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.images2

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.

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