Grass Is Greener?

In my recent travels to Australia and Chile I saw two places where government funding for the arts is far more generous than is true in the U.S. (Yes, we know that is not a very high bar to leap.) In one, Australia, funding is by our standards significant. In the other, funding is nearly total, so much so that even basic concepts like audience development and audience engagement are foreign. My hosts in Santiago told me that patron loyalty is not an issue many arts organizations there address. (What does concern Chilean arts officials is the attempt to connect broadly with as much of the population as possible. Thus, they have a particular concern for community engagement.)

Sounds like funding heaven, right? Certainly, being valued by the government as an important part of society and the (near) certainty that money will be available for basic operations borders on utopian fantasy for those of us in the States.

And yet . . . in Australia, arts officials were waiting to see if the next budget (set to begin in less than 5 weeks) would force them to eliminate important positions. Chilean managers discussed concerns regarding red tape and unresponsive bureaucracies.

These are both “known issues” that plague government funding. However, the big thing that was new to me was that in both countries lack of trust in the government made it difficult for arts organizations to connect with communities. In Australia, First Nations, recent immigrants, and other marginalized populations are sometimes hesitant to work with recipients of government funds. The same was true in Chile but an even more significant factor there was the impact of the nation’s relatively recent history. The arts workers I met told me that almost no one trusted the government or any of its representatives. [While the country’s dictatorship is almost twenty years in the past, not one person with whom I spoke about Chile’s history ever mentioned the name Pinochet. They always referred to “the dictatorship.”] Arts organizations seeking to develop community relationships there have significant work to do to foster even a modicum of trust.

In both countries, Q&A sessions raised concerns about how to build relationships when communities the arts were seeking to reach did not trust the sources of the funds they were using. (Of course the reason lack of trust in the government is not much of an issue in the U.S. is that the amount of money involved is so small.)

Also, in both places I heard wistfulness about the private funds for the arts that they understand to exist in the U.S. In Australia, private money is limited and in Chile it is virtually non-existent.

The view from over the fence seldom sees that there are problems lurking in the green grass. For the purposes of this blog, understanding how each system can impede relationship building is important. Later (probably in the early fall), I’ll apply the same lens to the negative impact of private funding on building trust in new communities. Until then

Engage!

Doug

Photo:

Attribution

Some rights reserved by Tim Green aka atoach

Global Engagement

I began pondering issues related to community engagement almost 30 years ago. I began writing material that led to my first book on the subject about 10 years ago. And I started this blog about 7 and a half years ago. In all that time I assumed that my messages were pretty specific to the cultural and social history of the United States and to its arts institutions.

To my considerable surprise, in the last six years I have been asked to be a keynote presenter at conferences in Canada, Beijing, and Singapore and to do a couple of Skype-based guest presentations for a class at the University of Vienna. This year I have been asked to speak at conferences in Australia and Chile.

What has become clear to me is that the economic pressures faced by institutions presenting Eurocentric art forms are, throughout the world, forcing greater attention on spreading the reach of those arts. Community engagement is to my mind the best available means of doing so. (This is even true in a state-controlled society like China; or perhaps it is especially true there given the cultural dissonance that Eurocentric arts represent.)

At least some of the sources of this seeming universality seem to be:

  • Presentations by arts professionals are expensive and will become increasingly so thanks to the “cost disease.” This may not be exclusively true of Eurocentric arts, but it is certainly true of them. Ever-increasing revenue sources are essential.
  • The greater the disconnect between the cultural background of the broad populace and that of the roots of the arts presented, the greater the pressure for change. Rapidly shifting demographics and growing political power of native or indigenous peoples are major factors here. This is also true where Eurocentric arts have been transplanted to a place where they have no historical ties, like China and Singapore.
  • The vast majority of fundings sources–whether individual, corporate, foundation, or government–want or need to see evidence that their support is valued by more than the small percentage of any population that is enthusiastic about Eurocentric arts. (And need I observe that this is a declining percentage?) There are, of course, some funders that have a commitment specifically to these arts, but they are few in number and are not a growing cadre.

These are certainly preliminary thoughts and I may confirm, expand, or revise them after my trips this year. Also, I acknowledge that my conversations and experiences have been limited in comparison to the cultural richness of peoples around the globe–notably my lack of contact with on-the-ground sources in Africa. Nevertheless, it appears that the concern for connecting greater percentages of our communities with the arts seems to be a growing, not a declining, one.

Engage!

Doug

Photo:

Attribution

Some rights reserved by NASA Goddard Photo and Video Image by Reto Stöckli; enhancements by Robert Simmon


Plan B

PlanBIn the context of posts that write themselves, this one falls in the category of “written (primarily) by someone else.” The Guardian (London) published, earlier this year, an opinion piece titled “Public arts funding: towards plan B.” (It was written by Three Johns and Shelagh: John Holden, John Kieffer, John Newbigin and Shelagh Wright.) The article is a critique of Arts Council England’s arts funding report titled Towards Plan A, a report they consider to be too “business as usual,” leaving “haves” and “have-nots” pretty much in the same place they have always been. The authors of the piece propose a “Plan B.” They say:

How many arts organisations can honestly say that their local communities would erect the barricades to defend them? Plan B involves creating the kind of solid public support that makes cuts politically dangerous or, even better, unthinkable.

