Deborah Rutter, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts announced the Citizen Artists Initiative in 2016, and she has been bringing together a group of talented young artists each year to engage community and break down the walls that continue to separate art making and opportunities as citizen-leaders in initiatives for social change. On Monday, April 16 she welcomed artists, scientists, educators, and political leaders for justice and equity to join her in KC’s fifth Arts Summit to get us all in the conversation.
“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics
whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities.
We need [people] who can dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not?’”
President John F. Kennedy
The theme of the day was “what if” – the stuff that dreams are made of. No one does “what if” like artists. Taking a page from the ideals and initiatives of President Kennedy, Rutter and her colleagues returned to asking during the day, “What if instead of a Kennedy moon shot, we put focus and money into arts, arts education, public health and sustainability to reframe and find solutions to key global issues?”
The point being, of course, that we are facing problems that affect us all and many issues seem to be reaching crises of great magnitude. What has become clear is that old solutions have not worked. Waiting for things to resolve themselves has also not worked.
(This sure sounded like a page from the “March For Our Lives,” that powerful and hope fillled day when high school students organized and led a march in Washington on March 24, injecting new energy into what had seemed like a floundering cause: sensible laws about guns to protect American and especially young American lives. “What if” young people could really bring us together and change the way we view ourselves as a people?) It’s all about the power of an idea.
Throughout the day we heard from young people like 22-year old Jasmine Babers, who as a teenager began a magazine to empower and promote young girls. Her passion and her confidence may be attributed in part to untested youth. But the new generation has put us on notice, saying in essence as the young leaders voiced in the march, “If you guys can’t get behind the momentum, then get out of the way, WE GOT IT.”
The idea of citizen artists and the potential in harnessing people who are involved in the arts in addressing societal ills is that these people are able to look at problems from a creative perspective. Most of the smartest thinkers in the world see that it may not be a series of linear steps in solving some of our greatest challenges. Artists live in a special space where they may indeed be the ones who can provide not just a flexible perspective but scoop up an idea, see a vision that can take form. What is being suggested in this summit is that such forms can coalesce to enable everyone to leapfrog to a solution or several solutions and then we can work backwards to solve steps of implementation and governance.
The morning …
In the morning we were treated to a showcase performance by artists and also reflections by the Citizen Artist Fellows from 2017-2018.
It started out awkwardly. A trio of musicians began to play a composition. It was the National Anthem. We stood up. The tune after a verse began to “fall apart.” We sat down. Scraps of the anthem came back. People began looking around. Were we supposed to stand again? As the piece went on, more and more notes were left out until we were left with silence. We sat in silence. Uncomfortable. Vulnerable. Imperfect art.
What did it mean? It went beyond being told that the inspiration for this Deconstructed Anthem was the 2.3 million people incarcerated. We were there in a kind of shared emotional reverence. It was the idea that gathered here at the Kennedy Center people were willing to be (even tearfully) vulnerable and imperfect and so moved by the plight of others to do something.
Damian Woetzel, the director of Aspen Institute and newly named director of Julliard School in New York, built on this idea. Imagining his own journey up to the hallowed halls of arguably America’s premiere temple of perfection or at least perfectionists in music, dance, and theatre, he spoke excitedly about wanting to air the place with the notion of pausing, silence, and yes, imperfection.
During the day Mayda del Valle and Maimouna Youssef treated us to duets that blended del Valle’s powerful poetry, weaving in seemingly effortlessly the major themes and images of the day with Youssef’s ethereal vocalizes, as gorgeous flowing ribbons of sound as Villa Lobos ever created. DJ J. Period, “the most creative mixtape producer of all time,” joined them, bringing the voice of John F. Kennedy and others back to life in a surprise music-making performance mix.
There were also threads of conversations. In the morning, featured panelists went more deeply into some real problems and how they were addressing these problems as individuals. But the format made people move off their five-minute pitches. Instead, there was one long conversation format with people switching out to form new dyads. People were forced not only to speak on point and address their colleague’s questions but to listen and build on each other’s ideas.
Linda Nathan, an experienced and impassioned educator, spoke of the need and rights of every child to have daily art-making integrated into the curriculum to replace all the preparation involved and emphasis on high stakes testing. Angelique Power, President of Field Foundation, spoke frankly and indeed courageously about the need to rethink the whole world and process of philanthropy. Most fundamentally, she urged her colleagues to educate themselves to understand root causes of problems and to “move upstream” rather than keep scooping out the babies floating down river. (It was quite an image.)
