The Citizen-Artist: A Revolution of the Heart Within the Arts
By Eric Booth
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, famously said that “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?” A revolution of the heart is a paradigm shift in which our collective deck, our consensus model of the world, gets reshuffled, changing the story for everyone. In a revolution of the heart, those who have put themselves to sleep awaken, and healing begins to emerge where there has been harm. Such a revolution infuses the spirit of the times, so that even those unaware of precisely what is happening are able to sense that something new and important is unfolding. – Arlene Goldbard
I write this essay in response to what I sense as a trend. The metaphor of “citizenship” in the arts is appearing more often—in print, in keynote speeches, in conferences, in grant applications, in advocacy materials. The metaphor responds to a healthy aspiration, a reaching out from the habitually siloed sectors of the arts and arts education fields toward wider engagement. If we extend the governmental metaphor of citizenship, we might say the entrenched frame of mind in the arts has been nationalistic or isolationist. The metaphor of the citizen-artist resonates with arguments about the arts and democracy; it is in tune with a growing sense of interdependence across borders. It captures the expansion of focus that artist training is slowly growing toward. It is attuned to the long history of the arts, as defined by that which goes back beyond our arts industries of the 20th Century, back beyond pre-industrial arts disciplines, back to prehistoric times.
The term and others like it are being used in many ways, most of them referring to activities that are detached from the higher aspirations for the word and far below the true potential of the word. I hold the term citizenship in higher regard than its usual casual usage; this essay offers my vision of what the term “citizen artist” can mean for the arts. I hope to set our aspirations higher.
Arts professionals can be self-serving and overstating in language. I hear a string quartet doing a one-time run-out performance to a senior center describe it as a “community program.” While not untrue, the term “program” invites so much more investment than a visit. Similarly, including a Martin Luther King Day concert in a season’s offerings does not bespeak a sincere effort to diversify an orchestra’s identity and commitment. The diminishment of an ambitious reach for a convenient grasp may be comfortable, but it eliminates the growth and expansion of a wholehearted reach toward real change. This is a serious issue in a field whose audience is evolving much faster than its institutions are.
It is similar with the word “citizenship.” When arts organizations and training programs speak about their “citizen artist” accomplishments, they cite remarkable individuals who have done remarkable things. Most conservatories can brag about an alumnus who has done something extraordinary with classical music in a “land” foreign to the Art Club . Conservatories have every right to be proud of those individuals, although few of those conservatories admit how little they actually did to nurture the yearning of that student when they were studying at the school. Those individuals are explorers, adventurers, and their accomplishments do not mean the school is training citizen artists. Those few are like Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh—and there is no new “nation” for citizenship until significant numbers of people go to inhabit the land they have “discovered.” It is one thing for The Cleveland Orchestra to brag about their violinist Isabel Trautwein’s starting an El Sistema program in a struggling community in Cleveland; it would take a far bigger commitment of players and institution for them to claim (which they don’t) that they are an orchestra of citizen musicians. It is one thing for Juilliard to be proud of William Harvey’s courage in founding Cultures in Harmony and his teaching and conducting at Kabul’s Afghanistan National Institute of Music, but many more members of the Juilliard community must invest in the thinking, time commitment, listening, and working with populations far from the Art Club, before they could claim to develop citizen artists.
Let me note that a number of remarkable young citizen-artists have come out of Juilliard and the other major conservatories. As of now, the structure of top conservatories doesn’t attend much to the development of citizen-artistry, but it does allow for, and in some ways encourage the motivated individual. I should note that citizen artists who do bloom from traditional conservatory training tend to credit a particular individual teacher or two with strong positive influence, as indeed William Harvey credits Joseph Polisi, the President of Juilliard. However, it is still true that such outstanding cases result not from the priorities of the conservatories but in spite of the prioritories of the conservatories.
Reading various definitions and understandings of citizenship, I find two common features: 1) allegiance to a social/governmental entity, and 2) an expectation of protection. The allegiance entity need not be a jurisdiction like a country, we readily use terms “a citizen of the Bible belt.”
Looking at the term artist citizen or citizen artist: To whom do most artists swear their allegiance? And for artists-in-training, to whom do arts training institutions teach them to dedicate their allegiance? Although there are many wonderful exceptions, people in “the arts” swear their allegiance to the arts, or without naming it this—to “the Art Club.” They believe or are taught that people in the arts are your people; the arts is your home, where people speak your language, share your values, beliefs, interests, pleasures, and ways of being. Members understand and recognize one another as members, although different chapters have different customs and rites of entry. This is the Art Club citizenry.
Poignantly, the “nation” of the arts can offer little protection for most of its citizens. It offers an emotional haven for those who suffer its difficulties and celebrate its successes; and its citizens can sometimes find common cause, particularly when they unite to defend against a common enemy. But they do little to protect individuals from pressures about such basic things as livable wages and health care; they can do little to help artists find a new audience.
The common usage of the term “citizen artist” describes artists or artists in training who bring artistic offerings into economically stressed areas, or to groups who don’t attend arts offerings for one reason or another. The impulse behind this view of citizen-artistry proposes that experiences of art (as defined by the Art Club) are good for people, and artists who provide such experiences are better American citizens for doing so. It is probably true—the impulse to share ones art beyond the Art Club venues and comfort zones is an outreach that expands the voice and power the arts can have for people, and it is healthy to travel outside your own land.
