Response to The Chasm of Disbelief

The following is an incredibly thoughtful response written by Carter Gilles to my post The Chasm of Disbelief. I am particularly grateful to him for pointing out the important role that doing the arts, participating in the arts, can play in overcoming disbelief. Once again, thanks Carter!

Doug Borwick


Carter Gilles

The idea that ‘the arts are not valuable’ is not simply a statement in isolation but the conclusion from a larger point of view. The belief that the arts don’t matter is not simply words uttered but a practice of not seeing them as mattering. Among the things that surround the idea that the arts don’t matter is the curious perception that we have nothing to do with them. The quote you share from Jonathan Katz nails it:

This disinclination to believe is rooted in unexamined assumptions that the arts do not touch the lives of more than a select few.

It’s not just that the arts don’t matter but that the arts are by other people and for other people. And part of this assumption rests on the observation that the things that happen in the arts are themselves alien to us. It is the view that what happens on a stage is fundamentally different from what happens on the radio, what is displayed in museums is fundamentally different from what happens in one’s home. It is the feeling that whatever we ourselves do, it has nothing to do with the arts.

But the interesting thing is that no one got to be this alien sort of artist from an alien birth. Everyone who makes a profession of the arts started out as a kid with crayons and paint, with lumps of clay and sandboxes filled with toys. We did all those things with little more than some raw materials and a bounty of imagination. Everyone started as an artist because this is what humans do. [Emphasis by Doug Borwick]

The thing we are denying when we say “the arts don’t matter” is that they matter to us. The idea that they don’t matter to us depends on the impression that they have no place in our lives. And the perception that they are somehow separate from us depends on the hallucination that we ourselves were never engaged in art. 

This is not so much a matter of belief as of forgetting. Somehow we have forgotten that art DID matter to us, that we ourselves were artists, and that we too, even now, have the capacity for creativity and expression. It may just need dusting off, but we are not untouched by it.

And if it is true that part of what we are dealing with is a matter of forgetting, then this can be addressed in a way that disbelief can’t be. 

Beliefs are part of a larger structure, and you cannot just peel one off the surface without severing the connections it has in other beliefs and practices. Replacing disbelief with belief is not a straightforward surgery. Belief is not the tool to overcome disbelief. But the idea that we can remind someone of what they already knew is a different task. The best way to remember something is to do it oneself. Like riding a bike. [Emphasis by Doug Borwick] The Gordian Knot of disbelief is cut through with simple acts of remembering.

If you forget you know how to ride a bike you won’t believe you can. Is that chasm of disbelief something real? It may take a few tries, but if you have learned to ride a bike and simply forgotten it disbelief is a sort of mischief we perpetrate on ourselves. A self sabotage.

We don’t earn our disbelief merely through neglect. Some things are worth disbelieving and we have valid reasons for doing so. To have forgotten something and for that reason alone disbelieve it is itself a prodigious leap into mythology and illogic. It sets up misremembering as the standard of veracity, dismantles proof, and invites relativism.

There are things that are true whether we believe them or not. Disbelief in the wrong hands makes a mockery of the truth. The arts matter, despite the words of justification for tearing them down. It is not a condition of our disbelief alone that prevents us from seeing this.

Response to Listen vs. Tell

In Listen vs. Tell I spoke of the necessary switch from telling people about our work to listening to them as a pre-requisite for effective communication. 

As happens not infrequently, Carter Gilles responded thoughtfully and at length. He has given me permission to share his expansion on my thoughts here.


Carter Gilles

This particular phrasing [Listen vs. Tell] reminded me of the work that the philosopher Carol Gilligan did I think in the 80s. She has been criticized for framing her distinction in gender terms, and this is a bit unfair (she was not giving the final word but hoping to open a conversation). Her main point was that there are two different styles that we have in acting in the world and how we self identify. For me it seems they map directly onto the distinction you are making. She makes the point that “women define who they are by describing relationships. Men define themselves by separation, or the use of “I” statements.” 

In other words, the ‘male perspective’ embodies a sort of atomic conception of how things work, where the individual and his/her actions are isolated and act on others from the outside. The ‘female perspective’ by contrast embodies a conception of our actions that specifically live in the wider context of a community or conversation. The sense things make is from the INSIDE of these frameworks.

