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Creating Community through the Arts

On Saturday, October 22, I had the pleasure of attending the “Creating Community through the Arts” panel discussion at the Bridgeport Art Center, held during the Bridgeport Art Walk as part of Chicago Artists Month 2011. The panel, moderated by visual artist Luis DeLaTorre, was made up of Jose Barrera, a Surrealist painter and Principal of the Columbia Explorers Academy; Patric McCoy, President and Co-Founder of Diasporal Rhythms, an organization of art collectors that specializes in the work of contemporary artists of African descent; Giselle Mercier, an installation artist from Panama and Executive Director of Pros Arts Studio; and Carlos Tortolero, Executive Director of the National Museum of Mexican Art. What follows are the highlights of the refreshingly candid discussion.

Bridgeport Art Center. October 2011. (Image courtesy of Jenny Lam.)

Luis DeLaTorre: Patric, you were saying that you were an artistic individual going into high school. Why did you decide to not pursue the arts as a profession?

Patric McCoy: I see some problems in America with people perpetuating myths about the career of arts. They say—and I’ve heard this a lot from people that have pursued art—that early in their careers, somebody told them that “You will starve,” essentially, “You’re crazy to do this.” And at the same time that this position is so prevalent in America, there is this other position that “Art is too expensive for me to buy.” And my scientific mind—my logical mind—says, “You know what? That doesn’t make any sense. How is there anything that a starving person makes that I can’t afford?” So something is wrong with that concept. We have, in our society, some myths that are being perpetuated with the activity—with the profession—of people going into the creative field that are just totally wrong. It makes me think, “Why is this so prevalent?” That people automatically agree, “Oh, you’re going into the arts? You’re going to starve,” and, at the same time, if you take them anywhere, they will quickly say, “I can’t afford this.”

LD: Let me ask Carlos a question in relation to that. Patric has stated that we have this idea of starving artists in the sense of, “If you are interested in the arts, don’t pursue it as a profession, because there is no end, there is no idea, there is no profit.” As the director of a major institution such as yours, how have you seen that affecting the actual state of the art world that you deal with?

Carlos Tortolero: The NEA funding’s going down. The NEA does not fund individual artists. In schools the arts are being cut out. So we are saying to every child in this country, “Arts are not important.”

LD: Have you seen the decline in the sense of talent out there, and the quality of that talent?

CT: I wouldn’t say a decline in quality. I do think that there are artists out there who do not have the time to do their art the way they want to. There are artists out there who, maybe, in another time, would’ve become major artists.

Giselle Mercier: Arts are not valued. But, you can make a difference by making the commitment to work in the arts. You may not end up a Tony Tasset and have all the money in the world, but you will survive, and you will influence people, and you will make a difference.

PM: What we’re essentially trying to respond to here is the first big question, “Does this society value art?” And I think that—we all agree that—no, it doesn’t. This society—American society—does not value the arts. And I want to get a little bit precise, because our society values some things—ruggedness, individuality, material gain, and so forth—but it doesn’t see the arts as an essential aspect of the development of the people. Now, the question, then, “Does American culture value art?” And I’m going to say, no, it doesn’t. It is about pop culture and celebrity status. Now, I’m going to go another step below. We have subcultures: the Latino, African-American, all down the line. And those cultures are rich with art: musical art, the visual arts, dance, and so forth. So we now have to start to work in our subcultures to push this up so that America’s culture and then America’s society values art, because everything we’re saying is correct—we don’t, as a society, value art—but we can make the difference, and we can bring about change by working through our subcultures to push that up, because our subcultures are very rich.

"Creating Community through the Arts" panel discussion at the Bridgeport Art Center. October 2011. (Image courtesy of Jenny Lam.)

LD: From a study […] something like 11,000 people had been surveyed, and the question was, “Do you like art?” or “Do you feel that art has a place in our society?” And 98% said, “Of course, we love art. We feel that it has a place in our society, and we feel it should continue,” and so on. But when they asked the same crowd, “Do you value artists?” 13% valued artists. [If] these people love and admire art, where do they think it comes from? So my question is: Where do you think that opinion, or that kind of skewed idea, comes from?

GM: The myth that exists out there is that artists don’t want to work, artists are lazy, they cut off their ears, they’re crazy…

Jose Barrera: The average American… I can speak for the community I’m from, which is the Latino community in my area: not many people know artists. They know of art, but they don’t know artists. As I was growing up, I never went to an art studio until I was at the School of the Art Institute. But now at our school, kids in 3rd, 4th, Grade and up have gone to Luis’ studio. And I think back to when I was 18 years old at the Art Institute. Now this community is learning in 4th Grade to be in an art studio with a working artist and understand, “Boy, I can become an artist. I can actually be an artist.” I think that’s great, and that’s what our problem is; we haven’t exposed our children—our culture and community—to working artists.