I contend that most “outreach” is far from citizenship. Most of what I see is the activity on a tourist visa from the Art Club to visit another land, sometimes even seen as a “foreign” land. Some of what I see happens on a work visa or green card; these programs and projects involve more complex agreements, and greater investments of time and resources on from both “lands.” And yes, there is true artist-citizenship work to celebrate. But let’s not lump all three together in the same metaphor. Let’s recognize and appreciate the outreach work that is less committed but nonetheless valuable, but let’s not overpraise it, nor allow it as a standard for citizenship. Let’s not call visiting or partnership involvement by the name of citizenship, unless it is. Let’s recognize and respect what a true artist citizen can be, so we can aspire to the transformative possibility this metaphor represents. Let’s visualize the relationship between the Art Club and the other 93% of Americans who aren’t in the Art Club on a continuum of commitment—“noblesse oblige” on one extreme, “citizen-artist” on the other. The brass quintet that does a performance at Houston homeless shelter on one end; and the artist for social development in Tanzania who moves into a village for a year to help it discover its future.
Many kinds of engagements between artists and communities are worth our effort, and citizen artists represent an aspirational beacon on the high-commitment end of the engagement continuum. All artists should see these examples, learn from them, and move toward them in ways that fit with their skills, aspirations, and circumstances—thus opening the Art Club to wider public engagement with the arts.
Do you doubt the Art Club sees things differently than the populace at large? Do you doubt we have serious work to do to build the notion of citizenship into a widespread sense of what artists do? Well, the 2003 LINC national survey (Leveraging Investments in Creativity/survey Investing in Creativity by the Urban Institute ) that kicked off the ten year initiative found that 96% of Americans value art in their lives, and only 27% value artists as contributors to society. More recent research shows the view hasn’t changed. The Art Club would not rate artists’ cultural contribution so drastically low—clearly those outside the Art Club, the vast majority of Americans, carry a different view of artists and their citizenship.
Swearing allegiance to a wider community than the Art Club is no small matter, as any change in citizenship is the consequential marker of a new identity. It comes with adherence to news laws, respect for new cultural histories, and an acceptance of the values, beliefs, and normative “ways” of the new homeland. When artists do a run-out performance in a community setting, they may be ambassadors, or may just be tourists who get off the bus long enough to take a snapshot of the locale, but there is no expectation of a connection beyond providing an offering from ones homeland, and then going home to it. Such events often include some nice interpersonal mingling, resonances of commonalities (community audiences expressing their appreciation and the artists appreciating their reception), and that is considered enough. It is enough, for what it is. The artists evaluate the success of the occasion by Art Club standards, and the community receives the encounter as an Art Club visit. When I ask groups of orchestral musicians what is the most important thing to have happen in an ensemble event in a community setting, they almost always put “playing great music” as the top priority. When I ask that question of community audiences, they never give that answer, and they usually place “everyone has a great time” as the highest priority.
When artists perform far outside an Art Club setting (e.g. in a public school, senior center, or a Chamber of Commerce), few questions are asked by the Art Club visitors about the true beliefs, values, and understandings of the arts in the lives of the recipients. They bring their assumptions, which are often wrong, sometimes condescending, and even unconsciously offensive, and never learn much about assets and lives of the audience they are playing for. With the thousands of “outreach” performances presented by arts organizations and training programs in the U.S. every year, how many include any intentional component for the artists to learn about the artistic and cultural lives of the area residents? A very few. As polite as everyone is, there is an inherent disrespect in the standard run-out community concert. Let’s call those in such standard outreach programs visiting artists. And if they have an additional set of educational skills and curiosities, let’s call them teaching artists. But let’s not apply the term citizen artists unless the quality of the relationship warrants it.
There are many worthy partnership programs led by organizations in the Art Club that invest in getting to know their partnership communities. The work involves more than visits. The arts professionals do get to know about the community they are working with; they care and often develop real affection and commitment to the mutual benefit of the work; the work expresses respect. People’s lives are affected. However, the Art Club members remain citizens of the arts, usually with an expanded consciousness of what that Art Club citizenship can mean. The goal is to nurture new entrants into the Art Club. This is good, valuable work. But it isn’t citizenship.
Let me underscore this tripartite set of roles with another metaphor. In my decades of work in fostering partnerships between arts organizations and non-arts organizations, I have come to describe them as comprised of three basic kinds: blind dating, steady dating, and marriage. In blind dating, two organizations are brought together in various ways for a decontexualized meeting, in which good things might happen, but there is no expectation of real meaning or of anything that might happen beyond the meeting. (However, poignantly, there is usually a silent hope for something of lasting, even transformative, to be awakened by the event.) Many times when the arts go into schools, or social service settings, the exchange is basically a blind date, whatever it may be called. In the greater investment and trust of steady dating, organizations spend time at one another’s homes, and have experiences together that provide a foundation for an ongoing deepening of a mutually beneficial relationship. These partnerships move beyond coordinated activities into cooperation, collaboration, and co-owned projects. Both side are changed in steady-dating partnerships, especially the deep and longterm ones, but they don’t make “the big commitment.” In marriage, partners commit to find their way forward together and to stick to it even when circumstances change for better or for worse, to develop new language from common experience that both understand, to invest in learning experiments together that take them deeper. Both partners offer a willingness to change who they are and how they function based on what they learn together. Three levels; and you could call them visitor, resident worker, and citizen.
