look again. They have amazing cultural institutions, private and public funders and individuals who are incredibly supportive and an infrastructure of service organizations from local arts agencies to artist networks. Supporting artists and arts organizations “where people live” is a concept that was embraced by community arts developers decades ago and thankfully has gained momentum as of late.

Ben Cameron said in a recent speech about our changing times, “This is a crises of urgency and relevancy.” Until we can support the least among us, attempting to make the arts relevant to their community, then we can’t really move forward as a sector. We should be more sensitive to not judge the quality, definitions of art or determination of an arts community until you’ve seen the people and understand the work they are doing.

We can’t say we’re not elitist if, within the arts sector, we believe that someone else’s art isn’t sophisticated enough, cutting edge enough or whatever enough. Whether its folkarts, culturally specific art or community theatre and orchestras, the eco-system from amateur to professional needs the full spectrum to be robust. And all people deserve respect for the art they produce no matter what the artform or where it is made. And yes, artists live everywhere, even in small towns.

There is certainly a depth of artmaking that is centered in cities where a critical mass of artists and support for their art propels innovation and excellence. That is a blessing to us all. But we must try not to judge artists and arts groups as less than authentic or meaningful to the communities they serve because they are not in one of those cities; or because their artforms are not within the definition of white Euro-centric cultural institutions. We judge out of fear and we accept out of love. More love, please, for all artists, arts organizations, audiences and communities no matter who they are, what they produce or where they live.