Altar Call

Let me be the last, seemingly, to jump on the bandwagon of Diane Ragsdale’s post, If our goal is simply to preserve our current reality, why pursue it? Most blogs dealing with the future of the arts are picking up on it, and many of the Emerging Leaders who posted as part of Americans for the Arts recent blog salon referenced it. The latter phenomenon I take to be particularly heartening. I would simply ask all of them to remember this after they have finally “emerged.” I have thoroughly enjoyed reading all the commentary and, since I think it has now been a respectable amount of time since I have piggybacked on her writing, I’m ready to do so again.

But where do I begin? In many ways, given my perspective and driving passion, I could simply re-post it here and be done. But that seems incredibly lazy.

Ms. Ragsdale’s post begins by citing the principles that undergird Finland’s demonstrably excellent system of public education and goes from there to consider public education in the U.S. in comparison and to draw lessons for the arts in this country. Of particular interest to me (and others, notably Scott Walters in a comment on the post) was Finland’s commitment to equity. “Finland pursued education reform by aiming its teachers and schools at the goal of achieving social equity (“every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location”), not excellence.” Those would be fighting words in a meritocracy where economic class is not seen to have any impact on the potential for “merit.” Oh wait, they are fighting words . . . .

The post then presents an existential question for the arts establishment in the U.S., one that I and others have said in other ways. I really like this way of framing the issue:

In ten or twenty more years does the nonprofit arts and culture sector want to be the US education system: excellent art for rich people and mediocrity, lack of resources, and lack of opportunity for everyone else? Or do we want to be Finland’s: high quality artistic experiences . . . for every man, woman, and child? Like most universities, do we want to limit our reach to those that have the time, money, privilege, proximity, and courage/comfort . . .  to access us at our venues? Or do we want to collaborate as a sector with the goal of making it possible for anyone to have affordable (online, big screen, small screen, gaming system, etc.) access to high quality arts education and performances?

And speaking of fighting words, Ms. Ragsdale goes on to say, quite baldly, what many of us have been saying in somewhat less direct ways:

Just because the arts have been an elitist form of entertainment as long as most of us can remember is no excuse for that to continue to be our story in the future.

Just because we have wrongly and self-servingly bought into and sold to others the idea that to be ‘talented’ you had to be a ‘professional’ and to make ‘art’ you had to be a ‘nonprofit’ doesn’t mean we need to continue to make the same mistake.

We got it wrong the first time.

If our goal for the next century is to hold onto our marginalized position and maintain our minuscule reach—rather than being part of the cultural zeitgeist, actively addressing the social inequities in our country, and reaching exponentially greater numbers of people— then our goal is not only too small, I would suggest that it may not merit the vast amounts of time, money, or enthusiasm we would require from talented staffers and artists, governments, foundations, corporations, and private individuals to achieve it.

With my Southern Baptist experience–which ended some time ago–as a backdrop, I now feel ready for an altar call. (And now you get the photo.) Seriously, this is what my blog and my related work are all about. The only addition I want to make is that I fully understand how we got here and I sympathize deeply with the many members of the arts establishment who recognize (both consciously and subconsciously) the truth of these words but are (or feel) unable to move. I want (and plan) to work with them in making what is an essential but very difficult transition. And let me make it clear that I am not saying Ms. Ragsdale does not. I know her. We have spoken many times. I feel privileged to call her a friend. She does as well. But sometimes, for the sake of getting the attention needed to generate change, a certain level of “in your face” rhetoric is required. Say on, Ms. Ragsdale . . . .

And in response, let the rest of us



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