“Listen vs. tell” seems to capture some of that emphasis in that when we base a relationship merely on our own ability to tell things to others we treat ourselves and others as separate and isolated. When we listen there is an admission that we are merely a part of some larger whole, a conversation or a community, and that the role we necessarily share with others is active and engaged. 

I know you are searching for ways to phrase these ideas and help others make better sense of what you have in mind. There are happenings in so many fields that parallel what you are attempting to do. Your allusion to the internet styles was spot on, of course. 

One other distinction I find interesting that has some relevance to your ideas is the political analysis of George Lakoff who describes two basic styles of expectation for the role of government. He suggests that conservative minded folk have a more hierarchical expectation where there are defined roles and that the duty of a government is something like a strict parent, to keep folks in line and defend the borders/ideals. Liberals by contrast are folks who expect government to function by caring for the needs of the folks represented. Rather than handing down the law, the idea is seeing what things are necessary or important from the point of view of constituents as self-described, and then building out from there. “What matters to you?” rather than “This is important despite what you think.”

How I believe this relates to your distinction is that the strict parent version defines the role of those who tell us what is important and the rest are on the receiving end, much like in your “We Tell” version. The nurturant parent model is much more concerned with getting to know the people affected and to represent their unique circumstances and beliefs.


It’s wonderful to be able to take advantage of the insights offered by people smarter than I! Many thanks, Carter

Engage!

Doug

Carter Gilles is a working artist, a longtime arts instructor, and practicing Philosopher living in Athens, Georgia.

An Orchestral Musician’s View of Community Engagement: II

Guest post by Penny Brill

Penny Brill is an alumna of the Community Engagement Training offered by ArtsEngaged. Here she continues her advocacy for musicians to participate in community engagement efforts. (Part I of her essay was posted last week.) As she points out at the end of her essay, however, this work is not for all artists. In addition, for a variety of reasons arts organizations should not insist that artists participate in or lead community engagement efforts. (Let (Make) the Artists Do It (?)) The onus for commitment to and efforts in engagement must rest with arts organizations. Partnered with artists dedicated to and trained in engagement, their efforts can yield great results.


An Orchestral Musician’s View of Community Engagement: II

Repeated from last week: In a time of divisiveness, heightened awareness of inequalities, and lack of diversity, we as orchestral musicians have an opportunity as individuals, as part of small music ensembles, and as part of the full orchestra to collaborate with others in making a significant contribution toward positive change in our communities.

We can begin by asking” How can we help?” With the resources we have available in the form of contacts, visibility, and musical skills, how can we support pressing needs in the community? Can we collaborate in ways that will optimize use of our respective areas of expertise?

Our first step in answering that question is to go out into the community, out of our usual pathways, to observe and listen. We begin to see our city through other people’s eyes by spending time in their neighborhoods and noticing what issues they face. What does connection or engagement look like? Here are two more examples, ranging from one musician up to a large ensemble. Interactions utilizing individual musicians involve the greatest learning curve and adjustments, but each of these four settings requires some modification of the orchestral musician’s role.

Example 3: Over ten years ago, a string quartet of PSO players began participating in a memorial service at the local children’s hospital (CHP) to honor children who died there in the previous year. Spiritual Care, the medical team, support staff, the CHP music therapists, and administrators all contributed in one way or another to the service. Families contributed messages to their loved ones in the program booklet. Parents and siblings of children who died years before each talked about what life was like now. Our music, a mix of quartet arrangements and an improvised solo meditation, chosen to give hope, reassurance, and support, was an essential and powerful component of the service. The unspoken message of the service was that the whole community was working together to help these families through an unimaginably difficult time. Family members felt understood, connected, and supported.

Example 4: This past January the orchestra presented a creatively designed concert entitled “Lift Every Voice: Resonating Music, Words and Legacy” which was a long overdue recognition and celebration of African American talent, accomplishment, and culture. Narrated by Phylicia Rashad, it included the August Wilson Symphony by Kathryn Bostic, “Teenie Timeby Jay Ashby, Lyric for Strings by George Walker, 14-year-old Sphinx cellist Ifetayo Ali playing Lalo, and an inspiring, wide-ranging collection of other solo and ensemble pieces. This was a spiritually uplifting, unifying, and powerful shared experience with a remarkably diverse gathering of musicians and audience members.

