This second installment in a weeklong blogfest on art and political power I’m cohosting with blogger Barry Hessenius was authored by Roberto Bedoya, who has served as the Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council since November of 2006. He is also a writer and arts consultant who works in the area of support systems for artists. As an arts consultant he has worked on projects for the Creative Capital Foundation; The Ford Foundation; The Rockefeller Foundations and the Urban Institute: He is the author of the monograph “U.S. Cultural Policy: Its Politics of Participation, Its Creative Potential and The Color Line and US Cultural Policy: An Essay with Dialogue.”
The series began with a dialogue between Barry and myself. Subsequent entries will be authored by Dudley Cocke, director of Roadside Theater; Ra Joy, executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois, and Diane Ragsdale, creator of the “Jumper” blog. To each, we posed this question:
The way we’ve been doing arts advocacy for the past thirty years isn’t working: the real value of the NEA budget has dropped by well over half, for instance, and state funding has nosedived. We remain timid and unimaginative, acting as if cultural support were a rare privilege instead of a human right. With a blank slate and all your powers of social imagination, redesign it: why and how would artists and arts advocates claim social, economic, and true political power? What would you do for the arts to develop real political clout—and what has to change for us to move down that path?
Please read, forward, and comment. The entire series can be accessed here.
I am not too keen on the bloggers’ sphere—I haven’t figured why I have these mixed feelings. Maybe it has something to do with its demand of immediacy, its form…. However, recently I been asked to share my thoughts vis-à-vis a few blogs as opposed to my favorite form—the essay, so to ease my unease and proceed with your request, here’s a letter.
Dear Arlene and Barry,
I found your exchange very interesting and myself at times in agreement and others not with your thoughts.
Arlene, your critique of current arts advocacy as problematic and Barry your lament about the lack of political clout are correct. How we remedy these problems is a challenge and asks that we sit with the meaning and expectation that folks bring to terms like “advocacy” and “political” embedded in your remarks, and wrestle with the slippery nature of public and power. You two have been doing this work for awhile and know the frustration it brings. You also know the power of passion, of the social imaginary to envision and animate our plurality.
What I’ve been wrestling with is a tone in your remarks that we are stuck in some “Dickens” Bleakness. I don’t feel that way. It’s not that I am all Pollyanna and trapped in American Sentimentality, which reduces complexity to happy-face strategies of “Can’t we all get along?” I get frustrated often when I am dealing with elected officials, especially during the spring when my agency’s allocation is being debated. But I cannot let my frustration get in the way when I am arguing for the importance of the arts in front of Mayor and Council at the same time as Police and Fire are arguing for safety, Social Services organizations are arguing for a safety net, Businesses are arguing for Tax Breaks, Tea Baggers are arguing for no government. It is quite a show.
Advocacy work is not a Bleak House…it is part tenacity, it is about creating the argumentative turn that results in the outcome you seek, it about telling the story of your impact to elected officials, business leaders, neighborhood associations, artists’ groups … that door to door stuff—you know this.
(A story: last spring when the arts council’s budget debate was happening, the artists’ community as part of their advocacy strategy took advantage of the Call to the Audience that is a part of every City Council Meeting where an individual is allocated three minutes to speak to them. So for a number of weekly meetings they presented a piece of art—the women’s choir sang, poems were read, a novelist read a section of her work that was about city council meetings, a Native American flutist played for them…. It was wonderful and all of them spoke about the value of our cultural community. It worked. We were held harmless in terms of the budget and received no reductions.)
Barry: your questioning about the development of political clout is a good one. For me PACs and lobbying are important, but it not where I put my energies. We have had our advocacy success in the area of coalition strategies. Specially, our work in community cultural development efforts is primarily through the P.L.A.C.E. (People, Land, Arts, Culture, and Engagement) Initiative, which supports art-based civic engagement projects that address contested and complex social issues. It has become an important vehicle that the arts council employs to support the democratic principles of equity and civil society, and underscores the strong regional ethos associated with stewardship, (cultural, civic and ecological) which exists here. To date we have supported 45 projects. All of the projects involve artists working across sectors. So when it is advocacy time our partners—neighborhood associations, schools, churches, immigration right organizations, environmental organizations, senior citizens, youth, mental health and homeless advocates—speak on our behalf. They are not a PAC, and I choose not to organize them into one. My job is to get them the resources they are seeking to develop their community and I ask them to give witness to their success and failures to the larger public.
