News & Notes: The Oregon Arts Summit

The buzzword was engagement at the arts summit

October 8, 2013—The Portland Ballroom of the Oregon Convention Center was full of the people who usually generate news for Oregon ArtsWatch, attracted by the annual Oregon Arts Summit produced by the Oregon Arts Commission. So, I settled in for much of the day there myself, just to see what THEY would be seeing. Arts journalists have it rough, don’t they?

This year’s conference was subtitled “Re-thinking Engagement,” which wasn’t much of a surprise. Artists and arts organizations alike are talking about engagement a lot, primarily because they are worried they aren’t getting enough of it from their audiences. And as the social media channels proliferate, they worry about which ones they should hop aboard to find audiences to engage in the first place. ArtsWatch worries about the same things, just for the record.

The four talks at the beginning of the conference didn’t specifically address the topic, well, only one really did and I doubt anyone took much solace in Anne Ellegood’s examples of engagement at the Hammer Museum in California. Inspiration, maybe, but not solace.

433State Representative Peter Buckley, who represents Ashland and co-chairs the Joint Ways & Means Committee, interspersed some great art quotes with a report from Salem. The arts did well this session, he said: the Cultural Trust (always a target for budget cutters and enemies of public support for the arts) was expanded “for years to come,” and the film and video tax credits that have lured various Hollywood productions to the state were extended and expanded, too. Education was next on the agenda, he said, now that the legislature had solved the problems of runaway public safety and health costs, and had stabilized PERS costs. And the arts would be in the middle of education funding: “We have a once in a generation opportunity to invest in our kids’ education, fueled by the arts,” he said.

Chris Beck, who works on rural development for the USDA, took us through slides of lots of projects around the country that planted arts centers in places previously considered to be unlikely. One tiny town in Minnesota had decided to turn its entire downtown into an arts campus, for example. He also pointed out some misses: The Discovery Center in The Dalles, for example, which he said was sited too far from downtown.

Then came Ellegood, who is the Hammer’s senior curator, though more importantly a graduate of Wilson High School in Portland. She had slides, too, of all the creative and unconventional ways that the Hammer reaches out and touches its audiences. More importantly to the topic, though, she pointed out two important things: 1) artists have been engaging with audiences since the beginning of artists and audiences, and 2) audiences are far more interested and active (let’s call that “interactive” just for fun) than we sometimes give them credit for, an observation she credited to philosopher Jacques Rancière. She cited Rancière’s argument that “looking” and “acting” are actually the same thing, and she observed the “enormous capacity for visual literacy” of visitors to the Hammer and, by extension, everyone else in the image drunk contemporary world, I suppose.

In fact, Ellegood is working on creating a show of work by artists who challenge our ideas of “engagement.” I love that it is called, “Take It or Leave It,” and its 30 artists number such provocateurs as Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Felix Gonzalez Torres.

Although I’m susceptible to Ellegood’s arguments, I also think that the arts world is right to be concerned about the attention the society devotes to it. I quote Simone Weil all the time: Culture is the formation of attention. And the amount of money going into creating noise and distraction in the culture around products and empty games and entertainments threatens to wash out that attention altogether—or so we fear. Maybe we shouldn’t worry so much? But the water is rising! Do I sound conflicted on this?(!)

The final talk was actually a performance/memoir delivered by Lynn Manning, a poet and playwright and co-founder of the Watts Village Theater Company. Manning grew up impossibly poor and then was shot and left blind, and his story was a powerful reminder that we can be resilient, determined, accomplished in the face of the greatest adversities.

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Four break-out sessions were scheduled next, dealing with art and science, creative placemaking, arts advocacy, and media. I attended the media one, which included Steve Rosenbaum of Pop Art, Dave Weich of Sheepscot Creative, Namita Gupta Wiggers of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, and Morgan Holm of Oregon Public Broadcasting, moderated by Teresa Koberstein of Portland Emerging Arts Leaders. It was jammed and time allotted hardly was sufficient to get very far beyond generalities, I’m afraid.

