From Brian Reynolds, Climate Reality Project Leader

Like me, Brian Reynolds is a Climate Reality Project Leader.  Americans have an opportunity to make comments to the government during this “open period” surrounding new climate legislation.  Climate change should not be a partisan issue.  It is effecting everyone and costing billions to repair the damage cause by change (consider the costs of the 1000 year flooding in Colorado this year and the cost of super storm Sandy last year).  I sent my emailed comment, it was easy and just took a moment.  You can too.  Please share this post with all your friends.  After yesterday New York Times article, many of you voiced real concern and some of you voiced fear.  This is one small way you can take action to help.  On behalf of the planet and its creatures including humans, thank you.

Here’s how to file a comment with EPA on GHG limits for proposed power plant. Manager’s Choice

Operations & Sales Leader – Corporate Climate Resilience Expert – I.E. Blackbelt – Climate Reality Presenter

As many of you know, part of President Obama’s recent push to deal with climate change includes direction that the EPA issues long delayed regulations restricting the creation of green house gasses by proposed power plants. These rules have been issued and are currently open for public comment. It’s important that we respond in support for the rules and equally important that we voice support for even greater restriction. Here’s how you do that: 

1. copy this email address: ” ” 

2. Reference this rule in the subject line and body: EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0495 

3. Speak clarity in support of the rule and ask for even greater restriction. Reference the cost of climate change and feel free to include ways you may already have bee effected by climate change. 

4. Act now. This comment period ends soon. This is an important thing that you can spare five minutes right now. 

5. Act now. …really.

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The Arts as a Social Tool

I am a life-long Arts Advocate.  I even have a Kansas Governor’s Art Award (from back in the day when that meant something here) to prove.  During my quest for truth when I was younger, I found that I believed strongly that the arts could create and help solve many community challenges.  In my early years as an arts manager, to me that meant building community will and direction, sort a create economic development tool.  Along the way I have realize that the arts mean much more to a community than this.

Obviously, as a Capitalist society, we embrace the idea of economic development.  Hug, hug.  But as a social activist, I have realized a bit more each year of my career (now a total of 38 years and yes, I am old) that the arts are not only THE most powerful evidence of our humanity and thus the essential anthropological/archeological evidence of how human civilization thinks and behaves at any given moment throughout our history and today, ART is one of the world’s most powerful untapped global resources–an essential conduit to creative and civilized discourse, problem solving and engagement.  I had the honor to spend time working with Alternate Roots in the summer before the world changed (2001).  I had the honor of participating and presenting in the gathering at St Louis: At the Crossroads, Arts and Community Development Convening in 2010 where I met the wonderful Animating Democracy crew (Barbara Schaffer Bacon, Pam Korza) and Marty Potenger.

All this info is to let you know that my understanding of the power of the arts has been a journey.  Now that I am nearing the last part of my life’s journey, I feel it is important to share what I have learned here in this blog and on Facebook.

  • I worry about the future, not arts funding and things like that.
  • I worry that we won’t have an Earth that can sustain the human race. See my four articles on Climate Change in F5
  • I worry that inequality in pay and education will further broaden the gap between the haves and the have nots.  See the film Inequality for All with Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration  A Sundance winning documentary that I was honored to help fund for the last stages of production (on Kickstarter).

So today’s post includes a great post by blogger  Michael Rohd of HowlRound.  It is all about what I am trying to say and practice here: Building Civic Practice.

The New Work of Building Civic Practice

Michael Rohd

July 8, 2012


Recently, my father asked me what I’m trying to do with regard to my work in Civic Practice. I told him—

“I think we’ve got a lot of challenges these days, in pretty much every private and public sector in this country, and I think artists are a massive untapped resource that could help in surprising and meaningful ways.”

He assumed I meant that by making plays about these challenges, artists could aim the attention of audiences at issues and potential solutions.  While I love plays, and sometimes make plays, I told him that wasn’t what I meant.

“I want to help expand the body of practitioners and advocates who recognize the possibility of, and value in, different kinds of partnerships between artists and members of their community.”

My father is a retired lawyer who serves as a volunteer attorney at a legal clinic operated by the University of Maryland School of Law in downtown Baltimore. To try and give a specific example, I asked him about the clinic, and what he feels they need to better accomplish their mission. He said they need to get the word out, especially in West Baltimore, about the services they offer and make the case (no pun intended) that they are a free, valuable community resource. I responded by saying-

“How would you feel about working with a theater artist who would partner with you to strategize increasing your relationships and visibility in West Baltimore?”

He asked if I meant fliers, or other marketing strategies.  I said I did not.

He asked how, then, might an artist help make the clinic’s work more visible and accessible?


Currently, within institutional theater organizations, community partnerships are most frequently developed to implement programming that surrounds mainstage productions. That programming exists to deepen dramaturgical reach and impact of the work selected and presented by the artists. Institutions sometimes retain partners beyond singular projects, returning to them for help on other projects when content seems aligned with the partner’s constituency or mission. These partnerships are valuable; they can effectively build new relationships around meaningful, shared interests, and they help arts organizations broaden the scope of their presence in their local communities. But, they operate in a mode of discourse closer to a monologue than a dialogue. The initiating impulse – the voice that puts out the call, so to speak- is the artist. The non-arts partner has a choice—listen, respond, or not. But rarely does the invitation to conversation, to co-creation, come from the partner.