Let me give the clearest specific example I know to clarify these differences. To do so, I will tell parts of Sarah Johnson’s story. Not only is she a prominent leader among the citizen-artists I know, but also her journey traces the evolution of the concepts I present above. There are many good examples of leadership in this arena; Sarah’s story is the one I know best, so I share it in some detail as a tale of optimum learning and leading in our field. Her leadership has been objectively recognized by her award as the 2013 winner of the American Express NGEN Leadership Award, acknowledging one leader under the age of forty who has already made significant impact on a social issue or issues.
Sarah entered the classical music profession with a BM and MM from Juilliard (her artist-self was developed well at Interlochen) in oboe performance. She graduated as a first-rate musician and musical thinker. She was a poster child for Art Club passions and skills, yet her background and personal makeup always had a wide curiosity and yearning, and an innate commitment to human potential and education. She also graduated from Juilliard’s Art & Education program (which I was leading) as a first-rate teaching artist, with great natural skills, sophisticated teaching artist habits of mind to apply to many situations, and a sizeable kitbag of tools she had developed through the intensive program and on her own. The program included a yearlong course and then a Morse Fellowship in which she visited the same two NYC public school fifth grade classes every week for a year. At the time, I described Sarah and some of her fellow program graduates as “samurai teaching artists” who could enter any situation—from a kindergarten classroom to a corporate boardroom—and use their artistic and educator skills to advance the artistry in the room.
She and her wind quintet Ariel Winds won a Chamber Music America Rural Residency grant, and spent a year in Stephenville, Texas. During that year, the five women of Ariel developed a range of projects and programs, lived in their new community, and grew toward “citizenship” through their previous teaching preparation, skills and habits of mind, applied consistently in this new, and to them “foreign,” place. They completed their residency as seasoned samurai, with a range of programs that successfully engaged a wide range of people who lived in Stephenville.
The quintet split up, as often happens, and Sarah won the job as Education Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra after working in education at the 92nd Street Y in NYC. She inherited an above-average set of education programs that were a well-intentioned jumble of community and education endeavors. Over the course of her three and a half years in Philadelphia, she transformed the department; but for the purposes of this essay, I want to focus on one thread of the changes she brought about. I recall talking to her in her first weeks at the orchestra about her frustration with the limitations of the status quo in their community programs. We discussed what it would mean to engage more deeply with a community. We identified the nascent work in Camden, NJ, just across the Schuylkill River from Philadelphia, as a focal opportunity. On Sarah’s very first day on the job, she attended a planning meeting in Camden. The meeting’s focus was the first free full orchestra Neighborhood Concert to be held in Camden the following summer. Throughout the entire meeting, there was no mention of anything that might happen beyond the single event.
The orchestra was just beginning a long-term relationship with Camden, a struggling community that had been named the most violent city in America several years in a row. The orchestra was planning to do one of its three free summer community concerts in a park in the middle of Camden. With Sarah’s guidance, plans evolved to include various activities before the concert, including sending musicians into the schools, working with the performing arts high school, providing chamber music concerts at senior centers and other community settings, and more—in effect, giving visitor visas to its musicians to cross the river to another land and provide a service. Sarah and her team had worked closely with a large group of community partners invested in the success of the performance to plan these activities, all of which were designed to help attract an audience for the free concert. Approximately five hundred people attended. The orchestra thought it was a failure. Community members couldn’t believe how successful it had been. Numerous people said they could not believe the park that night, full of people eating and laughing, with children playing safely—apparently it was normally a busy drug marketplace few were brave enough to frequent after dark.
The community planning group were excited about the concert’s success and began to ask things from the orchestra, and Sarah and the team, including several participating musicians, encouraged them to dream about what might be possible with a longer-term collaboration. The orchestra agreed to plan another concert the following summer, and to allow the work in the community to become a year-long commitment.
In that second year Sarah added a school partnership program that deepened her organization’s presence in schools, including a Camden site, creating yearlong relationships with teaching artists, an ambitious curriculum, and a professional development series for the musicians and teachers in the program. She increased the training of her teaching artists (who were an independent faculty, rather than players from the orchestra, whose schedules did not permit such commitments). The work became richer for the students and teachers, but it was still an add-on within the partnership schools, still not part of the fabric of the school, community, or orchestra.
Sarah’s initial changes in the design for the School Partnership Program could be described as an upgrade for the orchestra’s education commitment, moving from visas to work permit relationships. The work was better, and she continued to support and deepen all the orchestra’s outreach efforts throughout the region. That program, along with an array of other regular activities in Camden, led up to the second summer concert, which included some participation by high school age percussionists in the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The audience turnout was better attended than the first. But Sarah’s artistic ambition wanted more, more for her organization, more for the people of Camden, more connection through the enormity that music contains. She decided to experiment with ways to become more than “outreach.”
She chose a single small partnership as a laboratory: a social service center in Camden called “Respond” that had a daily activity program with senior citizens and some afterschool programs with school age kids. In this project, and many others, she worked with Thomas Cabaniss, a master teaching artist and composer, who was at the time the “Animateur” of the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Tom was the first animateur in the U.S., a concept borrowed from British orchestras, involving a teaching artist on staff who considers and creates intensified engagement with audiences throughout the orchestra’s activities.) Sarah and Tom asked the management and community of Respond, “We are a symphony orchestra; what can we offer that could be of genuine value to you and your Respond participants?” One of the first answers was, “If you really want the truth, don’t send us more performances by your ensembles. They are nice and all, but they aren’t really something we need or want.” When asked, “What do you want that we might be able to provide?”, the people at Respond didn’t know. They didn’t have any unexpressed wish about what a symphony orchestra might provide that would matter to them.
