Art and Politics – A Long and Glorious History

In the February 11, 2015 issue of the Wall Street Journal, James Panero bemoaned the rise of protests aimed at Mariinsky Theatre (based in St. Petersburg) conductor Valery Gergiev and his silence regarding Putin’s anti-gay policies and the Russian incursion into Crimea. Panero made some bold statements. “Current events have now claimed a front seat on the culture, and it is time to stop them at the gate” he said, and declared that “a banner today may be a weapon tomorrow.” He also noted that “Protesters shouting down concertgoers; musicians silenced by hecklers; agitators taking the stages of our performances. All this represents a new turn in the relationship between arts and politics.” Apparently these sort of disruptions make Mr. Panero uncomfortable. He declares that concert houses need to do more to keep the audience “safe.” Really? Since when is good art safe? And I know he is referring to physical safety, but bear with me. Artists have long been among the voices of political dissent. Long before the civil rights protest songs of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, and the plays of Czech writer and politician Vaclav Havel in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, artists have been outspoken challengers of inequality and oppression. Commedia D’ellarte, with its roots in Greek and Roman comedies, at its core highlighted the foolishness of the powerful in society while underscoring the cleverness of the less powerful, lower class. It is right that audiences should expect more from art and artists than entertainment. And it is right that the artists should be called out when they disappoint. Artists have a unique relationship with their audience. A relationship that includes an unspoken pact that we will join the them in the journey; that we will pay attention to the story we are being told. We expect artists to challenge us, and to share with us truth and beauty. Good art is political. It is not safe. Art critic and philosopher Boris Groys said “Art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics.”

Audience disruptions of performances are not, in fact, a new thing. From the disruption of the radical and experimental theatre of the Weimar Republic, the audience reaction to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, or the more recent heckling of Bill Cosby, audiences have long considered it a right to voice their frustration with art and artists in the moment, whether the issue is quality, offensive material, idealogical clashes, or alleged criminal behavior. That is what makes art so exciting, we get to respond immediately. Convention says we politely wait for the opportunity to applaud, but God help us if we feel so restrained as to not react in the moment when compelled. So, no Mr. Panero, we should not stop current events from claiming its “front seat on the culture.” In fact, we should demand and expect it. I want artists to take a stand, to examine and comment on culture and politics, to challenge oppression, and to earn my trust in doing so. I also expect the audience to respond in kind; to be joyful, appalled, shocked, amused, enraged, and spurred into action, even if that means an immediate response. And if that artist has somehow lost the trust and confidence of the audience, if they have failed to fulfill the expectations of an artist and leader, I want the person next to me to leap onto stage and call them out. I am fine with the expectation that a prominent artist be held accountable for ignoring oppression or glossing over the truth. I would hope that I have the conviction to rise as well and join in the dissent. A concert hall, a theatre, a book of poetry, none of this should be a safe place free from scrutiny of politics and society. Of course the physical safety of an audience is paramount and appropriate precautions should be taken. But it is a long journey from “banner” to “weapon,” and we should never expect the world of art be free from political discourse. Thankfully, despite Mr. Panero’s call, I am fairly certain culture, politics, and dissent will always have a place in the concert hall and beyond.



Arts Across the Curriculum

Recently, and unfortunately, the President of the United States chose to make a disparaging comment about jobs for those who studied Art History in his remarks on “Opportunity for All and Skills for American Workers” on January 30th.  It is mildly understandable, as our economy continues to recover that the President is looking to highlight some practical avenues and approaches to shore up that recovery, but come on, did he really need to bash the arts?  In fact, research has show that those who chose to major in the arts are generally satisfied with their their careers, at least when it comes to meaning and satisfaction.  Of course, those same folks will readily tell you, and the same research showed, that they are not satisfied with their income.  Shocking!

