Not merely individuals, but communities and nations, put their cultural good taste in evidence by building opera houses, galleries, and museums. These show that a community is not wholly absorbed in material wealth, because it is willing to spend its gains in patronage of art. It erects these buildings and collects their contents as it now builds a cathedral. These things reflect and establish superior cultural status, while their segregation from the common life reflects the fact that they are not part of a native and spontaneous culture.—From Art as Experience by John Dewey
A number of years ago as board chair of Ten Thousand Things Theater Company in Minneapolis, I tried to help them organize a “virtual capital campaign.” The idea came from the Artistic Director, Michelle Hensley, and I thought it was brilliant! The Ten Thousand Things campaign would raise money for an artist’s fund, to pay actors more and commission playwrights to get to know the company. Michelle wanted in on the capital campaign action that was happening in the theater real estate boom of the 90s and early 2000s, but she didn’t want an actual building. She wanted money for the artists that bring these spaces to life. Michelle had always made theater in existing spaces with minimal design elements; spaces where people were often forced to congregate but with limited access to the arts—prisons, homeless shelters, senior centers.
I instantly visualized the entire campaign: a virtual floor plan, blueprints of how this money would be spent and who would be occupying each room of our virtual theater; marketing tools that would include invitations to our virtual opening in the shape of a little square paper theater. Inside the box you would find savings accounts with artists names on them, health insurance vouchers for artists, and little tiny replicas of paychecks made out to artists with big dollar signs filling in the amount section. It would be like toy theater!
I knew how to run a capital campaign; I had been a part of one at the Playwrights’ Center when I was its development director. I knew TTT needed a feasibility study and I knew we needed to begin seeding the ideas with potential donors to gauge the support we could count on. We did raise some significant funds on artists’ behalf, but the idea of a virtual building fell completely flat with donors and foundations. They couldn’t wrap their heads around a virtual anti-building capital campaign.
Not surprisingly, Michelle’s visionary moment was ahead of its time. Those same foundations that were pouring money into buildings and endowments for art meccas only a decade ago are now suddenly very aware that something went awry and big buildings and big institutions don’t necessarily trickle money down to the artists that work in them. There aren’t too many funders of the arts that you could talk to now who would argue that putting money into buildings should be a twenty-first century priority. In fact, if you look at some of the major foundations who have supported the arts over the years with deep pockets, you’ll see that they are all shifting gears in their giving and giving directly to individual artists. Certainly the Ford Foundation (USA Artists), and now the Doris Duke Foundation, are leading the way, and smaller foundations like the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust have made their own mark on this trend.
As Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts, says in his letter introducing a major new funding initiative from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation that will significantly shift the foundation’s funding priorities away from projects, endowments, and institutions and toward direct support for artists, “While many foundations enter long-term relationships with organizations, few seem to enter comparable relationships with performing artists.”
If the recent past for the not-for-profit theater was about institutional bricks and mortar and that trend has presented itself as problematic in this twenty-first century economy, how can we build something enduring, transparent, and transformative moving forward?
I’m not going to argue that spaces for people to congregate don’t matter. Spaces are a critical part of our experiences of art and they should be places where spontaneous culture lives and thrives.
Spontaneous culture demands creativity. For Dewey, spontaneous culture is the stuff of everyday life, and it’s also what fuels the artistic imagination. Artists, by necessity, create stories and objects that reflect our “common life.” A recent example of a creative response to a spontaneous moment comes from Syria. The New York Times posted a story about the expression of Syrian artists to their country’s political crisis that included this amazing video of finger puppets—finger puppets because they are easy to smuggle through government checkpoints.
Dewey tells us that it’s large cultural institutions that try to fix that spontaneity in time and place, and in the fixing, the life blood is drained from the art. Museums for example, reify the, “furnishings of tent and house, rugs, mats, jars, pots, bows, spears” of cultures past. Yet as Dewey points out, “In their own time and place, such things were enhancements of the process of everyday life,” and represented “all the rhythmic crises that punctuate the stream of living.” Our fascination with these objects of the past comes in our recognition of their artistry, but what we lose in that museum moment of appreciation is the sense of the present tense. Once we memorialize the finger puppets, their impact will be in the memory of the past not the life-blood political urgency of the present.