There were some exploratory attempts at intergenerational projects. There was some choral work. The experiments went adequately well, successful enough in themselves. Everyone involved discovered what worked better in terms of process and communications, but Sarah and Tom intuited that more was possible in terms of true musical meeting of the two different cultures. An authentic idea finally emerged after about half a year. The senior citizens, African-American women, said they were tired of the way everyone always dumped on Camden, the way the media trashed it and never said a positive word. At the time, it had the highest murder rate of any U.S. city. They wanted to compose a song to celebrate what is good about Camden.
Sarah provided the resources, and Tom guided their composing process; he has a great gift for eliciting non-musicians’ musical ideas and aspirations. The ladies wrote “The Camden Anthem.” It felt resonantly successful for everyone—and I mean that in the etymological sense of the word success—“having a follow-through,” as in the succession of queens and kings. A successful project (or artwork or endeavor of any kind) is successful not only if it is judged to meet established standards of quality, but also if it sparks the next body of work.
And the next body of work sprang from the ladies of Respond, building upon The Camden Anthem. At first they thought of writing songs about their lives with the help of orchestral musicians, and then it evolved that they wanted to create an evening that focused on their telling stories of their lives in Camden, partnering with musicians from the orchestra who would perform music that accompanied their stories—the project became “Camden Stories, Camden Songs.” Sarah provided the resources they needed, which included a theater teaching artist to help the storytellers shape their ideas into theatrically beautiful nuggets. Tom guided the musician partners to listen carefully, to bring in musical ideas for the storytellers to react to and shape. And indeed, the ladies were not shy in giving feedback, telling them what they wanted and rejecting anything that didn’t feel quite right to their aesthetic. Most of the musicians composed or improvised original music that became increasingly attuned to the story and the sensibilities of their tellers.
The performance night, at a local college hall in Camden, had a packed house—half comprised of affluent people from the Orchestra family from across the river, along with education directors of other orchestras who had gathered for a professional development weekend, and half from the Camden community. The event became a celebration with a variety of musical offerings, including the local performing arts high school chorus singing The Camden Anthem, the Musical Director of the Orchestra (Christophe Eschenbach) performing on the piano, a few ensembles from the Orchestra, and the ladies of Respond with their Orchestra partners as the centerpiece. It culminated in a performance of The Camden Anthem, with all participating, including the audience. The performance was moving and musically joyful, almost beyond imagining. It felt like celebration and hope, the two communities fully meeting, and both owning it, the artistry high and equal. The aesthetic was something new—part high-end classical music, part amateur community celebration, wholly satisfying for everyone. It was a new place, and for the night, we were all citizens of this new nation. The Orchestra musicians reported that it was deeply satisfying artistically and personally; several said it was the most memorable work they had done as musicians since joining the orchestra more than a decade earlier.
And the ladies of Respond? They “succeeded”—they wanted more. I got to lead a focus group of the ladies of Respond after their triumphant night, to find out more about their journey. Something extraordinary had happened, and the Orchestra partners had much to say about why and how it had occurred. What was the journey from the perspective of the community participants?
The story that emerged was the most eloquent description of partnership development I have ever heard. They spoke of the history of the Orchestra sending musicians to Camden, and how it was nice, but how it didn’t really mean anything to them. (Tourist visas.) Then they spoke of the exploratory time with Sarah and Tom. The ladies were impressed that “the orchestra” was sticking around, really listening to them, and trying out projects based on what they said. They spoke of how much they liked The Camden Anthem work. (Green card.) And then they spoke of the work that led to the story performance. They said it was different. They said that along the way they came to trust Sarah and Tom, to feel they were different, to believe they really meant what they said, and that they truly heard them and cared about them. I asked about the turning points that gave them this sense of trust and of something different. They cited a series of specific occasions. The time they had to reschedule a rehearsal because the ladies had another priority arise, and Sarah had her staff rearrange things to fit the needs of the ladies instead of asking the ladies to fit in with the demands of the complex orchestra schedule—this really spoke to them. They cited the time one of their group had to go into the hospital, and Tom visited her in the hospital. They spoke of the way Tom and Sarah and the other artists listened to them, respected their ideas, and made their musical suggestions work, creating beautiful music from their less-expert musical notions—they felt their musical and theatrical knowledge was respected even though they weren’t trained musicians.
These were the currencies that mattered to them, that encouraged them to trust and open up: genuine personal caring expressed in practical, evident, small ways, accommodating the human needs of the people involved. It’s a pretty simple human truth; those actions that “changed everything” are the kind of empathetic response we expect of people who care: listening, respect for the capacity of your partner, and bringing your best to meet your partner’s best. It’s worth noting that the etymology of the word respond means to promise back—the trust that was built in this partnership allowed the community partner to promise back wholeheartedly. Much as orchestras and musicians (and other organizations and artists in other art forms) may wish to make deep connections with local communities, they are rarely able to provide those fundamental human acts that make all the difference. That is citizen artistry. I have heard colleagues say, “It’s that simple?” To a larger degree than we like to admit, it is that simple—simple commitment to genuine respect, real interest, and heartfelt care. However, such basic humanity is not so simple to prioritize in the context of cultural norms and organizational traditions and constraints.
