THE ARTS EMPOWERMENT PROBLEM
This was originally part of a talk given at SUNY Purchase called ‘Guide to Empowering an Arts Revolution.’ Check the slides here.
Think about something you feel really confident in. Is it your favorite pancake recipe? The complete and intimate history of the relationship between Batman and Talia al Ghul? Is it bikes? Bagel preference? Broadway musicals?
Ah, this feeling. What a feeling! Right? It feels good to feel good. It feels good to know what you’re talking about. You may be thinking “Duh Elise, thanks for the prompt that got me thinking about Batman nailing it in a Broadway musical.” And hey, you’re welcome. That one’s for free. But there’s more for you here.
We feel confident talking about plenty of stuff. But that fuzzy feeling, that empowerment, stops short when we talk about the arts. Out the window go all your passionate defenses about your beloved pancake recipe, and in come terrifying words like expertise, skill, and taste. You don’t know hoot about guitar gear. You haven’t the kernel of an idea how to interpret the abstract noise art that fills this empty gallery. You watch a contemporary dance piece and you might as well have watched…nothing, because you don’t get it. We’re encouraged not to touch in museums, not to talk in theatre, not to ask questions in music.
I originally developed this dialogue with more institutional arts in mind: the big dogs of museums and theatre with fancy amenities like “a budget” and “full-time staff” and “not a rat problem.” But it applies big time to DIY and grassroots arts spaces too. At its best, DIY feels like a basement of misfit toys we’d always dreamed of. At its worst, we’re dealing with all the same challenges mainstream arts deal with. People are shut out of DIY art all the time because of barriers to class, race, ability, gender, and sexuality. Because of barriers to artmaking ability. Because of barriers to new work in a scene that also relies on an old guard. And we still have a rat problem.
Let’s break empowerment down to its parts. Stay with that original, fuzzy feeling while thinking about something you’re confident in. Here’s a breakdown of what you’re feeling:
Let’s stick with bagels as the main example. You’re fearless to love bagels because they are simply wonderful to eat. So you dive in. I mean you are all in. You’re fearless, remember? You eat a lot of bagels, and start to feel a sense of ownership over which varieties are the best, the best cities for them, the best sweet or savory combo. You own this. You become a freaking expert. You feel some pride in this expertise. You’d probably talk to everybody and anybody who sort of wants to listen to you rant about bagels.
That’s empowerment in a weird, bagely nutshell. What is the opposite of this?
Now let’s reframe this in the arts. We’re talking fearfulness to never get involved in the first place. You are told to not touch, not talk, not take pictures. Your identity is actively oppressed and erased from the content being shown. You feel a lack of ownership, because this space is not yours, this is not art for you, this is not art by you. You’re left with embarrassment or apathy when talking about this experience you just had, because frankly, it sucked.
And it’s dooming us all. Check these statistics from the James Irvine Foundation about innovation in the arts. Attendance for the arts is way down, like way way way down, like the downest it’s ever been since the National Endowment for the Arts started polling in 1982. Yipes.
So how do we address it? How do we make folks feel as good about our arts spaces as they do about bagels? Or…sports? One school of thought is “make the arts more like sports.” I disagree. Support everyone to feel more like fans. This is about fundamental shifts like skillsharing and teaching, things like Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls or Babycastles workshops that teach DIY game development. It’s about sharing the tools to be loud with gusto, like the PA share program from DIY PHL. It’s about carving out deliberate space for actively marginalized communities, like Think and Die Thinking, a fest by and for people of color, gay, trans, and queer people, women and allies. It is about erasing fearfulness, lack of ownership, embarrassment, and apathy. How do you empower folks in the arts?