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

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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Three Consulting Commandments

July 14, 2018

As a consultant, defining for myself my personal and business philosophies has been liberating. I get to choose what I stand for / against. I get to define for my business where our boundaries and ethics are drawn in the sand. I want to share my business philosophies; It’s almost like the 10 Commandments:

  1. First, do no harm [to the organization].
  2. Leave the organization better than you found it.
  3. Offer counsel every step of the way, even if they are not yet (or will not be) a client.

Okay, so maybe 3 Commandments. Let me explain:

First, do no harm [to the organization].

I know what it’s like to be at the organization when you look to the bank account and see a 0 or even a negative number, and a payroll is looming. I’ve been at the leadership table when this has happened at both small  “white” institutions and small “POC” institutions (I will continue to use these terms without quotations). The cash flow problem is not necessarily a raced issue, but what happens, and after, necessarily is. From my experience, for the white institution, there is usually someone or someones (plural) who can write a check to provide a cushion to the zero-balance bank account. That person could be on the board, but just hasn’t been engaged enough to know this was coming. That person could be on the staff (true story). That person could be in the orbit of the organization that the leadership can call on to write the check. SURELY getting to that point suggests a different kind of mismanagement (of time, fundraising activities, fundraising priorities, expense priorities, etc), but, it’s resolved rather quickly and payrolls happen! For the POC institution, very rarely do they have someone in their orbit that can mobilize a hefty amount of funds in a short amount of time. So payrolls get missed.

So you can imagine how important literally every penny is for the organizations I want to work with. I know this coming into the engagement, and I am small enough as a business to provide Development Director level support, strategy, and plans for a fraction of the costs.

Twice now in my tenure as a full-time consultant, I have listened to the woes of my client re: payroll and cash flow. Twice, I have offered that perhaps we should re-scope my agreement, put it on pause, or terminate it all together.

Yes, ultimately this means something to my bottom line. I’m not going to lie. Yes, I could hold the client to the original contract and be a stickler (more on this!) about it. But that would be first, doing harm. So I lean almost always on a lesson from my Swahili teacher in college: “If you try to win now, you’ll lose later.” So I take the “loss” and every time that income has been replaced.

Leave the organization better than you found it.

I know one and two look like the same thing, and maybe they are, but I want to separate them.  Let me tell you a story (it is a continuation from number 1): once, I joined an organization who had already contracted (before hiring me) a consultant who professed to be a one-stop-shop (also: lesson! specialize!) for fundraising, especially fundraising events. I fully believe that organizations under $1M should not have anything that is called a “Gala” but I roll with clients, too. Meet them where they are, and such.

Anyways, this consultant charged an astronomical amount JUST FOR THE PLANNING of the event, which meant that we (the client) would pay for subcontractors, vendors, etc etc. This is not unusual. What is unusual is the amount the consultant charged, and the amount the organization agreed to pay, and then hired someone who effectively made the consultant superfluous, and then refused to back out of the consultant contract.

Sensing that I knew how to run events, and because I slashed and burned some of the expensive suggestions for the event to bring the costs down, the consultant effectively turned into a really expensive administrative assistant: performing data entry, scheduling calls. All of the things that they had promised to the organization they would deliver had not been delivered and in my estimation would not be (lesson: don’t promise what is impossible to deliver, even if you think you need to say it to win the client! It’s not worth it. Don’t try to win now!).

After the event, the consultant apologized, as he should, for not delivering on what he promised, and when I suggested that he forego the final installment because continuing to move forward with him even when he knew it was doing harm to the organization put us further into the hole, and he could have stepped away, suggested a change of course, or something. He agreed, apologized. He then insisted we still pay the last payment, and then suggested he would do a future event for free. You can BET I’m not calling nor referring him again!

Another short story: I’ve had the pleasure of being the consultant behind a bigger consulting firm at a few organizations. This firm does a better job of making the client feel good about the investment, and finishes the contract with everyone in smiles and ready to go! Then the organizations summarily slides the strategic plans, the spreadsheets, the meeting agendas, the analysis etc into the file cabinet and reverts back to the organization they were before. You might say: Oh! But they didn’t leave it worse than they found it. But they did! The organization could have used those thousands of dollars to invest in staff. Instead of paper plans, the consultant could have helped the organization move to actionable steps and goals. For example instead of saying “recruit 5 board members by Q3” on a list of goals the organization now supposedly had the “skills” to complete, the consultant could have walked them through it, and helped secure 1-2 board members, and left “recruit 3 more board members”.

