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.


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.

Building Sustainable Student Programs

As I continue to prepare for my transition from UPenn to BU (I will be the Managing Director of BU’s Arts Initiative – I will post more about this later), I have been thinking about what it means to develop programs that are sustainable – not environmentally sustainable, but programs that have a functional life beyond my time at the institution.  The last thing I want is for programs that I believe (and I hope students believe) are successful and relevant or that have proven (through assessment) to be to be successful and relevant be placed on the chopping block because “that was Ty’s program”.  After some time searching the web, I couldn’t come up with anything useful to use as a guide.  So I will posit a few ideas and hope that some of you comment.  Of course, I am in particular, wondering about sustaining student arts programs, though I expect the basics would be the same for any student program.  Here are characteristics that I think would indicate the ability for programs to be sustained over the years, particularly through staff transitions.

Strong student commitment or involvement.  I think the two are different.  You can have a few student who are deeply committed to a program that they can effectively manage or help to manage.  If that kind of investment repeats itself annually, the program should be easy to maintain, even in a staff transition.  Or you can have a great many students who are involved in a basic program that takes little effort for staff to maintain.  To me, this indicates a broad level of interest, enough to support a simple program with low commitments.  We have both kinds of programs.  I would hope both kinds survive the transition.

Clear goals aligned with the university mission.  After spending nearly two years in our division working through the process of formally assessing our programs, I am more keenly aware of how those programs do or do not fit the institutional mission, or at least the current institutional priorities.  Those that clearly do, even if they take more staff time to maintain, should be worth the effort to sustain, during a transition.  If the goals are clear, even temporary professional staff could support such a program during a staff transition.

Low to mid level staff management needs.  If a program is too reliant upon things that you as a staff person must do to manage it, it may not be sustainable, particularly through a staff transition.  I wonder if it is even something that should be sustained.  I am still trying to figure out if we have programs that fit that description.  I think we do, and I feel badly that they may not survive.

Institutional support.  I guess this goes with the mission thing, but it seems to me that programs that operate in a vacuum, particularly the administrative vacuum, are less likely survive a staff transition.  This, of course, then means that as staff we should render due diligence in engaging our superiors in the work we do.  If they don’t know about it, how can they support it?  There is a great deal to be said for having a champion or two within the institutions top leadership. Institutional support could also come in the form of colleagues, regular collaborators and partners who may, during a transition, be able to take on more work to see a valuable program through.

Finally, I will say that though I believe it is important to create programs that are sustainable, I also firmly believe that it is important to know when it is okay to heavily adapt or even kill a program.  Student needs and interests change, so should our programming in response to those needs and interests.  What do you think?

The Psychology Behind Why Creative People Cluster – Richard Florida

Here is an interesting new piece from Richard Florida.

I’ve long noted how openness to new people and ideas can power innovation and economic growth. “The Open City,” a new study by Cambridge University psychologist Jason Rentfrow, offers new insight on this issue.

A large body of literature shows that highly creative people – artists, scientists, entrepreneurs and the like – are highly likely to be open to new experiences. An earlier study by Rentfrow and his colleague Sam Gosling of the University of Texas, titled “The New Geography of Personality,” tracked the five major personality types across states. They found open-to-experience people were more likely to “attempt to escape the ennui experienced in small-town environments by relocating to metropolitan areas where their interests in cultures and needs for social contact and stimulation are more easily met.”   MORE



Kudos to the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts

On Monday, March 26 the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts was previewed at the University of Chicago, giving the university and local communities an opportunity to explore the facility.  The Logan Center is an “11-story, 184,000-square-foot building as an elegant ‘mixing bowl for the arts,’ in which artists and scholars of many disciplines will work and perform, creating new possibilities for spontaneous collaboration. The building houses classrooms, studios, rehearsal rooms, and exhibition and performance spaces. These innovative facilities will be home to academic and extracurricular programs in cinema and media studies, creative writing, music, theater and performance studies, and the visual arts.” (University of Chicago, release 2012).  If you work in the arts in higher education, or are simply passionate about the arts you will recognize what a tremendous accomplishment this is for the University of Chicago and the surrounding community.  The vision for the Logan Center is inspired and lofty, and if realized will represent one of the most thoughtful and deliberate plans I have seen for integrating the arts into fabric of a university.

In 2001 the University of Chicago published the “Future of the Arts Report” which in their words “described a University culture in which the arts suffered chronic neglect.”  Since then the University developed and “Arts Clarity Statement” in 2007 and in 2010 published the “Report of the Provost’s Working Group on Arts and Disciplines.”  This last report details their approach to the challenge of encouraging and supporting scholarly engagement with the arts, and I want to offer some specific kudos on a few things from that report.

Kudos for acknowledging the value of co-curricular and student-run programs.  Early on the report notes that the University of Chicago has four broad categories of entities that are “active in creation, performance and exhibition.”  Co-curricular and student run programs is in that list.  The report also notes that a 2008 survey found that nearly half of their 4,500 students participated in over 75 student arts organizations, and that many of the academic and presenting programs the university have developed out of student activity.

Kudos for making a clear statement.  This directly from the report. “In order to foster the sort of vital exchange that marks work in the arts at Chicago, it is imperative that the University maintain and extend its commitment to recognizing the arts as an integral part of the research mission and curriculum of the University and its culture of inquiry. To that end, it must simultaneously support the University’s arts entities and encourage work that engages substantively with the arts from within scholarly disciplines.”  And there are many more quote worthy references to supporting the arts and engagement in the arts in their report.

