Arts + Community
ICE Conversation Series Episode 015

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Produced by Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE), an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. All rights reserved. For more information visit: http://ideasforcreativeexploration.com/podcasts/

Mark Callahan: Welcome to a special episode of the Ideas for Creative Exploration podcast, including audio highlights from a public conversation series on the theme of "arts and community." I'm Mark Callahan. We invited guests from a range of backgrounds to share their ideas about what artists and organizations should know about each other, and about how they can work together to support vibrant communities.

This episode includes the voices of Stephanie Raines, Andrew Salinas, Montu Miller, Madeline Blankenship, Alden DiCamillo, Carmon Colangelo, and April Parker, edited from conversations that took place during fall 2020 and spring 2021 via remote video conferencing technology.

We begin with Stephanie Raines and Andrew Salinas, who work with the Athens government in different capacities. Stephanie is an artist advocate, independent curator, and Arts Division Administrator of the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government, where she collaborates with arts leaders to manage the Athens Creative Theatre, East Athens Educational Dance Center, Lyndon House Arts Center, and the Morton Theatre.

Andrew is the Chair of the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission, a volunteer-led group that advises local government about cultural affairs and public art projects.

You will hear references to CREATE Athens, a work group affiliated with the Envision Athens community planning project, and to the Arts in Community Awards program facilitated by the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission.

Stephanie Raines: We need to start talking about what the value is, how we value the experience of art. And I think we've gotten, as a whole country and communally, used to TV and Netflix, it's on-demand entertainment coming our way. We might be ripe for a shift in talking about how in-person, or just any kind of -- especially I think about in-person, because buying a ticket to see a performance or go to a dance performance is something that we haven't had the chance to do for all of this pandemic since theaters are closed. So, I'm hoping that people are hungry for that, and will have a renewed sense of value of what it means to sit in that physical space with people performing live.

But I do think that we have a lot more to do about being more transparent about how artists are paid, and how their contracts are set up. And more transparency among the artists so that we can talk about equity. And some of that leads to how artists can organize or not, and support one another so that they have a more unified experience and the value of their work and their labor stays at or approaches a place that makes it worth all of the effort and all the expertise and all of the physical demands that come with being a dancer and being a performer.

In the work we were doing in CREATE Athens, we've actually been trying to talk about artists with a big umbrella. So, that includes musicians, that's a big part of Athens. It's like the known part of our reputation. So, how do we talk about a guitar player in a band and a painter and a sculptor and a dancer? What is it about Athens that can talk about all of these things? It tends to flatten out and broaden the conversation. But the hope is that we can start to just encourage more people to value artists and, you know, include all of those attributions, the pay and the respect.

We prep artists by saying this is slow, the government is slow. There's a lot of bureaucracy and when we send your little work order in, it has to go through all these people and then your check will come out the other side, I promise. So, there's a lot of paperwork, and that sometimes -- that paperwork, I think, intimidates artists a lot. And I get that, it's like, do I even want to fill out all these forms and get a notarized document just for a couple grand? And the answer is yes. There's two sides to that. One is that we should prepare artists by saying up front how much labor it will take them to actually receive the opportunity or the funds to be compensated appropriately for their work. And also we should work harder on our end, and I am trying to lessen those steps or simplify them.

I try to encourage artists that they should ask for money. And they should ask for compensation, they should ask for a contract that clearly states what the use of the work is and the length of it and just encouraging artists to always have contracts. It doesn't have to be super fancy or have any kind of legalese. It can be just a document with dates and numbers and, here's what party A is going to do and here's what party B is going to do. And also including an exit strategy in all of your contracts, an exit for each party, and the exit should stipulate when the contract has failed, or how you get out of it.

Andrew Salinas: Public art is very mysterious to a lot of people, including working artists. There's a lot of demystification that needs to be done. A lot of our local artists operate under a mindset that they're not at the level where they would even win one of our commissions, so a lot of local artists are really timid about applying for commissions. So, as a group, we need to do a better job of demystifying our own practices and procedures. And so, what organizations need to know by artists is, be more mindful of institutional barriers to our own practices. And in this case, people assume that public art is a lot more complicated than it probably really is. An antidote to that is Arts in Community Awards, the $2,000, $1,500 awards that are often artists' first real public art experience. Those are building more familiarity with our processes, more comfort, and more hands-on practical experience.

