We Are No Longer Strangers

In 2008 The Field received a grant from New York City Cultural Innovation Fund of The Rockefeller Foundation to start the Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists (or ERPA) program to tackle the economic challenges facing artists in NYC. They used the funds to start a series of inventive public dialogues (aka Invention Sessions) and an ambitious entrepreneurial lab. The entrepreneurial lab provided planning grants to seven artists to come up with financial viability model for their specific projects. Of those seven projects, four were chosen to receive “Implementation Awards” – grants of up to $20,000 to continue developing the projects that they had created during the planning process.

Now The Field has published a book (available for download here) entitled We Are No Longer Strangers which is a compilation of ERPA artists’ innovative experiments in income generation. Monday night took us to the OpenPlans penthouse in Soho for the book launch party. The evening featured a keynote address by national cultural activist Arlene Goldbard and a panel discussion with four ERPA awardees led by New York City choreographer (and Culturebot contributor) Maura Nguyen Donohue.

Goldbard is an interesting speaker. While the focus of ERPA was specifically on economic revitalization, Goldbard chose a slightly different tack for her keynote, choosing instead to address the intrinsic value of the arts. Her premise – and this is something I agree with – is that the arts can be seen as a laboratory for empathy and as such play a vital role in creating a civil society. She suggests that while it is necessary and important to make the economic argument about the impact of the arts, it is equally important to make this other argument about the utility of the arts in society. It was a fascinating and wide-ranging speech, quoting everyone from Albert Einstein to Ken Wilbur, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Goldbard’s optimism is warranted. She contends that we are moving towards a tipping point where the argument for the arts will change, and her faith in the inevitability of this change is tantalizing. Yet the prevailing trends in our culture at large seem to indicate that her kind of liberal, progressive, spiritual vision of the role of the arts is under constant attack. I am susceptible to utopian visions and I fundamentally agree with Goldbard’s arguments about the role of the arts in society. But, being a New Yorker, (Goldbard is from San Francisco) I am more prone to cynicism. Another issue that wasn’t addressed is that not all art aspires to the lofty goals of empathy and enlightenment. But that’s an essay unto itself. I’m told that the video of Ms. Goldbard’s speech will be available this week, if I can find it I’ll post it here.

After the keynote there was a panel discussion with four of the ERPA artists: Connie Hall from Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, JoAnna Mendl Shaw from The Equus Projects, Jon Stancato from Stolen Chair Theater and Caroline Woolard from Ourgoods.org. Each of the artists discussed their ERPA project and the impact that ERPA had on their lives as artists. I could go into it here but you should really download the book and read for yourself.

THe ERPA program was started from the premise that current financial and philanthropic models are broken and that in order for New York artists to live more sustainable lives they need to find new ways to make more money. Quantitatively the results were a mixed bag with some projects making money and others losing. Qualitatively it was a great experiment to try and devise new financial models. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is the idea reflected in the title of the book, We Are No Longer Strangers. All of the ERPA projects ultimately were about building communities, smaller communities, that were deeply invested in the art and deeply invested in making it sustainable.

If the arts are to continue to be viable and vital we need to focus on community building at all levels. One could look at the national arts landscape as a network of linked ecologies – there isn’t necessarily a comprehensive national solution. Each artist needs to build their community, engage and animate the people around them and then build networks with other artists who are similarly inclined. It will be slow and incremental and it also means trying to deconstruct some of the administrative and critical hierarchies that currently determine funding. At the same time we need to build our national networks among viable artistic communities, to continue knowledge sharing and work towards resource-sharing as well. It we can build a vast web of interconnected viable communities we will make major strides towards increasing the health of the arts nationally.

But that’s just my $.02. Download the book and draw your own conclusions.

Kudos to everyone at the Field and all the ERPA artists (and the Rockefeller Foundation!) for embarking on this important experiment.

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