Art Works Blog

Inside the NEA: Meet NCA member Maria Rosario Jackson

"[The arts] are a really important mechanism for people to be able to create identity and purpose together." --- Maria Rosario Jackson

Thanks to her parents, Maria Rosario Jackson, Ph.D., one of the newest members of the National Council on the Arts, has long been interested in the arts as an expression of culture and community. Currently Dr. Jackson is the Senior Advisor to the Arts and Culture Program at the Kresge Foundation. Prior to joining Kresge, she directed the Culture, Creativity, and Communities Program at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC where one of her areas of interest was "cultural vitality." We spoke with Dr. Jackson about artists who inspire her, the arts and community revitalization, and, of course, art works.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience with or engagement with the arts?

MARIA ROSARIO JACKSON: The earliest is probably what many kids who grew up in the U.S. cities in my era would remember, which is some arts in school. I went to Catholic school, so we had arts curriculum. I remember that, and I remember having classes in the park---Ballet, tap, jazz, all that. But probably the most impactful memories I think have to do with my parents and the urgency that they felt to expose me to the arts, especially to the heritage arts. So they thought it was really important that I had a sense of the aesthetic legacy I came from. I think that's probably both the earliest and the most impactful.

My father was African American, and he was very keen on me knowing about African-American writers and music traditions to the extent that he knew work having to do with visual arts, with theater. It was his way of making sure that I understood that that was part of the legacy, that that was heritage. My mother, who is from Mexico, was also very concerned with making sure I understood what that legacy was. So there was equal urgency in making sure I understood muralist movements and this kind of thing. It was because they loved the arts, but also because they felt very connected to those expressions because they thought that that propelled them, and that I needed to know that.

NEA: Who are some of your favorite artists or cultural workers that inspire you, past or present?

JACKSON: Obviously the things that I was exposed to from family as a kid. This includes both people who you would think of as professional artists in all genres, as well as what people think of as cultural bearers, people who carry on traditions from one generation to the next where you may not think of that as art, per se, but it's a really important part of our creative and cultural aesthetic expression as a people. I think in general categories, both of those. I'm really inspired by a lot of the work that I'm seeing where artists are taking on the issues of cities. So, Theaster Gates, Rick Lowe in Houston. Marty Pottenger who does work in New England, but all over. So these are artists who are very integrated I think into our landscapes, either through their physical/visual work, or through the work that they do as writers or theater people.

I think there's [also] the work [of] the cultural bearers and people who are practicing the arts because they love it as part of their everyday experience and their expression of their humanity. I think that's really important. I think people who see themselves as professional artists are also really important. Within that, I have a lot of appreciation for people who work in the traditional art sector, [in] specific art-sector kinds of roles. Also, increasingly, for… artists who are integrated into how and where we live. [For example,] I think Liz Lerman is doing amazing stuff in the dance field, and the kinds of collaborations she's having with scientists. I think Urban Bush Women are interesting, the dance troupe, I think that's really interesting and relevant. And then you hear about artists who are just thinking outside of the box. I'm impressed by all of that.

NEA: In your work, you've done a lot of research in defining “cultural vitality” and how it can be measured. Can you give your definition and talk about some of the measurement tools you've developed?

JACKSON: When I was at the Urban Institute, in some writing that I did with colleagues [about] cultural vitality, we defined it as evidence of a community's capacity to create, disseminate, and validate arts and culture as part of an everyday lived experience. So, it's not only about the Sunday trip to the museum. In addition to that, it's about how people experience the arts as part of their existence, as part of how they live and hopefully thrive. That cultural vitality idea is kind of an umbrella that holds a lot under it. It includes arts education. It includes professional artists doing different kinds of work [as well as] amateur arts practice. It includes all of that. It doesn't presume any one modality of participation, but I think honors a spectrum of kinds of engagement.

Measuring that is tough. It's really tough. People have been working at it for years… [T]hat we should know as a country what our [cultural] participation is like is, I think, really important. I'm glad that there's work that continues to push on that. It's a tough thing to measure but we have to figure out how to do it, and do it well. I think it's a really important dimension of how we think about quality of life, how we think about achievement, how we think about capacity. I think it connects to all of that.

NEA: How do you think that the arts can be a unique factor in community revitalization, as opposed to a real estate boom or a company moving in and setting up headquarters? What makes the arts unique?

JACKSON: I think the arts are important---they can have very beneficial economic impacts. In addition to that, I think there are a lot of other ways in which they can be beneficially impactful. I think anytime you are giving someone the opportunity to aspire to excellence, whatever that is for them, I think that's healthy. The arts are an opportunity to not only witness someone else's excellence, but hopefully they inspire one to reach their highest ability in whatever form. I think that the arts have a role to play in that.

