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Shaw(ta) Smith-Cruz taking a poll during “Place, Race, Geographies, and Power” at Hand-in-Glove (all photos by Sean Smuda)

MINNEAPOLIS — On my flight back to New York from Minneapolis, I sat in silence processing all the heavy ideas and questions asked over the weekend at Hand-in-Glove, a national gathering for arts organizers “working at the crossroads of creative arts administration and studio practice,” as stated in the program. As an artist-organizer (and producer of arts conferences), I expected to talk about practical ways to sustain experimental programming. Instead, over the course of four days, almost every panel and informal gathering that I participated in acknowledged, and to some extent addressed, privilege, equity, and power.

Presented by Common Field, Hand-in-Glove was organized by Works Progress Studio, an artist-led collaborative, in partnership with The Soap Factory, an experimental exhibition space. The organizers’ efforts to drive participation did not feel superficial, but rather fostered collaboration, transparency, and trust. For example, speakers had the freedom to manage the content of their panels and reformat the structure, as well as lead conversations around difficult topics.

The conference took place on September 17–20 and kicked off with an opening debate, “Paradigms and Priorities: What does the field need?” rather than with a keynote presentation. Before the debate, a representative from the Healing Place Collaborative welcomed us to the Dakota land of Minnesota, providing us with the historical, indigenous context of the place we were occupying. Afterward, panel host DeAnna Cummings stated she hoped “to get to the universal through the particular,” which seemed to guide the general sensibility of the event.

Registration booth at Hand-in-Glove (click to enlarge)

Hosted by Chaun Webster, “Place, Race, Geography, and Power” was the most thought-provoking and compelling panel. Moving beyond the standard, whitewashed discussion about the role of artists in gentrification, Webster framed the panel through a productive confrontation of privilege within our field. Panelists were tasked to address “defying colonial scripts” in their own work and, in so doing, they focused the conversation on the role of artists within the revitalization of neighborhoods (typically) of color. Panelist Shanw(ta) Smith-Cruz proposed the owning of property as a strategy through which people of color, specifically of African descent, could shield themselves from being displaced. Another panelist, Dylan Miner then asked, “What if we come from the position that ownership is violence?” He continued to explain:

The function of artists as gentrifiers actually operates as the same logic as settler colonialism […] Settler colonialism is based on the appropriation of someone else’s land and simultaneously, […] also the appropriation of the stories … removing them of any meaning, and then reclaiming those people’s stories.

The tension in the room was palpable, and you could feel everyone listening attentively. “What do you say to people who have never owned anything?” Webster asked, and the conversation gained momentum and continued to unravel. While there was no culminating conclusion, the panel expanded on issues of equity, displacement, and ownership beyond binary arguments. The discussion reinforced the idea that arts organizers need to consider and examine their own power when entering contentious neighborhoods. I spoke with Taylor Renee Aldridge, co-founder of ARTS.BLACK and Hand-in-Glove panelist, who reflected on the power of this particular panel:

… many individuals in the audience (who were mostly white) seemed to be transfixed on how to deal with their privilege. Ultimately, there was a lot of ‘clap back’ and ‘calling out’ — organizations and individuals were held accountable in a way that I had never seen before.

“Aesthetics, Relevancy, and Social Context” panelists at Hand-in-Glove

Hand-in-Glove attempted to unpack complex issues and questions in the field, and while I left with even more questions, there were instances when the conference felt less abstract. For example, at “Art Works?,” a panel focused on value and labor practice, an attendee asked the speakers if there were any advocacy groups challenging the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Wendy Clark of the NEA approached the microphone to respond, and recapped the work the agency does and which programs it supports, such as artist residencies and small museums. Panelist Lise Soskolne (Working Artists and the Greater Economy [W.A.G.E.]) immediately asked Clark if the NEA would be more likely to fund organizations that were W.A.G. E. certified, guaranteeing income to artists. Sociologist Alison Gerber, panel host, cited Canadian Artists’ Representation (CARFAC) as an example, whose success relies on the largest arts funding body in Canada, which only offers funding to organizations that pay their artists. Clark said she would take the idea back and explore it. The exchange happened in front of 350 attendees, and countless livestream viewers, testifying to the safe space that was created.

Hand-in-Glove challenged the traditional conference trope, culminating in a space for participants to reflect, support one another, and be held accountable. Lead organizers Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker (Works Progress Studio) focused on creating a platform that invited nuanced discussions among people of various backgrounds and ensured the presence of local artists and arts organizations, inviting them to contribute to different parts of the events, such as community lunches. Matteson and Kloecker write in their introduction:

We’ve made it a priority to invite people to this convening who will speak to the urgent and complex dynamics surrounding engaged artistic practice and artist-led culture today. Rather than structure sessions around the nuts-and-bolts, day-to-day challenges we all face — we chose to foreground questions of value.