CT: The situation is also economic, that artists cannot support themselves and have to have two jobs. So there is a stigma: why do you want a career where there’s no future?

LD: Our culture’s economically driven, so we’re always going to go to that.

GM: I really feel that we are contributing even more to the myth of: in order to be an artist you only paint and wake up in the morning and you are inspired and you do this and you go into the gallery… I’m sorry, that is not the case. My mom was an artist. Why? Because she takes stuff that you would never think can be put together, and she creates these wonderful quilts. My mom is an artist. Understanding, first and foremost, that you come from a tradition where you do it yourself, and that there’s art in that. You don’t have to be this big persona to be considered an artist. One of the people I met at the museum was Maria Enriquez de Allen. She’s 92 years old, and she told me, “You see my migajon de pan flowers that I do every day? This is my art. I am an artist.” And when she said that, I said, “You know what? I’m an artist too.” I am an artist, and I will not let anybody else tell me that I’m not. And what if I showed once a year at a gallery? Is that the kind of art I want to support? I’m not interested in that. I am interested in an art that has a message, that is done in a community, that is understood generation by generation. That is understood among these subcultures.

PM: Because America’s culture is about pop culture and celebrity status, it has perpetuated this myth of what the artist is, and that’s what people know and they don’t know the real artists who live right around them. My collection has over 300 different artists, and most of them live right near me. So I have not paid attention to the pop culture description of the artists. They’re people who live right down the block from me. On my block, they’re actively engaged and creating things. I am not walking around with the blinders on, that artists are some crazy people. It’s about being creative. It’s about people that are just doing things that are out of their culture, and they’re creating. That is an artist, and we, our cultures, our subcultures, should be supporting that.

CT: The problem, too, is who determines what is good art? Who determines what is fine art? It isn’t us. That’s the issue.

"Creating Community through the Arts" panel discussion at the Bridgeport Art Center. October 2011. (Image courtesy of Jenny Lam.)

[LD asks the panelists for three main things, as related to culture and community, that define their respective organizations.]

GM: I believe that the reason why I was so attracted by Pros Arts Studio and why I applied to become the Executive Director in the worst recession that we’ve seen since I’ve been here is because I really believed in the mission of the organization, and I believed in its aesthetics. Have you ever heard the term Guaches? Guachismo is a term that was coined by Chicanos, and in the 70s described the kind of art that was done with all kinds of leftover things, like a piece of tape here and there. I have an aesthetic like that, and I saw Pros Arts Studio had an aesthetic like that. Now, to defend it towards the mainstream that gives us money so that we can create pieces? That was a big challenge. Because if it’s like, “Oh, ew, you do work that is like this?” [She crumples up a piece of paper.] “We really want to see work that is like this.” [She smooths out the paper.] And it’s like, “No!” My aesthetic is like this [crumpling up the paper again], and I like it!” [laughter from the panelists and audience]

CT: One is we’re free. When I started the museum, everybody in the art world told me, “You can’t do this for a museum.” They were wrong! They told us we can’t be free! We’re still free. If we can be free, anyone can be free. When I was a kid, all museums were free in Chicago. It was a glorious time. Two, artists. We employ a lot of artists. We pay a lot of artists for programs. Artists should have good pay, health insurance… And then, education. One fourth of our budget, one third of our staff is for education programs for young people. There are a lot of art museums in this country that only spend 10%. Most art museum directors, when they see a kid walk into a building, they think two things. One, “Please don’t break anything.” [laughter from the panelists and audience] And two, “You have no money; get out of here!” I see a young kid walk into a museum and I say, “This kid could grow up and become an artist. This kid could grow up and become an art collector.” I see hope. I see the future. I don’t see dollar bills on them.

PM: One, we are an art collectors’ organization. And that’s important, because we have as a basic concept that you have these creative people, these artists, that feel compelled to create things, and they’re going to do it, whether you support it or not. They have to do this. They have to get this out of them. And then there’s another entity that’s as passionate; these are people who are looking over their shoulders and going, “Oh, that’s really good. I like that. I want that. And I want to be able to preserve that. I want young people in the future to see this. I want them to experience that.” That’s the art collector. So we have this art creator and the art collector. The two of them work together to create the art of the people. And so we are art collectors stepping up and saying, “There are artists in our community that we want you to see and know about and recognize that they are doing something that’s important for us now and in the future.” So we’re speaking for the art of our community. We are giving voice to our cultural heritage. We do that in a number of ways. One, we are, as art collectors, redefining the term, because, in America, art collector has been something that has been very private, and we are saying our collectors should be public; they should have a public component to their existence. So what we do, we have collectors’ home tours. So we’re going to open our homes on a regular basis, once every year or two years, and let the public come in and see who we think is important. We also are interested in promoting the artists we collect. We had an exhibition recently where we had, through our process, identified a set of arts that we want to honor for a period of time—one or two years—and we do things for them, and we provide a show for them. So we as collectors are saying, “Here are some artists that we think you need to see.”

