Over several months, I have witnessed a small part of the national unfolding of red, black, and GREEN: a blues (rbGb), a performative collaboration between Marc Bamuthi Joseph/The Living Word Project and Theaster Gates.
I am stunned at the synergy in practices between Bamuthi (artist/educator and director of performing arts at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) and Theaster (artist/urban planner and director of arts and public life at the University of Chicago).
For both Bamuthi and Theaster, the “relationship economy” is intrinsic to their work. As I become immersed in Emerging Leaders Network – Chicago (ELN) and the city as a whole, I’ve observed three areas highlighted by rbGb, activated in ELN and others, and rich with opportunities for greater impact in the arts.
1 – Flatten hierarchy. Stay in community online and off.
In a “Green Paper” about the future of arts leadership, Jennifer Armstrong describes the “amazing Technicolor dream” that could be achieved if emerging leaders “poke[d]” at established managers until a “genuine exchange” came around. This move to level existing hierarchies is possible from both sides. Jennifer, for example, is a champion for the field and subscribing to her feed on Facebook allows me, an aspiring curator, a vehicle for quick questions and insight into cultural initiatives.
Bamuthi and Theaster are some of the busiest yet most approachable multiple-titled artists I have ever met. Despite, or perhaps, because of this fact, rbGb is designed for the audience to walk on stage post-show and talk directly with Bamuthi, Theaster, dancer/actress Traci Tolmaire, and musician Tommy Shepherd.
Opening up such points of access feeds the creative practice of the artists, but also deepens community by allowing the audience to participate in the framework of shared values that inform the work.
2 – Build relationships. Private philanthropy is part of an interdependent whole.
“The hidden metric of cultural stimulus in America is the scale and health of partnerships within our creative ecosystems…” – Marc Bamuthi Joseph at the 2011 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference
From crowdfunding through United States Artists to strategic support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, rbGb invited a diverse range of stakeholders to bring the question of “what sustains life?” to stages across the country.
Jessica Kaswiner also harnessed the power of the collective for an ELN “Mega Mixer” as a way to foster the exchange of best practices and new ideas for junior boards of cultural organizations.
And Theaster, after reviving the real estate on his block independently, created the Rebuild Foundation as an umbrella for his real estate development which allows individuals as well as government agencies to support his work.
3 – Dissolve boundaries. Simply choose the best path for executing your vision.
“When there is an opportunity for a cultural moment, I try to think hard about where that moment happens and why it’s important…” – Theaster Gates (Art Works blog)
Theaster, trained as a potter and urban planner with the music and foodways of the South embedded in his practice, maintains a wide range of methodologies to honor his place in the creative ecosystem. In each instance, there is a moment where he asks, “is my hand needed more in this situation, or my voice?”
While Bamuthi stands out in the Bay Area for spearheading interconnected and complementary initiatives, Chicago’s creatives, like Theaster, are masters at charting a path along multiple affiliations to realize their goals.
Emmanuel Pratt, executive director of the Sweet Water Foundation and head of the Aquaponics Center at Chicago State University, framed his doctoral research as creative inquiry via The Mycelia Project during his time as an artist-in-residence at the Hyde Park Arts Center:
As we continue to emerge, poke, challenge, build, and leverage our skills as arts leaders, our impact is only as strong as the access, relationships, and vision we design for ourselves.
We live in a world where the tenets of relational aesthetics are meeting the principles of community design and our livelihood depends on our ability to see and leverage the connectedness of it all.