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". 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.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

High Art vs Low Art

“The masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.”
--The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin, 1936

Is there any more contentious question in the art world than the concept of “high” versus “low”
I like venn diagrams.
And shouldn't art really be in the middle? 
art? Who gets to judge? What are the parameters in which to judge? There is no standard definition for either concept and personal explanations range from simple to incredibly complex.
One common theory about how to explain the difference is high art is “popular” and low art is “unpopular”, that is, appealing (or not) to many people. This also links to another version of the difference: that high art fosters the widest connection between people while a smaller subsection enjoys low art.
This is in direct contradiction, though, to the idea of low art being part of mass culture (raising yet another question of “is art culture” or merely a component of it?) while high art is elitist in nature, appealing to only those who have the proper education to appreciate it.
A more formal definition of high art is that with “a genealogy, a “lineage”, or history. It is the primary material with which any history of art in this century must contend.” Low art are those “forms and styles associated with urban culture in industrialized nations... whose primary social and psychological characteristics are self-conscious, streetwise, and commercial.” (Karp 14) Is Shakespeare’s canon high art because it has been produced, dissected, and critiqued for 400 years but both hands theater is low art because it is new and written collaboratively between two untrained playwrights and their actors?
Some critics contend that high art is that which is able to move people emotionally and low art doesn’t but this begs the question of how do you empirically know how any one feels about a piece of art? Without asking each and every person throughout history? The ballet of Diaghilev or modern dance of Martha Graham may be considered to be high art by critics. Does this make the breakdancers on the street or the Vogue dance movement from the gay youth in Harlem any less moving because they arose from the crowds or are not as widely taught?
This leads to another way of distinguishing between high and low: high is seen as something that only trained professionals can do whereas low is something anyone could do. Some critics want to dismiss folk art as unimportant. If the NEA funds it and internationally recognized schools and museums feature it, it can’t possibly be unimportant. Bach and Beethoven, classical music, is generally preferred as high art, possibly because highly trained professionals usually perform it. Does this make the local mariachi band at the Mexican restaurant or the jam sessions of Appalachian bluegrass players any less inspirational?
 “High art consists of the meticulous expression in fine materials of refined or noble sentiment, appreciation of the former depending on such things as intelligence, social standing, educated taste, and a willingness to be challenged.  Low art is the shoddy manufacturing in inferior materials of superficial kitsch, simply catering to popular taste, unreflective acceptance of realism.” (Delahunt) While this is a normal approach to defining paintings and sculptures by Renaissance masters as high art, where does this leave modern photographers such as Helmut Newton or Annie Leibovitz, arguably two of the most realistic photographers of our day? Just because their most well known work appears in the covers of mass-culture magazines (Vogue, Vanity Fair), does this mean that their work is low art?
Coming at this from an audience perspective, another description of the two is that high art “challenges and questions audiences’ expectations” whereas low art “comforts, satisfies, or reassures audiences’ expectations.” (Geerink) She uses the example of literature: Harlequin romance novels are considered low art precisely because they comfort the typical reader. James Joyce, however, challenges expectations, or, in other words, makes the reader think.
Perhaps, at the core, the difference between the two categories, should come down to just that: making the audience think. Marlon James, a Minneapolis based author, said, “We do not recognize or appreciate critical thinking nor do we think critically.” By including each individual audience member in the definition, it forces responsibility on every one to determine their own response to a piece. Good art is that which makes a person take a second look. This could be what are traditionally thought of as high art (Hemingway, Tolstoy, Balanchine, da Vinci, Picasso, Ibsen) but just as easily refers to what is often sneered at as low art (outsider art, comics and cartoons, improv and stand-up, science fiction). Some education is necessary for the process of critical thinking, not for the enjoyment of the art. Encouraging the audience to intimately engage with the art on their own terms is what we should be asking, rather than offering a determination for them.

Works Cited

Delahunt, Michael. “Art Dictionary”. n.d. Web. 11 Aug 2011

Geerink, Jan. “Pure Examples of High and Low Art”. 20 Jan 2007. Web. 11 Aug 2011

James, Marlon. “High Art, Low Art, and Critical Thought” March 13, 2007. Web. 11 Aug 2011

Karp, Ivan. “High and Low Revisited” American Art Vol. 5, No. 3 (Summer, 1991): 12-17 JSTOR. Web. 11 Aug
This was the first piece I wrote for the Master of Arts in Arts Administration program at Goucher College. I still love it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Ignoring our nose to spite our face

What information are we not seeking?
R-O-B/Structural Oscillations
NYC Dept of Transportation
Creative Commons license
What feedback delays are we not paying attention to?
What incentives are we ignoring?

As well and artistically fantastic as subsidization is (through direct patronage or tax relief), it harms our organization and system because it severely weakens or removes several feedback flows necessary to a stable structure.

-the oscillations of ticket sales do not provide a reinforcing loop to performance decisions (when, where, what, marketing)
-the constant stock of free labor serves to reinforce the dangerous growth of itself, of unpaid labor
-the reasons companies collapse are ignored because of ease of new company creation

Yes, artistic growth can be hampered by the vagaries of market forces inclining artists to make comfortable choices.

But it is also stymied by an inefficient support structure that is incapable of properly responding to market forces.

Too little of a good thing is as problematic as too much.