Diasporal Rhythms collector's home tour. (Image courtesy of Diasporal Rhythms.)

A third thing is what everybody else is talking about: education. We have from the very beginning had an educational institution; the Arthur Dixon Elementary School ­­was essentially a founding member of our art collectors’ organization, because that school, through the great activity of their principal, Joan Crisler, they’ve been collecting art for 17 years, original art in an elementary school, and they have the art in the halls, above the lockers, in the classrooms, and so forth. It is a regular school—not a magnet school, not a charter school—yet the art is actually affecting the behavior. The accomplishments of the school is socializing the children. We also have adopted the King College Prep as a school that we want to interact with, and we have been providing artists to come to the school and work with their advanced placement class, we’ve done book drives, we’ve done a frame drive because their art students don’t have a frames for their work, and we’re going to be providing the frames.

LD: The next question has to do with the community. Patric’s organization is the only real organization I’ve ever seen like this. Do you guys feel that artists need to be a part of an artistic community to thrive?

JB: I think it’s very important. In order to continue best practices in education, art is the key. I know that the public school system always talks about how important art is, but they’re always the first programs that are cut. We need to educate more people, get them to understand that art is critical to the successful foundation to any childhood.

PM: Martha C. Nussbaum, who’s at the University of Chicago, has written a book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. It is on this subject on why art—and music and dance and so forth—is important. It’s important for the development of critical thinking that allows this type of society to thrive. She’s taking a totally different approach. Everyone agreed that it is not the thing to cut; it is the thing to enhance.

CT: Arts are essential for democracy. We look at the Tea Party; they scare me. But you know what? The Democratic Party also scares me. [laughter from the panelists and audience] We have two fighting parties out there; that is the trouble in this country. The arts teach people to think freely. Patric can say something, I can say something, we all can say something, and you know what? The sun will still come up tomorrow. We have to engage in public discourse in a positive way. I think art does that.

LD: I’ve noticed that minority artists—and minorities in general—have this habit, or I should say little community, around arts. I’ve noticed […] we have Anglo-American artists that don’t really seem to feel the need for that. Do you guys see the same things? You have the minorities always wanting to build around arts and always wanting to… it’s kind of like a hinge pin, but when you work with Anglo artists, it doesn’t matter, it’s just “who we are; this is what I do, whether you accept it or not.”

CT: One, the word “minority” needs to stop being used. In 90% of the big cities of this country, people of color are the majority. So we need new words to describe who we are. I also think that artists—all artists—need to show at as many places as possible. We’re part of two worlds, so we should show ourselves in two worlds.

JB: I agree. It’s just that the art that the public knows—that’s at the Art Institute, the Metropolitan—have been there for hundreds of years, and this art is now… we’re trying to make it more public. We’re not educated enough in art as we should.

Youth art program at Pros Arts Studio. (Image courtesy of Pros Arts.)

GM: I want to add, when you say “educated,” are you talking about, because I think a lot of our parents, a lot of our community, individuals who live in different neighborhoods, are educated…

JB: Let’s say “exposed.”

GM: OK. I always get kind of an offended reaction when it’s like, “Oh, we’re here to educate you and we’re here to tell you what is the real thing,” and I think we need to be more accepting of our culture and our upbringing and feel assertive that we do have a very rich cultural platform, and we need to just be aware of it and be assertive and say it. Like what Carlos said, you can show it to museums and show at the School of the Art Institute. Now, will that really happen?

PM: I’m with you on this one. I’m seeing that the energy is actually in the subcultures, and that it really is a bottom-up phenomenon that we’re trying to engage and to put into practice, and that what we have is a top-down process, is that the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the art critics, and so forth… they are supposed to tell you who is good, instead of you telling them who is good. All of our community should be working to promote… should be telling you, “This is who we think is good in this part of the city,” and it bubbles up. I think it’s most prevalent in visual arts. In fact, I’ve done some thinking about it a lot and in the musical arts, we don’t have a problem in America that it comes up from the bottom; we don’t have a problem with that. Hip hop can start in the Bronx, gospel in the South Side of Chicago… we don’t have a problem with that, that eventually, it gets up to the top and it becomes “America.”

CT: It becomes “America” from the powers that be, and I think the real problem is that the power structure has created an “either/or” situation, and I want to create an “and” situation, where the mariachi music is good, classical music is good, hip hop… it’s all good. It should be an “and” situation where we embrace all forms of art, in which all forms of art are valued.

