Essays

How the Art World Can Change for the Better During the Trump Years

In the next four years, artists and art organizations have the power to work for economic justice while dismantling white supremacy in the arts.

Demonstration of Paul Ryan’s Threeing Stick at <em>WOUND Study Center for Group Work</em>, curated by Stamatina Gregory, 41 Cooper Gallery, 2016 (photo by João Enxuto)
Demonstration of Paul Ryan’s Threeing Stick at WOUND Study Center for Group Work, curated by Stamatina Gregory, 41 Cooper Gallery, 2016 (photo by João Enxuto)

Since the election, many artists and arts administrators have asked me what they can do, and what the role of the arts might be over the next four years. After crying in class with my students, protesting in the streets, going to a self-defense performance workshop led by the artist Shaun Leonardo, and listening to an interview with Shirley Sherrod on repeat, I have been reflecting on my belief in the arts as the center of interdisciplinary, collective, transformative work.

To change the art world for the better, artists and art institutions can support collective efforts by providing space, resources, and time for critical reflection. What follows is an attempt to (1) make a case for the arts, (2) provide examples of artists involved in the solidarity economy, (3) suggest concrete ways to support ongoing work for economic justice, and (4) identify and work to dismantle white supremacy in the arts.

The Power of Art

What group can build something that they have not yet imagined, drawn, debated, revised, or desired? To communicate dreams — to create discursive spaces for dreaming and discussion — the arts are essential. Great art allows people to communicate across differences of opinion, experience, and expertise. Many artists are already involved in resistance efforts — creating powerful imagery, symbols, and direct actions — and already support long-term initiatives as well as the building up of new institutions. I believe that artistic practices that incorporate listening, healing, analyzing, envisioning, creating, and celebrating make interdisciplinary models for economic justice possible.

We would not have community safety initiatives, tenants rights organizations, community land trusts, or freedom schools without the imagination and dedication of many artists (often artists who are not art school graduates). Frances Goldin, notorious for her work with the Cooper Square Community Land Trust, is the literary publisher for many authors, including Michelle Kuo and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, known for founding WOW Café Theater, the oldest women and trans theater space in the country, are artists. Linda Goode Bryant, who works on food systems in East New York, is an artist. Ryan Gilliam, the artistic director of Downtown Art, who was instrumental to the founding of Fourth Arts Block, is an artist. Esther Robinson, founder of ArtHome, is an artist. Milk Not Jails, a prison abolitionist dairy cooperative, centers art in all of its organizing work.

Solidarity Art Economies

To change the arts for the better, we can start by realizing that another economy in the arts is not only possible, it already exists. By supporting the long-term work of artists and arts groups that nurture equitable, anti-racist, place-based initiatives, we can strengthen and connect an art economy of solidarity. What might be called an “alternative” economy in the United States is known globally as the solidarity economy. This term emerged in the global South (economia solidária) and is also called the workers’ economy, the social economy, the new economy, the circular economy, the community economy, the regenerative economy, the local economy, the peace economy, and the cooperative economy. Marcos Arruda, of the Brazilian Solidarity Economy Network, defined it thusly at the World Social Forum in 2004:

A solidarity economy does not arise from thinkers or ideas; it is the outcome of the concrete historical struggle of the human being to live and to develop him/herself as an individual and a collective … . Innovative practices at the micro level can only be viable and structurally effective for social change if they interweave with one another to form always-broader collaborative networks and solidarity chains of production-finance-distribution-consumption-education-communication.

The term unites grassroots practices like lending circles, credit unions, worker cooperatives, and community land trusts to form a powerful base of shared values with collective political power.

Jeff Warren and Caroline Woolard, "Solidarity Art Economies" (2016), ink on paper
Jeff Warren and Caroline Woolard, “Solidarity Art Economies” (2016), ink on paper

Solidarity art worlds then refer to the ways in which artists engage in the solidarity economy through the arts, including using sliding scale pricing to sell their work, bartering, banking with credit unions, forming arts-based worker cooperatives, creating collective housing and workplaces, and supporting community land trusts. Economies that embody principles of mutual aid, social justice, democracy in the workplace, and environmental sustainability are not merely “alternatives” defined in opposition to a dominant economic model. The art and activist collective Not an Alternative speaks volumes with its name, demonstrating that practices that are not represented in mainstream culture must be named on their own terms. The solidarity economy is a system that places people before profit, aiming to distribute power and resources more equitably.

Support Ongoing Work

At a time when many people are banding together in new formations to resist the violence that Donald Trump perpetuates, I want to share the work of four collectives that inspire me. If you are part of an arts organization, consider offering workshops to your staff, members, or neighbors on collaboration, listening, imagining, and healing from Urban Bush Women, Ultra-red, the Canaries, or the Design Studio for Social Intervention.

