I’m sure this is a widely felt sentiment but truly, the older I get the quicker time passes. Perhaps it was the breadth of our experiences and our rich itinerary. Perhaps it was the walking or the hours of dialogue or maybe the 191 hours of sleep I got (wow). I’m sure many of us are having a hard time finding a place to start and how to synthesize a month of varying experiences down into an accessible blog post. Without further ado, here is my reflection on my final J-Term of undergrad.
Some feelings at the moment include: exhaustion, relief, stress, content, confusion, hope, fear, and maybe even a lingering excitement. I sacrificed quite a bit to be able to travel off-campus this January because the course description resonated with me deeply. I worked three jobs this past semester (twice a week waking up at 4:30 in the morning to be able to get to work on time), abandoned an opportunity to graduate a semester early, and gave up my spot in the St. Olaf Choir. My hope was that the opportunities presented to me in DC would help bring clarity to what I wanted to do post-graduation.
Through visits with non-profits such as the NEA/NEH, Smithsonians, Folkways Recording Label, AAFTA, Washington National Opera and many more I have come to more thoroughly understand that the funding pie is complex and is vastly differs from org to org. There are a few conversations that stood at to me in particular. The first was our visit with the NEA/NEH where we had read Coco Fusco’s interview with Andres Serrano in 1991. Having been primed to talk about the provocative Serrano pieces I noticed that when controversial art was brought up it was referred to as the situation in the 90s but not directly addressed. The people at the NEA and NEH do really good work in providing funds to productive and impactful work but I left the building unsettled, especially since said 90s work had cost the NEA & NEH half their government funding. This visit was formative in setting the tone for the rest of the month as it was within the first five days of us being in DC. Next was Folkways Recording Label where we met with 9 staff members and the majority of them being women of color. At one point, I asked a probing question about whether or not the Folkways believes they are helping to tackle issues such as xenophobia through education and reintroduction of folk culture and Jim, a curator, said yes. There was no beating around the bush with the staff of Folkways and they were aware of the political nature of what they do which I found refreshing and engaging. The last non-profit that I would like to mention was Americans for the Arts where we met with Andy and Lauren Cohen (no relation). Lauren had previously been a staffer for a Republican member of congress before joining the lobbying organization (which is a 501(c)3). She decided to make the switch from an office that cared little for the arts to utilizing her knowledge of Capitol Hill to advocate for them. This brings me to some more personal thoughts I have on my own civic identity and future goals.
From conception, my birth and my identity have been politicized. Being born brown, interracial, multicultural (as well as a multitude of other intersecting identities) has inextricably bound me with the politics. Being of this land as well as others which have ALL been subjected to colonization… My DNA is imbued with the struggles of my people which is why I cannot willingly turn a blind eye to or choose to be apolitical. At the start of this class, I thought I had a strong sense of my civic identity in relation to arts advocacy– but the more I thought about it, the more lost I felt. I am struggling with whether or not I would want to be a civil servant as many that we met claimed an apolitical attitude. However, Lauren was an excellent example of how insider knowledge can do good things. I have run into a wall when it comes to advocating for government arts funding. It’s difficult to want to fund the arts when there are people without homes, when there are children without food, and so many other things that deserve our attention. Nevertheless, I plan on being civically engaged throughout my life but now I don’t know what is the most effective route for me to take. A theme that has been following our class is the assumption that art primarily serves as a conversation starter rather than the thing that’s doing the changing. It has frustrated me that doing something often doesn’t elicit change. Perhaps I am impatient. However, if your humanity, identity, and rights were under attack you would be impatient too. Do we have the time for those who are in power and continue to marginalize or keep children in cages to build up the stamina to consider an end to abuse? Do we keep performing art that perpetuates negative stereotypes of women, men, POC, LGBTQ+? The conversation is important. It’s what comes after that I am concerned with now.
Here are some things that have stuck with me about democracy and the arts:
Funding tends to lean towards bureaucracy and the wants and wishes of donors. What makes art democratic is the honest representations of identities that don’t often get a seat at the table. This along with making the arts accessible, which was another consistent theme of the class after we had met with an Art’s Access panel at the Kennedy Center. As an able-bodied person, I acknowledge how the world was made for those like me and also how you cannot always see disability. Democracy is in the physical and psychological accessibility. It is in the location of your theater and in the art that is curated. When it comes to democracy and the arts, the most democratic performance we saw was Playback Theater at the Anacostia Arts Center. The host created a sense of community in the black box theater and a number of stories from the audience were acted on stage by strangers. Community is important. Community involvement doesn’t have to be a physical place although it can be impactful. It doesn’t have to be a neighborhood although that was my initial thought. I don’t know where I plan on living but art can bridge physical communities even with strangers. I go between many physical communities but going into college, I have always wanted to do something to advocate for my school district back in Oregon.
This class has given me the tools and the awareness of the change I as an individual can emit. I know now how accessible my congresspeople are and plan on utilizing this experience to try and help my school district back home. For our final project, my policy proposal is based on several experiences I have had in relation to this class. The first being an orientation meeting about the Minnesota Legacy Amendment which centered around utilizing data to advocate for arts funding. Second is our meeting with AFTA and the Arts Advocacy Day handbook which has an immense amount of facts and figures around the arts. Lastly was our discussion with Jamie Kasper, Executive Director of Arts Education Partnership that informed us on how the grounds of arts education have been evolving. There is still wild inequality when it comes to access to an arts education but it’s difficult to know exactly what they are when school districts are not collecting enough data. So for my proposal, I am urging the Oregon Department of Education to be more diligent about their arts education standards. Specifically, I am proposing that by collecting careful data on the number of hours of arts instruction along with a more accurate account of courses and students enrolled, inequities can be more easily assessed and supplemented.
If you have any further thoughts or questions, feel free to reach out.