Category Archives: Accessibility to the Arts

Loss

“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” – William Shakespeare

When I was a teenager, my brother Sean and I somehow ended up with two tenth-row center tickets to see Les Miserables on tour in Los Angeles. We didn’t know anything about the show, and we were teenagers after all, so before it started we were screwing around in our seats and feeling restless about what we wanted to be doing that night. At one point, I even turned to him and said, “Is this going to be funny?” And he considered the title and said, “I doubt it.” I then got an inspired idea. “Let’s go see the new Indiana Jones movie instead!” Sean was game, so we stood up to leave, right when the house lights went down. So we sat back in our seats… and two and a half hours later, stood up again, transformed.

We both have clear memories of that night, some twenty years ago, not just about what happened on stage, but what it felt like to be there, to be a part of that experience. It confirmed our career paths. A few years later I got a degree in Musical Theater and then spent many years performing. My brother Sean is one of the greatest actors I know, and his theater company, Gideon Productions, is a highly-acclaimed anchor in the indie New York theater scene.

I truly believe my life is different from having seen that show. I’d been performing since I was four, but somehow that night shook up and rewired my brain in such a way that doing anything else for the rest of my life no longer made sense. I belong in the arts world, and here I will stay. But it wasn’t about the art – it was about the story that unfolded in front of me through song, dance, sets, costumes, and music. The heartbreak, the devastation, the hopefulness, the love – all communicated to my crazy teenager brain in a way that little else could. And that is what art does. It leaves you changed.

I’ve had other moments like that night: seeing the Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Legion of Honor. Seeing the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit at the Met. My own father conducting Night on Bald Mountain when I was four years old. Seeing The Secret Garden on Broadway. Seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the Napa Valley Opera House. Seeing Dave Brubeck perform with his sons just a couple of years before he died. The first time I got to sing my mother’s brilliant song “Away to America” to my baby.

But there have been so many things I’ve missed. I didn’t get to see the original cast of Rent on Broadway. I’ve missed my brother Sean’s last twenty or so shows in New York. I’ve missed dozens and dozens of local artistic opportunities because I have two tiny children and I rarely get to leave the house after 6 PM.

I am keenly aware that I’ve not just missed these shows and exhibitions; I’ve missed the opportunity to see them ever. Because no show is the same if it has a new cast. No symphony is the same when a different orchestra plays it. I can see other shows, other events, other exhibitions, but I feel an acute loss about that ones I’ve missed.

And last week, while I was on a trip through the Midwest to see family and go to a wedding, I heard unthinkable news: Shakespeare Santa Cruz was getting the axe. This incredible program, which for 32 years has been housed by UCSC and beloved by the community, was being discontinued as of the end of the year. I sat there in my hotel room, stunned with the news. There is a great deal about this decision that I don’t understand, and significant community concern about the way it was done. But one thing is universal, for those of us who know and love SSC: we are feeling tremendous loss.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz provided generations of Santa Cruzans (locals and visitors alike) the kind of transformational experiences that I had at Les Mis. Everyone I know has a SSC story, be it about the show itself, or being in the glen, under the stars, with a bottle of wine, or maybe a first date. The shows have been sometimes racy, sometimes classic, always high-quality. They have set the standard for Shakespeare companies across the country, and the Shakespeare program was a major conduit that connected this community with the University – a relationship that is often fragile.

We’re told that the program was cut because the financial model didn’t work, and hadn’t worked for a long time. That may be true. But this program was worth more than its balance sheet, for the tens of thousands of children who, through SSC, experienced the Bard for the first time, and the tens of thousands of adults who shared the experience of seeing great art in an otherworldly setting.

My life would have been different if I hadn’t seen Les Miserables when I was a teenager. Maybe not dramatically different, but different nonetheless. How many lives did Shakespeare Santa Cruz alter in its 32 years? And how many people will now be denied that experience? It’s impossible to quantify that loss. In the business world, people often talk about “opportunity cost” – what is the cost for the business to be doing a particular piece of work rather than other activities? In this case, the opportunity cost is particularly painful. Without Shakespeare Santa Cruz, we lose connection, inspiration, talent, excitement, and togetherness. You won’t find those on a balance sheet, because they are priceless.