Community meal by Seitu Jones and Chef James Baker

Community and field building are fundamental values of Hand-in-Glove, which are in part driven by the visual arts organizing network Common Field, which launched public membership for the first time this year. According to Co-Director Stephanie Sherman, the first Hand-in-Glove gathering in 2011 revealed the need to connect practitioners from across the country and sustain that exchange, which Common Field facilitates. The Contemporary Director Deana Haggag, whom I spoke with after the gathering, expanded on the need for this sort of network: “People literally have different challenges unique to their place and practice […] I think it’s what makes the field so necessary — it’s a space that can actually and genuinely accommodate a wide spectrum of ideas and thinking.”

How do we continue to create safe, pluralistic spaces that help us to deconstruct systems of oppression? In terms of being equitable and diverse, there’s still work to do in our field. We may work in different contexts, but there is a shared urgency to respond to the unjust systems of our society and imagine new ones.

Hand-in-Glove 2015 took place at The Soap Factory and throughout sites in Minneapolis / St. Paul from September 17 to 20.

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Lynnette Miranda

Lynnette Miranda is an Brooklyn-based artist, curator and organizer. She is also the founder of Make Space, an artist-run online platform and curatorial initiative that...

5 replies on “Arts Organizers Convene to Confront Their Own Privilege”

  1. I especially like the dimwit who says “ownership is violence.” But what if the owner is black or Puerto Rican and they have owned in the neighborhood for a generation or more. Are they “violent?” Or does ownership only become violent when white people own, and maybe only when they own in certain neighborhoods. Try again.

    1. You should really do some research before you insult people’s intelligence. The person who said “What if we come from the position that ownership is violence?” was Dylan Miner and, as a Native American, he’s referring to the very long-held (well before white, black, and hispanic people owned in any neighborhood) position that no one “owns” the land. So, his very legitimate and decidedly not “dimwitted” perspective is that the very concept of ownership is, to say the least, flawed. Try harder.

  2. Ashley wrote: You should really do some research before you insult people’s intelligence. The person who said “What if we come from the position that ownership is violence?” was Dylan Miner and, as a Native American, he’s referring to the very long-held (well before white, black, and hispanic people owned in any neighborhood) position that no one “owns” the land. So, his very legitimate and decidedly not “dimwitted” perspective is that the very concept of ownership is, to say the least, flawed. Try harder.

    The theft of Native American land is a motif that is often used to describe gentrification, and it is misplaced in an urban context where virtually everyone is or has been a newcomer at some point. To be sure, the position that ownership of land is a “flawed” idea, is a fair point. And it is a position held by European communist, socialist, and anarchist traditions as well as in Native American traditions. When it is raised in the context of gentrification, it is meant to finger the white hipsters, yuppies, and entrepreneurs who are the main catalysts of gentrification. It is not meant, for example, to slight an African American family that has owned a house in Bed Stuy for three generations. The imagery of the “Indian Wars” (excuse my French) is … in other words … a politically correct form of racial coding that attempts to confer legitimacy here, but not there, for this group, but not that group. It is euphemistic palaver for the same old grease-ball ethnic baiting and xenophobia that is nothing new in urban neighborhoods where everyone, and I mean everyone, is an immigrant. If you have a bull session about the roll of the arts in the age of gentrification, you’d best not digress into veiled forms of finger-pointing. If you run an arts organization or a gallery, as I do, and you are invited to a panel discussion like this, as I was not, and you are wrestling with your privilege and power in the art world, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow by just passing the buck to gentrifying hipsters in the trenches. You have appointed yourselves to figure out what to do with your power. So figure it out.

  3. This was a conference certainly worth attending, and I would attend again in a heartbeat. It is a rare sort of “convening” at which, like Miranda explains above, that such a wide range of people attend to discuss overarching themes that relate in some way, shape, or form to just about everyone, in spite of the sometimes enormous differences in the location, basis, or remit of an organization or art organizer/artist. There were more questions than answers, as there should be. Weighty issues took the room by surprise, even made many of us uncomfortable, and for the best–we are forced to turn the questions back around on ourselves.

    It was mentioned several times by various folks that being small, alternative, and independent allows for experimentation and the ability to institute change. I think the change starts at this level — with the individuals, the co-ops and collectives, and little non-profits… Everyone there, whether representing themselves or a larger institution, held as much in common as they were uncommon–any lack of commonality proving that sometimes it’s preferable to unite through differences rather than similarities. The conversations that sprung out of that eclectic mix were worthwhile in every sense. Kudos to those mentioned above, and those not mentioned, for providing a wealth of insight and one very timely platform to expand upon.

    Young Space
    young-space.com

    1. Those are kind and positive words, Kate Mothes. But what advice does the conference have for white hipsters like me who use art to gentrify poor neighborhoods. I am not being cynical. I am in the trenches, and it is very real down here. You are at the privileged and powerful art world conference. So help me out here. Should I buy that garage in Brownsville and start a showroom there? I could use the extra space and I could certainly use the profit if the area takes off. But you tell me. Be of use to the art world you claim to serve here. Tell us what we should or should not do.

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