Soon after this performance, Sarah took a new job, as Director of the Weill Music Institute, Carnegie Hall’s education wing. The new job gave her greater resources to work with, and new opportunities to build on what she had learned. She relocated to New York, and as such things sometimes go, funding crises and new staff at the Philadelphia Orchestra forced a cut back on the commitment to Respond, and that partnership did not continue to grow. Indeed, in hindsight I am sad to admit that just about everything experimental and ambitious Sarah had built at the Philadelphia Orchestra was gone within a year. However, with her move to Carnegie Hall, citizen artistry began to grow there.
Still implausibly young, Sarah brought her smarts and experience to a set of education programs that needed sorting out. Carnegie Halls’s Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson shared a “citizenship” aspiration with Sarah, and encouraged her to reorder the department and programs, and grow toward deeper community investments. Over her first year or two, she restructured the 16 different education programs, and launched several new initiatives, each exemplary: a model public school that infused music throughout the school; large high-visibility creative projects that engaged NYC public school students as performers in professional-level work; international projects that connected NYC students, artists and teachers, with partners in other countries for yearlong musical explorations and collaborations (and eventually into a thriving international online musical community for teens); new kinds of community based concerts; new kinds of curriculum for thousands of NYC students to use that connects classroom work with great music; and reinvented the youth concert series called LinkUp, with curriculum that is so engaging and customizable that CH now partners with 60 orchestras who join it; and more. Recently Carnegie Hall added a National Youth Orchestra with an annual tour of major worldwide venues—not citizen artistry as we explore it in this essay, but they are introducing citizenship mindsets into the orientation of these young musicians.
Sarah and her like-minded team have invested every one of these projects with lessons from Respond. Even the programs that don’t allow for building deep partnerships have an inquiring and responsive feel. Planning conversations always go deeper, are given more time—partnering organizations are heard and feel heard. The language the CH team uses to elicit the ideas from all their partners is somehow different; partners call it “respectful,” but to me it is skillful, shaped by an authenticity of caring and the courage to explore beyond the usual norms or institutional convenience. And most of all, they listen well, make sure the partners feel heard, and respond honestly about what they can’t do, and excitedly and responsively about what they can. Sarah listens to her new partners—in community organizations, the Department of Education, social service agencies, schools in the U.S. and abroad, hospitals, city government agencies including the Departments of Corrections and Probation, the U.S. State Department, and more—the same way she listened to the ladies at Respond. The etymological meaning of “respect” is “to look back upon”—their partners in many different communities feel seen and heard, respected, and so they engage in a different way. The habits of mind of citizen artistry infuse all the education programs of Carnegie Hall.
Let me describe two programs in more detail, because of the extraordinary example of citizen artistry they contain. They are called Musical Exchange and Musical Connections.
Musical Exchange evolved out of the powerful learning in International Cultural Exchange, in which Carnegie Hall made yearlong (two or three year-long sometimes) partnerships between NYC high school classrooms (students and teachers) and classrooms in other countries. The multi-layered connections included students engaging in email communication to get to know one another, creating things in music and other disciplines to share, and residencies by musicians from the other country. For example, an American jazz ensemble would spend a week working with students in the Turkish partner schools, and reciprocally, the Turkish gypsy music ensemble would spend a week with the U.S. high school kids. And the yearlong connection contained a mid-year concert with the ensembles playing for students in their own country, and then culminated in a live closed circuit interactive concert, with both ensembles playing in the others’ country, all the students in their home country concert halls, and the musicians sharing their work and even performing a fusion piece together across the continents. The complexity and cost of this program eventually required a simplification, but Sarah and her team were determined to keep the heart of the work beating in financially sustainable ways, and also to find ways of making it more broadly accessible beyond the participating countries, and outside of major urban locations. The resulting Musical Exchange is a worldwide online community for teenagers with a musical passion, who want to engage with peers who share their interests. The Carnegie Hall team keeps the environment rich, but with what they have learned, they know that participants need to bring their intrinsic motivation and connect, not merely fulfill the expectations and offerings of the arts organization. CH offers fascinating projects participants from around the world can join, and make connections around a common creative-work-in-process. For example a recent film-scoring project invited young composers to submit scores that would become the music for a film that had been created by a student at a New York City public arts high school. Teaching artists/composers worked in the online community with participating young composers, providing feedback to draft scores and sketches, and the students also encouraged each other and offered feedback. Finalists were chosen, along with one winner, whose score for string quartet was then professionally recorded for him, and all of the finalist projects were showcased in the community.
The online community of Musical Exchange is a neutral land of musical exploration, where passionate young people can become citizens and meet and exchange in the currency of music. Citizen artist habits of mind shape the look, feel, evolution, and action in this musical nation. It welcomes all musical interest equally, and taps innate musical intelligence and highly developed skills in a way that invites and honors all levels of expertise.
