Two Tribes

CatDogWhile 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.



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    • says

      And if the those in our communities don’t learn (or are not taught to learn) how to spell Picasso, or become as interested in art institutions as they are in NASCAR then they will become stale bread. If predominately white private high schools don’t teach the difference between the teen age vampire movies and Hopi Indian masks, or black inner city students what differentiates Beyounce shaking her booty from Jay-z dancing with Marina Abromovic then good old toast will be passed over time and time again for Hot Pockets.

      Our bread won’t ever rise as a society if writers like Mr. Borwick continues to scapegoat intellectualism for the problems of disenfranchisement, or confuse banality and stupidity for the lack of engagement with our art institutions. And if our art advocacy organizations continue their lack of protest against societies lack of investment in our cultural institutions, our primary and secondary educational systems, if we continue to allow capitalistic job training to replace liberal arts education, if the arts organizational field continues to buy into the myth that the arts need to think and function like every other business does, then it’s a guarantee that ridiculous and mocking terms like “artcentric” will continue to be used by a populism that doesn’t even know what art is.

  1. says

    These tribes can’t be separated. The goal of the art tribe is to engage and inspire, in that order. And it goes in that order because you can’t inspire an audience if they’re not engaged in what your doing. The goal of the engagement tribe is to use great art as a tool for building stronger communities. The stronger the art, the stronger the potential for transformative engagement.

  2. says

    Curious that you don’t include theatre or any forms of dance other than ballet in the SOB’s. Is that because we understand inherently our connection to communities or because the SOB’s consider us lessor arts? Frankly, that is a bigger tribal divide.

    • says

      It’s really not all that curious. I did not originate this use of “SOB.” It’s simply an identifier for big gun arts organizations. There’s nothing about it, to my knowledge, intended to favor or exclude theatre or other forms of dance. Your point is well taken. There was no intent on my part to exclude any category of arts organization. There is plenty of room for improvement in all.

  3. says

    As a former tribal leader of the communities band there is another canvas upon which this divide plays out–funding. Forward-thinking state and local agencies are forever creating ways to incentivise, through money and policy, the “big guns” or “the majors” (a term I dislike as much as SOBs) to expand their thinking and yes, democratize, product, audiences, governance and operations. Hence all the questions about demographics of staff, board and audiences on grant applications.
    I was always mindful that if governments are taking tax money from people’s pockets and investing it in the arts then it is the responsibility of those who receive it use it to provide ACCESS . Until the demographics of audiences mirror the demographics of donors and investors, this remains a challenge for BOTH tribes. Progress is very slow and very much worth the sometimes contentious effort. I give a lot of credit to public agencies who don’t overplay their hands AND to large institutions who understand their future vibrancy demands attention to demographic change.