Tuesday, August 18, 2015

3 Things the NC Visiting Artist Program Can Still Teach Us

Every shaded county had both a community college and a Visiting Artist.
So, on the one hand, I am totally in awe of the Visiting Artist Program, which ran from 1971 to 1995 here in North Carolina. The program was a collaboration between the fledgling NC Arts Council and the Community College System, then under the Department of Public Instruction. With a lot of moxie and limited resources, these groups were able to place over 330 world-class artists from all disciplines into each of the 58 community colleges across the state at the time. Since the goal of the community college system was to make an "affordable, excellent post-secondary education available within commuting distance of every North Carolinian," the Visiting Artist Program--with its inherent stipulations of community service and continued artistic growth--meant that "each citizen in the state was also within commuting distance of a professional artist (and vice versa) and free, open-door arts programming that resident artists delivered."

I mean, can you IMAGINE such a program today? The VAP PAID artists, provided housing, gave them room and time to focus on their art. The artists were also mandated to be in the community--the vast majority rural--providing workshops, master classes, hands-on demonstrations, engaging school-age populations in classical music, drama, playwriting, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, and everything in between.

Today, we can't even get school systems to agree NOT to cut basic arts education classes.

And yet, on the other hand, how many local artists/local culture was overlooked or not given estimation because the "Professional Artist" was there? Look, I understand that what we really need is both. That artists who are university-trained and artists who simply picked it up along the way are not necessarily better than each other. That communities need both: to celebrate (or hang on to) their own local (indigenous) arts/crafts/music/culture* and to see what else is out there, what else is possible. And MAYBE even where those two things can learn from each other.

Found this book at my local library in Carteret Cty,
which is still home to at least 2 of its Visiting Artists.
There are three clear things from the 20 years that the program ran well (the last few years saw only a handful of artists, due to mortally-wounding gashes in the appropriations in the legislature):

1. There was a time in NC that we were ahead of the pack, both artistically and educationally. 

We had leaders at all levels--from state senators and representatives to local community college presidents and all the arts councils--who understood the INTRINSIC VALUE OF ARTS TO A COMMUNITY. That simply breathing the same cultural air, being exposed every day, having the art imbued in the neighborhood was beneficial to the community.

2. The very nature of the expectations of the working artists still impact NC today. 

In my own field of theater, looking at the list of Drama/Directing/Playwriting Visiting Artists, there are so many who remained in NC. They resuscitated or formed out of whole cloth new theater companies or performances that are indelible to what the theater community is today across the state. To name but one of many: Haskill Fitz-Simons, long-time and beloved Artistic Director at Raleigh Little Theater, was the first Drama Visiting Artist at Vance-Granville Community College.

And I'd imagine that all of the other artistic disciplines can recount similar stories. The public art in communities, the pride of place that bubbles over in residents when they talk about such things, so many of these are direct outcomes of the VAP.

3. No one can accomplish this artistic immersion alone. 

Try as we might. This program took the time and talent of so many people. It was truly a mini-system functioning in the greater cultural eco-system here in NC. The set-up through the community colleges; the screening by the state arts council; the community hosting with the local arts council; the sponsorship by the local community coordinator; the advertising throughout the country for artists; the residents welcoming in the artists; the artists willing to take a chance to help not only themselves but also a new home.

Today we struggle to get our arts message heard over a million different causes, each of them good and honest and important in their own right. Add to that the number of people who won't hear above the din of the television and the people who simply haven't been given a reason to care, and it makes arts advocacy that much more difficult.

At one point, everyone in the state had a reason to care. If it happened once, I have to hope it can happen again.

*Yes, I do realize that "culture" is a lot more than artistic expression.

Friday, August 14, 2015

New Home: Literally

We moved over the course of May & June to coastal NC. I'm also working on a new website and trying to find a paying gig. All of that to say, pardon the blog-radio silence at the moment.

You can always find me on the social networks (all under my real name) for the latest doings/beings/thoughts/goings-on in the Theater & Relationship worlds.

I've finished literal unpacking, but I'm still working on the metaphorical unpacking. There's more baggage there.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Nature of Arts Ecosystems

From Flickr: Coconino National Forest. Nobody 
necessarily wants a fire, but they're actually
important to the forest's health. 
When studying animal or botanical health, researchers generally talk about the health of the "ecosystem". Dictionary.com offers two definitions: 

1. a system, or a group of interconnected elements, formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment;

2. any system or network of interconnecting parts, as in a business.

"Ecosystem" is a relatively recent word, only dating to the 1930s. Before that, everything was just a "system": "an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole."

Seeing an ecosystem-- interconnected elements/parts/organisms-- is challenging. In recent arts attendance research, barriers to attendance are discussed, but there is little evidence that any changes are being made by organizations with this new knowledge. The few that do make changes (I'm thinking specifically of Mixed Blood Theater's Radical Hospitality) are either derided as crazy or put in a corner for "safe viewing" by the establishment.

The elements are there, just no interconnections.