We had a great conversation on the Weekly Howl a few weeks back about the difficulty of theater being responsive to a political or cultural moment. It’s true, writing plays in a timely fashion and developing them fully takes time, but this isn’t the only thing that makes spontaneity a problem for our theater cathedrals. Season planning processes driven by marketing campaigns are often happening two years out from actual productions, and overpriced tickets and massive operational overhead that diminish artistic integrity and budgets are other reasons for our institutional “segregation from the common life.” Cathedrals are places for statuary and memorials and homage. But they are less likely to be hotbeds for innovation, risk taking, and cultural transformation.
Don’t get me wrong, both past and present matter. In our hyper-responsive Internet culture we lose our history; everything is new all the time. I read so many blog posts where the author seems to be in a historical vacuum, putting forth ideas as if they were entirely original. But the sense of immediacy that technology can create, the idea that everything can feel live and immediate all the time, can reinvigorate our sense of the spontaneous in art making. Virtual creative spaces can function as a healthy antidote to the bricks and mortar blues that threaten to overtake our field and our art making.
So, how do we activate existing spaces and create relevant new ones? How do our work and our passions not become isolated from everyday life? How doe we create intersections between our lives and stories and the places where we share them? How do we move out of our cathedrals and build public squares that celebrate “common life”?
How to Endure
Dewey understands the why of cathedrals, the reasons we’ve put so much energy into cultural meccas. We crave form and stability in a world that feels chaotic—Form is arrived at whenever a stable, even though moving, equilibrium is reached . . . wherever there is coherence there is endurance. The first wave of the regional theater movement relied on bricks and mortar as part of their spontaneous response to necessity. And they were successful in achieving something that continues to endure. And endurance matters. It’s mattered to all of us who have benefited from that coherent and lasting vision. Bricks and mortar as a road toward achieving the vision of the original impulse made sense then, but less sense now.
Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus
As many of my interactions with artists take place in the virtual world, I ask myself or I should say, we ask, (because this thought comes out of way too many late night conversations with David Dower) whether the regional theater movement of the twenty-first century will be built right here, online?
For those of you who have been actively participating in the #newplay conversation via this journal, Twitter, and on many other play development sites and theaters, I might argue they embody the spontaneous culture lacking in some of our big cathedrals. And these are virtual spaces where artists provide the life-blood of the conversation about the work and the process and the future.
In his book Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators, futurist Clay Shirky talks about the twentieth-century phenomenon of free time, the result of post World War II rise in education levels and the fact the people started living longer and working less. This free time led to massive hours of the solitary, and one might argue, unproductive act of television viewing. We took our free time, what Shirky calls the “cognitive surplus” and channeled it into the one-way activity of watching. This comfort with simply watching is something that theaters have banked on for their survival, and it’s the reason that the first post World War II generation of consumers have been the life blood of the regional theater movement.
But as Shirky points out, and as we’ve discussed in many ways in the #newplay conversation, this form of engagement is no longer satisfactory. The virtual world allows us new forms of participation and new ways to get in on producing and performing our own creative acts. We no longer have to look on awestruck at the talents of others on stage or behind a screen. Our cognitive surplus can be harnessed in much more fulfilling ways.
Shirky asks a key question about these relatively new circumstances we find ourselves in. Will our creativity be merely about more personal expression or will our creativity be geared toward a larger purpose? What will we smuggle across the borders? What will we risk, toward what aims? As Shirky points out, “how much of the value…will be merely communal (enjoyed by the participants but not much use to the community at large) and how much of it will be civic”?
Responsibility and Hopes for 2012
I find our virtual connectedness in this field heartening and hopeful. This new HowlRound site is a community offering, and effort to make more virtual space to consider new infrastructures for our field. If you think about the origins of the regional theater movement, our founders didn’t just harness energy, they harnessed a huge funding initiative by the Ford Foundation and they built something necessary, transformative, and lasting. I think we’re being presented with a similar moment now, a coming together of the tools and the resources to build something “coherent and enduring” to use Dewey’s words, with artists leading the charge.