Relevance in upheaval: Arts advocacy in the context of our greatest global challenges
December 20, 2021
“I kept hearing how hospitals were overwhelmed, but I didn’t actually understand until now.”
“My aunt is a nurse, and I realized what she was going through for the first time.”
These were just a couple of the reactions from undergraduate students in Creativity and the Artistic Experience (a non-majors undergrad class that I am a teaching-assistant for). The students were responding, in real time, as they watched The Public Theater’s filmed docu-drama "The Line." This original production, which premiered in summer 2020, was crafted out of interviews with frontline healthcare workers in New York City during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. "The Line" resonated with my students because it took something relevant to us all — the pandemic — and gave us a lens through which to experience it.
The key here is relevance — a buzzword we often hear in conjunction with arts advocacy, but a term we might not define as thoroughly as we should. It’s a nebulous concept to pin down, yet of the utmost importance for arts advocates to consider. Nina Simon unpacks it eloquently in her 2016 book "The Art of Relevance:" “Relevance unlocks new ways to build deep connections with people who don’t immediately self-identify with our work.” She describes relevance in terms of keys and doors, painting a picture of a dazzling, exciting, thrilling room behind a locked door. “Relevance is the key to that door. Without it, you can’t experience the magic that room has to offer. With it, you can enter.” What feels urgently relevant to our society as 2021 draws to a close and we look to the year ahead? And do the arts have a role to play in addressing it?
Between the pandemic, the increasingly-urgent climate crisis, the brutal murders that catalyzed 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement, and the ubiquity of social media amplifying everything, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by today’s societal ills. The arts have the potential to provide respite, distance, and a critical lens through which to process this overwhelm. Eddie Torres of Grantmakers in the Arts articulates this elegantly: “Arts and culture are not just palliative but are also emotionally resonant means to illuminate social issues. We must consider arts and culture as elements of broad social issues and as a frame for considerations and approaches to social issues.” Throughout the first part of the pandemic arts advocates have worked assiduously to make sure that theatres will come out on the other side of COVID-19. We aren’t on the other side of the pandemic yet, but with vaccines and boosters widely available in the US we are seeing the return of Broadway and most regional theatres’ in-person events. Americans for the Arts reports that 52% of arts attendees are attending in-person programs as of October 2021—up from 38% in September and 17% in April) with an additional 19% expecting to do so by January 2022. Broadly speaking, we’ve saved our theatres and cultural organizations. Now, what have we saved them for? As our sector emerges from immediate crisis into the long tail of pandemic recovery, arts advocates have a new story to tell: how are the arts continuing to be relevant in the context of today’s most pressing issues; those issues that have only been further illuminated by the pandemic?
In data presented at Capacity Interactive’s Boot Camp 2021, arts consultant Melissa Cowley Wolf suggested that the arts were perceived as less relevant last year in the face of public health, environmental, and social justice crises. She cites data about rising generation donors, saying “[they] want to make a transformational impact through their giving; they see the climate, racial, and social justice sectors as the best vehicle to achieve this societal impact, not the arts.” Fair enough! However, arts and culture are not necessarily separate from issues of social justice in our society — and I argue that they shouldn’t be thought of as separate. What is missing in our arts advocacy and case statements, according to Wolf, is making the clear and direct link for funders between the arts and the social challenges our society faces. “Even as people across the globe turned to art, music, and creativity to stay sane and safe in 2020, there is obviously a disconnect between the importance of art in our lives, the call to support artists and the arts infrastructure, and the knowledge of how to best do so,” Wolf says. She is primarily talking about fundraising, but as an indicator of what people perceive as relevant I think looking at fundraising trends is informative. “[the data] articulates again that those who can give do so in times of crisis — when need and relevance are clearly communicated.”
Some arts organizations are well-poised to articulate the link between arts and societal justice; it is central to their missions. In my arts advocacy course we had an opportunity to speak with Ann S. Graham, Executive Director of Texans for the Arts (Texas’s state-wide arts advocacy nonprofit). She spoke about what she called “arts ampersand” work at the intersection of the arts AND something else--social justice, mental health, etc. There are many arts organizations with social justice, environmental justice, and other causes at the core of their mission who are well-poised to undertake “arts &” advocacy. For example, Superhero Clubhouse is an eco-theatre company based out of New York that “creates theater to enact climate and environmental justice, cultivate hope, and inspire a thriving future.” Their programming includes workshops to help children build their own plays around climate justice, developing new works that deal with the environment, and staging theatre that activates natural outdoor spaces. Theatre of the Oppressed NYC is a company that focuses as much on the transformative experience of the actor as the audience. They form theatre troupes with community members, who “devise and perform plays based on their challenges confronting economic inequality, racism, and other social, health and human rights injustices.” After each performance, actors and audiences engage in theatrical brainstorming (more formally known as Forum Theatre) to test different strategies for making change. These are two examples of arts organizations who are well-poised to demonstrate relevance in the context of what Wolf calls “the greatest global challenges of our time.”