I think, as artists and organizers involved in a collaborative form that demands, arguably, one skill above all others, we are at a moment where we can put that skill to new use. That skill is listening, and we can radically alter our role in our communities if we employ it with greater intentionality and generosity. Arts organizations do not have to engage with non-arts partners solely through a lens of project-based needs. Partnerships can be relationship-based, and projects can originate from a different type of exchange. Producing new work for/in the theater does not have to only mean making new plays. It can mean producing new relationships, producing new forms of events and processes, producing new ways of crossing disciplinary and sector boundaries.


Lately, as an extension of Sojourn Theatre’s long-term exploration of relationship-based work, and as part of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice’s initial activities, I’ve begun to define Civic Practice as activity where a theater artist employs the assets of his/her craft in response to the needs of non-arts partners as determined through ongoing, relationship-based dialogue. It’s the intersection of two sets of content. Let’s call them an x axis and a y axis.

The x axis is theater activity that is not limited to the production of plays, but rather is a set of tools, of assets, that theater artists have access to because of our experience in producing plays (and performance). We bring these assets to the table, any table, where we are invited.

Some of these tools are:

  • The ability to design and lead a process where collaborative activity leads to decision-making and shared investment;
  • The ability to conceptualize and execute a public event on a specific timeline;
  • The ability to synthesize complex content into meaning that can be articulated and understood;
  • The ability to problem-solve;
  • The ability to turn diverse stakeholders with varied self interests into coalitions.

We bring these tools of dramaturgy and process to our own spaces. We can bring them and apply them in other spaces—spaces where artistic expression is not the core mission.

The y axis is a set of needs, or desired outcomes, that we might encounter at those non arts-based spaces—if we listen. These desired outcomes offer clear starting impulses for collaborative partnership work. They are:

  • Advocacy—help increase visibility and propel mission/message;
  • Dialogue—bring diverse groups into meaningful exchange with each other;
  • Story-Sharing—gather and share narratives from a particular population or around a particular topic;
  • Civic Application—engage the public and decision-makers together in acts of problem-solving and crafting vision;
  • Cross-Sector Innovation—leverage skills and experience from different fields or disciplines to create and manifest new knowledge.

Articulated in another way, some needs of non-arts partners may be described as:

  • Building a framework for dialogue around polarizing issues;
  • Acknowledging varied self interests while building coalitions;
  • Developing communications strategies for internal and external stakeholders;
  • Re-making how site or space is perceived and experienced.

The x axis are the tools.

The y axis are the needs.

Civic Practice is what can happen where and when they purposefully intersect.

I am not suggesting that artists should be selflessly in service to whatever outcome any community partner desires. As with any collaboration, values must have some alignment. Conversations must reveal some mutual goals. Activity evolves from a shared, generous curiosity and a co-investment in public work. And at the root of this body of practice is the need to listen, over time, so as to discover how the artist assets and the partner needs may serve each other in surprising moments and previously unimagined forms.


(there are so many out there—these are a few that get at diversity of initiating impulse, institution, form and geographic region.)

  • Appalshop’s Thousand Kites is a national dialogue project addressing the criminal justice system.
  • Los Angeles Poverty Department’s long-time work advocating for and working with homeless collaborators on Skid Row.
  • Ping Chong and Company’s Undesirable Elements Series, now creating thematically specific story-sharing models based on the needs of partners that contact them, such as their Secret Survivors Production.
  • Marty Pottenger’s work as full-time artist in residence for the City of Portland, Maine learning the needs of those at work in Municipal Government and creating programming with Civic Application.
  • Sojourn Theater’s work with the New River Valley Planning Commission and Virginia Tech in five rural Virginia Counties   using part of Sojourn’s interactive production built to make spaces for dialogue and create a Public Engagement tool with Civic Application.
  • Lookingglass Theater Company’s work in Chicago with Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers using the power of Cross-Sector Innovation to address challenging health and long term care issues.

& at Universities:

  • A theater graduate student in Illinois working with a Muslim Student Association to develop a performance/installation event focusing on image and cultural identity;
  • A theater graduate student in Maryland working with an LGBTQ Center to conceptualize a one-day event that merges spectacle, participation and construction tasks to raise visibility and make a safe space more welcoming.


Since theater institutions began to grow Education Departments decades ago, the term “teaching artist” has become a common title for actors, playwrights, directors, devisers, designers and other theater artists who spend some portion of their time, and receive some portion of their income, working with people (most often young people) in a massive variety of learning contexts. Whether they are teaching the skills of the artistic discipline, using integrated performance tactics to deepen other curricular areas, or creating theater events and workshops to help schools examine and discuss challenging social and cultural subject matter, these teaching artists are using the assets listed on the x-axis above. And, they are consummate listeners. The best of them are ever sensitive to the needs of partner organizations and the shifting energies of the individuals with whom they collaborate/teach/guide. In other words, we already have a skilled (and under-utilized) legion of artists in our midst who can help pave the way for Civic Practice as a field-wide endeavor.