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I’ve got arts issues

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”  – Mahatma Gandhi

“Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” – Jim Henson

I’m a junkie for professional development.

I loved school, so it’s no great surprise that I love learning environments. I even adore conferences, though I find that what happens in the hallways between conference sessions is often more interesting than the sessions. Or what happens at night over dinner. I was awarded an Emerging Leader scholarship to an Americans for the Arts conference several years ago, and it was at an after-hours beer-swilling event that I had the good fortune of sitting at a table with Ian David Moss of Fractured Atlas. Ian, in addition to being totally brilliant and the editor of the Createquity blog, is a super cool guy, and my work in the arts is better for being connected to him. So it’s both the learning and the relationships that I love when it comes to participating in professional development opportunities.

I’ve had a hard time getting to conferences since my little ones were born. But I’ve enthusiastically thrown my hat in the ring for the Chief Executive Program through National Arts Strategies. It speaks directly to my professional development junkie heart, in that it is an extended, in-depth, intense program focused “tackling the big questions facing the field”. It’s highly competitive, so I’m not holding my breath about getting invited to participate, but even the application process was thought-provoking.

The application began with four short essays (yay! I love writing essays!) about organizational and personal goals, challenges, and leadership styles, ending with a straightforward question: what do you see as the four most important issues facing the arts field as a whole? I quickly brainstormed a list (of a dozen issues) and then narrowed it down to my four. But I wanted to know how the great minds around me would respond, so I wrote to my staff, my friends, and my family to give me their answers.

I’m very fortunate to be related to and friends with artists, performers, writers, and arts administrators across the country. So I was able to open up this conversation to folks like Dan Kois (Senior Editor at Slate), Catherine Trieschemann (playwright), Jonathan Farmer (poet and Editor-in-Chief of At Length) Sean Williams (actor, producer and co-founder of Gideon Productions), Linda Worsley (composer), Ehren Gresehover (co-founder and Creative Director of Stellar Engine), and many more, as well as the excellent staff of the Arts Council. Common themes emerged from this poll, but what interested me more was the commonality of passion and frustration I heard in the answers.

Here’s a sampling of the issues the group identified, and some related quotes:

  1. The failure and de-funding of arts education in public schools. This topped everyone’s list. In fact, one respondent said, “The arts have been taken away from our schools, and our kids, and the result is the loss of patronage and audiences, even public awareness and interest in the arts, for generations to come. This has to change. I can’t come up with any other issues that mean more than this.”
  2. The rapid elitification of arts – both real and perceived. “Practically, a huge amount of art — especially high-culture-type art — is prohibitively expensive and intimidating. But there is a huge amount of art that is in fact affordable and accessible. But the other side of the coin is that the PERCEPTION of art in America is that it’s an elitist/frou-frou/impractical thing, and so huge numbers of people don’t take advantage of opportunities.” Said another, “There is a stereotype that art is formal, dry, cold, and elite. Classical music, the Louvre, Shakespeare, those are art. The creative things that happen in our day to day lives are seen as something else. We miss how creative we all are, and that our creativity is art.”
  3. Outreach (which is related to #2). “We need to find a model that brings art to people where they will best use it. How do we put art in peoples’ homes, how do we make it part of their couch experience?”
  4. Equity in arts funding, and what is considered “art”. “There are many cultural groups that participate in creative practices with long, rich histories, which are extremely artistic, but these practices are not considered ‘art’ by funding groups, and in some cases not even recognized by the participants as ‘art’”.
  5. Raising consciousness of the public value of art happening in our communities. “The problem, as I see it, is that most people think that their cultural life is centered on things that happen other places, when the most vital experience can be had for a few bucks 10 minutes from where you live.  The challenge is finding ways to get people to engage with the things that are actually happening where they live.”
  6. Access to the arts. “There is little engagement for middle-low income families, especially for undocumented, houseless, and LGBTQ communities.”
  7. Funding for non-commercial art. “Finding funding for art that furthers the field but isn’t self-sustaining financially.”
  8. Unions. “Destroy them and start over,” said one respondent. “The fact that Brad Pitt can be a hardcore leftist while being a member of a ‘union’ with an 80%+ unemployment rate is disgusting. I’ve been hearing my whole life that the unions are better than not being in a union, all the while every union member is sneaking around behind the union’s back and every employer is disgusted with either the requirements being too stringent or being ridiculously contemptible.”
  9. Art and technology. “I don’t think the internet is killing art or anything, but I do think technological advances have changed it across fields in multiple ways, and we’re still steps behind in figuring out what any of it means and how it affects us.”
  10. The “reality TV myth” – the perception that art requires no real discipline, work ethic, or time to develop. “Art is a process. It’s that which makes great people even more able to do great things. When the process, when the journey, isn’t valued, we lose the value of what art and artists are.”
  11. Passive entertainment. “Before we had so much access to passive entertainment, we had to make our own.  I get the impression that more people drew the world around them or played instruments or sang or whatever in regular way.”
  12. A radical re-imagining for financing. “Start by disregarding pay-for-art-ingested, crowdfunding and public subsidies and see what’s left.”
  13. No growth. “So many arts organizations are flat. Flat in terms of budget and audience growth. Flat in terms of excitement and dynamism. Flat in terms of leadership.”
  14. Life without the arts leads to lives with no meaning. “Art should be a means and not an end. The biggest issues have to do not with serving ‘The Arts’ but with serving people who need to be served.”