Arlene: your remarks about the grass roots movement brings up the question of the romancing of the “movement” to the point of fetishization into an ideal on the horizon and elusive. It also prompts the question whose “grassroots,” whose “movement,” the political left or the political right? The mantra of we need to organize is real and how we do it in the culture sector is weak in comparison to the power of crony capitalism and how they do it and destroy our democracy along the way. In our network society what does organizing look like? It is not the dream of the million “gente” march, or the modest effectiveness of arts advocacy day on the Capital steps—it more than that. I suspect it is a rhizome strategy like the artists that I mentioned earlier, who spoke to our Mayor and Council.
You often refer to the power of the social imaginary in your writings, a term I also use. The philosopher Charles Taylor describes the social imaginary as “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underline these expectations.” He goes on to say, “I adopt the term imaginary because my focus is on the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surrounding, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms but is carried in images, stories and legends.” So in some way, I feel that the “movement” task to engage in is to organize the power of images, stories, legends, songs, movements, that are emancipatory, that are sublime, that shape our plurality—how we imagine and live our lives together—into a greater focus. For example, being old school, I saw how the power of the Red Ribbon, created by artists to bring forth actions to deal with the AIDS pandemic, and the religious imaginary of the Virgen de Guadalupe was used to aid the organizing of farmworkers, worked to advance the human rights of the people who enliven society.
Arlene and Barry: let’s return to the topic of political power, how it works, how to utilize it and how to gain it through advocacy. Let me wrap-up my commentary with some remarks on how to confront political power. I live and work in Arizona where the politics of belonging and dis-belonging is being played out with a hateful vengeance, where racism is alive and well. Arizona’s current social/political landscape is toxic. The shooting of January 8th, 2011, prompted a great deal of community reflection on civil society. Prior to the shooting and the passage by the Arizona Legislature of Senate Bill 1070, the anti-immigration law, and House Bill 2281, the ban on ethnic studies in Arizona High Schools, the chilling effects of these laws upon community expressions is being felt and a growing atmosphere of intolerance towards cultural and political differences is present. These laws reflect the animosity toward difference that is being stirred in Arizona and risks undermining our diverse civic landscape by prompting intolerance, incivility and cultural misunderstanding.
Let’s call these laws an example of “Culture Wars 2.0.” The first Culture War of the 90’s was an attack on art and artistic free speech. Culture Wars 2.0 are attacks against our civil and cultural rights: the right to be taught the works of Latino novelists in high schools; a woman’s right to control her body; the right of gays and lesbians to marry their loved one; the right to be free from racial profiling that is happening with intensity to America’s Muslim and Latino communities; the right of collective bargaining….
So advocacy for me is not about arts advocacy, it advocating for and defending the very meaning of public—of the public good embedded in civil society. I believe strongly that my charge is to build and defend civil society through the tools at my disposal—the creative community that the arts council serves and our collective passionate belief in democracy. It also has to deal with how complicity is constructed through laws and policy that says you belong, you don’t belong. How the cultural sector plays into the politics of belong/dis-belonging is a charged topic that we must engage in with more rigor and vigor, if we want our advocacy efforts to have weight and soul. Yet, in spite of the attacks against cultural differences and the very notion of the public good, I feel that the cultural community is steadfast as it faces these challenges through the work of creating shared visions of our relationships to each other—be it in a concert hall, in a barrio, in a gallery or in a book.
Your words triggered much thought and if my musing a bit much and off target because of its local references, let’s continue the conversation. As my advocacy work has moved from the national that took me to the Supreme Court as a co-plaintiff in the Finley vs. NEA lawsuit to now my local efforts in a mid-size American city, what I’ve learned is how the sovereignty of context is essential to advocacy arguments: that what works in Tucson, may or may not work in SF; what works with the white gloves may or may not work with the anarchists; what works in communities of color may or may not work among the Anglo community—that understanding context with all its complicities is essential to successful advocacy work.
So good ones, thank you for this opportunity for some commentary and since you riffed on Charles Dickens—a literary reference for me is Emily Dickinson and her line, “I dwell in possibilities…” or maybe Mr. James Brown: “Get on the Good Foot!”