In addition, there are many, many theater practitioners who have never taught, but are hungry for the type of engaged work that Civic Practice offers them and have the skills to undertake that work meaningfully. University theater programs across the country are seeing exponential growth in demand for courses that deal with civic engagement, community-based practice, site-based collaborations and applied theater. In fact, the field of Applied Theater is swiftly gaining traction in this country after years of use overseas, subsuming terms and areas that came before it. The challenge of the trending term “applied” is that it suggests those who “use” theater tactics for something other than (though perhaps inclusive of) the creation and presenting of performance are in the “service” game, while those who “make and show” are in the “art” game. But our field needs the strengths of varied impulses and the strategies of all forms to cross-pollinate, spiritually as well as aesthetically. The hybrids at the intersection of civic life and artistic activity offer us, individually and as a community of practitioners, the potential to make our arts organizations truly central to the vitality of community life in new and deeply impactful ways.

We can engage with civic, business, social service, community, health, education and faith-based partners in ways that are relationship specific and have as starting impulses not just the content we the arts organizations have chosen for presentation but a broad spectrum of activity that places the assets of creativity and collaboration in service to and in partnership with collaborators old and new. There is capacity building to do in our field; around skills, partnerships and leadership. By doing that work, we can, as specific organizations and as a field:

  • Build an increased pool of stakeholders and an expanded  spectrum of what participation in the arts means;
  • Offer new and meaningful opportunities for artists to invest in their communities, practice their art, and build demand for creative public activity;
  • Increase demand for the assets that artists bring to community settings beyond the sites where art is traditionally contained and presented.


My father asked me—
how could a theater artist help make the clinic’s work more visible and accessible?

I told him—
“With partners in West Baltimore who wanted to act as hosts and believed in the services the clinic offers, a partner artist could work to help shape public conversations and develop interesting, creative ways to bring the clinic and community members in contact with each other. I don’t know what form imaginative acts or expressive actions might take in this specific instance. But a theater artist drawn to this work is accustomed to shared, collaborative goals, has experience in creating inclusive process, and most importantly, knows what they don’t know, and how to know more. By listening.”


Producing new work does not have to only mean making new plays. And our new work practice, it can excel not just in the caliber of our expression but in the quality of our listening. If we can accomplish that, we model what civic life today desperately needs—a practice that places dialogue ahead of monologue, imagination at the heart of problem—solving, and listening equal in value to expression.

– See more at:

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Change or Not to Change–Social Capital in Arts Organizations

Dinnervention 6: The Flexibility of a New Skin

October 4, 2013 by  1 Comment

groupblogThis last Dinnervention post is an experiment in group blogging–I wrote the core piece, and then three of my fellow Dinnerventionists– Margy WallerLaura Zabel, and Devon Smith–were kind enough to react to it in commentary.  It was really interesting to watch happen–hopefully it is interesting to read as well!  The blogging platform allows limited capability to demonstrate in-text comments.

A new movement in the arts must break from the old, and must be flexible and moldable enough to accommodate our inherent decentralization.

  • We need to stop over-preferencing the artist over the point of the arts institution (note: thepoint of the institution, not the institution itself) (second note: the point of the arts institution, not the point of an institution itself).
    • Laura Zabel: Oh man.  This wording is so challenging to me.  I re-read this bullet several times and think I know what you mean (and that I probably agree with you), but I fear that very few institutions preference the artist’s needs.  I would reframe this as a need for increased leadership from artists, diminished separation between artists and arts managers AND a mutual head turn towards the point of the organization.
    • Margy Waller: This bullet points makes me think about the preferencing of the art — as someone at the institution defines the art.  That leads to a great deal of focus on traditional ways of experiencing the art. (More on this in comments later).  And campaigns that plead “our-art-is-so-precious-please-save-it” lead to the kind of Kickstarter campaign the New York City Opera tried this past week–an effort that failed miserably (see: “The Failures of Crowdfunding: No, Kickstarter Cannot Support an Opera Company”).  
      I disagree with the title of the article.  Kickstarter may not be the wrong platform for opera fundraising–but the offer was clearly wrong.
      I’m curious though–what are the classical music and opera leaders doing that has halted the decline in audience–unlike museums and theater which are seeing a decline? (See the new NEA’s  “Survey on Public Participation in the Arts 2012″).
      And hopefully we’ll speak up when there’s a “we’ve always done it this way” attack on a leader who is willing to try new approaches, to focus on social capital, to take risks that might build audience. (A leader who BTW is increasing attendance and membership at her museum, like Dinnerventionist Nina Simon.)
      When stuff like this is published–which sadly the New York Times decided to feature–let’s start reacting in public, and out loud.
  • We need to stop creating institutions built to generate social capital that are instead preoccupied with creating actual capital, and we need to understand that such capitalist impulses are not heretical, they’re natural inside institutions of a certain size, scope and responsibility.
    • Devon Smith: That’s hard to reconcile with social good/social entrepreneurship organizations (B-Corps, L3C’s, the Toms/Warby models, etc) whose forms were created for just the opposite reason: capitalist institutions, intent on investing in social capital, who felt they needed protection from shareholders.  I don’t think the problem is being preoccupied with creating capital, it’s misunderstanding how to do so effectively and efficiently.  The idea that corporations’ sole purpose is to maximize shareholder value is a modern urban legend.  It’s not the law.  The idea that a nonprofit can’t or shouldn’t be profitable is another modern urban legend: see hospitals, unions, PACs, etc.
    • Laura Zabel: I agree that those “modern urban legends” are prevalent and counter productive.  But I am a skeptic of the Tom’s model, which I think has demonstrated that there is a difference between mission-driven work and “charity-washing” of for-profit ventures.  Obviously, lots of nuance and gray area on that continuum to think about.
  • We need to stop shouting about innovation and new outreach without recognizing either the instability that goes along with that or the length of time necessary to test out new approaches before they should replace the old ones.
    • Laura Zabel: I’m in favor of less shouting and more doing.  I don’t know if the world will wait for incremental change, though.  A huge challenge for our existing infrastructure is that it is not well suited for the pace of change required “these days.”  Epic strategic planning, the need for board approval, funding cycles, multi-layered hierarchical staffing structures: these structural elements really inhibit the kind of iterative, creative thinking needed to move incremental change to systemic change rapidly.  But the world doesn’t care.  We expect change and responsiveness now and we have the tools to demand it.  For example, check out this Tumblr page created with essentially $0 and no institutional support.
  • We need to stop encouraging ourselves to swallow the whole issue of relevance at once like the Chinese brother swallowing the sea, which leaves most organizations with nothing to do but keep their head down against the storm and simply try to stay alive.  At the same time, we need to embrace and celebrate the “positive incremental” as acceptable movement.
  • We need to stop being so selfish about how much we like our forms, our circumstances, thenuances of ritual that are draped all around them–and to stop being oblivious to how difficult those things together make carrying forward.
    • Devon Smith: Anyone know of a blog post or article that tracks the shape/size/constituents of either arts organizations, or their relationship to audiences, or the audience’s relationship to the stage, across the centuries?  It strikes me that our desire to “preserve the form, and nuances of ritual” are representative of about the past 2% of organized arts’ history.  Prior to that, audiences looked and behaved quite differently, as did arts “organizations.”
    • Clay Lord: Devon, yes, but. I agree that being all misty eyed about the good old days of the non-profit arts institution is a bit silly, given you know, Groundlings talking through (and at the players in) plays, eating, throwing food, standing up, etc.  But I think also (and this may seem schizophrenic since I wrote the first bullet) that there needs to be some understanding that the clinging is happening because all of that was Before, and we are Now–and that that’s not terribly unusual in any environment.

