Monday, August 17, 2009

Solutions I

I got a smile this morning when I saw the phrase "Guyyedwabian/Culturefuturesque" dropped casually into a fellow arts wonk's blog.

At any rate, I've been focusing on an upcoming more in-depth analysis of the FSG Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement report that I've been swimming in for a while. That's why posting continues to be slow (I usually post in fits and starts, though, so I'm sure you're used to it).

Since my blog-roll is a little backed up and I haven't posted in a while, I thought I'd post something that should become my own little CultureFuture running segment.

When I first started this blog, the question was, "How do I influence the future of culture?" That was the impetus behind the name. Until I got on this arts-wonkery rampage, I didn't really focus very closely on this message. At the time, my belief was that simply talking about the future of culture was a start--and I was right. But it was time to move on to solutions.

When I first started diving into the theatrical blogosphere, I saw everywhere--everywhere!--prescriptions about what was wrong with American theater. Mike Daisey, perhaps, takes the cake for being one of the louder and more forceful voices, but there were a lot of people raising a million issues.

In a way, the problem with the arts is similar to the problem of Health Care: there isn't one thing that needs to be changed, there's a system of problems. And because of the scale of the problems, artists didn't seem to know where to start.

Like in health care (climate change too), I've watched the debate evolve from "What's wrong?" to "What are the solutions?" You start seeing posts like: "Well here's one simple thing we can do..."

For instance: I have a close friend who graduated with a degree in Experimental Theater, but wound up on the front-lines of the health-care battle. She's not actually involved in the healthcare reform debate right now--instead, she works with a small not-for-profit (operating entirely on donated food and office space) whose charter is to find low-income clinics that are being closed, and organize the community to defend them.

The health-care bill is large, but I don't know if that's one issue they've tackled: making sure that hospitals are close. After all, having health insurance won't help if you get a heart attack and have to sit in a car for 25 minutes before a cardiologist can see you. And as the economic crisis and the rising cost of health-care take their toll, more and more hospitals are closing their low-income accessible clinics.

But that's just one part of the puzzle. Keeping track of all the healthcare solutions (tort reform, insurance regulations, public option, defense of low-income clinics, preventative care techniques, etc.) or all of the climate change solutions (smart grid, solar panels, painting roofs and roads white, etc.) is difficult.

So for the arts, I've started hearing solutions that sound reasonable, and should be kept track of. So starting now, I'm going to create a quick bullet-point list of solutions--different approaches or policies--that I (or other folks) think would help the arts. And I want the list to grow. To the point that eventually becomes a checklist. Any artist should be able to look at the list and go: "Which of these do I do? Which of these can I do?"

Without further ado, my current list of solutions. Comment this post if you know of any specific solutions you've come across:
  • The Less than 100k Project - Built to address the NY-centrism of the theater world (although the principle could apply to any art discipline), Scott Walters is developing a funding approach to cultivate community arts in small communities. The thrust of the idea is to allow theater groups in small communities that lack theaters to apply for a 3 year developmental process that will eventually wean them into independence.
  • Community Storytelling - A conversation I had with Scott about the aforementioned project asked "how do we make such a community theater actually part of the community?" My suggestion was that the theater focus on the stories and history within the community--go into the community, collect their stories, and present them. This invests the community in the product, and serves a needed social function. This idea was inspired by StoryCorps, the Laramie Project, and Anna Devere Smith's work, but as Scott pointed out, rather than having the stories leave the community (such as the way StoryCorps deposits the stories in the Library of Congress), the stories become a part of the community. Not everyone understands what "theater" is or could be, but everyone loves sharing stories.
  • Shared Measurement - The company I currently work for specializes in standardizing business processes for Information Techonology companies. As the aforementioned FSG report documents, there is a rise in non-profits standardizing their tools of self-analysis, and sharing the results. In the same way that these metrics allow the for-profit world to study impact, non-profits need to have a more methodical approach to their role in society, both instrumental and intrinsic. My personal belief is that public policy needs to take this up rather than trying to match the foundation's per-project or per-organization funding model... but more on that when my analysis comes out.
  • Healthcare Reform - We all want Healthcare Reform for a bigger, more universal reason than just the plight of artists. However, the current employer-based healthcare system discriminates against two groups: the unemployed, and free-lancers. Artists are, often, free-lancers (as opposed to the Arts Administrators who are often full-time employees). If a public option for healthcare were to support artists, it would ease the burden of artists attempting to support their healthcare--and might ease the bottom-line of small non-profits that have to spend a lot on healthcare for their employees. It might even help heal the divide between Administrators and Artists.
  • Creativity Education - The current arts education approach has been, in my experience, a largely instrumental one: music training, for instance, teaches you how to play an instrument, not how to listen to music or how to write music. This is a large failing in the arts, because it tells people that art = craft, not art = creativity. Granted, as Theresa Rebeck rightly points out in her discussion on the topic, these two concepts are not mutually opposed. However, our early arts education stresses craft and ignores creativity, which probably creates the anti-craft backlash later on. Augusto Boal describes some very interesting approaches to what he called "Arts Literacy" that were attempted in Peru at the time--my favorite was where he talks about asking children questions and asking them to answer the questions in photographs. One question was "Where do you live?" and the answer was a photograph of a young boy whose upper lip was chewed off by rats. The teacher asked "How is that photo 'where you live?'" And the boy answered "I live in a country where these things happen." A much better understanding of art than learning how to draw a human face properly.
I'm sure I'm forgetting some solutions, so I'll periodically do this feature again, hopefully with a longer and longer list of solutions.