This awareness of the connection between arts organizations taking public benefit seriously and resultant public policy (and private giving increases) is one of the (though not the only) principal rationales for community engagement. The article puts it this way:

Cultural organisations should be loved and cherished by their communities of interest and/or geography. Communities = people, and people = voters. But people are not only voters who can influence politicians; they are individuals who can dig into their pockets.

To which I can only respond, “Amen.” So what is Plan B? Arts organizations should:

Create relationships rather than transactions with their communities
• Extend their reach and improve ratings – bums on seats do matter; so does critical and public response to their works
• Make their governance reflect their community
• Be clear about their artistic and civic purposes and shout about them in plain and simple ways
• Not treat public funding as a proxy for public engagement
• Use language that everybody understands instead of advocacy-speak
• Be as creative and innovative in their organisational life as they are, or as they should be, in their artistic endeavours
• Use their spaces as much as possible – public buildings should be used every hour of the day and night
• Collaborate as much as possible, with other local arts organisations, community organisations, public agencies and businesses
• Be financially careful and able to show they give great value for money
• Show they care
• Care

I’d probably reverse the last two and the public funding point is almost irrelevant in the States. But the list as a whole is a clear statement of “marching orders” for any organization serious about community engagement. The arts should be for all, should be meaningful to all. It is in the interest of the nonprofit arts industry to work tirelessly toward that end, but the end will not be achieved through business as usual. The reasonable hope is that as a result of commitment to engagement:

[I]f organisations do get total public support, they will be able to flourish without grants. Their existence will no longer be subject to the vagaries of public funding or the whims of philanthropists.

Engage!

Doug

Image: Public domain (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plan_B_Entertainment_logo.svg)

My Excellent Singapore Adventure

Regular readers of this blog know that I do not “journal” here. I attempt to maintain a myopic focus on issues related to the arts and community engagement. Therefore, I had not intended to write about my trip to the other side of the globe. That travel was related to my work as an arts administration educator. I was asked to address the inaugural meeting of the Asia-Pacific Network for Cultural Education and Research.

I am, though, virtually incapable of having a conversation about the arts without talking about community engagement. What I discovered doing so in Singapore surprised me. Whether talking with the staff of Singapore’s National Arts Council or arts administration educators from Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, or Singapore, community engagement (in the ways described in this blog) was a significant, if not critical, issue. In my naïveté, I had thought this was primarily a Western problem. What I discovered was that the root of the arts/community divide in the U.S.–European cultural hegemony and association of that artistic legacy with money and power–rings just as true in the Asia Pacific region as it does in my own backyard (although there it is European/U.S. cultural hegemony).

I discovered that there is work to be done in supporting native cultural heritages in the face of Western cultural dominance. The impression that I formed was that in much of Asia, funding for support of artistic endeavor is weighted heavily toward Western forms and expressions. (This fact is a fascinating one that deserves discussion by people far more versed in Asian cultural history than I. The closest I can come to understanding it is to draw a parallel to the situation in the U.S. through at least the first half of the twentieth century–our cultural inferiority complex. U.S. artists had to be “authenticated” by studying and/or succeeding in Europe.)

In the middle of a singularly challenging presentation by Benson Puah, CEO of Singapore’s National Arts Council, I found myself nodding so vigorously that he called me out on it after he concluded his remarks. What he was saying sounded exactly like the arguments many in the community arts movement in the U.S. use in advocating for broadening our understanding of “acceptable” arts practice, opening up the infrastructure to support artistic expression that speaks more directly to more segments of the population. I was having a cognitive dissonance/deja vu moment as I heard him saying things I have said on the other side of the globe in a vastly different context. He was talking about non-European cultures in the face of Western dominance. The cultural expressions for which he was advocating are, to some extent, different from those needing more support here, but the issues are nearly identical–for nearly identical reasons.

In addition, I got a good cultural/social history lesson from staff members of Singapore’s National Arts Council. Ai Liang Chua, the Council’s Arts and Community Director (You can imagine how much I enjoyed discovering that was a division of the NAC), explained to me that Singapore is, in the context of the Asia Pacific region, a uniquely multicultural nation. There is a strong presence of Indian, Chinese, and Malaysian cultures (to name just three). The multiculturalism of Singapore raises issues for its arts council that we face in our own highly diverse society. How are extant cultures adequately supported via cultural policy?

In short, the experience was a vitally important one for me, the arts and community engagement advocate. Seeing similar issues (and hearing them described in nearly identical terms) gave me valuable perspective on my own work. It showed me that my concerns about this issue are not as parochial as I thought. It also opened up the possibility of learning lessons about effective engagement from my Asia-Pacific colleagues. I look forward to that.

Engage!

Doug