Now that I have your attention . . . .
I have just concluded an eight week marathon attending five conferences across the U.S. and beyond. At each, something leapt out at me for blog posting. (Indeed, I think I milked the American Association of Museums Conference for four entries.) There are still some left to craft and inflict upon you. However, today, the last shall be first.
At the Americans for the Arts Conference in San Antonio last weekend, I attended a session on “innovation.” It focused on EmcArts’ ArtsForward program, but that’s not what I want to talk about here. Attendees at that session were asked to examine basic assumptions for the purpose of considering whether such assumptions get in the way of valuable change. (That’s a weak paraphrase of the assignment.)
I had already been thinking about a way to articulate what I consider to be an important change of perspective that’s required for effective community engagement. The assumption that needs consideration is the one many (most) of us have, that art, in and of itself, is . . . fundamental. As I intimated earlier in Art for Art’s Sake? There’s No Such Thing, the deification of art removes (or at least distances) it from its role in human experience. And it is that role that is crucial. Isn’t it the power the arts have in our own lives that drew us to the field? In addition, and this is the important part with respect to engagement, focus on the art as opposed to its role in individuals’ lives makes it easier to (unconsciously) ignore the fact that many are not moved by what we do. The art-focused view has the subliminal effect of supporting the “If we build it . . .” mindset. This impedes the potential for community engagement.
Art is vital to human experience. I take a back seat to no one in my commitment to the importance of art. I am simply observing that our “habit of mind” about the utter centrality of art can get in the way of serving the community; and, on the practical level, it can in turn get in the way of the arts being supported by that community. I have discussed before, and will again, the implications for our work of reassessing this assumption. There are many. But for now, imagine how your work would be different if its focus were on the point where art and people (many more than do so today) connect. For those of you who are already there, my hat is off to you.