Or maybe we don’t.

    • Laura Zabel: I have this feeling, too.  I’m optimistic that this new movement is already taking place and confident that some of our infrastructure will recognize the value of being a part of the movement.  And equally confident that we’ll lose some organizations along the way…and that’s okay.  Rebirth is good.  All we can do is make the work and try to make it better.

One of the most unexpected feelings I had leaving Djerassi was the feeling that maybe all of this consternation is for naught.  Maybe we are like the person cutting to feel the illusion of maximal control, self-flagellating to convince ourselves that we actually have any real say.  Who is the group of twelve that could have actually turned thought to action in a field so decentralized and without a core governing body?  What is our chance for change when our funding models don’t allow for flashpoint innovations, runways, security in the face of risk?  What is our chance for change when even within small communities the stakeholders can’t get on the same page, pulled between short-term and long-term desires, and in which there is no arbiter both strong enough and willing enough to exert strength to make a change?

    • Margy Waller: Well, it seems that a large, national, membership, support and advocacy organization is in a position to model long-term thinking. :-) 
      Most arts organizations don’t have the time or staff to track national media coverage of the arts or the legislation proposed at the national level.  Moreover, they (mostly) don’t get the calls for interviews on topics that have the potential to change the landscape of public understanding, to build broad support for the arts, etc.
      So most artists and arts staffers (whether they know it or not) are depending on leaders like AFTA and GIA and the NEA to get it right.
      Major shout out to the NEA for Our Town here, because shining a spotlight on the role of arts in community (building social capital, making places special/unique/desirable, bridging communities and people) is a great way to build a sense of shared responsibility for the arts. That’s what we need to generate a sense of the arts as a public good.
      But the way we talk about what we do is only part of what the national megaphones can do…
      Also, as Kimberly made clear in her final comments on the evening, funders can make a huge difference here.  It’s working in Cincinnati, where the major arts funder led the way, changing its mission and funding goals to focus on neighborhood vibrancy and bringing people together.  Is it a painful transition?  Yes.  Is it working? Yes!

Why is it that we feel we are too fragile to attempt and fail—and why is it that sometimes we really are?

I was talking to Alli Houseworth recently and we found ourselves hitting upon the hackathon phenomenon in the tech world.  A bunch of tech geeks of different stripes come together—a set of ideas are thrown out, teams are formed, and they go to town for two days, developing code, creating business plans, crafting whole ideas from thin air over the course of 48 hours.  And then they pitch and someone gets seed funding—the ability to actualize on an idea that hadn’t been articulated a few days before—and there’s the understanding it might not work, or that it might not be the end product, or that it might not completely solve anything.  There is a celebration of creation, of creativity, that we, as a field of creatives, seem to feel shy about embracing.

    • Margy Waller: Let’s do it.
      Before dinner, we (with Laura) talked about a two-day (or so) gathering to come up with new action steps.  Will it change the world?  Maybe not.  But what wonderful things might happen if a group of arts lovers is unleashed?  What if they (we, I hope) are given the mandate to come up with something new, take risks, abandon tradition (if they want to)?
      It’s an extended version of the Dinnervention–with seed funding at the end.
    • Clay Lord: I’m up for it.  Funders?  Anyone want to throw that party?