But the arts, and arts content at universities is so much more than majoring or minoring in art history, theatre, music, dance, painting, or some other creative discipline to pursue a career in that field.  More and more colleges and universities are finding creative and pedagogically beneficial ways to integrate the arts into a-typical curriculum and courses, not necessarily for the sake of art itself, but to enhance the learning in that particular field.  I am fine with that, in fact, I encourage it. I think any exposure to or participation in the arts is great.

I want to share with you how a few faculty at BU are integrating arts content across the curriculum in some really interesting ways.  Not everyone will pursue the arts as a career, but at BU we believe that  “Artistic engagement brings immeasurable value to our social and academic development, impacting not only the way we perceive the world but how we approach so many disciplines, from the sciences to the humanities,”says Jean Morrison, University Provost and Chief Academic Officer.  I want to make it clear, I take no credit for this work.  My office, the BU Arts Initiative, is here to support this work where we can, and raise awareness within the university so that others are encouraged to consider possibilities within their field, not just for the sake of the arts, but because we truly believe that study of and participation in the arts enhances ones overall education, regardless of your chosen field of study.  In some of these cases, our office did provide grant funds to assist integrating arts content.  Consider these examples.

Faculty at our Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine are employing visual thinking strategies in training their first year students to build their observational and critical thinking skills. Through this approach every dental student attends the local museum and has the opportunity to practice critical observation skills through art.

An occupational therapy faculty member at the Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Services uses a photography assignment to explore issues of health.  Students must take and submit for discussion and participation in a contest, images of participation and health as viewed in three categories, How We Work, How We Live, and How We Play.  The faculty member notes that the photography assignment, “allows students to use a creative medium to depict the power of participation in society as a bridge to health for people, regardless of age or ability.”

Jazz2 At the BU School of Management, if you take Organizational Behavior, and you will, you will inevitably end up seeing and talking about jazz, theatre, and dance.   The lead faculty member, who happens to be married to a visual artist, uses these tools to discuss issues of collaboration, improvisation, and teamwork, skills that he notes CEOs today are looking for.

Each year thousands of students take mandatory writing courses in the College of Arts and Sciences.  For several hundred of those, all their writing assignments are about local art.  Through a program called Arts Now, writing faculty select local art (theatre, jazz, poetry, and museums) and all writing and research assignments are designed around those experiences.  Not only are students learning critical writing skills, but they also have the opportunity to explore some fantastic local art in the process.

And finally, just this past Friday (1/31/14), 12 Phd students in the sciences participated in a day long workshop that included improvisational theatre training.  The training was not to turn them into performers, but to enhance their ability to read an audience and communicate their message effectively with that audience.  The improv games help them understand body language, promote active listening, and provide a more clear and concise message to their chosen audience.

These are just some of the ways that arts skills and content are being used to train students in non-arts fields.   I am fortunate to be at an institution that is working diligently to share these methods, and explore possible new ways to enhance all areas of study through thoughtful, structured arts content.  What is happening at your institution?  Please share in the comments!

Arts Organizations – Do Everything You Can to Engage College and High School Students

bendoverbackwardsI’ll say it right out front.  Arts organizations, you should be bending over backward to get college and high school students in your doors;  but not just in your doors, you should be welcoming, engaging, and educating them.  In 2012, the National Endowment for the arts released it’s report How a Nation Engages with Art – Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.  One doesn’t need NEA data to tell us the audience for the arts is aging or shrinking (that is in there too).  Just look around the next time you attend an event.  But, for the sake of scientific back up, let’s look at their numbers for participation for 18-24 year old individuals.  For classical music, it is the 2nd lowest age range, for musical theatre – second lowest – after 75+, non-musical theatre – lowest (an abysmal 6.3%), and art museum or gallery, second lowest after 75+.

I don’t want to be too dramatic, OK, maybe I do.  But to me, the survival of the arts in our society is dependent on arts organizations rethinking their approach to young audiences.  Here are my suggestions.