Rosenbaum and Weich both argued for arts groups to dig deeper into the digital world. Digital tools are useful, sure, to link up your followers on Twitter to your events, say, but they are more than tools: They create an environment in which more and more people feel right at home. And once you embrace that environment, as an organization, you can transform everything you are doing, from selling tickets to programming, Rosenbaum said.

Wiggers talked about some of the inexpensive ways that her museum uses to swim in the digital sea, successfully building Flickr or Tumblr components into the exhibitions. And that was an important takeaway, I think, both from her talk and Ellegood’s: Take your advanced ideas about how to employ your audience in ever-deeper levels of participation very seriously, but make it amusing, too.
Holm talked about OPB’s growing investment in the arts, with a new arts radio program, “State of Wonder,” in the starting gate for a November 2 broadcast date. And he generally helped to keep the discussion and question-and-answer period grounded. The most provocative of those questions came at the end, when someone suggested that maybe the embrace of digital by arts organizations would hurt their ticket sales. That got some applause from a sector of the audience, though it would take a brave arts administrator to abandon digital altogether.

The group treated “digital” and “engagement” as the same thing, which is interesting but also problematic. Ellegood’s examples of audience engagement at the Hammer weren’t primarily digital at all. Maybe the arts will understand the digital world, and use that understanding to create a better NON-digital experience in front of play, painting or music group?

I had to leave the convention center at lunch, missing out on all the conversations among attendees, which were just heating up as I left. I returned for the first of the two afternoon sessions, and I found myself in the one called “Art-ternative Medicine,” led by Patricia Dewey of the University of Oregon, who did an excellent job of explaining what that title meant, and including Katy Liljeholm of Well Arts, Julie Manning of Samaritan Health Services in Corvallis, and Heather Mikes of Legacy Medical Group.

Do the arts have healing properties? If so how does that work? OK, I admit I was a little skeptical at first, but Mikes had graphs and a physiological explanation (basically, the arts help move us from stressed, fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system states into calmer more regenerative para-sympathetic nervous system states). And then she pointed out how valuable the arts are in dealing with patients who themselves are dealing with the loss of identity, autonomy and their normal community because of their illness, which produces a feeling of hopelessness The arts are a great coping mechanism, because by their nature they help assert identity, restore autonomy and create communities around them. And once patients are engaged in the arts, they slip into that parasympathetic system, turning their attention away from the anxiety and stress caused by the disease and its treatment.

Manning helped start an arts program at Samaritan Health Services in Corvallis ten years ago, and speaking of transformative, she said the introduction of the arts and artists into the lives of the patients, staff and visitors to her hospitals has changed things in a revolutionary way. The program provides bedside activities, lobby concerts, healing gardens, workshops with psychiatric patients and lots of art on walls. So, yes, what Mikes said actually works in the real world.

Liljeholm gave some specific, personal examples of how the artist-to-patient-and-back relationship works at Wellness Arts. Her program employs dancers and actors, and writing is a big part of things. Typically, a patient relays a story important to him or her, a playwright helps convert the story to script, actors rehearse the script and then it’s performed for family, friends, and beyond. Remember those four issues above? Identity, autonomy, isolation, hopelessness. See how that might work?

“I’m not a therapist,” Liljeholm said, “I use artists tools.” And those can be pretty powerful, it turns out.

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After that I had to leave, but I might have left anyway, because I didn’t want to crowd out the thoughts I was having about art and healing. Talk about engagement!

I hope that third round of breakout sessions went well, though I doubt they were conclusive in any way. The topic—or rather, the state—of engagement is too complex. We can think about it from so many angles psychologically (and physically!), sociologically, economically, technologically. In the meantime, administrators have to stop thinking and DO something at some point, figure out how they can reach and serve the public, and then invite them into a relationship with that grows and changes as the parties grow and change. And the decision to do is just the start…

One Response.

  1. Bill Bulick says:

    Talk about non-digital! I hope you are getting someone out to cover Nanda D’Agostina’s show at Marylhurst. It’s impossibly good – she conjures up a dream like experience/environment, full of ideas and exquisitely wrought objects and images – a careful layering and reification of much of her work over lo these many years. Awesome! Well, I guess there are a few digits lurking behind those images.

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