We have created an ecosystem where the slowest to change can stick around essentially indefinitely, where the most obvious organizations are often the ones most mired in the exclusive aspects of our forms, and where the incentive to invite new audiences in is so slim in the short-term as to overshadow the dramatic positivity it would engender in the long-term.

The latest SPPA data shows white audiences dwindling, and dwindling even faster for many of the benchmark disciplines.

So perhaps it all just has to fall apart.

As Ricky Fitts says in American Beauty, “There is so much beauty in the world.”

And there always will be, whether we wrangle ourselves into helping it truly shine for everyone or we don’t.

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New Beans

I fell and badly wrenched my knee at 5 a.m. today.  I am okay just walking more slowly than usual (which is pretty slow).  While I was sitting on the floor gathering my senses, I thought again about this Dinnervention that Barry of Barry’s Blog put together recently.  I am now mostly retired from arts administration, but there has been such an amazing change in the last 15 years or so that I am constantly thinking about relevancy and how to continue to help those with whom I still work.  The world has changed, the technology infused world has made all of us different.  Here is Dinnervention 5 from Clayton Lord’s blog: New Beans.  p.s. thanks to Joan, Melissa and Keith for getting me off the floor and making me feel cared for.  


Dinnervention 5: Pragmatism and Destruction

by Clayton Lord




“I want to kill them,” Devon Smith says, the klieg lights heating up the tiny dining room where we are eating and intervening. She goes on, arguing that we need to kill the organizations that aren’t relevant, that aren’t trying to be relevant.

The aggression is off-putting, and my gut response, which I act upon, is to soften up the verb, “surely you don’t mean ‘kill’,” but Devon pushes back and tells me that is exactly what she means.  Which of course it is–Devon isn’t one to misspeak. It is a bold thought. It scares me.

I find myself, lately, preoccupied with destabilization.  It is, in a very real way, another moment where I feel too cautious for the conversation.  What Devon is talking about–agency on an aggressive and deterministic scale–is appealing for the fact that I believe part of our issue in the arts, particularly around public value, is that the largest institutions, expert at the ways of non-profit longevity, can grossly outlast relevance without embracing true change. But when I imagine such an occurrence I blanch.  Skip the how, and imagine a major LORT theatre, unwilling or unable to transform itself into a more relevant and accessible institution for the full community, suddenly being divested of sufficient funds and structural support as to be killed dead.  Imagine the collateral damage.  Imagine the administrators, yes, but imagine the artists.  Imagine the community, with a big building suddenly dark, no well-heeled patrons pouring out and into restaurants and bars.

When you are a $30 million non-profit, you are no longer just a social good organ—an extension of the state designed to provide societal service.  At $30 million, you are an economic driver, you are a relatively major employer, and more than that, you are a vested interest of a whole lot of people.  You are large, and to kill you would be to pull a large block from a precarious tour.

This makes me feel so much like I am suddenly protecting the problem. This makes me feel like I am suddenly on the side of “too big to fail.”  Which angers me because I am equally on the side of “change or go.”  But for all of my excitement at the prospect of change, I am ultimately also preoccupied with longevity, with stability–and so I have to wonder what a tenable elaboration on the killing of organizations might look like.

In her essay in Counting New BeansDiane Ragsdale argues for the arts to embrace “creative destruction” — the taking control of deconstruction that must either be taken control of or occur randomly–essentially, the curation of change.  This is an interesting concept, and is in a clear way the soft-pedaled version of Devon’s death panels for the arts, but it comes up against the same issue of agency that pervaded so much.

How do we get from here to there, when we agree on none of the following in that question: “we,” “here,” “there?”  Who takes the reins when no one knows where the reins are, when the reality is that there are not reins so powerful as to make change happen?

I spoke with a foundation program officer recently who is seeking a way to participate in conversations about diversity, but who is concerned about their funds put towards such a conversation being viewed as an imprimatur that the foundation is advocating for diversification as a universal course.  I understand the problem, and respect the resistance to a possibly activist stance, but I also feel that the reality of that problem means we are essentially doomed to keep having the conversation we have had for fifty years without seeing real directed change.  The only difference I see, and it pains me to be such a pessimist in this, is that the new movement we seek may occur as a simple picking up after we all fall down–that we aren’t having the same conversation as 30, 40, 50 years ago because we are 30, 40, 50 years closer to the tipping point.  We are like the scientists watching the ice caps melt, knowing we are about to be deluged but unable to agree on where to put the levees.

A new movement in the arts must be willing to sacrifice its flailing parts while also understanding the imbalance that such sacrifice will create.  At the same time, a new movement in the arts must be willing to recognize the long march of history, the pace with which we have dug our holes, and the incremental, sustainable, stable progress that is necessary to get out–and must celebrate such effort wherever it may crop up.

