A conversation about the future of the arts with Talia Gibas and Charles Jensen

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No matter what role art plays in your life – whether you’re an artist, an art lover, a teacher, or an arts administrator – how the arts continue to thrive in increasingly complex civic, institutional, corporate and nonprofit environments poses a litany of pressing questions. More problematic, how to answer those questions seems to be constantly changing. However, those changes are never exclusively to the disadvantage of the arts, as new models for evaluating, planning and activating creative practices continue to positively transform our collective experience of the arts. Merging conversations about aesthetics and capital, or creativity and public responsibility, can be wildly challenging, but how we approach those conversations and value their terms builds meaningful potential for artists and the communities where they work.

To support these necessary conversations, the Atlanta Regional Commission will host two Los Angeles-based leaders in arts advocacy, Talia Gibas and Charles Jensen, as they discuss the role of objective data, funding and public controversy in our contemporary discourse about the arts. Their talk, “Beyond the Numbers: What Recent Research (and Controversy!) Tells Us About the Future of the Arts,” will be held at the Woodruff Arts Center on Thursday March 17th at 9 a.m.

ArtsATL: What are the most challenging questions facing arts organizations and artists, both institutionally and independently?

Talia Gibas
Talia Gibas

Talia Gibas: For institutions, the most challenging issue is how to balance a desire to preserve and promote specific artistic practices and disciplines with the ever-changing tastes and creative practices of emerging generations. Today’s young people are arguably more creative than ever before, but they don’t always see themselves, or their interests and the issues they care about, necessarily reflected in the nonprofit arts ecosystem. The nonprofit model is relatively young, and has done a wonderful job of institutionalizing our sector. However, institutions are sometimes slow to change and adapt, and tend to speak a language that only those close to them can understand.

Artists have always struggled with questions of who “gets” to be called an artist, and who can and should expect to make money from their practice. With the cost of higher education spiraling out of control, and many people starting to openly question and challenge MFA degrees and other forms of formal certification, those questions will become all the more pressing. Student debt is a crisis for young people studying pretty much any discipline, but it’s particularly challenging for those who want to study the arts. Can the artistic community be on the forefront of envisioning alternate systems of access to training and mastery of skills? I think so, but it won’t be easy.

Charles Jensen: For organizations who sense either an aging of their audience or a decline in attendance, I think the questions are pretty existential. How can we communicate our relevance to broader and more diverse audiences? Might be one question. But just as easily, they could ask: How can we deepen relationships with our existing audience? There’s often tension between these two efforts; in some ways they can be at odds with each other. I also think some organizations would benefit from inventorying how inclusive their programming, leadership, staffs and audiences are. As community demographics change and shift in the coming years, this will be key data organizations will use for strategic planning and ongoing growth.

ArtsATL: How can we show both artists, community leaders and the public how to talk about supporting the arts? Can we balance discussing artistic passion and objective data? Is there a place where they comfortably meet?

Gibas: Absolutely, artistic passion and data are not mutually exclusive! Objective data can tell  us a lot about specific, measurable aspects of our sector – how many organizations exist, how many opportunities to produce or experience art they offer, even how people feel about those options. However, we need to remember that such data tells us a little bit about our sector, but barely scratches the surface of what people may consider to be artistic or creative to them. The nonprofit arts sector provides a valuable service to the community, but it does not have a monopoly on artistic practice. Artistic passion will always exist beyond the numbers. The day that we believe that the numbers are giving us a complete picture of what’s happening is the day we’re in trouble. Data is one, very important lens with which to interpret what’s happening.

Charles Jensen
Charles Jensen

Jensen: For me, this is a both/and. The key ingredient to successful advocacy is always understanding the interests of the people to whom you are speaking. While we first and foremost want to communicate from our passion for our work, this isn’t always the best strategy. Understanding the motivations of elected leaders, business leaders, community organizers and even our current and potential audiences will point us to crafting the right message. We have to be able to communicate about our human impact, our economic impact, our community impact, all without missing a beat. But most importantly, we have to understand how what we call “arts and culture” actually fits into the lives of the people around us. We have to speak to them on their own terms, on their own understanding, and to their passions.

ArtsATL: What do cities like Atlanta offer for new ways of imagining nonprofit arts organizations?

Gibas: I live in Los Angeles, which has a robust nonprofit arts sector, a thriving for-profit entertainment and music industry and an emerging community of creatives embracing new organizational models. Unfortunately, those groups don’t always talk to each other, even though there is tremendous overlap between them, with actors, musicians and other artists straddling both worlds. Atlanta similarly has exciting work taking place on the nonprofit and for-profit sides, particularly in music. The extent to which Atlanta can take advantage of its slightly smaller size to start to cultivate authentic conversations between those different subgroups would be extremely beneficial to the field. I’m thrilled that programs like ARC exist to bring people together from the nonprofit and business sectors. I look forward to learning as much as I can about it and bringing some lessons back to LA! 

Jensen: I think every city has the opportunity to use the nonprofit arts sector in a variety of ways. We know the arts connect people and gives them a place to forge more meaningful relationships with each other. In that way, they can act as a lever on things like public safety and youth development. We know the arts can educate people about experiences different than their own, which can lead to more inclusive, equity communities and laws. And we know the arts can collaborate in all areas of city life to make things like health care and education more effective. But more than that, when a city invests in grassroots arts organizations, what the city is really doing is empowering change from the ground up.

ArtsATL: How has your career and current work, either as an administrator, teacher, artist or arts advocate, shaped your vision of the future of the arts?

Gibas: I’ve always considered myself a bit of a generalist, and was fortunate to spend the first six years of my career at the [Los Angeles] Arts Commission working on Arts for All, a regional arts education initiative. Spending a lot of time with K-12 educators really impressed upon me the importance of understanding the broader context in which we work. I don’t just mean the context of a particular community – I also mean the context of political, economic, and social forces, all of which influence how we think about education, and influence how we think about the arts.

When I think about the future of the arts, I can’t help but think about the tremendous changes to everyday life that may lie ahead. What does the future of society look like if the wealth gap continues to widen? What does the future of work look like if computers start becoming more and more adept at everyday tasks? What does the future of creative expression look like when anyone with cellphone can post content online? I feel very strongly that the future will look very different than today, and it’s important for us to now get too attached to current systems or arguments just because they’ve worked for us.

A lot of us got into this line of work because we had specific experiences with the arts when we were children, and are inspired to try to ensure that others have those same experiences today. That’s a laudable reaction, but it depends on a flawed assumption. We shouldn’t be working to make sure future generations have experiences that were good for us; we should work to make sure they have experiences that are good for them. And if those experiences feel foreign to us, we need to lean into our discomfort. If we don’t, our sector will become increasingly irrelevant.

Jensen: Having had a hand in each of these buckets at the same time, more often than not I see the disconnects at work in our field and worry that as a field, we don’t have a shared vision or goal in mind. I see administrative policies that hamper meaningful audience engagement, curriculum that doesn’t empower students to be visionaries, and advocacy messaging that subtly reinforces perceptions of irrelevance. I worry the field, having embraced the idea of legitimacy through institutionalization, has not maintained space for innovation, invention, and surprise. This is a topic I hope Talia and I will address more fully in our talks.

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