MC: Next up is Montu Miller, Chief Operating Officer of ATHfactor-Liberty Entertainment. Montu is a cultural worker, educator, producer, community organizer, and a Hip-Hop advocate.

Montu Miller: Well, I think artists need to understand how organizations work. You know, that's been one of the things I've been trying to get people to understand in Athens, a lot of the artists, to understand what it means to get that grant, what it means to get involved in that certain art organization, because they don't always all operate the same way. So, it's like people in my community, if we can understand how to get a grant from the ACAC [Athens Cultural Affairs Commission], how to get involved with art, the different art commissions and things, then I think you -- I don't know if you will, but I think you will start to see more Black art, more Hip-Hop art. Because the only reason why a lot of the art that's existing right now is existing in Athens is because there's only a certain sector of the art community that are even applying for those public art commissions and these different things.

As far as organizations, I think their job is to make sure that the artists know how it works. So, you have to start expanding your market. So, when you have this call for art, you don't just use that same machine that you've always spread it through, like with the Flagpole [Magazine], or with the University, certain listservs, or whatever it is, you have to expand outside of that if you actually want more diverse submissions. You want to expand that, so maybe come talk to someone like me, and I can help get it in different places, go talk to whoever else -- again, it's about getting outside your bubble.

When we create these isolated institutions, it's cut off from the community, you know, and that's whether -- I don't care what it is, we can even talk about the jail or the school or the church or all these social institutions. They're all like these little islands. So, is that really a community? Can you really call that a community? It's the difference between -- how many of us know our neighbors? I mean, how many of us actually, literally know the person living, breathing right next to us? I would argue, not many.

We have to build an honest community, which means we're going to have to have some honest conversations, which means we're going to have to unpack a lot of stuff that's gone on, which means a lot of things are going to have to go on. But we have to start to really mold our mind and have a community-minded mentality. You know, we really have to connect the dots.

MC: Madeline Blankenship is the Program Lead of "Get Artistic," an initiative sponsored by Creature Comforts Brewing Company to help creative communities thrive. She spoke about learning to build community relationships when she was a student at the University of Georgia, and about ways that businesses can engage with artists, including Creature Comforts' first artist residency with Abigail West.

Madeline Blankenship: I think as far as building relationships goes, if you don't know where to start, I think volunteering really is just a great place to start. Because a lot of people might say, oh, we'll just go to an art show opening or something, and that's a way to meet people. It kind of is -- I don't know if you feel this way, I think it's actually pretty hard to meet people at places like that. And I just think it's a little bit more -- when you can get involved in a space through volunteering, like ATHICA [Athens Institute for Contemporary Art] is a nonprofit art gallery, a contemporary art gallery, it's meaningful, you learn so much more, and you're actually giving back to people rather than just having the social kind of connection, which is sometimes what you might get if you're just casually meeting someone at a show opening.

So, really getting out there and trying to, even if you don't know anybody, it's okay to sign up and be a volunteer. I think that will make you feel so much more grounded in that community. And especially for UGA students, I know there's a lot of UGA students on the call, it's really easy to just stay in your university bubble. And what I wanted to do is -- I just couldn't understand, I said, oh, Athens is so cool. We've got an ATHICA, we've got Lyndon House, this amazing art center, we have the Morton Theatre, amazing art, music venues -- like legendary music venues. So, why don't more people stay here? And I realized, well, it's because there's not -- it's really challenging to find a fair-paying job for a lot of people.

And in the arts, there wasn't, that I was aware of at least ten years ago, there wasn't a lot of infrastructure resources for artists or resources for people who want to be leaders in the arts. Like curators, things like that, organizers, right? So, what I've been trying to do over the last ten years in Athens, six years of Creature Comforts, is to learn, what are the opportunities out there, and how can I help to improve those and make more opportunities for people to stay here?