Developing and implementing these kinds of group events challenges us to recognize what the audience needs, creatively find appropriate music, and identify musicians with the appropriate skills. This takes some time and much thought. But when we see positive results, we are profoundly energized, knowing we have connected in a very meaningful way. Our musical contribution is valued and has a positive impact.

Note: Not every musician is suited to participating in interactive, small group experiences: the musician may play an instrument that is too loud, hard to move, or unavailable at the venue. A musician may be uncomfortable working with the intended audience.
They may need help finding the right music, identifying the needs of the audience, discovering how to address those needs musically, or developing appropriate social skills to address the participants in an inviting manner. Because of the learning curve involved, the musician may not have the time, ability, or willingness to learn, follow someone else’s lead, or adjust as needed. But for those with a willingness to put in the time to listen and connect musically, this kind of interaction can be meaningful and uplifting.

There is ample opportunity to create programs as varied as the cities and the people we find to partner with. It takes a willingness to step into unfamiliar territory, listen, notice, create, and grow, but this work couldn’t be more necessary during these turbulent times.

Listen. Connect. Engage.

Penny Brill


Penny Brill is a graduate of Smith College and the Juilliard School and has been a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s viola section since 1980. Previously, she taught at the Oberlin Conservatory for two years and played viola for one season with the Buffalo Philharmonic. Ms. Brill was part of the AW Mellon Orchestra Forum as well as the Mellon Task Force, both of which were looking at the future direction of orchestras. She is the former Treasurer of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and chaired the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Committee. She is currently on the Board of U.N.-affiliated Music as a Global Resource, as well as the International Association of Music and Medicine (IAMM).

An Orchestral Musician’s View of Community Engagement: I

Guest post by Penny Brill

Penny Brill is an alumna of the Community Engagement Training offered by ArtsEngaged. Here she advocates for musicians to participate in community engagement efforts. As she points out at the end of her essay, however, this work is not for all artists. In addition, for a variety of reasons arts organizations should not insist that artists participate in or lead community engagement efforts. (Let (Make) the Artists Do It (?)) The onus for commitment to and efforts in engagement must rest with arts organizations. Partnered with artists dedicated to and trained in engagement, their efforts can yield great results.


An Orchestral Musician’s View of Community Engagement

Over the last twenty years I have played for children and adults with special needs, dementia patients, hospitalized children, grieving parents, and veterans in rehab or hospice. The number of musicians ranged from one to a hundred players. Audiences varied from ten people to thirty-five thousand. Some events were onetime only. Some were a series of interactions over a period of months.

Each interaction, no matter the scale, has the potential to improve our connection to each other, to reveal how our differences can be strengths and to reaffirm our common humanity. Ideally we all grow from these experiences.

In a time of divisiveness, heightened awareness of inequalities, and lack of diversity, we as orchestral musicians have an opportunity as individuals, as part of small music ensembles, and as part of the full orchestra to collaborate with others in making a significant contribution toward positive change in our communities.

We can begin by asking” How can we help?” With the resources we have available in the form of contacts, visibility, and musical skills, how can we support pressing needs in the community? Can we collaborate in ways that will optimize use of our respective areas of expertise?

Our first step in answering that question is to go out into the community, out of our usual pathways, to observe and listen. We see the urgent issues that a neighborhood faces, and look for ways to be supportive.
What does connection or engagement look like? Below are four recent examples, ranging from one musician up to a large ensemble. While interactions utilizing Individual musicians involve the greatest learning curve and adjustments, each of these four settings require some modification of the orchestral musician’s role.

Example 1: Twenty years ago I first started playing for patients and their families in the radiation oncology waiting area of a local hospital and under the guidance of a music therapist in the transplant area of another hospital. In addition to acquiring and learning a large amount of music I didn’t previously know, I observed that:

  • The people in the waiting area weren’t talking to anyone before I played, but began to talk to each other afterward.
  • Some wanted to share their stories, and playing music was the start of that conversation.
  • They were listening to my sound and musical intention, not how I played technically.
  • When I was teamed with the music therapist I was more effective at picking the right music and aiding the patient or family than when working alone. I could support and enhance what the music therapist was doing. 
I could see that playing and interacting in those settings completely changed the atmosphere from one of isolation and anxiety to one of connection and relief.

