Using fear to build power in the arts
The theme of this year’s National Arts Marketing Project Conference was Fuel the Change; rather relevant considering the results of the recent U.S election. Before going into my main takeaways from the conference, I think it’s only appropriate I air my thoughts about the election. As someone who’s work is so deeply rooted in access and equity, I’m furious. I’m also disappointed, and part of me is still in denial because the electoral college hasn’t voted. But more than anything, I’m afraid because of all my intersecting identities.
Fear is a rather malleable emotion. Unfortunately, in this election fear fueled discontent and hate, but fear in itself can also fuel change. I’d like to thank the NAMPC organizers and speakers for not remaining neutral in this time of great distress, and for taking a stance against racism, bigotry, misogyny, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and ableism. More than anything, this conference has strengthened my belief that art will and must, take on a major role in the fight for justice and liberation.
Now that I’ve said my peace. I’m going to tie risk-taking in the arts to the current political climate.
Turning Fear and Risk into Power
Museum of Contemporary Art Denver Director - Adam Lerner, addressed the need for risk-taking in his humorous and impactful keynote Dying of Excellence. For Lerner, fear fuels innovation in the arts; it presents an opportunity for arts organizations to take risks, break conventions, and revisit their purpose.
AH HA! I sense your skepticism; taking risks can sound great in theory, but it doesn't always reflect the reality we live in. Maybe you've tried pitching new ideas, and it hasn't worked but that doesn't mean risk-taking is inherently flawed. It means you need to find a way to get past the death stares from your board and donors.
To put it simply, if your art doesn't have a functional purpose, if it doesn't push boundaries, or connect to the emotional spirit, then why does it exist?
(Lerner's keynote starts at 29:55)
In this keynote, Learner addresses the barriers affecting organizational change, such as the need to retain donor and funder relationships to ensure financial sustainability. This dependency on funders and major gifts can sometimes dictate the type of work and programming we produce, but it should not! It’s our job to build enough trust in our funders so that see the strengths of risk-taking.
Another very compelling takeaway was the idea of showcasing the spirit of art vs art itself. This means allowing people gain an insight into the process of art-making, and by having art reflect our culture as people. This spirit of art allows an organization to build a unique voice, separate from the artists you feature.
So how does this relate to our current political climate you ask? At the NAMPC conference, I was sitting with a group of arts leaders talking to them about community engagement, and a person said to me "You're lucky you're in Seattle where it's progressive, it's harder for us to take a stance, we don't want to lose our audience, we need to serve everyone." While I understand that some arts organizations intentionally choose to remain neutral, the idea that art exists to serve everyone bothered me. Serving everyone literally means serving no one. Let's just say this, there are reasons why I don't enjoy standing in a crowd of cheering fans at a stadium, and there are reasons why people don't attend the arts. AND THAT IS PERFECTLY ALRIGHT.
As Lerner mentions, taking risks means that you are going lose audience members and donors, but on the flip-side you'll be positioned to gain many more. These new/existing members are also often a lot more loyal than the ones you lost; they are the ones you want to cultivate.
This political climate presents an opportunity for your organization to take that risk. Because Democrats, republicans and independents consume art, we're positioned to shift political thought (I think it's our duty, but I'm biased). Historically, art has always played a vital role in these movements; we can choose to remain neutral, or we can take a stance. You have the choice to let your members know that your organization will not remain silent in the face of oppression. Yes, you might face resistance, and you might lose some donors, but in doing so, you're going to gain some very loyal supporters while also strengthening your persona and voice in your community.