Artists have so much value to give, and they -- even just beyond the physical or auditory, you know, whatever their art product is -- just really creative ways of thinking. And I think one of the reasons we loved working with Abigail [West] so much is because we are really actively trying to improve our sustainability initiatives -- we've taken really great strides for that already. But bringing in Abigail, who is not only an artist, but one who focuses on sustainability, just having dialogue with her and conversations with her and kind of looping her in to say, hey, this is what we're doing, what do you think? And she might be able to say, well, I actually have this idea, or I have this contact, because this is what my interests are and what my skills are.

And I think there's so much room for collaborations like that, if businesses are open to that -- a lot of businesses, you have to kind of follow a plan, right? And you need to know you have your projections, and you need to -- and it's just to be able to continue business, basically, right? You need a plan, and you need to be able to execute that plan. And so, working with artists is sometimes kind of hard, just in my limited experience -- for people who maybe don't have an art background, it's kind of hard to cross that -- there's a communication divide, I guess? Because a lot of artists don't respond to emails very quickly -- there is room for improvement in the professional skill side of things.

In CREATE Athens that's actually something we're really advocating for, is figuring out ways to teach artists about contracts and basic kind of things like that. That is something that makes it really easy for businesses to digest, when you have something kind of formal like that, just something that helps you make a plan. I think that if businesses can just be a little bit more flexible with artists and just open minded, I think that some really cool things will come from that. In my role, I kind of say I like to be like a little translator to both sides, to help everybody understand each other.

MC: Alden DiCamillo earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Georgia and has remained active in the Athens community. They identify as a queer artist, poet, arts writer, and mutual aid organizer through Athens Mutual Aid.

Alden DiCamillo: My being an artist just kind of lent me this fluidity of starting from the ground up, always, always starting from the blank, whatever it is, if it's like empty room, idea, blank canvas, the process of ideation is something that artists are sometimes overly obsessed with -- and I find that annoying -- but the process of ideation and continuously being very attentive to that, has been really important to me, and to the community members that I've been engaging with. I don't use the word "interdisciplinary" very often in conjunction with community stuff, because it sounds like, pretentious, and what is a discipline? But I'll use the word "multifaceted."

I think what artists need to look out for in organizations is "liberal talk space." If you're seeing a lot of liberal buzzwords, they might not latch on to your ideas very quickly. Especially if they are more radical ideas, or if they include things like sex work, they might -- they might support it, they might be okay with it -- but also you have to look out for that. I think also, to not be afraid to -- just don't be afraid to back up and try again with a different person.

And then what should organizations know about artists? I mean, just obviously, know that we're fabulous and that you should always be working with us. But I think I'm very tired of the artist -- I'll say what I'm tired of -- I'm very tired of the artist being an aestheticizer. I love mural projects but, I've seen so many. I've seen so many poster designs. I'm not harping on them -- I think they're great, honestly -- but my practice of being an artist and also of seeing other artists who have the same practice -- I'm not a phenomenon -- we think about ideas so materially, and we're able to grasp skills so quickly, but also to understand those connecting points and the language between the connecting points.

You know, how do you work with engineers, how do you work with designers, how do you work with mutual aid, and people who are working on people's budgets and people who are working on immigrants' rights? So, we're not consultants, we're not aestheticizers -- we kind of, I don't know how to describe it. And I think I'm just going to leave it as a weird, liminal space. Because all I know is that I'm -- am I a project manager, am I an artist, am I a painter? I think I'm all of those things. I think the fluidity is really important.

MC: Carmon Colangelo is Dean of the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. He was also the founding director of Ideas for Creative Exploration, which began at the University of Georgia twenty years ago. Carmon spoke about the power of collaboration and community from his perspective as an artist and university administrator, and about social justice as a unifying theme for the art, architecture, and art museum programs at Wash U.

Carmon Colangelo: You know, as artists, I think you can have impact without having scale, because the way it resonates through the system is slightly different, I think, than other disciplines, which makes it powerful -- makes it a voice that others hear, listen to, experience, and don't necessarily -- at its best, it isn't preachy, you know, at its best it is profound, poetic work that moves people and not just telling people the bad stuff that we should all know.