With Musical Connections, Sarah and her team, which includes Tom Cabaniss, Ann Gregg, Manuel Bagorro, and many excellent teaching artists/citizen artists, go even further. The program creates musical projects in settings of social need. They have worked in homeless shelters, hospitals, prisons and juvenile justice facilities, and senior centers. The work engages participants in creating music that communicates their own messages, guided by Carnegie Hall teaching artists toward a culminating performance. There are many distinctive accomplishments in the work, each of which connects two priorities: service and quality. They believe they must truly answer the needs of the partner (the individuals involved, and the institutional partner—the lessons of Camden), and they must do the work in a way that is firmly based in Carnegie Hall’s commitment to high artistic quality. This puts the work of Musical Connections right at the tension point of two motivations: answering social need and maintaining highest artistic quality. It slams into the covert bias many in the Art Club carry—art that honestly addresses social need is not high-quality art. Musical Connections is compelling as an example for the arts because it is a meeting of extremes: what is probably the most famous brand name in the arts, Carnegie Hall, meeting the rawest social need—young people with HIV, pregnant teenagers, aged homeless people, and even prisoners in Sing Sing, one of the most famous maximum security prisons in the world. It asks, “Can the true needs of Sing Sing, prisoners and institution, be authentically met by the true capacities of Carnegie Hall?”
The quality of the partnerships with the social service organizations and agencies has grown from everything Sarah has learned in her previous experience. These are deep partnerships, growing deeper. Carnegie Hall’s team has learned what to ask, how to listen, how to make the most of meetings, how to build trust through responsive planning and fulfilling commitments, and how to keep the partnership deepening.
Since the programs were breaking ambitious new ground, Sarah knew she needed an outside eye from the beginning to help her navigate the complexity of the issues involved, and to document the process. She brought the researcher Dennie Palmer Wolf and Tom Wolf (from Wolf Brown; wolfbrown.com) into the early stages of Musical Connections as thought-partners, as guides to the inquiry, and as a developmental evaluators to document some of the impact. Dennie and her team invested in the teaching artists who led the work, supporting, listening, trusting, challenging, and respecting their skills in unusually deep ways.
The results are still being distilled, but in my observation, the Carnegie Hall team has guided participants in every one of these settings to create music that was profoundly meaningful to the participants, as well as beautiful and high quality to my Art Club sensibilities. There have been powerful testimonials from participants about the impact of the musical work. And there have been changes in the social service institutions’ practices, as the professionals saw new parts and potentials of their clients. The partnerships have led to policy changes at these institutions—citizen artistry changing the laws of the land.
The teaching artists in Musical Connections have become citizen artists. These artists are eloquent about the impact of the work on them personally, on their ongoing creative work, on their understanding of what is possible for a life in the arts, and for the aliveness of the arts. They now inhabit, and are leaders in, a new land of the arts. We might call that new land the possible future.
What does it mean to be an artist citizen? To me it means that you expand your definition of “artist” wide enough to include authentic exploration and engagement outside the Art Club walls. The citizen artist’s artistic and personal allegiance expands to embrace values, needs, and beliefs that are larger than, but still inclusive of, those of the Art Club. A citizen artist does not give up loyalty to the core values of her art form; indeed, she stands on them as firmly as any true artist does; but she authentically expands her embrace while standing strongly on her artistic base.
The most evident adjustment to expanding allegiance involves empathy. Almost all artists are willing to enter a new community and give their best. The citizen artist engages with a new community and listens, really hearing and feeling the life of that community, seeing it as full of assets to be tapped, empathetically connecting to the vitality of that community, and bringing his artistry to that connection. The artist who visits a community provides an artistic service; the citizen artist artistically serves the community’s authentic needs and wishes.
Listening. This is a primary skill of artist citizens. Over the decades, I have been involved in countless conversations between arts organizations (and with individual artists) and non-Arts-Club community members. Many organizations and artists who identify themselves in the “community arts” field shine on such occasions. (Read the work reported in Arlene Goldbard’s writing and in Animating Democracy to get a sense of this deep and proud, if undervalued, tradition in the American arts.) However, in the majority of occasions I have witnessed, the quality of listening on the art side is weak—sometimes appallingly, insultingly, bad. Arts Club members tend to put on ear filters and hear only what is preferred or convenient for them.
To be sure, they work within constraints and traditions that limit possibilities; but I must say I have been shocked many times to hear what Art Club members report as the content of a community discussion. It seems they just can’t hear the true wishes and needs the community expresses, because those wishes and needs challenge what the Art Club believes it can and should do. I hear an invitation to citizenship from a community, and I witness a polite refusal.
The keynote speaker to The National Performing Arts Conference 2008 in Denver, the largest gathering in the U.S. performing arts’ history, was the business researcher Jim Collins. He is famed for his “good to great” research on what makes some companies excel. He has also researched how successful companies (both for-profit and not-for-profit) handle times of crisis and transition. In his speech, Collins made two key points for the performing arts field, which few in his audience denied was in transition, if not crisis. First, he said, you have to get the right people on the bus. And second, you have to pull back to stand firmly on your core values and beliefs, and experiment boldly from there. I sensed the audience accepted his advice. They thought: “Yes, we have a pretty good staff—OK, maybe we can make it a little better.” And in response to his second charge, they felt comfortably affirmed that their most beloved element, the artworks they produce, are indeed the core of future success.
Then Collins continued with a clarification so challenging I could all but hear ears snapping shut. He said that those core values you must pull back to stand upon in a reaffirmed and distilled way, are not the beloved canon of artworks you present, or even the newer works that build on them; your core values are the reasons the arts have existed for all of human history. The artworks you present are a current expression of that core set of values, and fierce attachment to them is exactly what you need to release in order to boldly experiment from your true core.
