While this post was inspired by the recent Americans for the Arts Conference in Pittsburgh, I’m not labeling it as AftA Thoughts like my other two because it’s inspired by 1) a session I did not attend and 2) a post-conference gathering of NASAA’s (National Assembly of State Arts Agencies) Community Development Network.
In the former, Holly Sidford was interviewed about her research. While hearsay is a notoriously unreliable way to gather information for reporting on an event, she is said to have observed that there are “two tribes” in the arts world. One is the group of arts workers associated with the arts establishment, the SOB’s (symphony, opera, ballet), for example–the arts-focused or artcentric tribe; the other is the arts workers who see art as a means of improving communities, the community-focused one. Having done excellent work in Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change (about funding inequities in the arts favoring big box artcentricity) and Bright Spots (about high performance community-oriented arts organizations), she is well positioned to consider this. The thrust of her speculation was apparently that the two are so different it might be better for each to follow its own separate path and not attempt to influence each other. (Forgive me if I have either content or nuance wrong there.)
In the latter, NASAA’s Community Development Network (community development professionals from state arts councils) met to discuss the members’ work. I was a speaker for this gathering, so I may be especially inclined to think kindly of them. (I do.) This is a group devoted to the the idea that the arts make lives better and self-identifies with Sidford’s second “tribe.” Indeed, that word was used by several attendees though without reference, I believe, to Ms. Sidford’s session.
Jonathan Katz (CEO of NASAA) in his remarks to the group acknowledged the long-standing separation between the two tribes in Europe and Canada, where cultural animateurs or animators have been part of the landscape for years but work separately from the arts establishment. (Or at least with a considerably different focus/sphere of influence.) He too wondered whether the twain could meet.
I see myself as a product of the artcentric tribe (Eastman will do that to you) but a convert to many of the principles of the community-focused one. I have either dual citizenship . . . or none. What concerns me about the “separate but equal” advice is 1) it’s not really equal, that was just a rhetorical flourish on my part and 2) the separate part does not, in my opinion, bode well for the long-term future of the arts establishment. The tides of demography and economics are moving in ways that don’t augur good things for it. Let me be more direct. I think if the artcentric tribe does not connect more effectively with communities, it’s toast. As an outsider at the party, the community-oriented tribe does have some fairly important lessons to teach the artcentric one, if it will listen.