Stacks of paper that will be filed away and forgotten or told to the next consultant “we did that already” is not leaving the organization better than you found it.

Offer counsel every step of the way, even if they are not yet (or will not be) a client.

Even as I was transitioning out of the contract with the organizations from #1, I still offered suggestions and counsel as if I were still a contracted consultant. It’s true, working with cultural organizations is truly my heart-work, and I guess you could say I happen to get paid part of the time for it :). It feeds into my #2, leaving the organization better than I found it. And, I just find that if folks listen to the one or two little nuggets, they’ll feel good about me, and maybe we’ll one day work together. Even if not, I’m still trying to make sure they win. We desperately need culture to win more these days, you know?

 

The View from 40,000 ft.

Whenever I travel internationally, I never really utilize the back seat entertainment. If I’m not sleeping (I prefer overnight flights to Europe, and day flights back), or drinking free wine, or reading or journaling, or even–while all of those activities are happening, the back seat “entertainment” is 95% of the time logged into the flight map, specifically the birds eye view that looks down on the top of the plane as it follows the line from NYC to Frankfurt, Nicaragua, Amsterdam, Cuba, Paris, London, Zurich. 

On the way to London, my husband and I had the inside row seats (ugh) and just never really got comfortable. It was late, the plane was delayed. My adrenaline was raging because I had boarded the plane, set up to take a selfie, only to realize I left my glasses in the terminal. Luckily I had great flight attendants, and switched quickly enough into my southern girl and helpless voice that someone escorted me in order to retrieve them! (Thanks British Airways!!) so anyways, the weather sucked. Even just going down the runway was an ordeal. When the wheels left the earth we started very quickly into violent turbulence. 

It stayed that way out of Far Rockaway, over Long Island and the Long Island Sound, up the New England corridor until we reached Nova Scotia and, because I had this “view” this big picture view, I knew that we would be entering over water, which has been in my experience so far north where the turbulence levels out. 

Maybe there was weather between us and London. The flight view doesn’t show weather (it should!!) only the stats: how high in elevation, ground speed, current location time, place of departure time, destination time, temperature outside the window. You could change the view but the one where I could see the line connecting clearly the dot from New York JFK to London Heathrow Was my preferred view. Though our ground speed was almost 700mph, I felt, somehow, grounded.

After dinner, cabin lights out, Husband and I decide to try to figure out what we want to see in London since we couldn’t sleep. I look up for my 40,000 ft view, and note We were approaching Greenland. 

Then I focus in on the task. Holding the drinks while C lifts my tray to reach my bag for our LONELY PLANET LONDON tour book. C is rooting around underneath the chair when

The plane makes an unexpected and steep drop. 

The flight attendants were going through with the garbage and seemed, like us, completely caught by surprise. 

Including my own, there were several gasps. 

I was holding the drinks so they traveled with me, with the plane, when it dipped like so, but the ones on the trays, the drinks and food and things on the trays while people were locked into their individualized screens for entertainment went into the air and crashed back down. Our inside aisle seat mate spilled red wine all over herself. 

I looked at the elevation a few minutes later and we maintained 40,000 ft. Which is to say, the pilot was locked in and was not trying to go higher or lower for smoother sailing. I didn’t have *that view* that he had so I had to trust staying his course was the right way to go. 

You can imagine I didn’t sleep the rest of the flight, and I didn’t change my screen from the flight view the whole way there, so I can tell you that from Greenland on we had turbulence. And I don’t normally, but I clapped and released my held breath when we landed the next, London morning. 

What does this have to do with anything besides being a story about turbulence?

I am nearing three months freelance/consultant/business owner. In another life, I’d be preparing to asses if I’m off of probation. In this life, I counted going into the next six months with 6 clients. 

In a session today with a client, I mentioned that I’m able to help in a way that is unique: because my focus is art & culture organizations of color, and have been in this flight pattern (see where I’m going) for years, and because I am not locked into one organization, but, as I said, consulting with six of them right now, I have the advantage of a 40,000 ft view of the fundraising and development landscape. I have a line from “here” (last few years of fundraising for orgs of color) to “there” (the future of orgs of color) and can see clearer the bigger picture because I’m not sitting tunneled vision, not aware that I’m part of a machine moving, literally, 700mph and could at any point, unexpectedly, bottom out from me.

