Since January 2018, Subashini Ganesan (she/her) has filled a curious role within the regional arts scene. In addition to her own career as an artist and arts administrator, Ganesan has served as the Creative Laureate appointed by the City government of Portland to advocate for the vast arts and cultural ecosystem.
As is typical of government, the role of Creative Laureate comes with an expiration date and is designed to turn over every two years. However, Ganesan’s tenure proved an exception. Given the unexpected impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, she agreed to extend her term to three-and-a-half years in order to provide continuity of support during a time when, as she put it, “advocacy is needed.”
Times of change are afoot with the onset of spring. As more and more people get vaccinated and prepare for the possibilities of physical togetherness, the search for a new Creative Laureate appointee is also underway. In addition to interviewing with ArtsWatch’s Dmae Roberts for Stage and Studio about this transitional period, Ganesan met with me and spoke about her advocacy work during this time and her last, community-healing project as Creative Laureate.
The connotations associated with advocacy continue to shift. Ganesan recalled her experience in advocacy just after she finished college and was working in nonprofits in Washington D.C.:
“When we say advocacy, it’s about learning, data collection, storytelling, and education,” she said of her time there. “So you have to talk to the folks who are being affected by the issue, and then we have to learn how to translate that information to those who have the ability to perhaps create some positive change.”
Fast forward to today—a time when advocacy, especially self-advocacy, is made possible through tools like social media—and popular conceptions of advocacy intersect more and more with emotional labor.
“I feel like my whole thing is about relationships,” said Ganesan. At the start of her term of service, Ganesan noticed that there was not a clear locus for the Creative Laureate, either in the greater artistic ecosystem or political sphere. So she jumped in and began cultivating the work for herself, which involved, as she described, “learning about all the different communities that make up the whole artistic ecosystem and trying to find ways to constantly connect them.” As founder of New Expressive Works (N.E.W.), a local performance venue that includes an extensive residency program, Ganesan’s pre-existing connections proved beneficial for continued relationship building.
Her initiatives as Creative Laureate have been heavily collaborative. These have included a citywide “Affordable Artist Space” questionnaire, two community forums on arts and politics at Portland State University, and the “PDX Area Artist Emergency Relief Fund,” which distributed over $170,000 to 250 artists impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Creative Laureate is a volunteer position with a nominal yearly stipend of $5,000 for expenses. As such, Ganesan made it a point to emphasize that she is not an employee of the City. Her unusual position “gives freedom,” but, she continued, “I think it adds more responsibility and accountability on me, you know, to keep having these conversations and to keep being super clear about what the intention of this work needs to be.” Her words bring up pressing questions about the function of advocacy within bureaucratic structures.
In considering this intention, she reflected: “I keep thinking, if I can be useful in this work to keep reminding some communities of powerful figures: ‘Hey, if you really, really claim you want to make a change, here are the ways that we can really do it. . .If you really want it, this is pain, this is the discomfort you’re going to have to go through because folks who have no voice have been/are being destroyed.”
During the next six months, Ganesan will move forward with the final initiative of her extended term as Creative Laureate, an arts-focused endeavor to support community healing. She explained that this initiative emerged out of a discussion with folks from City administration about honoring COVID victims.
“If we’re going to honor grief and loss, then it can’t be just COVID-centered because there’s so much more, and so much more that needs to be acknowledged,” said Ganesan. In our discussion, she cited the sustained protests and wildfires of 2020 as well as the continued racial injustices.
The healing initiative will involve city-wide community engagement over the course of six months as well as artistic synthesis and sharing through performance, exhibits, videos, etc. Many aspects of this project are still taking shape. Ganesean is presently in the first phase of the project, which involves meeting with community leaders. Public points of engagement are set to emerge later this summer.
“It’s about sitting and listening and being with different communities to hear what they need,” Ganesan explained. “It’s not going to be a linear journey.” She also noted that this initiative will involve plugging provision of resources into moments of community connection.
As we discussed the initiative, I asked about the public support Mayor Ted Wheeler’s Office has given the project. Ganesan acknowledged that this aspect of the initiative would incite concern. This is to be expected, especially given the mayor’s role as the Commissioner of the Portland Police Bureau and the widespread criticism of policing of the protests for social justice.
While it remains to be seen whether community members most vulnerable to white supremacy in both policy and policing will be willing to participate in the initiative, Ganesan did clarify that she is working hard to emphasize the project’s community-centeredness:
“This project is about humans, and it’s about artists, and it’s about communities,” she said, adding that it was not about the police bureau or exonerating the Mayor. She expressed strong resolve that the project stay true to its initial intention.
The initiative will take Ganesean to the end of her term on June 30 and beyond it. The new Creative Laureate will enter before the initiative is complete, but Ganesean will continue to steward it to its final phase.
When I asked her what the future holds, Ganesan shared plenty of ambitions. She noted that she was fresh off her recent residency with Caldera Arts, where she had dreamed up “about seven different artistic projects.” She also noted that her work at N.E.W. will also continue to evolve in light of the pandemic’s impact on live performance.
Unsurprisingly, she concluded by underscoring her resolve to continue advocacy. “I’m going to keep working and keep pushing the agenda because, as things go to the next phase. . . whatever ‘next phase’ is, we need the advocates to be standing right there to say we’re not going back to the way things were.” She added, “And what does that mean? Are we moving too fast? Or, are the people in power making decisions about what this new phase looks like?”
As we finished our discussion surrounding the work and complex power dynamics of her tenure, she mused, “I don’t have any financial power, and I certainly don’t have power in that funny way, but I’m scrappy!” She will not be stopping anytime soon.
TRANSPARENCY NOTE: Many have benefitted from Ganesan’s work in the local arts and cultural ecosystem, including myself. In 2018, Ganesan awarded me the New Expressive Works Artist Residency and has supported me in other ways on my journey in this community.