I use that concussing advice as a guideline for how we can prepare people, young and older, in the arts for true citizenship. We need to release our attachment to current patterns in artist training, arts organizational practice, favorite artworks delivered in the way we prefer. And with our posse of like-spirited colleagues, we must experiment boldly in rediscovery of why the arts matter in new and relevant ways. We need artists, administrators, and an arts community willing to take on such experimentation; we need to change or die.
I see three stages in artist citizenship development: 1) Rediscover the core values of the arts, the solid footing we must never leave as we devise new ways for the arts to engage and express what is relevant to all. (And these core values are not the beloved repertoire of artworks we like to make and present, although they may be part of our experimentation.) 2) Develop the citizenship habits of mind. 3) Experiment, boldly, even if the scope of the experiments begins small. Experiment intentionally and generously, so we can learn well from your experimentation, and you can be in generative exchange with other citizens who are contributing their best to the common good.
1) Rediscover the core values of the arts. It is poignant to me that people in the arts cry out their frustration that America doesn’t care about “the arts” or arts education, even as 100% of Americans have an active and important relationship with “the arts” if it is defined differently. Two different concurrent definitions of the arts, missing each other, and creating a painful gap. Citizen artistry expands the Art Club definition to include more of that innate definition carried by the majority of the populace. The universal sense understands terms like “the art of bricklaying” and “the medical arts”; the Art Club pulls back from the art included in those terms. Almost all in the U.S. recognize that any endeavor raised to its highest level of expression, and any experience that resonates in certain meaningful ways, becomes art. In other writing , I have referred to this omnipresent artistry as the everyday work of art. We engage the verbs of art, we do something genuinely connected to the arts, when we set a beautiful Thanksgiving table, when we kick a conversation with a friend into a higher, creative gear, when we create something extraordinary in a work setting, like an excellent “marketing plan” for a company. Singing in a chorus or choir is by far the most common arts engagement in the U.S.—one fifth of all households contain an active member of one—yet few feel they are participating in “the arts.” Citizen artistry expands its definition to include those choristers and collegially celebrates the artistic value of an original, beautiful, efficient Thanksgiving table.
Citizen artists know the many languages of the arts, and speak them without jargon, in ways that connect with the 100% of Americans. Their allegiance is to the human artistic birthright, even as they still take special delight in the power of nouns that are widely seen as masterworks in artistic media. Artist-citizens can speak to the Art Club 7% and feel it is their responsibility (and privilege) to do everything they can to open up what they know to authentically include the 100%.
2) Develop the citizenship habits of mind. These include: humility, empathy, listening, and honesty to forge authentic connections. There are many more one would include in a training of citizen artistry, including bringing the right questions to moments of opportunity, a curiosity about the interests and artistic assets of others, a playfulness with one’s own artistry, and an internal Geiger counter for artistic potential—and, the teaching artist’s skills of engagement and guidance.
When I first work with typical young conservatory-trained professionals in music about how to open up their work to wider audiences, the only tools for engagement they have are playing the music really well, and telling people things about it. These tools are what they have seen and been taught, and though they are important, they rarely enable non-Art Club members to make personally relevant connections that open up artistic relevance. Good teaching artists, and by extension, good citizen artists, serve as catalysts in the improvisation of artistic connection. As with any good improvisation, habits of mind are as essential as any technical skills of the art form.
I refer to habits of mind because good practice includes more than an additional set of activity tools used by Art Club members. Habits of mind are sometimes described as the repertoire of capacities you have available to use when you encounter an unfamiliar challenge. When someone from the Art Club encounters the opportunity of connecting with someone from outside the Art Club, the habits of mind shape the potential of the encounter. It is possible to develop this expanded set of mental and emotional frameworks that adjust the way the artist sees, thinks, asks, listens, and connects. The Musical Connections artists at Carnegie Hall learned this through experience. Sarah Johnson and Tom Cabaniss had the gift of these habits of mind, which they have extended, refined, and taught to others in their work.
I believe these habits of mind are actually inherent in human artistry. Our current artist development pathways, and institutional policies and practices, suppress their natural development, but they remain in most artists, even if dormant. They can be activated in many, if not most, artists. And they can certainly be nurtured in a developmental process that begins early and is sustained by ongoing experience and guidance. If we took a thirty-year view of the future of the arts, there is probably no wiser investment we could make than nurturing the habits of mind of citizen artistry into every pathway for young artist development. This is why I have been so enthusiastic about the example of El Sistema in Venezuela, and its growth around the world—the El Sistema movement accomplishes this at a scale we have not seen before.
3) Experiment, boldly. Many do. They may not see their efforts as citizen-artist experiments, but I do. I will mention a few; there are hundreds more. Learn about the work of established community arts organizations like Crossroads Theater, Appalshop’s Roadside Theatre, Dance Exchange, as well as community public art projects in every major city in the country. The Chiara String Quartet has figured out how to present a classical music program in a bar or night club and fully engage the patrons. Playback Theatre companies around the U.S. and the world elicit stories from the general audience to immediately enact them in perceptive and illuminating ways. In her recent work “A Matter of Origins,” Liz Lerman had community members facilitate round table discussions with audience members over tea on stage as the second act of her dance concert about astrophysics; the tea groups discussed the cosmological implications of the Act 1 dance—and the discussions were interspersed with dance moments that addressed key discussion points amid the talking tables, including a dance by one of the world’s leading astrophysicists.
