Art Works Blog

Postcard from the Fifth World Arts Summit, Day Three

Melbourne, Australia

Photo and text by Jamie Bennett

A slide featuring a TV-watching dingo from Mike van Graan's presentation, "Outside the Comfort Zone."

Day three: “Phar Lap is Australian for ‘Seabiscuit’”

With day three of the World Summit, the day’s theme moved from “place” to “people,” beginning with keynotes by Tim Greacen (director, Maison Blanche Research Laboratory, France), and Jo Dorras and Danny Marcel (Wan Smolbag Theatre, Vanuatu) addressing the relationship between the arts and healthcare. The NEA has been working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so I felt especially prepared for the discussion.

Wan Smolbag is a theater company that works all over the South Pacific, and, as a result, needs to be able to travel lightly. So everything they need to perform can be packed into “one small bag,” hence the name. They are entirely funded through foreign aid, and they produce theater that addresses issues that are often taboo for discussion on the islands where they are working: domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, electoral rights.

Greacen spoke largely about the power of the arts, not just to communicate messages to a population, but also to allow populations to develop messages for themselves. He ran through examples of powerful, user-generated public awareness campaigns about drug use, domestic violence, breast cancer, and HIV/AIDS. (ABC News shares one of the examples Greacen used, “Le Poisson Rouge.”)

The next panel took up the issues for people living in communities where the arts intersect with real danger. Lucina Jimenez works in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She polled the audience to ask for words to describe Juarez: “violence,” “guns,” “drugs,” “death,” and “El Paso” all rolled too quickly off the lips of audience members. Jimenez summed it up with Juarez’s unofficial motto: “So far from God; so close to the United States.” The citizens of Juarez have no positive images of themselves or their home town. Jimenez is working, primarily with school children, to use the arts to create an alternate identity for the citizens and for the city. She wants, simply, for Juarez to be known as a place of music. She asked for help from all assembled to bring instruments to the children of Juarez, and---spoiler alert!---on the last day of the conference, one of the organizers presented Jimenez with a Hawaiian-made ukulele to take home.

Mike van Graan (secretary general of the Arterial Network spoke next about the frighteningly many places around the globe where artists are killed for practicing their art. He asked the audience: “If the role of the artist is to question and provoke society and those in power, whose job is it, then, to protect the artists?’ He answered his own question by saying that anyone who cares about the free and unfettered practice of art is responsible for making artists visible, so that they cannot be disappeared with impunity. (Here is the text of van Graan's talk.) The two presentations together were sobering.

In the afternoon, I chose to attend the research roundtable “Finally, the numbers.” It began with a presentation from Professor David Throsby that, ironically, contained no numbers. To be honest, I thought the presentation was a misfit for the audience. There must have been 40 people in the room, all brought together by a shared interest in and commitment to arts research. Professor Throsby walked through a very good, but somewhat 101-ish presentation on economic value, contribution, impact, cost-benefit analyses, and public good (the value that accrues to the many for which the individual cannot be assessed). I had not previously been aware of the UNESCO framework for cultural statistics, so I did appreciate his overview of that.

Audrey Yue from the University of Melbourne was the other half of the panel, and I was deeply engaged by her presentation. She has begun a five-year study of Whittlesea, a city maybe 45 minutes north of Melbourne. Her goal is to marry ethnographic methods with statistical research to produce “thick descriptions” of cultural events and their impact. She gave the example of a screening of Hong Kong martial arts movies that had taken place at a local library. She was able to take the standard statistical measures of the event (how many people attended, for instance, and their ethnic/racial descriptions---in this case, Chinese immigrants), but she also added an ethnography on top of that to include who was in the audience---in this case, almost exclusively families who were using the film festival to teach their sons a moral lesson about violence and how martial arts are intended to be used (to teach discipline and only in the case of self-defense).

What struck me was that this was one of the few arts research projects I have seen that actually takes into account the specific art that is being presented. Often, in order for the statistical measures to work, we need to ignore what performance is being presented and pretend that socialization happens to an identical extent at all live performing arts events. Something about Professor Yue’s approach felt more authentic than a lot of arts research I have seen.

In the Q&A that followed, “subjective well being” came up, along with everybody’s favorite thing to cite in arts research convenings: Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness assessment. People often talk about subjective well being as an alternate to studies of economic impact of the arts. These people feel we should measure how happy art makes us feel as a way to get at art’s intrinsic value and how art contributes to a society’s progress. A member of the audience wryly noted, however, that happiness has never been linked to progress…and that a lot of art is not about making people feel happy.

The day ended with a dinner at the Melbourne Museum, where a staff member took me to see Phar Lap, the most famous horse in Australia. Phar Lap was taxidermied after his sudden---and perhaps suspicious---death in 1932. More people come to the museum to see Phar Lap than anything else. I guessed it was because he was taxidermied by the “Jonas Brothers” and people who Google boy bands do not always have a great capacity for details.

We'll be back on Tuesday with Jamie's final wrap-up from the conference. Catch up on Day one here and Day two here.


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