Example 2: Just this week a staff member and I interacted with a group of fifteen Alzheimer study members. They sang rounds, moved to music, and practiced deep breathing using some methods we adapted from the teachings of former Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal tubist Arnold Jacobs. By the end of the session the participants were visibly more relaxed and interacted with or were more aware of each other. Through connection and engagement with us, our interaction helped them with the social, cognitive, physical and artistic goals of the program.

[Next week, Ms. Brill will provide more examples as well as advice about the role musicians can (and perhaps should not) play in this work.]

Listen. Connect. Engage.

Penny Brill


Penny Brill is a graduate of Smith College and the Juilliard School and has been a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s viola section since 1980. Previously, she taught at the Oberlin Conservatory for two years and played viola for one season with the Buffalo Philharmonic. Ms. Brill was part of the AW Mellon Orchestra Forum as well as the Mellon Task Force, both of which were looking at the future direction of orchestras. She is the former Treasurer of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and chaired the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Committee. She is currently on the Board of U.N.-affiliated Music as a Global Resource, as well as the International Association of Music and Medicine (IAMM).

Your organization sucks at ‘community’ and let me tell you why

by Ronia Holmes,
Assistant Director of Communications for Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago

This post is part of a series in conjunction with TRG Arts on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Analysis from TRG Arts.)

ronia-holmesYour organization sucks at ‘community’
and let me tell you why:

Because it isn’t central to your mission. Period.

I hear you harrumphing as mission/vision/values/beliefs and goals statements are dragged out. Sure, your organization has been around for a century or more and these statements about your commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion are barely older than the Gen-Z unpaid intern managing the Facebook account, but still, these statements are proof that your organization is committed to community.

No, they’re not. So put them down, and let’s #RealTalk about communities, new audiences, the past, and the future.

Our shallow definition of “community”
Let’s start with a bit of honesty around language. ”Community,” as a blanket term in relation to engagement and outreach efforts, is code for a set of characteristics that check boxes. The communities on which arts organizations are focusing their limited and earmarked resources are “poor,” “marginalized,” “underserved,” preferably “of colour,” and possibly “at-risk.” They are communities whose phenotypical compositions will look good in photos and whose demographics will be heart-warming to funders, keeping at least one cash stream flowing.

For too many organizations, this shallow definition of community is the first hurdle to authentic relationship-building. Relationships are built with people, and not just underserved, marginalized people of color. They are also built with communities that don’t fall into those categories, and that’s ok, too. Regardless of label, organizations forget that people have context. Particularly for old and relatively well-funded organizations trying to reach new communities, that context becomes rather uncomfortable. Many organizations worried today about reaching new communities are organizations that have been in operation since a time when those same communities wouldn’t have been permitted to walk through their doors. These are organizations whose histories include blatant acts of exclusion and devaluation, and whose modern behavior, if less blatant, still reflects a foundational principle that certain cultural output is more worthy than others. Yet those same organizations are creating programmes and, in some cases, entire departments devoted to getting these communities to come to them and not only partake of their cultural offerings, but continue to support them through ticket purchases and donations.

“Now we’ve got a space for you!”
And this is the second hurdle to building community relationships: the arrogance of believing that these communities want or need or should invest in those offerings.

Disinvested communities are not devoid of arts and culture. In America particularly, communities who historically have been excluded from the table have responded by building their own tables, using whatever resources could be scraped together. Marginalized communities have established organizations that don’t treat them or their cultural output as deviations from the norm to be celebrated for diversity, but as fundamental components of society. The organizations they created, and continue to create, are replete with artists, leaders, decision-makers, and workers who look like and are part of the community they serve, who share similar lived experiences, and have a deep understanding of what programming will truly resonate.

These organizations are often in a constant struggle to survive in a system that is not only structured against them in terms of funding and other resource allocation, but that delivers a consistent message that what these community-based and -built organizations do is better handled by some organization several zip codes away. An organization that looks nothing like the community they’re supposedly courting, either in terms of staff composition or artistic output, and is almost inevitably delivering messages that run the spectrum of being tone-deaf, patronizing, or just plain offensive.

