With Hand in Glove 2015 just past, I’m reflecting on the conversations catalyzed by the recent convening’s intensive and impassioned panels, trying to pick up the strings that connect the concepts put forth, hoping to find some semblance of a tack to inform my own process and collaborations moving forward. I keep circling back to the lingering and loaded question, "What is at stake?"
What is at stake as organizers forge ahead with artist-driven, social practices? In order to keep this question alive, the need to reorder how systems of value operate in the field seems crucial. Specifically, the value of personal narrative and community input need to generously inform the architectonics of art-centered initiatives. Too often, these priorities become overshadowed by the value of the quantifiable: audience numbers, grant funding, or social capital. Again and again through the weekend’s conversations, panelists and attendees called for a new ethics to drive art organizing, and the need to continually interrogate the systems of value within which we practice.
Based on those questions and calls for action, below are some takeaway tips from the field:
Value the people you collaborate with.
In the panel, "Aesthetics, Relevancy & Social Context," Tricia Khutoretsky, curator and Co-Director of Public Functionary in Minneapolis, describes her space as one built on inclusionary values with the aim to pioneer a more diverse and dynamic art community, a place where multiple communities can coexist. She thinks of art as "a movement bending the world towards justice" in which organizers should "always give more than they take." In her practice as a curator, this conviction translates into more studio visits and more direct conversations with artists. Instead of serving as a gatekeeper, she says, she intends to work as a facilitator.
Value a community’s history.
Early on in the same panel, Rosten Woo, a prolific designer and educator in Los Angeles, echoed Khutoretsky’s observations about the need for arts organizers to respect the experience and expertise of their community collaborators. Woo shared a story of the time he was tasked with implementing "creative visioning workshops" commissioned by the city to "revitalize" a certain Los Angeles neighborhood. Woo notes that he approached the project conscious of systematic failures by the state to support this community and, therefore, paused to ask the pertinent question: "Who is this project really for?" Slowing down the timeline of implementation (and missing some deadlines), before he began his project in earnest, he gathered information about what the community already had done and what residents indicated they still needed. He said taking the extra time was well worth it; after all, "to do something relevant, it takes a long time." His advice: arts leaders need to know the social context and the community's present moment in history, from inception to completion of collaborative, community-rooted projects. Otherwise, he says, you risk further failing the very people you aim to serve and end up doing more harm than good.
Value the people fighting alongside you.
Abigail Satinsky, Executive and Artistic Director of Threewalls in Chicago, mentioned in the panel, "Advocating for the Alternative," that the most powerful arts organizing begins with "thinking deeply" and “looking inwardly” at one’s own practices. One should ask: “Who are we relevant to?” and "Who should we be fighting for?" By extension, we need also to consider the historical legacies of advocacy as we endeavor to bolster more equity and inclusion. Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, a writer and dancer from San Antonio, adds that artists are "makers of policy through what they do," but we should be upholding a "care and concern to each other" through "mutual stewardship and long term investment."
See the value of what is already there.
"There is a lot that's already in place, without any notice," says Rosten Woo; we’re too often fixated on what is missing in a community. Rather than entertaining what he calls a "game of imagining what the place can be," he urges us to ask: "Is there a way to use [these resources] to have people represent the creative work they are already doing?" Other speakers noted similar elisions, a temptation among artist-organizers and city planners to assume absence of initiative when, in fact, there resides a hidden abundance in a community, just waiting to be tapped. An example: Complex Movements, a Detroit-based artist collective composed of Invincible/ill Weave, Wesley Taylor, Carlos Garcia, and Sage Crump, collects "seed stories" (or as Invincible/ill Weave calls them "heirloom seed stories of our community") to learn from the valuable legacies of the people already living in Detroit. Against the backdrop of state takeovers, austerity measures, and the erasure of whole communities from local history, Complex Movements works to amplify stories of city residents’ lived experiences to showcase the people’s resilience and keep their voices heard.
Value artists by paying them, too.
In the session, "Art Works?" the final panel of the conference, sociologist Alison Gerber posed a question: "When should artists get paid?" Her own answer was straightforward: "When an institution asks you to do something, you should get paid. When we work for institutions, we are serving them." Moreover, stipends, fellowships, or honorariums are simply not enough. "Full economic citizenship," she continued, "requires wages, salaries, and contracts." Working Artists in the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) echoed Gerber’s demands, emphasizing the importance of payment for artists beyond the "uneconomic" benefits of the work, such as "self-expression," "love,""visibility," or "process." Lead artist of The Third Place Gallery, Wing Young-Huie candidly shared some of his own experiences by way of illustrating how, despite the lip service, society too often doesn’t value artists’ efforts enough to pay them for the labor of it. The panelists all agreed: art organizations and institutions, no matter how big or small, need to step up and value their obligations to fully compensate artists for their contributions.
Taken together, these values encourage a turning inward: towards ourselves, our communities, our organizations, and the relationships we hold, both within and outside of our field. I like the challenge that Gerber posed in a recent bit of writing: "If there is a problem, it is us: the limits of our imagination and our words, our ever-refined distinctions that serve our connoisseurship but not our communities." That is, we can focus on the archaic, unjust systems (whether in our institutions, government, or economy) that too often control how art is valued, or we can demand more, develop new structures for art and arts-organizing of the sort collectively imagined throughout Hand In Glove’s weekend-long conversations. Really, what could be worthier of our time and value as we make this Common Field?
Related links and information:
Hand in Glove 2015 (#HIG2015) will take place September 17 – 20 at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. For more information on topics, sessions, and related events, visit the convening’s website: hig2015.commonfield.org. Stream all the conference sessions online: http://livestream.com/commonfield/convening. Find more information about Common Field:
Look for more responses to the 2015 convening on Mn Artists, mnartists.blog, and read more essays from conference participants, session hosts, and audiences on-site and online, in Temporary Art Review's rolling "Hand in Glove Social Response."
Camille Erickson is a local writer and arts advocate. She also serves as the co-director of the Minneapolis Art Lending Library, a nonprofit dedicated to providing exposure for artists and sharing the joy of art with all members of the community through the free lending of artwork.