Interestingly, the folks I polled all mentioned funding for the arts as a major issue so obvious that it wasn’t worth listing separately.

My top four are related to many of the issues on the above list. Here they are, with quotes pulled from my application:

  • The decimation of arts education in schools. “By not providing children with access to explore the arts, we are decimating the pool of future artists, arts appreciators, and funders. And we are devaluing the arts on a massive scale, which means dramatically fewer people – adults and children both – are enjoying the benefits of creating or enjoying the arts, leaving lives less rich, less diverse, and less interesting.”
  • Declining arts audiences. “Our theaters, dance companies, symphony orchestras, art galleries, and museums are closing their doors while we watch movies and play video games on our smart phones.”
  • Raising awareness of the availability, accessibility, and value of local arts. “In many communities, there are diverse, engaging, and affordable arts experiences at the ready. But community members either don’t know about them, or it would never occur to them to attend.”
  • Fundraising and financing the arts. “I work in California which has the honor of being dead last in the nation for per capital arts funding. The NEA’s budget continues to be under fire and is not nearly adequate to ensure that our great nation will have the great art it deserves. This top-down devaluing of the arts affects even the smallest arts organizations.”

So many of these issues are intertwined. None, I think, stand alone. Barry Hessenius, on his blog, just pointed to a Pew Survey on the perception of Americans as to how specific groups contribute to society’s well-being. According to the survey, only 30% of respondents believe that artists contribute “a lot” to the well-being of America. This is down 1% from the last time the survey was taken, in 2009. No wonder financial support for the arts is at such a low. And yet, as evidenced above, we have so many rallying points, and such clear challenges. We have the data and the passion to make our case. Why haven’t we as a field mastered how to effectively advocate for the arts? Whether or not I get invited to participate in the Chief Executive Program, I hope, over the course of my career, to help find answers, and solutions.

CH-CH-CH-Changes

“Beginnings are always messy.” – John Galsworthy

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” – Walt Disney

“I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew.” – Robert Frost

On June 3rd, we will be publicly unveiling our new name, logo, brand identity, and strategic plan. These changes have been eighteen months in the making, and have encompassed some of the most exhilarating months I’ve had in my professional life.

I believe that change for the sake of change can be a good thing, that rewiring your neural pathways on occasion just to keep your brain nimble is an acceptable and even crucial practice. But the shifts we are working on are not just for the sake of change. We have been deliberate and thoughtful in every step, and sometimes dozens of hours of work were tossed out because a different direction became clear. And I wouldn’t say we’ve been careful – that could have hobbled our process – but we did take care with every decision. We disagreed, we argued our points, we made decisions and then changed them in light of new information, we talked about impact and perception, we talked about how we want to please everyone but can’t please everyone. It was messy.

I love messy. Not in my home, but in a group process, I think messy is great. Messy means people aren’t going with the flow, they aren’t agreeing out of apathy, and they are willing to stake their claim and dig in and see what happens. And that happened pretty much every step of the way. The most satisfying thing about messy? It’s when the mess gets cleaned up, and everyone is satisfied with the results. And that is where we are now, as an organization, with our new plan.