Rather than grapple with these deeply ingrained failings, most organizations have opted to substitute narrative for action. They have amended their written missions and values in order to recast themselves as inclusive organizations meant for all. They turn to the community and say, “Now we’ve got a space here for you!”

And they fail to hear this critical question: “Why should we abandon our own table for a small chair at yours?”

New ≠ diverse
It is the disregarding of this question that is one of the most significant roadblocks to many organizations’ attempts to build new audiences. There is a pervasive idea that a “new” audience must be a “diverse” one, and community-building is co-opted as a tactic for patron acquisition. The hard truth is that the disinvested communities targeted by so many outreach programmes simply do not have the resources to—or, frankly, the interest in—sustaining these organizations. The model of operation on which most organizations operate need constant and high influxes of cash, and the lion’s share of affluence still rests with white patrons.

The reality is that most arts organizations don’t need a “diverse” audience—they need an audience with discretionary income. Yet the almost maniacal focus on community-building keeps organizations trapped in cycles of trying to sell to—not engage with, but sell to—audiences that don’t have that resource. In the meantime, organizations are unable to concentrate fully on patron retention and loyalty, and identifying and building audiences that are able and willing to fill the funding gaps.

#RealTalk: what we’ve got to do as an industry
All that being said—I don’t think arts organizations are bad entities filled with bad people doing bad things. Individuals working in the non-profit arts world—and particularly those working in departments concerned about community—are sincere in their desire to create and nurture relationships. They really do believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and really do want to offer meaningful, authentic moments of connection.

The problem is that most organizations are not built to do that, and are constantly struggling with it because of expectations that they should be something they are not. Every year, organizations jump through hoops to secure restricted grants that necessitate yet another outreach programme or diversity week or community partnership, hoping that if they impress the funders enough they will be given money that can be used for what the organization actually has a mission to do.

If real, authentic, genuine community building isn’t central to your mission, if it isn’t your raison d’être, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Because chances are that not only are you doing it badly, you’re doing it at the expense of your real mission. The mission of most arts organizations—the real mission—is simple: to present an art form. And that’s ok. We need organizations that prioritize preservation, development, and presentation of an art form, and I for one don’t think any organization should be penalized for it.

Now before you go burning your new-fangled mission statements and burying your head in art for art’s sake, let me address a reality: if you fail to authentically connect your mission to people, you do so at your own peril. Zero attempts at community-building are almost as detrimental to organizations as spurious ones, and stubbornly setting the organization against accepting that “times they have a-changed” is actively seeking demise. Your art form cannot exist without an audience to engage with and support it, and you cannot build and maintain an audience that your organization isn’t genuinely systematized to attract and nurture. So, get real about the audience and the community that you can authentically engage.

If you want to take on the mission of building a diverse community, you’ve got to ask yourself some tough questions. Real community-building is hard work. It’s a constant recalibration, a series of steps and missteps and endless reflective analysis of what you’ve said and done and how you’ve said and done it. It’s a balancing act between what you feel most equipped to offer and what the community is telling you they want. It’s knowing that trust can take years to earn, and ten seconds to destroy. It is a permanent investment in which the greater percentage of ROI is going to the community. It is your organization’s priority and is expected to take precedence in all things.

There is no magic bullet that will instantly improve your organization’s efforts at community building, but I would like to offer one piece of advice that may guide you to a better path.

Before you apply for another audience engagement grant, seek another community partnership, program another celebration of ethnic culture, host another panel on social issues, organize another diversity advisory board, or even sit down to assess the performance of the last time you did any of these things—ask yourself one question: “Is my organization reflective and representative of the audience that I’m trying to reach?”

If the answer is ‘no’—and be honest, it probably is—then you know where your community building needs to start.


Ronia Holmes is the Assistant Director of Communications for the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative. She has over 15 years of experience in arts marketing and communications, and has worked for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Madison Opera, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and Opera Theater of Pittsburgh. Holmes has been an invited presenter at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference, and has given classes and lectures throughout her career. In addition to her work in the arts, Holmes provides branding and marketing consultation through her firm, Curiouser: Designs & Branding. She has a Master’s in Arts Management from Carnegie Mellon University, and is an alumna of the Savannah College of Art & Design.