When I said that, our conversation opened up. My client realized she was trying to put me in a place she knew and was comfortable, and I was trying to explain that the funding world is turbulent, and we need to chart a clearer, better path. 

One of my mottos recently is “Let the experts expert.” 

I love that because it releases me from having to believe I have to do everything. As I’m stuck, head down In the weeds and looking at my personal finances being crazy, I say my motto and put out a call for a CPA. I trust that they will know the best path to my desired destination. 

As you think about where you want to take your organization in terms of fundraising and development, I encourage you to have a thought partner that is looking at the whole picture: months, years, in advance; diversification of revenue; strategy; developing a culture of philanthropy among your staff and board, and the list goes on. 

We don’t have to do it ourselves. We can’t do it ourselves. Me: I’m looking for the person who’s got a 40,000 ft view.

The Case for *Representational* Art + Culture

Now, as always, we need representational arts and culture in our lives, and we need the spaces, the safe ones, in times like these.

What I am talking about when I’m talking about representational arts and culture is art that centers the Black (and brown and other and in between) figure/story/history in its conversations, its actions, its figurations, its staged plays, its buildings, its permanent collections, etc etc etc.

Here’s a quote that ushered me into 2017, and at the end of it, I decided that I needed it to ground me for as long as I live.

“OF COURSE, I HOPE SOMEDAY THAT IT CAN BE SAID THAT I SHOWED ANOTHER WAY TO THE SUMMIT OF ACHIEVEMENT IN PAINTING. TO BE SURE, THE MODE OF BLACK FIGURE REPRESENTATION I EMPLOY IS A CLAEAR DEPARTURE FROM MOST POPULAR TREATMENTS OF THE BLACK BODY. I AM TRYING TO ESTABLISH A PHENOMENAL PRESENCE THAT IS UNEQUIVOCALLY BLACK AND BEAUTIFUL. IT IS MY CONVICTION THAT THE MOST INSTRUMENTAL, INSURGENT, PAINTING FOR THIS MOMENT MUST BE OF FIGURES, AND THOSE FIGURES MUST BE BLACK, UNAPOLOGETICALLY SO.”

This does two things: for the viewer/participant of the representational arts + culture, it gives one a sense of belonging, a mirror, a communal space for experiencing beauty. See the photo above. On a Monday in January in New York City, at The Met, I was standing next to more Black and brown folks I had ever seen before, who had gathered to experience the exceptional and breath taking and beautiful works of Kerry James Marshell.

It was my second time. The first time I saw the works, it was during the opening of the exhibit, in a private VIP thing, which means, there were very few people who looked like me, who looked like the paintings–the floor to ceiling paintings–in the space. I couldn’t linger with some of the art in the ways that I wanted to. Behind me were people who were passing through the exhibit quickly, catching up on what other exhibits they were working on or funding or or. But I knew, when I saw some of the pieces, that I had to come back, and bring my husband, and we had to spend as much time as we wanted, in order to see, to feel, to be affirmed.

That is what I think these spaces can give us at a time like this. After the events in Charlottesville, VA transpired this weekend, I saw friends post art works, poems, song lyrics, by Black artists and we were sending messages to each other through the social media atmosphere: here is some healing for you, here is some healing for me. Here is the hard truth for others. But at the heart of it: we are hurting. Here is some art.

So here’s the thing: there are so many creators and artists and makers of representative safe spaces for culture and art that are struggling to literally keep their lights on. But that’s not why I want to direct your attention there. I want to direct your attention to spaces that were created out of the necessity for refuge and that were created out of a systematic approach to exclusion of a diversity of perspectives and voices that rather than not exist at all, they exist at least to be a place we can go to when literally there are men with torches of fire standing outside our door threatening our very lives.

Here’s some organizations that have centered the Black or Other figure/voice/history/story through arts and culture and that–if you’re thinking about what you can do–can use a shoring up of resources (read: $$$$ or, you showing up to some events) as they face a Monday/a new week/ the same regime with yet again a country set on destroying all things that are not white.

Of course, I have committed my life to the stabilization of spaces like these, and others. There’s some exciting news on the horizon for that, but if you want to be an integral part of my journey to invest and impact the field of representational arts + culture, I invite you to join me.