Urban Bush Women is an ensemble of dancers and choreographers who present new work and who also train and educate the artistic community through movement workshops that center on cultural equity. The group’s Summer Leadership Institute, a program that began in 1997 and was formalized as an annual program in 2004, works to connect “dance professionals and community-based artists in a learning experience that leverages the arts as a vehicle for social activism and civic engagement.” Urban Bush Women can be hired for organization-specific trainings ranging from collaboration to entering, building, and exiting community. (Incidentally, scholarship applications for their 2017 Summer Leadership Institute, You, Me, We: Understanding Internalized Racial Oppression and How it Manifests in Our Artistic Community, are due by February 17, 2017.)

The members of the sound collective Ultra-red haved worked together for over two decades, creating a series of protocols for listening that allows longtime organizers to unsettle their assumptions about a specific space that is significant to their organizing work. Robert Sember, a member of Ultra-red, begins with the question, “to whom are you accountable?” and reminds participants that “without a commitment to a particular struggle, the protocols I teach you will be learned in the same way that you might learn about the teeth of a saw blade without ever being allowed to cut wood.” Ultra-red has worked with artists, researchers, and organizers from different social movements including the struggles of migration, anti-racism, participatory community development, and the politics of HIV/AIDS, using sound recording and listening protocols to recognize that silence is never empty.

The Canaries, a collective of women, femme-presenting, and gender non-conforming people with autoimmune conditions, gather to create art and to support one another as they navigate medication, doctors’ offices, and a culture of overwork, particularly in the arts. Taraneh Fazeli, in relation to a publication the Canaries are producing as part of her curatorial project “Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time: Against Capitalism’s Temporal Bullying,” facilitates a somatic and discursive workshop where people who are not members of the collective move through a series of paired exercises that consider the temporal shape of care and examine the different ways we communicate — gesturally, linguistically, affectively. Asked to reflect upon moments when they have “called in sick,” participants consider the possibility that “their self-worth need not be tied to their productivity.” Carolyn Lazard, a founding member of the Canaries, says that, “we try not to do projects that compromise the health of anyone in the collective.” Imagine placing member’s well-being above all else in your organization.

The artist Judith Leemann works with Kenneth Bailey at the Design Studio for Social Intervention to invite people to see the ways in which analogies not only describe, but actually prescribe people’s conceptions of any given space. “Take a neighborhood that has been said to have a youth violence ‘epidemic’,” Leemann says. “The word ‘epidemic’ asks us to look for and remove a disease agent, after which all will be well. What if, instead, we experimented with seeing the neighborhood as a pot of rice that keeps boiling over? Suddenly, we have to think about who isn’t tending to the rice, and why the heat is set so high.” In a process DSSI and Leemann have developed, called analogical mapping, community based organizations are asked to try on new analogies to reframe their analysis. Drawing the issues that matter to them as digestion systems, dance moves, or weather patterns, participants may understand their context differently.

Class and Racial Privilege in the Arts

Illustration from Classified: How to Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use It for Social Change, by Karen Pittelmen and Resource Generation
Illustration from Classified: How to Stop Hiding Your Privilege and Use It for Social Change, by Karen Pittelmen and Resource Generation

As many white people finally wake up to the reality that white supremacy threatens public health on a daily basis, we must educate ourselves, assertively dismantle structures of oppression in our organizations, and follow the lead of black and brown artists and organizers who have been under siege for centuries and who have always been leaders in the solidarity art economy. In New York City, this means following the lead of groups like El Puente, Fourth Arts Block, the Laundromat Project, THE POINT, Urban Bush Women, and groups affiliated with the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts of New York. We cannot allow the loss of artistic voices from groups targeted by Trump.

To work toward economic and social justice, artists and arts organizations can:

  • Make a commitment of time and money to analyzing, confronting, and dismantling oppression within organizations. Read Classified to learn more about people who have class privilege and go to the Breaking White Silence website to find a workshop that you might hold for white people.
  • Pay artists, staff, and interns well so that everyone can afford to be involved the arts. See W.A.G.E. and the Queens Museum’s Visitor Experience Agents program for examples of this.
  • Offer resources and residencies to the under-heard people whose voices lead the solidarity economy: undocumented artists, Muslim artists, LGBTQIAX artists, artists with disabilities, artists of color, and support existing groups that do this, for example Coming Out Muslim and WOW Café Theater.

Today, I am speaking in front of 200 arts administrators, policy-makers, and artists at the National Endowment for the Arts’s 50th Anniversary Convening. This writing summarizes some of what I will say. Please comment on this so that your reactions, suggestions, and criticisms are seen.

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