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More Dinnervention

Dinnervention 4: Art and Institutions

by Clayton Lord




This one’s not going to be very new, I fear.  It seems to have been the core outcome for most of the folks coming out of the Dinnervention, and of course is also a trope that has run its course through the blogosphere for a while.  And yet…

If the core problem facing the arts today really is one of relevance, of public value, of engagement, then the core solution must be one that embraces what America writ large finds relevant, what the public values, and what a new and expansive definition of prospective arts consumers find engaging.  This, to me, seems both obvious and nearly insurmountable in its scope.  Obvious for obvious reasons, I hope, and nearly insurmountable because of the incredible inertia that exists, for reasons both good and bad, around our media, our systems, our institutions, our language, our structures, our criteria for success.

At the dinner, Laura ZabelDevon SmithMarc Bamuthi Joseph and others started by framing out the dichotomy of art and the institution.  Art is not dwindling.  Art is not in trouble.  Art has always and will always exist–it is a pervasive force that manifests in every culture; it is the way we tell stories, tell history, teach lessons, show love, grieve, celebrate, honor.  The decline in “arts” participation in the past thirty years, since the advent of the first Survey on Public Participation in the Arts by the NEA, is in fact the decline in participation at the core Eurocentric artistic institutions.  It is a decline that maps exactly against the rise of new populations, the fall of arts education programs throughout the country, the adoption of art-as-code-for-elitism by the right wing.  But it is not a decline in art making or art consumption.  It is a decline in consumption of a particular type of art, narrow in form, time- and place-based, constrained by hundreds of years of rules and mores.

It is also, as it happens, a decline in the institutions that have made full- and part-time employment as artists and arts administrators possible.  Which leads to schizophrenia in the core question–because “art,” arguably, has never been more relevant, more valued, more engaging, even as “arts institutions,” in particular those that hold strongly to the trappings of traditional arts, dwindle in importance.  They are, for most of the parts of our population that are expanding, not the place where art really lives–they place it distantly, on a hill, obscured by walls and price and vocabulary that doesn’t resonate, down a winding road that is narrow and tight, beautiful, perhaps, but why can’t I just do that at home?

Which may, in a way, be all to the good—at least until you get to the finer points of survivability, the underpinning training required to create free pop songs, the core societal resonances that pervade the chords of homemade music, the subjects of personal paintings, the structure of self-told stories.  Then the room starts echoing the sounds of silence.

A new movement in the arts must be cognizant of the fact that we are moving inside a space that is infinitely larger and more diverse than we ever will be.    At the same time, a new movement must embrace and tout the ways in which the old forms are a required foundation for the new ones.  It must understand the grace that allows us to exist in that space, and must let go of any feelings of entitlement or ownership–we do not make the arts exist, they have existed long before us and will exist long after we and our organizations have gone.


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Trending On Yahoo–Meteorologist Will Never Fly Again

Meteorologist vows never to fly again after seeing latest climate report

Ground staff check a VietJet A320 airplane before departure for Bangkok at Noi Bai international airport in Hanoi
When meteorologist Eric Holthaus read the recent climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he saw that things were worse than even he had anticipated. 

Writing a reaction piece in Quartz, Holthaus wrote that for the first time, the IPCC’s report “mentioned projections of climate change beyond 2100 and painted a picture of a bleak world, possibly unrecognizable to those living today, should fossil fuel use continue on its current trajectory.”

Then, while getting ready to board a flight in San Francisco on Sept. 27, Holthaus began tweeting about his more emotional reaction to the report. 

It’s not an empty sacrifice for Holthaus, an avid traveler.

In another post for Quartz, Holthaus writes that while he’s long done things to help the environment (he recycles, doesn’t eat meat, brings his own bags to the store, etc.), his flying habits (75,000 miles flown last year) were no longer something he could ignore.

Holthaus used a carbon footprint calculator from UC Berkeley and found that his flying accounted for nearly half of his household’s emissions. He found that if he stopped flying, his carbon footprint would go from being about double the American average to around 30 percent less than average.

Via Quartz: 

I’ll still have to travel a lot (by car and train), and I’ll use videoconferencing for meetings I can’t miss. But by removing my single biggest impact on the climate in one swoop, I can rest a bit easier knowing I’ve begun to heed the IPCC’s call to action. Individual gestures, repeated by millions of people, could make a huge difference.


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More Dinnervention

Dinnervention 3: Happiness: Dinnervention and Disruption by Margy Waller

by Clayton Lord


Margy Waller

Margy Waller

This is a guest post from Margy Waller, Senior Partner at the Topos Partnership and fellow Dinnerventionist.  Margy has previously guest-posted for New Beanshere.

The Invitation

One of the great surprises of my year came in the form of an invitation to dinner received last spring when I awoke to an email titled in part: NOT SPAM PLEASE READ.

The email and invitation to a Dinnervention came from Barry Hessenius of WESTAF (The Western States Art Federation). The dinner is his invention and is designed to bring together an “unheralded group of arts sector leaders…[who] would – as guests at a dinner party – provide for a memorable and meaningfully engaging conversation on critically important arts issues; people with new ideas, who can argue convincingly for those ideas.”

Barry’s democratic approach to developing the invite list allowed for any of the 10,000 or so readers of his blog to nominate guests. He received over 350 names, and then he and his co-producer Shannon Daut, and an advisory group – Ian David Moss, Mitch Menchaca, Richard Evans, Nina Simon, Ron Ragin and Gary Steuer, chose twelve invitees.

