I’m very fortunate to say that one of the artist hats I wear (alternately called my “day job”) involves providing financial, administrative, and developmental support to local artists in order for them to design and produce art engagement projects in S. Minneapolis.
This week, a community partnership between PPNA (our local neighborhood association) and the Pillsbury House Theatre was coming to the end of a funding cycle from the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and we were invited to attend a convening with all of the other funding recipients. I truly love my job but I have to admit, a 5 hour facilitated meeting did not sound like the most exhilarating way to spend a Monday, particularly in the middle of the fleeting summer months. I was additionally uncertain if I would muster enthusiasm for yet another convening centered around the buzzword “innovation” which seems to be inserted into almost every current funding framework or initiative.
I showed up expecting a nice, cordial meeting where we go around the circle and share success stories and some practical tips. And for the purposes of meeting and greeting one another, we did participate in some of that. Yet, to my surprise we quickly moved through the pleasantries and dove into some pretty weighty and challenging issues. Jay Bad Heart Bull and Theresa Gardella introduced Nexus Community Partnerships model/framework that focuses on building a field of community engagement. Each of the project leaders was then tasked with unpacking and critiquing their completed activities within this framework. Later, the entire group began to address and answer the question of “When system partners embrace community engagement as a critical component to improving health, what will it look like, sound like, feel like?” The conversation quickly evolved and moved to the significant issues of racial equity, wealth distribution, and power.
So, if you have made it this far you are probably asking yourself “wait…he’s a visual artist, why is he even writing about this healthcare convening?” My answer is that I had an “ah-ha” moment when I realized I was having my mind blown by incredibly knowledgeable and forward thinking leaders from of all places the Health Care industry. By the time I left the meeting was both exhilarated and a little depressed because we had engaged in a conversation about wide scale systems change, equity, and community engagement beyond any I have been involved in within the field of the arts.
How can this be? Are the leaders of a subset of the healthcare sector more progressive or forward thinking than us in the arts? I asked Janelle Waldock the director of the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota how they are so willing to call out and speak directly to the elephants in the room when we in the arts talk in hushed tones and walk with slow trepidation when confronted with issues of equity and power? She attributed some of it to the significant moment we are in with the passing of the affordable care act. The Healthcare industry is in a state of epic (some would say chaotic) change and whether you support or oppose universal healthcare, it is widely accepted change is the name of the game. And when an entire sector is in such dynamic flux, people are willing to consider taking on some pretty huge or previously unthinkable tasks like dismantling old systems that have, for decades, privileged a few while disenfranchising many.
Which leads me back to the arts and our big giant elephants. There have been small rumblings in the field that have suggested we allow for and even embrace the slow death of failing nonprofit arts institutions, or have challenged those that have struggled to adapt and change but are unwilling or unable to let go of old practices. But what constitutes failure today? What about institutions that have healthy bottom lines but continue to serve a select few? In this day and age we know (and continue to widely accept)that the arts continue to privilege a wealthy; mostly white audience and only 1 in 10 people that participate in the arts at a major museum or institution are non-white. If seems as though we are putting ourselves out of business by making our field irrelevant at an exponential rate if we continue to not engage and reflect a truly representative demographic of America. Does this freak anyone else out?
From my limited knowledge, there is no mechanism for sweeping reform in the field of the arts or arts philanthropy like the affordable care act. Some would continue to say that reform is not needed and we just need to take our time to correct our course. We cannot ignore the significant wealth (abundance) gaps in the field of the arts. Is it a matter of wealth redistribution? I cannot help but wonder what will it take to truly make the arts equitable?
