This post was inspired by the article "What Inequality Looks Like and Where and When It Starts" by Clayton Lord posted on the New Beans blog on the ArtsJournal website. I encourage you to read his article and the excellent comments below. It provides a much richer and deeper context and understanding to the conversation. And please let me know:

What do the arts mean to you?

    I have been in the unique role of infusing arts educational peda/andragogies into other content topics (e.g. financial literacy, political astuteness, organizational structure) for the middle school to adults who work with youth audiences (in essence all ages) for over 15 years. I have done this work in a variety of settings from youth development to educational reform to intergenerational community theater. Throughout my experience I have been to many formal arts education and arts policy talks, workshops, conferences, etc.. Almost every time I attend, I am frustrated by the lack of understanding and incredibly narrow focus of what arts is, especially when related to the exposure to and expression of art in historically marginalized communities.

     As an example: In my experience, arts and culture was the absolute BEST way to engage families in educational reform work or learning about wellness factors. We rarely ran a community event without some sort of talent component, and the talent of the young people (the majority of whom were from incredibly diverse backgrounds) was outstanding. It was outstanding not just because the young person was taking risks and presenting his/her self to an audience, it was outstanding because the audience almost always responded positively.

     (There was this time a young woman went onstage and was nervous beyond nervous to sing her song. She was definitely not a singer. She was a karaoke-er. Before the talent show, we, the program directors/leaders, were debating whether we were going to let her perform. It was a middle school, and middle schoolers can be assholes. Yet we decided to because she want to. When she went up and sang her song, everyone cheered her on. She sang off-pitch, hiding behind her long, black hair. And as the song went on, her singing did not improve, but her performance did. It was an amazing moment.)

     While outstanding, these performances are definitely not as “skilled” as the symphony or the opera or the ballet. But that is why the audience relates so much to it. They can see their selves in the performance, art, media, whatever.

     Additionally, arts and exposure to different forms of art are being used in incredibly vital ways that are often overlooked. One project I worked on was with Mission SF Community Financial Center (now called Self Help CFU). I worked with the Youth Credit Union Program to use theatrical forms to role play and interrupt the divestment cycle of predatory pay-day-lenders in low-income communities of color. The curriculum was used to train adults and youth who worked with youth. Through the training we provided the curriculum/lesson plan to the adults so they could facilitate the lessons with young people in their programs. (And all of this was done through a youth development technical assistance and capacity building organization NOT through an arts education organization.)

     I know I am not the only one doing this kind of work. It is happening in a variety of settings, and mostly as a result of the need of the community.

     Does this translate into a diverse audience for the symphony or the opera or the ballet? Not at all, and I am not too concerned about these institutions losing audiences. Nor do I care to figure out how to help them increase diversity of their audience.

     The concerns raised in this post about the inequity of funding for arts education in public schools is a travesty. (It is also a travesty of our, USA’s, social programs (in general) which continue to be slashed year after year by policymakers who regard money and power over people.) It is both a structural revenue issue as well as a policy perspective issue. As you mentioned in your (Arlene Goldfarb)) comment, increasing funding for the arts without a better policy that looks at how young people engage and interact with art (in its multiplicity) will continue entrench arts into “the arts”, which continues to create and promote an other.

     What is needed is funders who truly change the way in which they define and roll out their arts portfolios. And we all need to (in some ways) open up our scope and shift our perspectives to see what is out there.

     I went to the Beyond Dynamic Adaptability Conference (a conference on audience participation/engagement) in October 2011. Josephine Ramirez, the program officer from the Irvine Foundation, shared the audience involvement spectrum (link leads to a post from the ED of Museum 2.0 who was also a panelist) unveiling it as if it was innovative and insightful. I leaned over to my colleague and whispered, “this is exactly the youth participation continuum (link leads to a youth participation matrix similar to the one I was introduced to in the late 1990s althought it isn't the exact same one) in youth development” (from youth as vessels that need to be filled to youth as educators).

     Josephine then shared statistics (of which I am really bad at remembering) about the percentage of arts organizations that have budgets less than $25K. It was a very large percentage, and if my failing memory serves me correctly was close to 50%. She shared that more money needs to go to these small budget organizations who are making responsive arts in their communities. Then, my colleague leaned over to me and whispered, “you know Irvine won’t even invite a proposal from organizations that have budgets under $150k.”

     This is just one small example of the disconnects and lack of wider perspective that occur at the systemic/institutional level. There are many, many more (the audit of the Cultural Equity Grant program of San Francisco Arts Commission as another).

     A much larger shift IS occurring. We are seeing it as the Decolonize/Occupy movement in this iteration. And it is taking hold internationally. The question is, are the legacy organizations ready to do the work needed to actually engage diverse audiences (and this goes not just for arts organizations but to all of the legacy organizations from churches/synagogues/temples to city/state/federal departments)? Or will they be tossed aside by an audience who doesn’t have any vested interest in seeing their success?