IMG_1630 IMG_1629

The Advance Work

Accepting the invitation meant committing to a fair amount of thinking and writing. But what a sweet requirement, right? We got to nominate topics for the dinner conversation and then write our ‘case’ for addressing the issue in a short briefing paper – arguments which Barry honored us by publishing on his blog, here and here.

The twelve of us had some interaction via conference call and emails in advance of the dinner. Not as much as I’d have liked, especially in retrospect. One of the primary benefits of the Dinnervention experience was spending time with the others – including the WESTAF staff and Shannon who assisted in every way, and Margot Knight who hosted us at the incredibly lovely and sculpture filled – if remotely-located-on-a-scary-one-lane-cliff-adjacent-road – Djerassi, a retreat for resident artists. Some of my dinner partners were already friends, some I’d never met in person – but had talked to or tweeted with, and others I’d never met before and simply Internet-stalked from a distance.

IMG_1592 Margot invited those of us who arrived in time before dinner to join her on a hike to see the sculpture and artwork on the land. The works are mostly temporary; artists are aware that the artwork will change and fade into the landscape over time. The tour was a brilliant appetizer of sorts – it made for some interesting conversation about the value of investing limited resources into “art for arts sake.” After all, few people ever get the chance to see the Djerassi artwork, yet it is created by artists on retreat for a month that is, by design, without any demands or artistic requirements. I will say this: it brought some of us together around questions of arts in community – ideas we’d discuss in different ways for three hours over dinner later that evening.

The Topic

 We were invited to write and talk about what many people think of as the disruption of the same old ways of presenting art, reaching new audiences, and engaging the public in a conversation about the arts as a public good. The topic, in short, was: “Traditional audiences are declining and participation patterns are shifting seismically, which is having a deleterious impact on arts organization’s traditional revenue streams. How can we address this pattern on a macro scale? What would a new movement around the arts look like?

As the date for the Dinnervention got closer, I began to imagine a disruption of the dinner. I expected that so many super thoughtful people sitting around a table, discussing how to create a new movement in the arts, would have way more to say than time would allow. It made sense to organize the conversation with some ground rules, and our hosts did so, but I was feeling a desire to organize the participants to disrupt the plan in some way – like, whip out a crazy hat mid-meal and play some music for a serendipitous game of musical chairs. After all, we were invited to talk about art, why not interrupt dinner with a minor random act of art or flash mob action?

But, that didn’t happen. Instead, the disruption came when the people around the table felt so passionately about a topic or statement that they broke the ground rules for discussion and jumped the line for talking. (Otherwise, Barry and Shannon maintained order with a list as we each discretely signaled a desire to comment.)

As I think back on the dinner, those disruptions are among the moments that stand out for me.


The Disruption Sticking With Me

 Devon Smith, in her after-dinner-blog, summarized the events in this way:

…the Arts Dinner-vention Party did not reach consensus on how to build a movement for the arts, nor how to save the (institutional) arts (organizations). We did discuss, debate, and disagree on a far range of topics: whether we want to be more like co-ops or soup kitchens, if arts orgs as community centers strays too far from our mission, how to hold arts administrators accountable, who will be our growth hackers, if death panels for the weakest (organizations) among us are really a good idea, and what our minimally viable products will be, among many others. The only thing we agreed on was that the arts are not in trouble, it’s the institutions that are failing.

That’s well put.

One of the disagreements was also a moment of disruption.

Clay and Nina had a bit of back and forth about what Devon describes as the question of whether “arts organizations as community centers stray too far from our mission.”

Nina, of course, leans toward “igniting shared experiences and unexpected connections” in the museum as a thriving, central place in her city.

Clay shared some skepticism about arts organizations serving as community centers.

This was apparently not the first time these two have had this conversation. By the end of dinner, Clay acknowledged that he may be coming around to Nina’s view, as she explained that people are coming to the museum to co-create and otherwise engage in arts events that bring people together. Even if these visitors don’t always come for the art already on the walls, community building occurs through art.

The debate over focus and emphasis at our arts organizations is playing out again as I’m writing this after-dinner-blog of my own. On an blog post provocatively titled “Trouble in Paradise: Santa Cruz’s Museum Loses Its Way”, Judith H. Dobrzynski extended thoughts she’d written about earlier in the New York Times. As I write this, there are over forty comments on the post.

It’s hard to pull a short quote from Ms. Dobrzynski’s writing to capture the essence of her thinking, but it seems fair to say that she’s unhappy with the trends toward participatory and experiential arts, a focus on visitor engagement – and other things that involve taking the pulse of the “goers” or interfere with simply “standing before the art.”

I added a short note, using the Times platform, when they published Ms. Dobrzynski’s commentary there, reacting to her point that these initiatives will change who goes to museums, and for what. (In short, exactly right and hurrah!)

When she used her own blog to pursue these points via the (apparently under-researched) post of a local blogger who attacked Nina Simon and her leadership of the Santa Cruz Museum of Arts and History, I was compelled to respond more directly. It went something like this:

What Do We Want?

Everything depends on our goals.

Many of us want to live in a place where the arts organizations – museums especially – are of and contribute to community. Buildings that have energy and where people want to be. Places where people come together and get to know each other better, strengthening the bonds of civic infrastructure through art. (Here’s why I say this.)

