Grantmakers in the Arts Annual Conference
Boston, November 13, 2006
The term cultural organizing means putting culture, including its concentrated expression of art at the center of a social and political organizing strategy. In our previous 2005 Los Angeles session, we focused on how cultural organizing can advance social justice. Here’s the brief argument I offer to help frame this afternoon’s follow-up discussion.
In addition to its aesthetic dimension, all art has a social and political dimension.
Some artists are more conscious than others of this always present socio-political dimension, some more intentional in tapping its power.
A heightened consciousness of the social and political power of art affects how artists do their work.
For example, for those artists concerned with advancing social justice who believe that broad citizen participation is a critical factor in change, performance and exhibition events now become intentionally constructed in myriad ways so that the audience has lots of opportunity to participate. Moreover, such artists soon realize that every moment in the production process from conception to post-performance analysis is potentially transforming for artist and audience alike.
Following art’s lead, all foundation arts giving has a social and political dimension.
Some grantmakers are more conscious than others of this always present socio-political dimension, some more intentional in using its power.
A heightened consciousness of the social and political power of art affects how grantmakers do their work.
For example, for those grantmakers concerned with advancing social justice, the power imbalance inherent in the grantmaker/grantseeker relationship is acknowledged and begins to be used to strategic advantage in the search for solutions to problems that the community, grantee, and grantmaker mutually define. In this search for solutions, grantmakers provide intellectual capital, as well as money.
Presently, how conscious of the social and political dimensions of art are grantmakers and artists? I would argue that on the whole, not very. Political conservatives appear to be more aware than liberals of art’s socio-political dimension, but conservatives, unfortunately, represent a small minority of artists and grantmakers. The chief indicator of this liberal lapse is the fact that arts events are mostly attended by the elite. In theater, for example, audience surveys conducted over the past 15 years (including those by the League of American Theatres and Producers and the Wallace Foundation) consistently report the theater audience to be 80 percent white and overwhelmingly from the top 15 percent economically.
In failing to understand art’s socio-political dimension, artists and grantmakers fall into the trap of preserving and perpetuating elitism. Such elitism robs art of its chance for greatness, for artistic excellence cannot rise upon such a thin base of participation. Elitism also cripples art’s formidable ability to help us understand others, ourselves, and our times. This failure is especially poignant now when we are fighting global terrorism, when world peace depends on forging a durable political and social pluralism.