LD: You brought up the example of the music, so do you think it’s because music is a very rich commodity, that people can trade easily, and make money off of, and art isn’t seen that way?

PM: That has to do with power, and that the visual arts are associated with power. Imagery is extremely powerful. It is the essence of propaganda. So if I can control—i.e. I’m at the top—if I can control the imagery and keep you from thinking that you have any power, then that’s what I’m going to do.

LD: What are your plans for your respective organizations in the next ten years?

GM: Hope I don’t die. [laughter from the panelists and audience]

[CT talks about arts organizations needing individual donations and individual champions of the arts. GM points out that we don’t have to be champions, and it can be anyone; instead of buying a $3 cup of coffee for one day every week, we can send it to the Mexican Museum. It has to be a collective force and can’t be just from people who have means.]

Dia de los Muertos exhibition at the National Museum of Mexican Art. (Image courtesy of National Museum of Mexican Art.)

Audience member: You were talking about earlier how the NEA doesn’t support individual artists. And yet we have a great example from the 30s of the WPA, which did a great job supporting individual artists and organizations. Do you think we should pressure the government to start something up like that again?

CT: Every time we fight the NEA and go before Congress, it’s arts administrators or artists. I’ve argued for years that we should send the mother who drives the kid across the city to take piano classes, then drives across the city for ballet classes… have her testify before Congress. I think we’ve always fought the battle the wrong way. We need to get average individuals to advocate for it. Jose is a principal; he’d be the perfect person to go to Washington, not me.

LD: What are you doing to change that framework? You have this idea. Do you have any plans to implement it?

PM: Answering his bigger question of: Should we as a society implement programs that benefit individual artists like the WPA? I don’t see that happening in this present climate at the larger level that comes out of the federal government. I do see that we can do that in the community. In our recent exhibition cycle for Diasporal Rhythms, we gave artists moneys to buy the supplies, to produce new work, very similar to what the WPA did. It’s a microcosm of the WPA.

Another audience member: [Bringing up the importance of technology.] I’m thinking of the fall of movie theaters and the fall of all of these cultural institutions. What you guys are calling subcultures, whether that’s race, age, geography… these boundaries are being broken down when you can just download music yourself, or upload your own video on YouTube or publish your own book. I think it’s so new that it feels like it could potentially take over, but do you feel like it’s not necessarily able to overpower institutions of power, or is this a medium that…

LD: I’m going to go ahead and answer that question: no.

PM: I’m going to answer that that’s just what happens, that human beings first used to draw or create art on rocks, and then we started using bones, and then parchment, then paper… Technology just keeps advancing the ability to create art, so I just feel like it’s going to be another way in which we do it.

Same audience member: Not so much the creation of art, but to undermine the ability of the people to decide which art is important and which things are valued, now with Facebook or Kickstarter or all these other ways in which people can find alternative ways to get the message out.

CT: To me, I’ll say it’s a way to let more people participate. Like today I forgot my phone? My kids never forget their phones. [laughter from the panelists and audience] It’s a new world and if we use it right, it could be marvelous. If we use it wrong it could be damaging, but I do think it could be powerful thing deal with, and it’s just how do we use it.

LD: I think it’s, more than anything, that we can have it at our fingertips, to be able to experience it: visual art and music, you have it right there. I was talking to a friend of mine and I said, “Art is dead.” Her response was, “Art is never going to die, because it’s that human experience of creating that always propels us.” I like to provoke, but that reaction was so strong in her that it made me feel like I’m never going to say that again. [laughter from the panelists and audience] And it’s a very strong impulse in the human that we are a creative culture—or species, I should say—and it’s always going to be driven by that.

GM: I wanted you to clarify: Are you saying that you use technology as a tool for revolution, to change things that have been the status quo, the mainstream, to topple it down?

Same audience member: Yes.


Same audience member: Borders went bankrupt because people can read on their Kindles.

GM: It’s how we use it, if you use it to mobilize and you have a movement that you want to get through. I see young people really taking advantage of that; the stuff that’s happening with Occupy Wall Street is also technology-driven.

CT: [About bookstores versus electronic readers as an “either/or” situation.] I love bookstores. We’re doing “either/or.” Why can’t we have both?

PM: On the component of your question about who assigns value and so forth: I think we’re doing something that’s very revolutionary, but very simple. [About collectors opening up their homes.] It’s different because we, the collectors, are saying it, versus the art critics from the Tribune saying “these are the 10 hottest artists” and most of them are one ethnic group, or the Museum of Contemporary Art has this 12×12 [program, which has just been replaced by Chicago Works] and you just see one or two faces of color in there. We are saying, “We think this is good,” and yes, we can use Facebook and all these other things, or we can open the door and let you come in.

Jenny Lam blogs at Artists on the Lam. Her Twitter handle is @TheJennyLam.

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