Everything that I read and see about what’s happening in community engagement at the museum in Santa Cruz is exciting and appealing. It’s no surprise that attendance and membership are up – way up. If we want expanded and bigger audiences for our arts and artists, we should love what’s happening at the Museum of Art and History there, and pay close attention to what they are learning about creating fans and people who want to return – bringing friends and family along.

After watching with enthusiasm from a distance, I had the great fun of visiting the museum with Nina Simon as my guide a few weekends ago. * It was a quiet Saturday afternoon and there was plenty of opportunity for contemplation in the museum – for those what like it like that.

But also, there was a great feeling of energy, and opportunities for me to share my reactions to the art – to feel that I was part of what happened and could contribute to the sense of community there. And these feelings are not unique to me. Every visitor is invited to offer a comment on the museum – right out in the open. Here are two responses I loved enough to photograph:

  • “Thanks for trusting us.”
  • “I feel happy when I come here.”

What could be better? People who feel this way about a place will tell others, will return, will bring friends. This sort of social capital = success.

When we measure our success by happiness, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History is winning.


*One of the terrific serendipitous pleasures of the Dinnervention invitation was the time I got to spend afterward at Nina’s nearby museum. But for the dinner, it might have been years before I made my way there IRL. (Not to mention all the time getting lost on the way there with Laura Zabel, who is doing amazing work creating community through and for the arts at Springboard. Driving on the confusing roads in the hills near Djerassi allowed me more time to hear about art on the streets in Minnesota and Springboard’s health care initiative for artists that is super-smart.)  Thanks Dinnervention! And special thanks to whichever great friends of mine nominated me to be a guest – I don’t know who you are, but I’m most appreciative. And thanks also to Barry, Anthony, WESTAF, Shannon, Margot and all the staff at Djerassi – the food was spectacular.

Let’s Measure our Success by Happiness.

IMG_1580What the Other Dinner Guests Wrote about This Topic

As I set about writing this after-dinner blog, I decided to reread the pre-dinner essays by the guests and pull a related thought from each one.  It turned out to be quite rewarding to review their commentary again, reinforcing my interest in staying in touch with all of them. In the end, these connections may the most important outcome of the dinner for me.

Laura Zabel: I see no possibility for success in this effort without a bigger definition of who is in our movement.

Kimberly Howard: This new movement around art requires that we create a transition period, where we provide these ‘learning’ experiences that feel more like participation and engagement than ‘teachable moments’ for audiences between 18 and 99, by point blank asking them – what are you interested in seeing on the stage, on the wall, on the pedestal, on the Marley floor?  It might mean, for a time, that we shift the paradigm, making work that we are asked to make rather than work that we are inspired to make.  It might mean that while making work that is in dialogue with the audiences we think we need, we open ourselves to the possibility of being inspired in new ways.

Clayton Lord: the decline of the traditional institutional arts audience base is a direct result of the rise of the idea (self-perpetuated) of the arts as (1) not for everyone and (2) not necessary, simply nice…[exacerbated] by a historically reflexive reaction from the art community to its ongoing marginalization—namely a pulling away from art as a driver of community engagement, change, and dialogue and towards art as a means and end in itself.

Tamara Alvarado: We are not beyond race and we still need to work on finding commonalities versus differences and I know the arts play a significant role in establishing neutral ground where that conversation can be had.

Nina Simon: People like to recreate socially, and many industries (restaurants, bars, theme parks) clearly represent themselves as social venues. One of the easiest ways to hook people on a new experience is to invite them to participate with you. While the social nature of an arts experience may be implied, it is rarely explicit. This is most glaring in the case of museums; the majority of visitors attend in social groups, but many perceive museum-going as a “contemplative solo activity.” We need to promote arts institutions for date night, family night, girl time—and help people see our offerings as part of their social lives.

Kristin Thomson:  [Quoting from a survey to make her point.] “The audience has already moved from “arts attendance as an event” to “arts attendance as an experience.”  This desire for a full-range of positive experience from ticket purchase, to travel, to parking, to treatment at the space, to quality of performance, to exit – this will only increase over the next 10 years.”

Salvador Acevado: The days of attracting people to an experience based on our needs are over, and nowadays people want organizations, products, or brands to adapt to their needs, or they will go elsewhere. It is not like there’s a lack of activities or experiences, and the ones that will survive are the ones who cater to the needs and wants of new audiences. It’s called audience-centered missions…audiences are looking for experiences in which they are not passive observers or contemplators of the art form. With the advent of the social web era, in contrast to the TV era, people expect now to be part of and mold the experience.

Devon Smith: …the product itself is doing just fine. It’s the distribution channel that has been forced to change; the amateurs that have subverted power from the professionals.

Lex Leifheit: …how can one respond to a question of traditional audiences and revenue streams without questioning whose traditions these are?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: …art is not just the object or the outcome, but art is a process and opportunity for community….exponentially broadening its constituent circle…and transforming the audience-arts center paradigm from the transactional into one centered on collaboration.

Meiyin Wang: We should shift from the thinking that art is a commodity we produce to be consumed by the audience – to the practice that art is a relationship between the artist, theater and the audience. We should stop only “telling the story” and really look hard at what the art form has to offer. We should stop being afraid of the audience…. We have to stop pretending that the audience is not there. The focus will turn to the relationship to the viewer, to the relationship of viewership, the experiential, and the changing notion of authorship.

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