Getting Our *&%# Together

Diane Ragsdale’s recent blog entitled “When did being pro-artist make one anti-institution?” is a thought-provoking response to a speech she heard at the Theatre Communication Group conference in Boston a couple weeks ago. I recommend you read the blog and the speech.  It made me wonder, once again, why we are so hard on each other in this business? Why are we so persistent on having petty arguments amongst ourselves when we should be supporting every aspect of our world so that it can all prosper? Sound Pollyannaish? I think it sounds like a unified sector using its muscle, not just flexing it.

Why do we do this? Here’s one theory. We come from a culture of scarcity and inferiority. Sometimes, I equate it to a culture of oppressed people. People who can do nothing to improve their situation except create a hierarchy within their own culture that oppresses other people even less fortunate than themselves. So we find ways to bicker about the fact that excellence of art is more important than the process of making art…that art therapists aren’t really artists…that teaching artists aren’t really teachers…that musicians are less creative than visual artists…that amateur artists are a threat to professional artists. And the list goes on…

As a past lobbyist for the arts, I would get feedback about the arts from non-arts people like elected officials, state government workers and the press. What I witnessed and heard was that the arts were rarely clear about what they wanted, and that often times, the right hand didn’t know or agree with what the left hand was doing. In that world, we were just the “arts people.” Major institutions and amateur community organizations were one and the same. They didn’t differentiate between an artist who did residencies in the schools and a specialist teaching art in the classroom full time. As one appropriation chair once said to me years ago, “You arts people go out in the hall and get your *&%# together.” (This is sometimes how elected officials talk, in case you are shocked.)

I think we’re better about getting our *&%# together these days but we could be better about uniting the arts sector as opposed to dividing it. Professional against amateur, institution versus individual, process versus product, economics against aesthetics, and haves versus have-nots. Let’s take all the “against” and “versus” words and change them to “and.” I’d like to see more people talking about artists and the institutions that support them instead of talking about institutions like they were people.

But regardless, I hope we could write and talk about this sector holistically in all its manifestations from small town theatres to major national treasures. Let’s make sure we’re not generalizing or lumping us all together because as much as we believe there is one “model” for operating, there is not. And in this time of transition where everything is fluid, we have an opportunity to show the rest of the world that there is solidarity between artists and those organizations that support them in every discipline, in every place, for everyone. Then we all win.