Sarah Johnson’s citizen artist roster, led by Tom Cabaniss, is an astonishing team. Amid their many projects, they may guide pregnant teenagers to compose lullabies for their babes, in order to enhance their bonding. The results are both artistic and social successes. On another project, Daniel Levy will guide maximum-security prisoners to compose for woodwind quintets and other ensembles to bring out the empathetic creative collaborator in them; and the prison audience, including guards, is moved by the beauty of their creation. These experiments open up new ways for the arts and artists to succeed. Citizen artistry is a laboratory science; it cannot be developed without experimentation, documentation, reflection, and further experimentation in an ongoing inquiry.
What is the purpose of such experimentation? It cannot be economically instrumental, to put new butts in performance hall seats. There may be some incidental spillover into developing new patrons for Art Club organizations, but that is not the goal. Putting butts in seats has been the explicit and implicit reason for funding “outreach” programs in high arts organizations for the last few decades, but that game is largely played out—because there is no research that suggests that the investment in standard broad-scale outreach programs does develop ticket-buying patrons. Kids who have an ensemble from the professional orchestra visit their inner city elementary school do not become future ticket buyers. A very few might discover an interest in classical music and instruments, which is good, and which anecdotes we treasure and share, but is not the ROI funders have in mind. The research is uncertain as to whether even the more invested partnership programs with schools develop ticket-buying adults.
The purpose of citizen artistry is not instrumental; it doesn’t live by a directly measurable result. Among the many benefits it fosters is for the Art Club to learn a new language, gain a new authenticity, inculcate new ways to open up wide what we know as artists. The purpose is ongoing revitalization in the expansive purposes of the arts, helping us become who we need to be, who we inherently are. This experimentation enables us to grow beyond preferences and practices of the Art Club, that can no longer provide a sustainable and growing future. The purpose of citizen artistry is to become better artists—better in the sense of adding these additional habits of mind, and skills of expanded engagement, to the life of an artist and the life of an arts organization. The work of citizen artistry powerfully feeds and enriches the artistry of artists, even those in more traditional roles and practices—citizen artistry produces better art.
Do you recall the second feature I found in many definitions of “citizenship”? The first was the “land” to which one swears allegiance, and the second is an expectation of protection. Let’s face it—the Art Club offers little protection to the vast majority of its artist members. Quite the opposite—it is a tough, competitive, world of high demands and scarce resources. Artists are often vulnerable, and seen as not-really-grown-up. A small percentage make it into the protection zone—tenured players in major orchestras, a few top celebrities in every art form, arts organization employees with full time jobs, and some others. But in general the Art Club demands far more in allegiance than it can offer in protection.
It may become different for citizen artists. I have seen glimmers. When a community comes to truly value something the arts provide for them, they do not let it go away. I have seen many instances in which the funding for a beloved teaching artist in a school fell away, and somehow funding was found in the school budget to put the artist on staff. The school arts program that is deeply valued does not always disappear in school funding cutbacks. The recreation center dance program that is visible and vital does not get un-funded when the city has a financial crisis; or if it does, the program finds others kinds of support. I think this is the future of a major sector of the arts in the U.S., to become so valuable to their communities that the community protects them.
What is the potential for citizenship? My vision includes every child in the U.S. having a series of encounters with a good citizen-artist throughout her growing up. Every child who gets excited by this encounter has pathways to follow her interest in school, and with arts teachers who consciously engage students in artistic values beyond the Art Club.
Every artist-in-training is introduced to citizen-artistry in a substantive way as a part of his development. Every developing artist who resonates with the expanded vision they sense in their introduction to citizen-artistry has a way to grow her skills and practice applying them—with an educationally-effective path from “tourist visa” experiences, to “work permit” experiences, to citizen artistry. Every arts teacher, from those in elementary school through the most demanding professional training program, understands the role and importance of citizen artistry and presents specific instruction in a framework that relates it to the work of engaging all people in a culture.
To move toward such a vision, we must:
Acknowledge that there are different definitions, understandings, and values about “art” in our population—without getting into a semantic snit about the word “art.” We must accept: 1) There are various kinds of excellence; that the Art Club criteria and judgments are valuable, but not the only way to determine artistic value. 2) “Art” emerges from many purposes, and art that emerges from impulses that are not the preferred set of the Art Club are not necessarily less valuable or lower quality.
Recognize there are different kinds of engagement with communities that don’t belong to the Art Club, and that visiting such a group, or even collaborating with such a group, does not necessarily mean you have become a citizen-artist. We want many kinds of engagement with communities, but with an understanding of where they fall on the continuum, and what the high and low investment ends of that continuum seek to accomplish.
Open an empathetic channel to a wider set of artistic impulses, seeking curiously to find out about the artistry in others, and how to open up Art Club artistry for them.
Distill our own artistic core. Remembering the caveat presented by Jim Collins, find and sustain access to your artistic impulse, key values, and essential practices, which may lead to expression in your favorite art works, but are also a source of creative impulse that can move into other kinds of expression and can connect with that impulse in others who do not share your same preferred artwork favorites. Know thyself, as an artist in the broad definition of the arts. And remember, where we all meet best is in joy—the experiences must be joyful to have impact, to have follow-through “success.”
And then, experiment your way to citizenship. Please reflect, distill, and communicate your learning all along the way. We have a long way to go.