I think the arts have a lot to do with… our notion of social capital, and whether people can act together. I think the arts are important in and of themselves and, in addition, they are a really important mechanism for people to be able to create identity and purpose together. They really contribute to this notion of social efficacy, or collective efficacy, and the ability to assert and act. Sometimes it's tricky because I think the arts are both evidence of that capacity as well as key to having that capacity. It's a little bit circular in a way.

When I was studying festivals in neighborhoods, especially festivals that were art-based and less commercial, very authentic culturally based festivals where there was a lot of arts expression in them, I would think about how does this connect to social capital? On one hand, it's evidence that there is social capital, but through that process of being part of that you are also creating more of it. It's chicken and egg in some ways.

NEA: Have you found any common denominators among cities that tend to have a more vibrant cultural life?

JACKSON: I think cities that have a vibrant cultural life have a strong identity, and there is appreciation for how they are different from other places. They embrace that. So there's less a desire to be like all other places. I think there's a healthy desire to want to have certain basic kinds of infrastructure and what have you, so that's healthy.

But in addition to that, there's also a desire to celebrate the distinctiveness and what it is that they have to offer to a bigger landscape. So there's something about getting away from the homogeneity of cities and towns and really underscoring what it is that they have to deliver that's different. I think places that embrace that---it comes across. There's a pride of place. There's a pride of this is what we have been or what we aspire to be or who we are now…. There's the sense of not only the distinctiveness, but also connection. The distinctiveness is not at the exclusion of other kinds of connection. A lot of people think if it's so different then that's a problem. No, they co-exist. You can be different and also connected.

NEA: What do you think is the biggest obstacle, or some of the obstacles, preventing people, or communities from finding that pride of place, from reaching their full cultural potential?

JACKSON: I think that there's a desire for efficiencies, which is understandable. You want to shop in places you're going to get the most bang for your buck. But to think about those kind of economic efficiencies at the exclusion of what is specific and special and unique and great can be a problem. What's the balance? What's the balance between being able to have efficiencies that also lead to homogeneity across places? What's the balance between being able to have access to that kind of option and the unique and the specific---the thing that makes a place a place, and makes it something you remember or yearn for when you leave it?

We were talking about this a little bit earlier. When you come back to where you came from, sometimes you see it with a different set of eyes because you've been away from it. A lot of times when I would do focus group discussions early on in my career, part of what I was trying to find out was what is it that people valued in their communities as it pertained to arts and culture? One of the most effective questions was “what do you miss the most when you leave?” It's then that people would talk about things that were specific and often sensory. That connected not only to intellect but also to emotion. People would talk about the way people spoke, or a particular type of music or food, or even the architecture that was specific to a place. Sometimes it was the natural environment as well. It's almost as if you needed that distance to be able to see what really mattered.

NEA: That's a great answer, but also a great question to ask in a focus group.

JACKSON: That's the one that got people going. Because if you ask---we did this naively when we were trying out the focus group discussion questions---if you ask what kinds of arts and culture is in your neighborhood, a lot of times you are not going to get very interesting responses. But if you change the question and you liberate people from what their sometimes narrow and preconceived notions of art are… then they starting saying other things. And they can argue about it---whether its art or not. When we were doing this work, lots of things would come up that didn't come up when we asked the question in the blunt way at the beginning. And I would ask, "Well, is it art?" and they would argue. And that was great because they cared. They cared enough about these things to debate about their value and what kind of value they wanted to ascribe to it.

NEA: What do you hope to accomplish during your time on the National Council on the Arts?

JACKSON: I hope to be helpful. That's the main thing---figuring out how to be helpful. I think that the direction that the NEA has gone in the last four years is a really healthy direction… My view is informed as someone who's coming out of the urban planning field so I think about intersections and I think about qualities of place and why they matter. That there has been effort to get other federal agencies to recognize how they might be stakeholders in the arts as well, I think, is a really important thing. Because I think too often we don't think about the arts in the broad sense, as essential to what makes a good place to live. And it’s such an important part of what makes a good place to live. So being able to have the relationships and policy and practice mechanism in place that bring those kinds of intersections to life or strengthen those kinds of, that kind of work, I think is really important. So I hope I can contribute to that momentum that is already underway. But I think that that's super important because it's too easy to think about it as separate from and, therefore, dispensable. But when you really look at it earnestly and see how integrated it is and can be, you can't take that stand anymore. You can't think it is dispensable.

NEA: I am sure you have heard the phrase "Art Works" around here. We always say it has three meanings: art work on a wall, art works on you as a person, and it works as an economic engine. What does "Art Works" mean to you?

JACKSON: Those things and I think, in addition to "Art Works" as an economic engine, I think art works as an engine for other kinds of desirable socio-economic outcomes. So it’s not just the economics, it is also about the things we talked about earlier. This idea that a place is a community, and certainly economics is important and has something to do with that, but it has to do with stewardship of place and it has to do with being able to see yourself reflected in a place and knowing that you belong there. So I think it is an engine for those types of things too.

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