AuthorRobert Bettmann

Community Engagement in the Arts with Think Local First

Two nights ago I sat on a panel discussing Community Engagement in the Arts as part of the Do Good Summit in Washington, D.C., produced by the non-profit Think Local First. Think Local First supports local businesses, and we’ve included one of their “Ten Reasons to Buy Local” in DC Advocates for the Arts advocacy talking points for several years:

“For every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $45 goes back into the community and our tax base…Embrace what makes us different. Our one-of-a-kind businesses are an integral part of the distinctive character of our community.”

Arts businesses are local businesses, and I was happy to be on this panel for Local First with Mike Abrams (Manager at Union Arts), Philip Hutinet (Editor in Chief at East City Arts and Lumen8 Anacostia), Peter Chang (co-founder of No Kings Collective), Travis Bowerman (Deputy Director Cultural DC) Ian David Moss (Research Director at Fractured Atlas and Editor-in-Chief at Createquity), Daniel Conner (Policy Advisor to DC Council Member Tommy Wells), and Moshe Adams (Grants Manager for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities), moderated by Micah Greenberg.


The author speaking at the Do Good Summit panel on Community Engagement in the Arts. Photo (c) Ben Droz

Our individual professional foci influenced the discussion. Phil Hutinet, who works in the developing Anacostia area of D.C. highlighted the value of the arts in stabilizing communities. Peter Chang, who produces art shows, talked about the need for space. Ian Moss, who researches and writes for a living, talked about the need for additional research. Wearing my arts advocacy hat, I talked about the need for stable arts funding, and the DC mayor’s recent cut to arts funding. We all talked about more than just those things, but our personal and professional bias was possible to spot.

Another thing that was possible to spot was that we were all men.  It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Two of the panelists were last minute replacements for women. The absence of females on the panel was an anomaly, and not a reflection on the host, or host organization. Regardless, our ‘hyper masculinity’ was noticed. One attendee, tweeted, “#Seriously though! #dc #arts #fail”, and walked out. In reply to a tweeter who noticed her leaving, she tweeted back,  “yeah, that was me, protesting with my feet.”

The full panel at Tropicalia, April 29, 2013.

The full panel at Tropicalia, April 29, 2013.

Gender disparity in the arts is real, and audience response was appropriate. The book I recently edited, Bourgeon: Fifty Artists Write About Their Work, includes an article about the DanceUSA study that documents 86% of the largest U.S. dance companies are run by men (artistic and executive directors combined.) Choreographer Gesel Mason says in the article that in a female dominated industry, the existence of a small minority having power over the majority resembles “a kind of apartheid”. While the gender of our panel did not reflect the values of the hosts, or the panelists, it highlighted the importance of inclusion, even if what we said as a panel was un-affected by our gender.

I tweeted about the issue during the event with Jess Solomon, a D.C. based cultural worker. Following up after, Jess cleanly articulated an important take-away: “Conversations are what shape communities. When there is a presumed homogenous group having a conversation about interventions (ie. art and development) that will affect groups of people that are not part of the conversation, it’s a problem.”

DC Advocates for the Arts Reaching Out to Lawmakers

This week is all about the arts in DC, or it should be.  Just yesterday was Arts Advocacy Day, a day dedicated to supporting and celebrating the arts. As previously posted, many organizations were a small piece of the day, but there is one that is mobilizing the efforts to encourage people in DC to do more to increase arts funding and garner additional support from law makers. DC Advocates for the Arts, a non-profit organization that exists to support public policy on the participation of the arts within the DC community at large, is one of them.

Recently, DC Advocates for the Arts has ramped up their mailings to entice people to give back to their cause, increasing arts funding, by writing to their local government officials, including the mayor. In this plea, it states the fundamental issue with the proposed mayoral budget or 2013;

“The mayor’s recently proposed budget cuts arts funding by $6 million dollars. The DC Arts Commission is amongst the smallest agencies in the city, and while some agencies could easily absorb a $6 million dollar cut, this would cut DC’s arts agency in half.”

The group is asking for additional funding to the tune of $11 million dollars, a sum we think should be obtainable. In order or this to happen though, lawmakers and DC will have to continue making the arts a priority. DC Advocates for the Arts also has a brand new website where you can find additional information about their efforts and how to write a letter of your own to support an increase in arts funding, click here for more details.

Bringing the Art in DC to You – Roxanne Goldberg

The Future of the Arts Newsroom

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism recently released their 2013 State of the News Media report on American Journalism. One of the topline take-aways was, “In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.” The Pew study used recent presidential election coverage as example and concluded, “campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators… [with] less reporting by journalists to interpret and contextualize.” The report paints a picture of more and more adept newsmakers, and less and less capable newsrooms. One easily concludes that the nature of the newsroom is changing.

prudenceSince newsmakers — and as Pew defines them artists are newsmakers — are more and more capable of taking their message directly to the public, why should we worry about the future of the arts newsroom, or any newsroom?

Writing in Slate, Matthew Yglesias argued that we shouldn’t, and that, “the news-reading public has never had more and better information at their fingertips.” Gabriel Rossman in Code and Culture noted that consumers don’t evaluate coverage the same way the Columbia Journalism Review (or Pew) does. And Tom Blumer on Newsbusters wrote, “since when does the press have a preemptive role as the nation’s filter?” NPR highlighted that Americans are abandoning their long-trusted news outlets, anyway. News industry-wide trends are perhaps accentuated in arts newsrooms, which had less allegiance and support to begin with, and a uniquely resourceful set of newsmakers.

More than a single author, or critic, the newsroom as an entity has historically played a central role developing the slow honest bond between readers and subjects. Unlike politics, where in some way participation is guaranteed, arts participation is an “at will” activity, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has documented declines in participation for two decades. Gabriel Josipovici’s history, On Trust: Art and the Temptation of Suspicion, suggests the impact of “cultures of trust” between artists and audience and it’s hard to imagine (and hard to prove) that such cultures of trust impact arts participation today.

While some degree of cultural horizontalism is a foregone conclusion, declining newsrooms force us to focus our attention on what we really value in the arts, and newsrooms: Are there things we should be doing to reduce the impact on the arts?

Any solution set must embrace a vision of the future arts newsroom considerably less monolithic and more diversified than in prior generations. The non-profit that I founded just kicked off our third annual student arts journalism competition, and our hope in running the competition is not only to identify and support talented young writers, but also to encourage serious consideration of arts writing. Regardless of where, or how, it is produced, superior arts writing helps develop the bond between the arts and the public.

© 2015 Rob Bettmann

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