  • Stop thinking of them as a revenue source, just do whatever you can to get them in the door; even if it means not charging them a cent. Find a way. Consider it an investment.
  • Start thinking of them as your future patrons, donors, and board members; as well as potential continued members of the community in which you operate.
  • Don’t just get them in the door. Welcome them. Be hospitable. Create an environment in which people their age want to be.
  • Embrace their unique qualities. They are curious. They want inside information and access. They use social media like crazy. They travel in packs. They are socially conscious; have tons of time commitments, but, they love a good reason to gather socially. Give them what they want, especially when it comes to social media.  Create space for that, and I don’t mean in the furthest darkest corner of your auditorium or facility.
  • Educate them.  Provide pre-show and post show talks regularly (conversations, not lectures), pre-show gatherings with artists, really good program notes; whatever it takes. Give them the knowledge and experience to be educated arts participants.
  • Build relationships with those who can help you gain access to them.  I am talking about me and people like me, or student activities staff, or residential life staff, faculty, and others like us on a college campus.  We want more than anything for our students to have an amazing college experience and that includes their engagement with the community. In a high school, use the PTA, the Principal’s office, teachers, tutors, you get the idea.
  • Consider your product and the packaging.  It better be great – remember they are social media experts.  And, you need to tell them what they are getting and why they should come.  Persuade them, don’t just assume they will come because they “should”. It also better be palatable. Seriously, who has the time for a three hour concert or show anymore, let alone a college or high school student?
  • Try not to separate them from your regular constituency.  There is so much value in an inter-generational arts experience.
  • And finally, track them!  If you get them in your door, get their information somehow.  You can’t invite them back otherwise.

Who is an artist?

I am catching up on some reading related to my field.  This morning I started working through two books, The Arts in Higher Education, a report by the American Association of Higher Education done in 1968.  Yup 1968.  More on that later perhaps.  The other is Howard Singerman’s Art Subjects – Making Artists in the American University, published in 1999.  I was struck by a line early in Singerman’s book, page four to be exact.  Singerman is reviewing the training he received during his MFA in sculpture program.  He notes that he did not get some of the traditional training in carving, casting, or modeling, but that for him “The problem of being an artist occupied the center.  The question I posed to my teachers” he writes, “and that they posed to me again and again was not how to sculpt or paint, but what to do as an artist, and as ‘my work’.” Sadly he continues, “Perhaps this is where my program failed me – after all, I am not an artist;”  What!? I confess, I haven’t yet read the rest of the book.  Perhaps he explains himself more, but from the looks of it, he continues by launching into an exploration of “what constitutes training as an artist now”.  I hope he explores his own identity as an artist later in the book.  I would look forward to reading that.  But that comment, “I am not an artist” made me think about how our students identify themselves when they enter college, and when they leave, and where “artist” might fit into that identity.

Pablo Picasso is quoted as saying “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”  I am particularly interested in the part of growing up that includes higher education.  What happens or can happen during post secondary education that leads one to believe or state that they are or are not an artist?  Art is defined by a great many things by different people: skill, technique, passion, the ability to speak to society (or parts of it), to express the human condition, and more.  If you read my blog, or make note of certain trends in higher education, you know that more and more colleges and universities are recognizing the role of the arts and creativity in the basic education of their students, understanding that participation and engagement in the arts supports the academic, social, and emotional development of each student.  Investments are being made in staff, programs, courses, and facilities.  Are these investments meant to help people “remain artists” as Picasso notes?  Perhaps.  Perhaps part of the intent is to redefine who is an artist.

For decades I have enjoyed pushing the boundaries on issues of identity, in personal conversations and in academic work.  I am particularly curious about how one defines themselves upon entering, during, and leaving college.  Higher education professionals often talk about educating and supporting the whole student; so why not work to help them develop the capacity to consciously think of themselves as greater than their selected major or intended future career.  Even I find myself searching for the appropriate word to describe myself to people I meet. I usually default to something about my vocation, so I say “administrator”.  But the fact is, I am an artist.  However, as adults we seem to have this need to define ourselves as simply as possible, by the thing that pays our bills; by what we do.  I would suggest that trend starts in college.  Prior to that, how often did we get those kinds of questions.  It was assumed, I was, for the most part, simply a high school student*.  In part, because I hadn’t “done” anything yet.  Rarely did anyone expect me to define myself in any particular way beyond that, aside from perhaps familial relationships.  I was in fact an actor, a singer, and a musician by the time I was 18.  As far as the visual arts, the best I could do was decent copies of those cartoons in the back of TV Guide.  Remember those?  None of that of course paid my bills.  But neither did my job at the grocery store.

