Art Works Blog

Postcard from the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival

Here I am during the Theater That Matters session at this year's Aspen Ideas Fest. Photo by Dan Bayer

I closed out June and kicked off July at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is just what it sounds like: a convening of leading thinkers in particular subjects. It’s an exchange of ideas---to hear what others are thinking, to have provocative questions, to hear input, and have a stimulating discussion back and forth as we engage the major ideas of our time in the particular subjects that we deal with everyday. I was there two years ago, and the arts have really ramped up in that time, under Damian Woetzel---the director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program and member of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities---in terms of their importance in the program and the quality of the discussion. It was very stimulating for me to attend.

I had the full festival experience because at any given time I was a moderator, a participant, or an observer of so many panels. The first was a Saturday morning breakfast session called Making Cities Sing moderated by my good friend Richard Florida, who is the creative economy guru, as we all know. It was really wonderful to have Richard introduce and moderate this particular panel as his work in this field has sparked this thinking, and a lot of these initiatives. I shared the stage with Dennis Scholl, the vice president of arts at the Knight Foundation, and Darren Walker, vice president of the Ford Foundation. Darren and Dennis have been key players in both the formation and build-out of ArtPlace, which is a collaboration among 10 major foundations and six banks to invest in creative placemaking projects across the country. We actually talked a lot about ArtPlace: what it’s doing in cities across the country and how the project represents the intersection of art and the real world---people’s real lives, neighborhoods, communities. It’s a private sector parallel to what the NEA’s Our Town program does---using art to revitalize places. We had a great discussion with lots of back and forth.

Creative placemaking is a very important subject. This is an important field that is gaining traction and scale all across the country. We referred at one part during the panel to the recent announcement from the Kresge Foundation that from now on all their grant-making in the arts is going to relate to creative placemaking. That’s a big step. As we start to see more of this happen at foundations and more focus by the NEA in this area, we’re starting to see the genesis of a national movement.

On Sunday I felt like I went back in time to my career as a theater producer. I hosted a panel of very important theater directors: Oskar Eustis, who runs the Public Theater, Julie Taymor, a great director, Greg Mosher, a very significant director and the former artistic director of Lincoln Center, and Anna Deavere Smith, a well-known and wonderful theater artist. The subject of the session was “Theater that Matters.”

I tried to set the tone by saying that theater that matters has to have some element of the counter-culture in it. That theater that just entertains or just confirms values that we already have, or tells us things that we already know, is not ultimately that interesting or compelling. There has to be theater that challenges us, that unsettles us, and this theater, by and large, demands subsidy. My point is that the reason you have the NEA, the reason you have foundation patronage and private patronage of the theater, is so that you can do work that is not necessarily totally confirmatory, that isn’t totally telling us what we want to hear, but telling us something maybe that we don’t want to hear, or something we haven’t heard before. That kind of bold work generally requires subsidy. The NEA and other funders exist, in my view, so that the marketplace is not the sole determinant of what we see on the stage. And if the marketplace is not the sole determinant, and I believe it shouldn’t be, you need subsidy.

Each of the artists gauged that subject in terms of what it meant to them, and how they went about their work. Julie Taymor, in particular, talked about the importance of Broadway, that Broadway is the way that most people access theater across the country and across the world. She didn’t think it should be written off, but instead that there should be a way to make Broadway accessible to everyone but also challenging and important artistically. She didn’t feel that there was a complete disconnect between what you should be able to do on Broadway and in the subsidized theater.

This was not a group who was shy about issuing challenges to one another and the world at large. Other issues were raised during the discussion: why aren’t artists who work in the theater paid a living wage, how would you set up a situation in which they are, how can you scale up support for theaters that do this kind of work, etc. The session was lively. They challenged each other. They challenged the audience. The audience challenged them.

On Monday, I introduced the Arts in Education session, which was in a tent at the Greenwald Pavillion. The moderator was NBC News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who, it turns out, has a deep interest in arts and arts education. She’s very passionate about the subject, very much committed to it, and very knowledgeable about it. The panel consisted of Howard Gardner, and Jonah Lehrer, who are both very important thinkers and researchers in this field, and Damian Woetzel. In my introduction I referred to Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth [PDF], the James Catterall report that we had commissioned at the NEA, which shows lower SES (socioeconomic status) kids outperforming the general population of kids when they’re exposed to the arts.

The discussion really was about the importance of arts education in creating a well-rounded individual, how exposure to the arts can help performance in other areas and how it promotes engagement in school and staying in school. I talked about some of the very moving arts charter schools that I’ve visited while at the NEA---the Lusher School in New Orleans, the Drew School in Atlanta. I talked about the exciting arts education programs I have encountered across the country, like A+ Schools, which is in Arkansas, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and now Louisiana. It was a very good back and forth discussion among people who knew what they’re talking about. Both Howard and Jonah are very hard-headed about data and research, and it was great to hear from them. They really had interesting perspectives and very much engaged the audience. That particular session, as I later wrote to Andrea, could have gone on for another three or four hours. There were literally dozens of hands in the air at the end of the session. It was great!

I also attended, as an observer, the community and the arts session, which was subtitled “All Art is Local.” Damian Woetzel was again the moderator. The panelists there were Theaster Gates who has done all this great work with art and community in Chicago, and Laura Zabel from the Twin Cities in Minnesota, who is doing tremendous work relating art to neighborhoods and communities. She is one of the true leaders in the country in this field, a real guru. In Washington, DC, we’re talking the talk, but Laura and Theaster are walking the walk. In Theaster’s case, that means Omaha and St. Louis and Chicago; in Laura’s case, it’s in Minneapolis and St. Paul. They both talked about what they’re doing, how the specifics play out, and what a transformative effect the arts can have on communities. It was a really stimulating session! It was really a great three days, and I was pretty actively engaged in all of the discussions I attended. I wouldn’t have missed it!

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