However, relevance need not only belong to arts organizations with explicitly justice-aligned missions. In my experience all arts and cultural organizations are in the business of making the world a better place for people to live in, so telling the story of how your organization is contributing to today’s most pressing social concerns should be part of your advocacy messaging. What is important from an advocacy perspective is to, as Wolf says, “position [your organization] as a conduit to the cause.” What links can you emphasize between your organization’s work and today’s most pressing social concerns?
Many arts organizations pivoted during 2020, remaining within the spirit of their mission while also working outside of their normal methods of operating to be socially responsive to the moment and relevant to their community during a time of upheaval and crisis: one very visible example is how The Public Theater (along with Atlantic Theatre Company, New York Theatre Workshop, and others) offered shelter and water to protestors in New York City during the Black Lives Matter marches of summer 2020. Through this act The Public forged a key that opened a door of relevance, connecting the Black Lives Matter protests with the mission of their organization. The Public’s entire image is related to making theatre “of, by, and for the people.” They also position themselves as deeply intertwined with the cultural fabric of New York City. It made sense and felt perfectly mission-aligned when they opened their doors to the people, their people, who were protesting for a better New York City and a better world. While The Public’s mission is not explicitly about linking the arts and social justice, their act of mission-aligned social justice advocacy demonstrated the theatre’s relevance in a community dealing with upheaval.
What is on society’s mind right now? What is keeping us up at night? What do we consider “the greatest global challenges of our time?” As artists these are the questions we are constantly considering, alongside and in community with our peers working in social justice movements, climate justice, mental health, and other causes that aim to improve our world. We cannot underestimate the importance of continuing to express the arts’ alignment with broader societal concerns. The arts build empathy is an oft-repeated refrain in arts advocacy messaging, but this is because it is true, and because empathy is essential to healthy societies. A major thesis of Elin Kelsey’s 2020 book Hope Matters is that empathy is a crucial ingredient in reversing climate change. She argues that the climate crisis is a problem for social science as well as the hard sciences, and that changing the way ordinary people think about environmental issues is key to solving them. “People with high empathy have higher engagement with environment and sustainability issues,” she writes. “Climate change, biodiversity loss, and other challenges we face are too complex to be solved by technology fixes or governance alone. They require broader, cultural transformations.” Artists are brilliant at advancing cultural transformations. We are storytellers, empathy-builders, idea-testers. As artists we have a way into the minds and hearts of our fellow human beings that environmental scientists, for instance, may not have access to. Our arts advocacy messaging should reflect that we aren’t just blithely putting on plays while the rainforests burn. The arts help build a society of people with the capacity to care for each other, care for the planet, and believe in a better shared future.
During our conversation Ann Graham articulated a concern I feel deeply: how can we advocate for the relevance of the arts in a world with war, hunger, a deadly pandemic, and deep social inequities? Why should we be focusing our energy on advocating for the arts when there seem to be so many more pressing issues to solve? I have always felt deeply the connection between the arts and addressing social inequities, but I also feel the urgency of today’s issues and often question if studying theatre is a relevant way to spend my time. In a way I suppose this blog post is my selfish struggle with a perceived incongruity between what I love to do and what I value. What I believe to be true is that the arts change us. They help us evolve, recover, experiment, and dream--all essential parts of addressing social, environmental, and other concerns. We have endless examples of the arts providing transformation for people. For instance, the student who tearfully told me that she understood her aunt’s pandemic experience for the first time while watching the play in our class. There is a certain aspect to arts advocacy that involves embracing and attempting to communicate, as Nina Simon says, magic. How do we approach that challenge of communicating magic as arts advocates? This is a question for each organization to discover for themselves, but I encourage all arts organizations seeking relevance in 2022 to find and focus on communicating that spark in their mission that relates to making our world a better place.
Rachel Nunn is a graduate student in the M.F.A. in Theatre in Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.