Kudos for noting the “real or perceived lack of institutional support” for the arts, and the frequent “disparity between principled support for the arts on the one hand, and programming initiatives and budgetary allocations on the other.”

Kudos for going the distance and exploring a key root challenge in scholarly engagement in the arts – institutional culture.  “…entrenched disciplinary norms, modes of evaluation, and demands on time are major obstacles both to faculty involvement in the arts, and to arts participation in academic culture.”

Kudos for clear and practical suggestions for moving forward.  “…the University needs structures that will provide incentives for grassroots, ‘bottom-up’ initiatives.” The recommendation comes from benchmarking and exploring their own most successful models.  The Chicago Art Lab is designed to be a program “to catalyze fruitful collaboration between scholars and arts practitioners” modeled after their successful Mellon exhibition program at the Smart Museum, which is “a program of short-term projects at the intersection of scholarship and arts practice, involving students, and issuing in both a publication and a public program (exhibition, performance, etc.).”

I have one more shout out to offer, not from the working groups report, but from the recent public announcement of the preview period.  Kudos for stating upfront the commitment to work with the cultural institutions of Chicago – “The center will work collaboratively with the University’s new Arts and Public Life Initiative to build partnerships with civic and cultural institutions citywide.”  No institution or resource like the Logan Center should exist on a major university campus without thoughtful and exciting collaborations with the community.  Here’s hoping that is exactly what happens.

Career Advice

One day last week, I found myself engaged in four different conversations about pursuing a career in the arts.  While the student community that I work with here at Penn is quite large,1200+, the number of students who plan to pursue a career in the arts is actually rather small, so I don’t have these conversations regularly.  When they do happen, the interests are varied and run the gamete from technical, performing, designing, management, marketing, directing, writing and more.  As you can imagine, these are not always easy conversations.  They frequently involve more questions from me than answers and often reveal a myriad of challenges from relationships with a significant other, parental expectations, financial concerns (duh!) and personal insecurities.  So I tread lightly, encourage heavily and generally offer the following basic advice.

Network, Network, Network. While there are advanced degrees, certificate and training programs, and apprenticeships, everyone pretty much understands that there is no single, direct path to a successful career in the arts.  You can never have enough information.  Talk to old teachers, camp counselors, family members, family members of friends.  Use LinkedIn, Facebook and alumni directories.   Attend events of organizations that do the work you aspire to – fundraisers, receptions and networking events.  In short find any opportunity to talk with people further down the career path than you.  Most importantly, be ready to talk to the people you have identified.  Ask about their path, their training and education; how they came to have their current position.  Be humble, don’t bombard them with your vast accomplishments (if you are so great what do you need them for?).  You can also network more formally by asking for informational interviews.  Again, be prepared.  Be able to clearly state your general career goals and have specific questions ready.  Be sure to thank anyone you speak to for their time, and if you found them particularly thoughtful, offer to buy them coffee sometime so you can continue the conversation.

Surround yourself with supporters, including like minded artists. Carving out a career in the arts can be challenging.  Make sure you have a support system in place (Facebook comments and likes when you whine on your status is not the same thing).  Be intentional.  Let friends know what you are trying to do and ask for their support.  Ask them to encourage you and challenge you.  Ask them to tell you if they see a great opportunity to make some money (you might occasionally need it).  Create an artist group, a book club or a monthly happy hour.  Find people who want to do the same kind of work as you and dream up a project that you work on together – even if you have no idea whether you can bring it to life.

Get just about any experience you can.  Volunteer. Intern. Be present. Do what you can to both explore and get experience.  If you find an organization or people who do what you want to do, or work that you appreciate ask how you can help, and be willing to help.  Again, humility is key here.  If you are not willing to put up posters or lick envelopes, don’t offer to help.  Often the life of an artist revolves around the things that allow you to make art, fundraising and marketing, and sometimes posters just need to be distributed and envelopes just need to be licked.  Use your time volunteering to find out about the organization, the artists, how are things managed, how are they are funded, how they do marketing and how those who run the organization got their positions. All experience is good experience.  In general, smaller to mid-size companies might be better places to explore casual volunteer opportunities.  A bigger organization will have a volunteer “process” and you will likely never connect with those doing the work – unless of course you want to be a volunteer manager.

Manage your expectations and be creative.  It is possible to make a living in the arts whether you want to be a artist or administrator.  Full time jobs are available, but many folks, particularly early in their careers, pull together a living with a string of part-time jobs.  In the theatre (my particular genre) for instance an actor might do plays, film work, industrials, commercials, voice-over work, teach and more.  There is a list of equivalent jobs for every art form.  This of course means that you have to be in an area that has enough opportunities.  Generally that means a fairly large metropolitan area with a strong arts scene.  If there a good number of colleges and universities in the area, all the better; for a number of years, I taught either acting and public speaking, or both at three different colleges in the area.

Keep training.  If you can afford it, take classes and workshops.  If you can’t afford it, find a way.  Ask if they have scholarships, or if you can work off the fee.  Find free lectures, demonstrations and workshops and go.  Learning from any artist or manager it is always good. And you can network like crazy at these events!  Or go to graduate school.  Among the benefits of graduate school, besides the training, is time; time to explore, to hone your craft and build your expertise.

There is certainly much more that could be said about pursuing a career in the arts.  When it gets down to specific careers, I tend to connect students with an alum in that field. I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  But I do know that while it can be a frustrating road, but there is nothing like pursuing your passion!

Top artists reveal how to find creative inspiration

Top artists reveal how to find creative inspiration.  From this article in the Guardian.

If you want to read more on creativity – check out this great blog The Creative Mind by Douglas Eby