It shouldn’t be that difficult to encourage students, regardless of their major, to not just occasionally indulge the artist within them, but to embrace and nourish that artist.  I want people to keep doing their art, whatever that is, during college, so that when they are asked what they “do” at any point in their life, art can be a part of their answer.  Interestingly, I think am posing virtually the same question that Singerman had posed to him, “what does it mean to be an artist?”.  But, if someone like Singerman who has an advanced degree in art, won’t describe himself as an artist, is there any chance that I can help convince the engineering major, the student studying physical therapy, or the one in business management to identify in any way as an artist? I intend to find out!


* In the interest of brevity, I chose not to delve into the deeper issues of identity including gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.  I in no way intend to belittle the relevance of these layers of identity and their discovery throughout ones life.  My focus in this piece is on identity based on things we have trained in, studied, and do.

How do the arts respond to violence?

Yesterday was a horrible day in Boston.  If you haven’t heard yet, two explosions rocked the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Three are dead, more than 130 injured, several critically.  I am having a hard time working today.  It is difficult to focus on marketing upcoming events, or developing new programs.  I want to cry.  I want to scream.  I want to hide.  It is difficult for me to hear normal conversations in the hallway, including laughter.  I am sure as a child I was occasionally called the sensitive type.  Today, I feel it.

3bammessagebostonIn the last 24 hours I have seen (and shared) a number of posts and emails about how artists respond.  Patton Oswalt wrote something that included “So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will”. A number of folks also  posted the following quote from Leonard Bernstein “This will be our reply to violence: To make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”  And Last night NYC Light Brigade and The Illuminator  lit up the side of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Peter Jay Sharp building, displaying messages of support for Boston. The messages projected read: “Peace and Love,” “It shouldn’t take a tragedy for us to come together,” “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that” (a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote), and NY ♥ B (in the Red Sox font).  These are wonderful expressions of support and encouragement for a city and her people who are struggling. But I can’t help wondering what else we can do. I know that the arts, a field to which I have devoted my life, have the power of transformation, and I still don’t know what to do.  The arts, like no other activity have the power to build community, to break down barriers, to help us understand one another, and yes to help us heal.  I know this with absolute certainty.  I have seen it.  And yet, today I am stunned into inaction, because I don’t want to trivialize and because, I think, deep down, I still wonder if we have a place in a tragedy like this.  I want to mobilize, to help, to heal.  I think most of all, I want to participate, but I am afraid.  For today, I am not feeling very creative or artsy, I am just… feeling.

My Boston Update

BU TerrierIt has been a while since I have written.  I feel the need to apologize, though part of my writing journey has been to give myself a break and write when I feel compelled, not when I think I should.  So, after just over four months on the job as the Managing Director of Boston Universities Arts Initiative, I thought I would give you a brief update.

Spring has finally begun here in Boston, and it couldn’t come soon enough.  Unlike many folks, I do enjoy snow.  As long as my power doesn’t go out, my dogs and I are perfectly happy with a snowy stroll and On Demand.  However, there is something to be said for sunshine. It changes my perspective and boosts my energy.  I am truly looking forward to exploring more of the Boston area.

On the job front, I couldn’t be happier.  This was hands down a good move for me.  It is a job I am capable of, and if I do say so myself, excelling at, but it is a challenge, and I am enjoying that as well.  Like most positions in the arts, I don’t have the staff or budget to do what we dream of doing, but through partnerships with fantastic colleagues – both faculty and staff – we are putting together some great initiatives.  Boston University is a large university – 16 schools on two campuses with approximately 33,000 undergraduate and graduate students. My role is to raise the visibility of the arts and build engagement in them, thereby enhancing the student experience.  So you can imagine, the possibilities are endless.

