In the hum of Friday morning’s soft snow, a quorum of invested parties gathered at APAP under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts to talk intersection…
Specifically, Ann Rosenthal, Meklit Hadero, Kevin Duggan and I instigated a conversation about community engagement in arts presentation, which might seem redundant to some, and totally antonymous to others. On one side of the question, there may be some who say that arts presentation IS community engagement (duh) and that the fullest breadth of performance investigates and integrates a relationship between artist and social environment that leads forward towards the edge of both. On the other hand, it is safe to argue that the role of artist presentation is to initiate community engagement, but not necessarily to mediate it; that aesthetics drives commerce and commerce impels community, so that the deeper encounter with artist-presented work is best left to be reconciled in a curricular way by teachers, critics and docents, but not by the artists themselves.
The assembled panel, hand picked by Alison Loerke for our collective advocacy of community engagement best practices, made a series of arguments for deep, sustained, interactive relationships between artists and the communities in which they perform, so that ultimately arts presentation moves from polemics to reciprocity, from safety to safely risk. We talked Sekou Sundiata, student employment, environmental justice, and Freirean pedagogy, coming to consensus around the notion that the best art comes from artists, but the best artistic EXPERIENCES come only when there is a protracted relationship between creative minds (including arts presenters and curators) and the communities they serve.
Pretty dope, right?
But I must say the piece of vocabulary that most stirred me was introduced into the conversation by a presenter from rural Maryland who offered the lexicon of the “leaderless community” against the framework of community engagement. What to do, he wondered, about the aggregate of folks who are assembled under demographic, economic or geographical umbrellas who don’t necessarily share an ideological or electoral common bond? Or worse, who DO share ideological bonds but lack a cohered physical space or elected official to cohere or stimulate collective growth?
Immediately I thought of hip hop’s culture of arrested development — the way the men cling to “lil,” “young” or “baby” as monikers to belie their age or capacity for maturity, how there are university professors, fashion moguls and leaders of the free world who are hip hop identified, but, beyond the Harvard’s Hiphop Archive, there isn’t a hip hop museum, or permanent hip hop dedicated intellectual space for the exchange of ideas that most dramatically impact the hip hop generation’s political wherewithal. We are a global economic force of billions, but what became clear from our discussion on Friday morning was that SPACE and PROCESS define leadership, and that hip hop’s waywardness is as much about a lack of informed physical place as anything else.
The making of history is more a question of craft than of chance, and the making of culture is no different. The curation of a performance season is a surgical practice, as is the cultivation of an environment to sustain performance practice. I imagine arts presenters as weaponized entities with cultural spaces to activate. I believe that there is a depth in the field that encourages a more sophisticated social construction; that arts presenters, like classic composers, think of their seasons as albums or symphonies, rather than pop singles constructed together in long-play form. If this is the case, if our field is to enact a comprehensive approach to arts presentation, we must also think about our presenting houses as hubs for nomadic, leaderless communities, as centerpieces for engaging disparate thought, as living arguments for artistic practice as co-curricuar, communal home.