Bill O’Brien, Senior Advisor with the NEA, put forward the notion that we had better rethink who our tribes are and that we need to decouple product from process, that the need for excellence can be there but that participation needs to be broadened and shared. One of the projects he is focusing on is one supporting those returning from military duty or after incarceration who similarly are trying to reenter “normal” life and the role that art can play. Dr. Jeremy Nobel built on this idea, stressing that it is important to normalize creativity as a daily activity as a basic health need.
Might a doctor ask, “How deeply are you actually living? What if… you could engage in meaningful art-making?”
Sometimes we might have drowned in problems and words, but then we would be reminded why we were all there and why we care so deeply. For me, one of those moments was seeing a clip of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s collaborative work with choreographer Bill T. Jones for the opera We Shall Not Be Moved. I heard before I saw the artist in the video, the unparalleled voice of John Halliday singing, “Love is the only word sweeter than black.” Message, context, and the sheer beauty of this counter tenor’s sound came together to break open the heart.
Then, soon after, Matt Gould took a seat at the piano and filled the space with a very different, raucous uplifting sound. He provided a way to celebrate, sing and laugh together and some images that seemed themes for the day. One was connection, or in his words, “There’s a long invisible thread wrapped around my heart and your head.” He also spoke the name that would not otherwise be named in the room in an anthem where he led us from Henry Ford’s anti-semitic words (which inspired Hitler) to Trump hate-filled diatribes. Their words are out there. He challenged us all, asking, what are the echoes we would want from the words we speak?
Ryan Gravel, Designer and Urban Planner shared his big dream, now a reality, that is transforming Atlanta with the Beltline, a grass roots idea that has been regenerating and connecting neighborhoods. Valerie Fletcher, as the Executive Director of the Institute for Human Centered Design, has been working in Boston for decades challenging developers, planners, agencies, and educational institutions to create spaces with the idea of accessibility. Her work (that design is also a human right) has challenged her to keep expanding her understanding of who needs to be included (and the challenges posed by disparate abilities, age, cultural, and economic differences) in rethinking community.
The speakers were inspiring. What if …we spent 1% of the Pentagon’s budget on inspiration?
Citizen Artist Fellows were announced for 2018-2019. Their missions are as varied and fascinating as their histories. Justus Harris, a Chicago-based artist and educator, has used his challenges with Type 1 diabetes to create three-dimensional sculptural aids to help transmit information and help people living with chronic diseases. Chinese-American Shaw Pong Liu uses her playing of violin and classical Chinese erhu as well as her talents as composer to create projects that reach and celebrate bi-cultural communities in Boston. Omar Offendum is a Syrian American rapper/poet who blends classic Arabic poetry with Hip Hop. As poet, educator, and community activist, Donny Rose uses his talents to serve and uplift his community of Baton Rouge. Rulan Tagen is a native-American director and choreographer who, with her company Dancing Earth, explores movement for transformation and healing.
The afternoon …
It was a full morning. But wisely, the focus shifted the afternoon. In the previous years, the KC Arts Summits were building up energy for the idea and making a clarion call for artists to commit themselves to the idea of intentional citizenship. This year, the planners of the event challenged us all to help each other make ideas actionable and with outcomes. “ Don’t wait either for perfection or coming up with ‘the best’ solution. Do the next thing.”
Three break out sessions divided up the groups to focus more deeply on some aspect or moonshot. Education, Public Health, and Finite Resources (Sustainability.) Lively question and answer periods followed presentations about specific projects and ways to address the challenges of these big issues.
At the end of the day, small groups created their own moon shots on construction paper projects. Then, as if to celebrate the giants that came before, Jamie Bernstein had created a special arrangement of music by her father, Leonard Bernstein, whose birthday is being celebrated throughout the Kennedy Center. When we heard local kids play and sing “Somewhere,” I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.
Eric Liu, founder and CEO of Citizen University, has shaped the Arts Summits from its inauguration. He addressed the group in a wrap-up, returning to his favorite themes of the menace of compartmentalization and that we all must create the opportunities as well as assume responsibility both as artists and as citizens.
Liu urged everyone in the room not to jettison the imperfections of our individual visions and talents but that imperfection is perhaps the path and most important energizer in American history, a country far from perfect but, in its great experiment, one that continues to fight to revise and move forward. This calls on everyone to stay focused, energized and engaged to do that work. His reframing of the national conversation, so often mired in anger, disappointment and polarization, was enthusiastically positive and may be the most valuable take away of the Arts Summit 2018.