Putting arts and culture at the frontline of communities

APAP NYC 2014 Showcase- BodyTraffic © Gabi Porter APAP

APAP NYC 2014 Showcase- BodyTraffic © Gabi Porter APAP

2016 looks set to be the year of inclusivity. APAP CEO Mario Garcia Durham and vice president Scott Stoner outline what’s on their agenda

‘Arts organisations don’t have all of the answers to humanitarian problems, but we are part of that global community,’ says Durham. ‘We need to think about the issues facing society today, and engage with and determine what we can do in our own ways to address them. The arts are beyond logic.’ he adds. ‘The best artwork touches us deeply, either with pleasure or pain – but what is important is the impact we can make on the back of the strength of our work – I’m fierce in my belief about this.’

‘[Arts] and culture should – and can – be at the frontline of communities in crisis, particularly as conflicts and natural disasters continue to escalate locally and globally,’ says Scott Stoner on the phone from Washington DC. ‘We want to ask: what is a presenter’s role in society and how does art inherently address these issues?’

He’s referring to the terrorist attacks that have rattled the world: from Australia, to Turkey, and from Africa to France – public opinions on the ‘self and other’ (a concept originated by philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the early 19th century) have shifted: fearmongering has become a global issue with detractors from the rhetoric of alienation being labelled as ‘terrorist sympathisers’, especially here in UK political debate.

Of course, arts organisations have the unique position of empowering individuals to have a voice in societal discourse via the telling of human stories. Unlike a news agenda – seemingly geared towards sensationalism – artists, producers and presenters can evoke empathy and understanding through music and the arts.

It’s a hefty responsibility. ‘Arts organisations don’t have all of the answers to humanitarian problems, but we are part of that global community,’ says Durham. ‘We need to think about the issues facing society today, and engage with and determine what we can do in our own ways to address them. The arts are beyond logic.’ he adds. ‘The best artwork touches us deeply, either with pleasure or pain – but what is important is the impact we can make on the back of the strength of our work – I’m fierce in my belief about this.’

One such initiative spearheaded by APAP is the launch of grants for the Building Bridges: Arts, Culture and Identity programme.

For this scheme eight individual organisations or consortia applicants will receive funding for two-years, ranging from USD100,000 (€92,000) to USD200,000 each.

The scheme follows on from APAPs Building Bridges: Campus Community Engagement grants in 2013, and is an extension of the Creative Campus Innovations grants established in 2006.

The endeavour couldn’t be more prescient: as a whole, Building Bridges supports US-based performing arts companies in cross-campus and community collaborations to improve the public’s understanding of Muslim-majority societies.

Grantees have to maximise their resources and engage specifically targeted populations, with a primary focus on young people born after 1980 (the Millennials). The six beneficiaries of the Building Bridges: Campus Community Engagement Awards in 2013 (whose projects began in 2014 and will end in February 2016) were as follows:

Art2Action, University of South Florida: Here the programme introduced students, partners and audiences to the great diversity of Muslim and Arab identities, cultures and aesthetics, by presenting a series of (mostly) women performers and artists in multiple disciplines, over a two-year period.

Davis Performing Arts Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC: DPAC launched a joint initiative between the Theater and Performance Studies Program and the School of Foreign Service, and presented Myriad Voices: A Cross-Cultural Performance Festival, featuring world artists, public forums, interdisciplinary courses, and new commissions.

The Cedar Cultural Center, Augsburg College, Minneapolis: CCC created Midnimo: Music for Unity, Campus and Community, a project that brought Somali musicians to Minnesota for week-long residencies that have included public concert performances and activities in the classroom and the community.

The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, University of Houston, Texas: Here the team devised Intersections, an initiative to develop new works by four artists in residence over a two-year period including a series of performances, public talks and curricular connections through the Mitchell Center’s Interdisciplinary Art (IART) curriculum.

LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, LaGuardia Community College, Long Island City, New York: The project theme, Beyond Sacred: Unthinking Muslim Identity, included programming in music, dance, and theatre combined with open community forums, highlighted by Ping Chong’s Beyond Sacred commission – the life experiences of culturally identified Muslims in 21st century, post 9/11 New York City.

The Wesleyan Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University, Middletown: During the 2014-2015 academic year the university focussed in particular on the complexity of Muslim women’s voices and understanding of Muslim cultures through performance.

 

Durham adds that though The Building Bridges project is small in scale, it’s an important opening for discussion. What is learned can be used as a model for large-scale presenters to engage effectively with artists and their work representing cultural differences, and even smaller presenters across the country who might be nervous about certain aspects of a piece of work or have questions.

I wonder if, when it comes to programming, there’s a domestic or foreign policy angle to consider: productions need to make money, and when faced with an inward looking society, surely will that affect the type of work getting out into the public domain? Conversely, if the political overpowers the domestic, there is the risk of losing out on home-spun stories that eventually become part of a nation’s identity?

Says Durham: ‘We are hearing conversations daily in America around the issue of closing down the borders and making immigration restrictive – thus allowing fewer artists into the US because they may come from ‘questionable’ areas. Hopefully this issue will be a wake-up call to our members to realise that all of our freedoms are very tenuous, not just those from outside the US.

‘The Paris attacks awoke a very strong vocal group here in the US that is terrified of ‘the other’. In this light, we really need to look at our role in the conversation and the voices that are being heard and not let a few dominate the debate.’

Stoner agrees: ‘An important thing that we have learned from the Building Bridges initiative is that America is more diverse than ever and Americans must understand and embrace a broader sense of identity that reflects the significant change of demographics in the majority of our communities. We have been living among a growing number of immigrant populations in recent decades that indeed includes those from Muslim-majority regions.

This is why we renamed the next round of Building Bridges grants to explore Arts, Culture and Identity.’

Interestingly Durham goes on to add that even a drive for inclusivity can in itself be restrictive for some. ‘Of course, within this is the consideration that everyone has to operate within their means.’

For many in our field it’s hard enough to simply eke out an existence and that’s on the artists’ side and on the presenters’ side. it’s hard enough to wake up in the morning and realise you don’t have enough money in your paycheck to pay your rent

He’s talking about the fact that arts organisations – across performance, music and literature – are readily vilified for not addressing diversity, not tackling difficult subjects, and not having political and social objectives. The list is long.

He adds: ‘For many in our field it’s hard enough to simply eke out an existence and that’s on the artists’ side and on the presenters’ side. it’s hard enough to wake up in the morning and realise you don’t have enough money in your paycheck to pay your rent, and you are worried about where the next dollar is coming from to fund the next production. To then be asked to start thinking about international issues, or to make a comment on how religious groups are being treated and to be told ‘we need you to work on that as well’ can seem overwhelming.

As leader of the largest performing arts membership organisation in North America, it is his responsibility to support, equip and inform. Even so, he can’t overstep the mark. ‘I need to be careful to recognise the strengths and capabilities of our members and be acutely aware of the pressures put upon them because it can be such a struggle. And so what we try to do at APAP is open up conversations, but also recognise that some people can do a tiny bit, while others can do a lot, and not hold everybody to account by saying ‘you are not doing enough,’ adds the CEO.

‘Incidents, like the attacks in Paris, allow an opening for those that want to close themselves down to others. As arts professionals, we need to make sure that we are active as on the other side of this are those that want to represent a cultural or religious experience, such as Islam, in their own way.

‘We really need think about opening up other channels of dialogue for communities so they can say “they [terrorist groups]don’t represent us”: and make sure there is a full and balanced understanding of a complex issue, rather than the reactive thinking that many of us know is going on right now here in the States, and I’m sure is the case in Europe as well.’

Concludes Durham: ‘The focus can often be on the biggest and the best: if you’re not achieving something then it isn’t worthwhile – I don’t believe that because in small communities even the tiniest movement often can make a huge difference.’

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