I won’t bore you with all the details of my past four months.  Suffice it to say, it has included a great many meetings and some significant strategy sessions.  The results thus far are exciting.  We have launched grants to support special projects that engage students in the arts, and to support the use of the arts in teaching.  We are building our communications network, sharing resources and exploring joint marketing through our marketing group, and rapidly growing our social media and weekly email blasts.  We had our first faculty lunch in partnership with the Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching, which was fantastic. And we are supporting some great  upcoming projects including a student mural on a parking lot wall, and the expansion of writing seminars call Arts Now.  We also have our Spring Signature Event in two weeks! The Crossroads Project is a truly unique arts event exploring climate change co-sponsored by the Dean of Students and sustainability@BU.  We are building a student advisory council and activating the amazing faculty and staff on the Provost’s Arts Council. I have part time staff assistance, a work study, an intern, and we are in the process of hiring a graduate assistant for next year and selecting a summer intern.  If I have learned anything over the years, it is how to build an army  coalitions.

The other exciting thing that is happening involves another coalition that I am pleased to have helped create, Arts Administrators in Higher Education (AAHE). This is a network of arts administrators across the country on 28 different college and university campuses.  While our jobs are sometimes radically different, all of us share the chief goal of engaging students in the arts.  Most of the programs I just listed have been stolen adapted from my amazing colleagues in AAHE.  It has been exciting to see our ranks grow this fall, with new friends from all over.  I am thrilled to be part of a movement across the country that recognizes the intrinsic and extrinsic value of the arts in college education, and I fully expect it to continue!


I have been doing a great deal of reading lately about Millennials.  Millennials are what researchers have labelled the those born generally between 1980 and 1998 (those years vary slightly depending on who you read).  They are also often called the “me generation”.  They are called Millennials, because they are the first generation to come of age in the new millennium.  Millennials as a generation have a  number of distinguishing characteristics (for more see the 2010 Pew report) including being technically savvy, more ethnically and racially diverse, less religious, and likely to become the most educated generation in history.  Apparently, they, or at least those Millennials in college, are also the least empathetic they have ever been; a full 40% less empathetic than college students from 30 years ago.   Anecdotally, many of us Generation Xers could have told you what University of Michigan researcher Sara Konrath discovered, college students really are full fledged members of the “me generation”, in  all it’s glory.

empathyBefore I continue, let me qualify that as someone who has been working with college students for more than 20 years, I have met some amazingly compassionate, self-less, empathetic students along the way.  But the research now shows that they are apparently the exception, not the norm.

Most of you can imagine where I am going with this.  The arts.  Where else do you have the opportunity to safely explore the other?  To learn about places, people and conditions completely foreign to our own experience?  We can, through the arts have our hearts broken, our spirits lifted and our minds altered.  We can build empathy.  And yes, the research is there.  A study in the UK has revealed that extended participation in a music group for children 8 to 11 years old resulted in “remarkable potential of MGI (music group interaction) for promoting positive social-emotional capacities such as empathy” (see study abstract).  For those of us in the arts, this is not a new idea.  Actors have been used for years to help train new medical professionals in bed side manners and empathy.  And dramatist Lauren Gunderson goes so far as to say theatre for youth can change the world, because she says, “We don’t understand each other, and we don’t want to. But theater invites us — no, forces us — to empathize”.

Research has also show that the human brain does not stop developing till well into our 20’s.  So why not continue to expose our students to quality, engaging, diverse, provocative arts programming; programming that not only exposes them to beauty, but forces them to ask difficult questions of themselves and society?  We want our students develop into mature, compassionate, empathetic, contributing members of a global society.  We know that participation and engagement in the arts can contribute to that.  So, let’s figure out how to engage all our students, yes ALL of them, in the arts before they leave our campus.