Whom is charged with either saving (rebooting) or dismantling the old systems that no longer serve our future needs? I’m somewhat hopeful that it’s the next generation of younger artists and activists whom will take what we have built, disrupt it and reshape it. I posed this same question/issue to Russell Willis Taylor at a Bush Foundation convening later that same week. Her response, which she had touched on in her talk to the group, was that some institutions should probably die off, and that eventually donors will cut ties. My response was that this may be inevitable for some institutions and some will die a slow death or have to change radically. But my biggest concern in the meantime is; what happens to the generations of people that are currently being left out, excluded, or disinvited? Is it fair that entire generations of people in America have limited access or connection to art (at least how it’s defined within its institution)? Her response was that art and creativity is not what is at risk because people will always create and express themselves. What is at risk is our current mechanisms for housing or presenting art and creative expression. This rings true but still does not close the gaps and leaves me unsettled still.
Someone from the Innovation convening stated, rather appropriately, something to the effect of, “it does not matter what door we all came in through as long as we are all prepared to engage the collective conversation in the room.” And it was true that at that moment I had found myself engaged in really transparent and high level conversations about equity with people representing different nonprofit sectors, business associations, faith based organizations and health care professionals. From now on I will heed that advice and seek every opportunity to engage in dialogue and learning within and outside of my field because valuable ideas or solutions can often come from unexpected places.
I was asked to collect my thoughts and share a response to Kulture Klub Collaborative on the eve if it’s remarkable twentieth anniversary, and to speak to the theme of “Aging Out.” The story I have assembled is, well, messy. I should add, I am okay with messy. Just know that it will meander, travel a haphazard path jumping back and forth in time, and read somewhat disjointed. It will require you to be the way finder, so consider yourself warned.
Our short time, together
A hot and sunny mid afternoon in Loring Park. About 12 guys are running and gunning full court, sneakers and smack talk chirping at the same frenetic rate and frequency. A group of people pass through and connect with some old associates while others are chillin’ in the shade under a canopy of slumped over branches from a giant oak recently split in half from a devastating storm. I’m there as well, set up on a mobile drawing station, making peoples portraits, Chinese ink and brushes, thirty minutes per person. It’s a simple routine I’ve established; each weekend I travel around to different Minneapolis parks on bike and draw and converse with a new set of strangers. On this day I remain for several hours drawing and talking with people, long enough to run into some young old timers. Even “Dino” (a KKC regular from 2002-2006) drops in to visit much to my surprise. Other familiar faces float through as packs of people move in and out. Those of us whom share a little history take some time to reconnect because many of us have not seen each other in years. We laugh, joke, reminisce, and someone recognizes coincidentally that at this place and time “we all aged out” (whether it be by choice or slow, and at times, painful extraction).
Aging Out is the state in which, in this specific case, homeless teens accessing human/social services reaches an age where they are no longer able to receive “youth” specific services and must transition to adult services. This can be a difficult transition for young people entering adulthood as often the best support systems for them are establish through developing strong bonded relationships with supportive adults and having safe spaces where they can just drop in and simply be.
When I began writing this I had not taken the time to truly meditate on how I ended up there in that particular park, drawing peoples portraits. But what I believe to be a truth is that it most certainly has everything to do with my eleven years spent at Kulture Klub Collaborative (KKC). It has been over 4 years since I left my post at KKC, and although in the end my aging out was by choice, at the time it was not without tremendous feelings of sorrow and loss.
What I discovered during my time with KKC was that although I envisioned myself as a servant leader to the mission of the organization and its day to day programmatic operations, I was being served truly profound experiences and life lessons on a daily basis. I attribute this as a direct result of being honorably engaged with the brilliant youth, passionate youth workers, and inspired artist community that make up KKC. Simply said, my experience at KKC shaped and broadened my understanding of what it means to be a relevant contemporary artist, and the many roles of art and artists in a 21st Century world.