After all of this is unveiled, however, the real work begins. We have to implement this plan, and we have to strive toward the impact that we are determined to make in this community.

I worked as an actor and performer for many years prior to become a nonprofit executive. One of the reasons I quit acting – and there were many – is that I came to a major realization that I preferred rehearsal to performance. I loved both the discovery process of rehearsal, and the insta-family feeling that is often created between cast and crew members as they flesh out a show. I love process more than product. So the challenge for me is to see this strategic plan not as a product, but as an animated guide – a coach, even – to push me forward in this work. Goodness knows there are plenty of stretch goals in the plan, and I need to breathe life into those goals and have them frame my work every day.

Nina Simon of the MAH was recently awarded a Nextie, which honors young people in this community who are making a major impact. In her acceptance speech, she encouraged everyone in the room to reach out and offer their help to others who are working to make great things happen in Santa Cruz County. I heartily and enthusiastically second that idea, and indeed, I walked up to her and said, “Nina, you scratch my itch.” But this idea – that we can pretty much do whatever great things we want if we work collectively – is a driving force behind our new strategic plan.

So, my challenge, to myself, and to the Cultural Council, is to do just that: reach out, get involved, push forward on our vision, and if the time calls for it, get messy. There’s plenty of work to do in this community, and plenty of folks who are ready to get involved. Let’s get started.

the art of happiness

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” –Rumi

“To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.” – Mark Twain

We talk a good game about arts education.

We know that exposure to arts education helps test scores, boosts self-confidence, teaches teamwork, encourages critical thinking, fosters positive self-expression, keeps kids out of trouble, gives non-academic types the opportunity to shine, and so much more.

Can we just all decide that all that stuff is a given, and take a moment to concentrate on one thing?

Joy:

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a young artist displays his puppet at a Family Art Night. Photo Credit: Crystal Birns

This last month has been an explosion of arts opportunities, a veritable   cornucopia of creative experiences, for young people across Santa Cruz County. We held five Family Art Nights, where grandmothers and babies and everyone in between danced, drummed, and painted.

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Mother and son dance at a Family Art Night. Photo credit: Sarah Brothers

One of our board members described her experience at a Family Art Night as a “shot in the arm of AWESOME.” And it was. Parents connected with their children, kindergarteners created puppets together, usually-sullen early teens banged away on African drums with their eyes closed in abandon.

And then, Thursday night, we unveiled the Children’s Art Exhibition at the County Government Center. Over 500 pieces of artwork from schools across the county were on display, all products of our two arts education programs, SPECTRA and Mariposa’s Art.

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Exhibition photo credits: Emma Garcia

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A proud student poses with his Artist Certificate and Supervisor Friend

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The shyest little artist you’ve ever met was brave enough to receive her Artist Certificate from Supervisor Friend

Hundreds of family members packed the chambers of the County Board of Supervisors to watch their children receive kind words and certificates from Zach Friend, the 2nd District Supervisor.

These same children posed with their artwork that is currently lining the walls of the County Government Building. If you need to pay a parking ticket, go to jury duty, or just want to take a nice walk through what is usually a dull concrete building, go now. See all of this incredible artwork, most of which I could never match with my own pathetically meager artistic skills.

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A young artist poses with her duck

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Another young artist poses with his peregrine falcon

The joy in the building Thursday night was infectious, palpable, delicious. The proud young artists and equally proud parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters brought me to tears a dozen times.

This is why we show up to work every day. Not to write grants, not to advocate for arts issues, not to create spreadsheets and to-do lists and programs and systems. We show up because we know that every person in this county needs and deserves to feel the joy that was on every face at the opening reception Thursday night. And the arts are the best way I know to nurture that joy.

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Sparkle-dress artist gets her certificate

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One of over 500 pieces of art in the exhibition

So if you are in Santa Cruz, go to the County Building to see the show. I’m confident that the energy and excitement of the exhibition opening left an indelible mark on the walls and in the air surrounding the 1st and 5th floors. Go get your own shot of awesome.

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Youngest future artist in attendance