When Going Gets Tough: Managing Barriers to Local Arts Patronage

I’ve been thinking about DéLana’s most recent monthly letter, in which she describes using a local arts calendar to find distraction and comfort in the weeks following her father’s death.  

Last month, I missed an event I had been looking forward to, a local Black history and culture festival at which I had been planning to take some photos and pull some highlights for the Red Olive blog.

The morning of the festival, my mother had a seizure and in a blink the weekend became consumed by intervals of rush, worry, and wait: a trip in an ambulance, a series of tests, a period of observation, plastic chairs in ER hallways, running errands and making the bed for her return home.  With a new medicine for her daily routine, a check-up scheduled, and the reassurance that, no, this didn’t appear to be the worsening of any of her chronic conditions, we entered the next week frazzled but truly grateful for good news. 

For the next few weeks, I focused on work, family, and the occasional escape through television. I didn’t attend any readings, visit any exhibits, or see any shows. When stressed, I often find myself driven by the mantra “maybe when things calm down.” I find myself passing on activities that might help me decompress or re-center, telling myself there just isn’t time. Studies show that I am not alone: a lack of time is the number one reason reported for not visiting historical, cultural, and artistic spaces

Studies show that I am not alone: a lack of time is the number one reason reported

for not visiting historical, cultural, and artistic spaces

However, research also shows that skipping out on arts and culture events is detrimental to our physical and emotional health as individuals and communities. Visiting cultural spaces increases dopamine, improves our capacity for memory and empathy, and correlates with greater life satisfaction and lower rates of anxiety and depression. Public art spaces also have broader social impact benefits, ranging from interrupting the school to prison pipeline to building local economies. 

Inspired by DéLana’s letter and keeping these research-backed benefits in mind, I’m thinking this month about how to view my time-strapped schedule and sources of stress as a driver for my arts attendance, rather than solely a barrier. I’d like to invite you to do the same.

For me, this means asking myself questions including: In what ways can I honor my need for self-care with new habits that incorporate public arts patronage into relaxation or escape? How can arts spaces be incorporated, along with doctors’ offices, into managing my mother’s chronic illnesses? How can I increase my exposure to local arts events—what papers should I read, what accounts should I follow—so that cool events fall into my awareness with the ease that Netflix appears on my screen? 

The questions you ask yourself may be wildly different from mine. They may be questions that you, like me, don’t have immediate or static answers to. Continually returning to these questions, though, is a commitment to feel good about. Carving a little more space in our lives for local arts opportunities, including and especially in times of stress, means opening ourselves up to their many benefits in the moments we may need them most.

*This blog borrows its title from the 2015 NEA study from which some of its data is drawn. 

Source: National Endowment for the Arts

A New Model for Supporting Black, Artist-Led Organizations

In late-August, Red Olive began a pilot program with the South Carolina Arts Commission and three South Carolina-based Black art organizations: Gullah Traveling Theater, Speaking Down Barriers, and The Watering Hole. In addition to receiving a one-time general operating support grant, these Black artist-led arts organizations will work with Red Olive to develop fundraising best-practices and to increase their organizational capacity and stability. We’re thrilled about this innovative partnership and the opportunity to test ways to better support small, Black artist-led organizations in the compounding challenges they face.

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The Myth of the Artsy Side Of Town

My current home-place, Columbia, South Carolina, like many other cities, has a downtown where many of its arts institutions are concentrated. Off-hand, I can count five museums, a major university, four art studios, four theaters and three concert venues, all within a roughly 1-mile radius.

Since I moved to Columbia as a graduate student, my work and school life has been centered downtown, in the thick of Columbia’s largest arts spaces. As we look to move closer to where my boyfriend works, in northeast Columbia, I’m spending more and more time outside the city’s center—“center,” in this case, being an institutional ideology, not a geographic reality.  Downtown rests at the edge of the city, upwards of a half-hour drive from the opposite side of town, and more than an hour, if accessible at all, by bus.

Having grown up in north Austin, a city famous for music venues and festivals held in or south of downtown, I have a sense of what centralized arts districts can mean to residents of a sprawling and segregated city. The financial and temporal strain of crossing town, finding parking, paying covers, entrance fees, or memberships: all of these barriers meant I had less access to the music and arts scene that people readily laud when they find out where I’m from.

I’ve said before that I didn’t grow up on the “artsy” side of town. I would never say that now (praise growth!) because I did grow up surrounded by musicians, visual artists, dancers, writers, and other creatives. With less financial backing, less access to large, dedicated arts spaces, less media attention, and fewer archival tools, our arts scene looked different than the Austin that outsiders know best. Still, it was always present. We gathered for talent shows, church services, and house parties. We painted murals and filled notebooks. We made and celebrated art.

Last week, I happened upon Alexandra’s Café & Art, a newly opened coffee shop and art gallery about a 20-minute drive from downtown. A Columbia resident of 24 years, the artist and owner Alexandra Parks opened shop because she wanted to bring people together to enjoy art. Lined with local artists’ work—paintings, fiber arts, and jewelry—the coffee shop turns into a classroom every other Wednesday night with workshops in various artistic media.

I was happy to see this shop not because it brought art across town, but because it could become a nurturing space for the artistic work already happening there.

This is much more complicated than it sounds: investments in coffee shops and arts spaces can have a direct relationship with gentrification. This has been the case, historically, in both Columbia and Austin, where Black communities have been pushed out of neighborhoods proximal to downtown. I’m here for navigating that complexity though, envisioning and making demands of arts spaces such that they are situated in and serve historically-excluded communities without displacing them. Such that they offer opportunities to support and broadcast, not supplant or belittle, the artistic expression that predates institutionalized support or attention. 

While some neighborhoods receive more public acknowledgement and investment in their artistic identity and output, no neighborhood is devoid of artists, art-lovers, and art. It’s time we do the work to responsibly invest in decentralized arts opportunities. All communities––including the Black, POC, working class, and immigrant communities often priced out––deserve localized arts spaces in which their creatives can thrive.

Curating and Preserving Black History in Local Communities

We were thrilled when BAFF grantee and Red Olive client i, too arts collective received a grant from The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund earlier this month. Red Olive is a named consultant for this project, and we look forward to digging in and doing the work to save our Black places.

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What Freedom Looks Like: Black Artists Provide Needed Alternatives

As stars and stripes line the aisles of big box stores and buzz words like “freedom” and “independence” pepper mainstream media, we’re called to re-up on a narrative that equates early American government with ideals it stole and withheld from most of the era’s inhabitants. In the face of this dissonance, we’re spending time this month seeking out contemporary black artists that encourage us to think differently about freedom(s), its origin and location, its limitations and possibilities. By no means an exhaustive or representative list, here are three recent works by black creatives that currently have us (re)thinking…

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