ELDERS IN THE ART COMMUNITY
This article was written after the promptings of an event at the Painted Bride (Philadelphia Arts Center) in February 2017, which was intended to bring young artists together to network and connect with each other. They asked about what young artists really need.
ON BEING VALUED AND HAVING TRUE ELDERS IN THE ART COMMUNITY
We need a way to present our work professionally and non-competitively.
We need to be able to present our work in spaces that give the work due respect without putting huge investments of money and ego into booking those spaces. There is a dynamic for artists where we feel guilt for charging money for shows because our product is not predictable or perfect, yet we must charge money because of the expenses required to produce the work.
What we are in need of is organizations and allies who affirm the worth of our work and experiments before they are "good products"- who do not put up barriers of money and status in order for us to share our work in well regarded spaces.
We are in need of True Elders, allies who have gone before us and who have influence in places where we do not yet- who see and want to bless our efforts and attempts, messy and half-formed as they may be. We need Elders who see us as valuable before we are successful, before we are deemed worthy of being presented by the reputable theatre venue.
This seems to be backwards on a large scale in our culture and society. My experience in America, in the art world, is that I must be constantly proving myself to make it to the next tier of achievement, and achievement is likened with value. Our culture demands a proving of the self over and over again in a promise that we might avoid pitfalls of meaningless work, out-right joblessness or a general sense of ineffectiveness. This constant proving rests upon the foundation that we as we are, are not worthy of what the world has to offer and that we have to bolster and blow up our qualifications to be worthy of competing with others. The art world has certainly followed this same ideology.
What might provide great healing to young artists (and young people at large) is the affirmation that we are valuable and valued before we make good art, before we get a successful job, before we get out of bed.
What might provide the artist with better soil from which to grow is a rich network of Elders who are committed to promoting us in our half-formed states, and who understand that we are worthy of being presented just was we are.....That we are valuable because we are. We need Elders who are farther along the road and want to pull us along without a stipulation of proving our worth. We need Elders who bless our silly attempts and who deeply salute our efforts with their support, with the sharing of their assets and what they've accumulated along the way. This means space, promotional experience, connections with resources and most importantly, the lessons they've learned from their own failures and crappy work. We need to be rid of the shame of presenting unpolished work in highly professional spaces. Just as I feel a sense of pride and delight in coming into a clean home with mud all over my clothes after hiking through the woods, I feel there must be no shame in presenting muddy work which comes from tripping through the swampy trails of longing, failure and error. In fact, I will argue that there is a clarity, a purity, which comes from contacting this type of mess, and it can be quite a gift for others in the community to touch it as well. This becomes a much more acceptable proposition when we consider that everyone's mud is worthy of being seen, not just those artists who have been deemed successful and worthy of being presented.
Organizations that want to ally themselves with young artists may consider offering more free spaces for "non-status" artists to perform in and by formally presenting and promoting young artists without having a highly competitive "presenter's gate" to go through.
I conclude with a few queries for organizations which seek to serve young artists:
How are you sharing your resources with young artists? Must an artist "prove themselves" in order to access your service?
Does the sharing of your resources reflect a rule of scarcity? Are resources distributed to only a few? Are there "winners" in your model?
In what non-competative ways do you show artists that they are valuable? How do you show support for artists who are not widely recognized by a community?
What would be a generous gesture that you could make to any young person who does not feel respected as a worthy contributor to society?