I completed an undergraduate degree in fine arts in ’94 and while I was at art school I acquired some great skills. Yet what I found walking into the drop-in center doors of Project OffStreets (now named Youth Link) at the start of an Artist in Residence in ’98 was that I was woefully underprepared to engage this unique community and lacked the skills for negotiating the world these courageous people lived and operated in. And after I was invited to stay on as a staff person and eventually took over the executive leadership position for the organization, it quickly became apparent I was lacking even more in the requisite skill sets to lead the organization. Art School equipped me with skills to employ in many specialized areas of art production; I could weld, turn wood on a lathe, make my own paint from ground pigments, develop a black and white photograph, and even make paper. Yet with all of these skills at hand I still had no idea how to read a financial statement, how to fundraise and write successful grants, or how to articulate a vision and outcomes to external non-arts audiences. What I understand now, which I did not at that time, was that I hold these to be important artist skills as well. Artists can be good at all of these things and it’s possible that artistic practice involves employing them all.
Maybe the biggest or most important lesson I learned before aging out of KKC was that we all need to express ourselves, it’s a core human impulse. Art is not just for some people that have means and access to the institutions that house it. And we should not always expect and require a requisite level of education, specialized experience, or specific language to access it. My education around why art matters began on my very first day at KKC. Christi Atkinson and Kristen Stuenkel led a group of nine of us on a field trip to the Gus Lucky’s alternative gallery space on East Lake Street to see a exhibition of incredibly tricked out low-rider bicycles followed by a group discussion at the Pizza Shack. After some time in the gallery it was clear the teens knew way more about the art than I did, so we spent a good hour eating pizza and talking about the exhibit, the teens illuminating it for us adults. From that day on I realized the field was level.
Each day at KKC involved connecting with young people whom either had no perceived care or need for art in their life (at least in the narrow context of what I understood or qualified as “art” at that time), or others whom found significant refuge in art and their own personal creative expression. Often after a workshop in the art lab or in the van driving to shelters after seeing a play, young people revealed that they needed art in their lives or at that particular moment more than I have ever imagined needing art. KKC changed my understanding of our individual and collective need for self expression in ways I previously did not comprehend.
Flash forward, backward, and forward again.
I’m back at the park hanging out down by the courts, the one that always brings my mind back to grainy VHS quality footage pulled from a local news broadcast of George (Lord Coleman, Mau Mau, co-founder of KKC). My memory reboots an image of Mau Mau on camera doing what he did best, delivering straight talk about being an outreach worker and the realities of life for a young person living on the streets. His raspy voice punctuates the harsh revelation that day in and day out, young people are forced to make truly impossible choices, while eloquently illuminating a reminder that these are all our children. But that was sometime in the mid to late 90’s and it’s a hot sunny day in 2013 and somehow we are gathered here again.
I finish a portrait of Black Mo Don, whom I knew from back in the day but not really well and by another name altogether. Black is a tall dude with gentle eyes. His face and features show that he is a grown man and far from the teenager I knew in the past. It’s clear that in adulthood he is still slowly working to get back to a more stable situation. He vacates the spot and along comes Ebonii, or as we used to call her “Ebonii with two i’s.” She is a welcome sight and we get to reminiscing about old times at KKC. It’s the usual round of questioning where we take turns asking each other; “you still see Sue, still connect with Carl, he still there, ever run into Jose?” She looks great as she always did and a few of the guys are pressing her for her number. I expect a different reaction out of her to the guys but she calmly pays no mind. This is a little shocking because the Ebonii I knew from back in the day had a short short fuse and was quick to snap on someone, but today she seems really relaxed. I wonder to myself if it’s because she’s a little older, more mature, more comfortable and confident? She says she’s working and “doing pretty good” and I believe her. As I quietly keep drawing she continues to fill me in on the past few years of her life. I finish and give her an inkjet copy of her portrait. She tells me that it looks like her, makes a self deprecating joke about how I captured the shape of her full lips, and tells me that she will “put it up.” She proudly states that she has her own crib now and that all of her old artwork from KKC is now covering her walls. We both smile and just sit in the moment. We have given each other a gift.
I look back on this day with reverence, for several of us returned years later and found each other again which worked to mend some of the slow sorrow from my own aging out. Similar to how we began our knowing of one another, we renewed previously established connections through art. I now have to consider that is it possible in our hearts and minds, we never really left.