Even more so (or less so, I suppose) is the interconnections between art forms. On a local scale, my larger community has been known for decades for its music scene. It's odd when people are surprised that a North Carolina artist can win a Grammy and be hailed the next big thing when we've been turning out award-winning, boundary-pushing, musicians for... a century, probably, but since I'm not quite that old let's keep it to the mid 1960s when James Taylor (Chapel Hill, NC) came to prominence.*

But what has this art form to do with mine, theater? Or dance? Or the literary or visual arts? How are we connected? How do we influence each other? How are various artists commingling? How does the success of one art form locally influence the other forms? OR NOT?

In animal/botanical ecosystems, a lot is made of the fractal nature of the system: one smaller part looks like a larger part, ad infinitum. The way one tree's elements mimic the way the forest's elements work together. How a natural stasis driven by internal feedback loops will further the goal of the region's health.

Looking at the arts' health through a systems lens is very different than what most of the current conversation (i.e. money, either from public agencies or from audience members) asks. When former NEA Chair Rocco Landseman caused a furor by saying "maybe there are too many small theaters" he was looking at the situation from a systems viewpoint: reinforcing feedback loops of stranger and stranger art was driving audiences away.

The Culture Wars of the early 1990s were NOT a systems analysis, even if some of the critics wanted to portray funding as something that would increase the stock of "evil" art or the flow of youth to Satan.** That was simply a knee-jerk reaction that got blown way out of proportion.

I'm setting out to examine one element of my local Arts Ecosystem: the theater scene, how it came to be, and what our elements/interconnections/purpose AND events/behaviors/structure are. My hope is that by identifying how this system works (or doesn't), we can then see how the larger local arts ecosystem works (or doesn't) so that we can strengthen it, for both artists and audiences.

So forth and so on, ad infinitum.

*Please, send me other, older, diverse examples. I will update as necessary.
** Do remember, I am from Jesse Helms' home state.

Friday, April 10, 2015

4 Lessons for Building an Artistic Career

I got the unexpected chance to catch up with my college chums Jared Axelrod and JR Blackwell when they were back in NC for a weekend visit in Greensboro. 
Jared holds his comic book
 "The Adventures of Comrade Cockroach"

Jared and JR, in addition to being some of the coolest people ever and a very dynamic couple, are both professional artists. By professional, I mean they are earning a living from their art.* They were in Greensboro to talk about building artistic careers after graduating from college.

They had 4 main points, all of which I heartily agree with. They work for any artist regardless of discipline (JR is a photographer, Jared is a writer and comic book artist).

1. Don't be afraid of 30.
There is only way to gain experience in life: living it. Every year or decade brings with it innumerable opportunities to learn. Building a body of work takes time. JR quoted a colleague who said, "It takes 10 years of working and putting your art out there to get to the point where someone finally says, "Oh, I've heard of you.""

I would also add that 30 isn't the end, either, as every decade after that brings the same opportunities. As someone coming into their "life's work" on the other side of 30, even the circuitous path can be helpful in figuring things out.

2. Don't open a coffee shop. 
JR told a great story about a friend who thought she wanted to open a coffee shop where actors and theater people would hang out and that's how she'd get into the theater business. JR said, "You're crazy. If you want to work in the theater, go work in the theater." If you want to be a photographer, go take pictures and post them. If you want to be a writer, write and self-publish. As Seth Godin routinely points out, it's easier than ever now to be an artist and find your tribe.

3. Don't follow your muse cause your muse is lazy.
Jared said this one and I had to laugh because it is so true. Any artist has to plan the work and then actually do the work, rather than wait for inspiration to hit and the "perfect" art to happen. Jared talked about how he was on Draft 4 of his current novel and he edits every day in order for the work to be as great as possible. The end result will be amazing, but that's because he's put in the time and effort to make it so. Even the most successful theater has to put in the work on audience building and pushing artists every single day.

4. Don't get caught up in your first success. 
Fail fast and often on the path to artistic sustainability. If an artistic idea doesn't pan out, or if it does but you don't feel like replicating it, that's fine. Learn from it and move on. I wrote about what is Failure really because too often we get stuck with a viewpoint of what is "right" or "wrong" or "success" when what is the crux of the matter is that we continue doing what we love and brings us joy. It may take a while to have this "pay off" (if ever, and that is a personal choice, too) but stopping creating because "it's not as good as the first one" will only mean you quit.

Jared and JR are brilliant people who have found their tribes and worked slowly and steadily to create their life doing what they love. Their work constantly inspires me to continue dreaming better ways to serve my artistic community. Decide on what art brings you the most joy to create and then imagine the happiest ultimate outcome from creation. Then go do it.

My daughter reading "Comrade Cockroach"
*As most artists at one point or another they've taken temp or tangentially related jobs.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Happy 2015 International Women's Day!

I love what I do and I'm so blessed to have so many other fantastic women who have walked this path before me and are on it now with me (and those yet to come!). I hope everyone takes a second to reflect on how far we've come... and then gets back to work on where we're headed.