What makes it worth it? Why do you delve into these things? Why collaborate? It's not enough to say we should collaborate, it's like, why? And that usually has to do with people bringing different expertise to the table, and diversity to the table. Different voices, and not just artists, and just not designers or musicians or poets. But all of the potential is there for that richer combination of things, which I still deeply believe in and think a lot of people are still deeply skeptical about.

To unify the school, we really rethought our mission and what would make us stronger as a school -- to think about, what could we focus on as an interdisciplinary school -- and we really focused on the more systemic issues, and when you really think of what they are, they really have to do with different issues of social justice around the environment. And so, sustainability -- that plays out in architecture in both real terms of materiality, but it also does in terms of social structure. And socially engaged practice, of course, is a very rich field. And it's one that also is interdisciplinary, but it also requires expertise, which isn't always understood, I think.

So, we endeavored to start this idea of a center, not unlike ICE [Ideas for Creative Exploration], but that would serve to make sure that there were best practices in place. Because every one of the courses that we do through the Office for Socially Engaged Practice has a community partner, it's really to make sure that the stakeholders on both sides -- so, if you're a teacher, you're not just a hit and run participant in a community. So, if you're offering your services as a designer, architect, artist, if you're engaged in developing any part of the work that you're doing with another community partner, that there's a mutual benefit from that.

MC: April Parker joined us from Greensboro, North Carolina, where she is a community leader, activist, and the first Arts Administrator-in-Residence at Elsewhere, a museum and artist residency program. Her works of creative resistance engage public scholarship, performance art, and direct action while centering the lives and legacies of queer and trans Black people. April shared her insights about equity, systemic racism, and institutional accountability.

April Parker: We bring in international artists, but we have to make sure that we're also supporting local artistry. And I think that that is where equity really takes center. It's like, how are we making sure the caliber and the rigorousness and the opportunities for our local, specifically our Black, BIPOC community has those same things. So, while we're gunning for these bigger names, I often say -- you know where rappers are from, like you all know where Biggie is from, you know where Tupac is from, because your name has to resonate in the hood first, like where you are. And so, I'm just saying, it's cool to be a well-known artist, but as far as cultural work is concerned, you've got to take care of home, period. That's just how I feel. And I think that a lot of granting, in the White ways in which we do grant, or in the White ways in which we do exchange money, doesn't afford us that opportunity to really value those who could speak our names and lift us up. So, I hope, I hope to heal that.

So, it's ongoing conversation, racism happens every single day. White supremacy lives and thrives every single day. We should be engaging with this every single day, not just when we're looking at our strategic plans. Definitely comb out that budget. And that's another thing I wanted to say: supporting Black businesses doesn't just look like, okay, we have met our quota on our staff of people of color, Black people. No, I think it should be our vendors, where we get our crudités boards and stuff, who's fixing our roofs, all of our vendors -- the majority of our vendors are -- we're trying to move to where they're all Black, because we owe that community that. My community.

It was the institutional challenges that really excite me, that really move me, because I know that if I'm able to create this long term, sustainable art residency, how many other Black directors can be birthed out of it. So, identifying ways in which we can comb through our -- how much money in your overall budget is towards equity. So, when you think about when people say, defund the police, that is really just telling us to divest from things that no longer serve us and in to invest in things that serve all of us.

And I think that everybody's organization can really look like, okay, what's no longer serving us? Especially since nothing is real, post-this-climate, really -- we just survived a global pandemic and we all need to chill out and stop taking ourselves so seriously! And that's why it's so nice to come and holler at y'all and just have a conversation and just gab, because the new ways -- we can create newness right now. If there's any time that I believe that we can make large strides that are generationally impactful, it would be now.

MC: Thank you for listening to these audio highlights from the "arts and community" conversation series. For more information about the speakers, links, and upcoming events, please visit ice.uga.edu. This has been a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia, and featured sound design by Bryan Wysocki.

Recorded on October 14, 2020 (Blankenship), February 19, 2021 (Raines), February 24, 2021 (Salinas), March 10, 2021 (Colangelo), March 17, 2021 (DiCamillo), March 26, 2021 (Miller), April 16, 2021 (Parker).

Transcription by Mark Callahan