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What If? Imagining New Ways of Working in the Performing Arts

The following is a summary of key learnings and resources from a virtual conversation held as part of the ArtsEngage Learning Community in November 2020. The focus of this session was What If? Imagining New Ways of Working in the Performing Arts. Find more resources from the Learning Community here.

The artists and presenters who make up the ArtsEngage Learning Community are all working on community-engagement projects that push the boundaries of their usual practice. The intention of the Community is to provide peer support as each team explores new ways of relating to their communities.

Of course, artists have always been innovators, and now more than ever our sector is interrogating our usual ways of working. The pandemic has opened many eyes to the need for large-scale change in our sector and society at large. But are we prepared to build back better? Are we ready to start right now?

“Life is very short. What we have to do must be done in the now.”- Audre Lorde

With these essential conversations in mind, for our November Spotlight we wanted to invite speakers who are walking the walk - not only talking about change, but actually enacting it. So we invited Arkady Spivak, Artistic Producer of Talk is Free Theatre (TiFT), and theatre artist Brendan Chandler to share some of the innovative projects that they have been developing.

Innovative Change with Talk is Free Theatre

The video above captures Arkady and Brendan's initial conversation, which kicked off our virtual gathering. This chat focused on two programs that Talk is Free Theatre initiated in 2020. In both cases, Arkady saw the pandemic as an opportunity to interrogate our assumptions and make radical changes to the way that we work.

"All we do in the arts is fix problems, but I can't be defined by the problems." 

So Arkady looked at how quickly artists were losing work in 2020, and asked himself, 

“What if we had a support system for artists… that conditioned them to prove their point of view, rather than their value?”

The Artist Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) Pilot Program emerged from this question. Through this program, Talk is Free Theatre will provide a guaranteed income of $10 000 per year for three years to approximately 30 artists. The artists will work with TiFT to determine which projects they will work on each year - allowing them the flexibility to join projects that fit their artistic values and personal lifestyles, while providing some financial stability.

This idea of providing support and independence to artists is also embedded in the second program, Resistance and Change, which Brendan played a key role in designing. 

“I believe artists should have greater decision-making authority… what if artists actually developed the program?”

Designed and developed by Brendan Chandler, Alana Hibbert, Richard Lam and Tahirih Vejdani, Resistance and Change provided 15 grants of $5,000 each to artists “for projects that promote social activism, community building, and the ongoing fight against inequality, discrimination, colonialism, and injustice.” The projects did not necessarily have to be artistic works, but could include other forms of activism or engagement.

As Brendan described, the goal of the program was to break down the idea of what it means to actually make change, wherever the change needs to happen.

Blue Sky - Imagining Change

This inspiring conversation between Brendan and Arkady led to breakout “nooks”, where participants were invited to imagine changes to existing relationships in the performing arts. Each group was given one relationship (with funders, with audiences, with community, or between presenters and artists), and asked to interrogate what is not currently working about that relationship, and what radical changes they might imagine.

After having a chance to discuss separately, each group brought back their most radical “What if?” question for further discussion with Brendan and Arkady:

A few of the inspiring ideas that came out of these discussions included:

  • What if we created a funding model that supports the artistic process rather than product? 
  • What if artists were given funding to work, untethered to a particular outcome (or to different outcomes)?
  • What if we shifted our idea of deliverables - what about deliverables like "this person is making a living wage" or "this person is making something creative instead of collecting social assistance" or "this person is meaningfully contributing to a better society"?
  • What if we supported the presentation of an artist over several years?
  • What if we presented artists we normally would not?
  • What if we treated artists like co-conspirators, honoured guests, and/or members of the staff?
  • What if we grew the arts ecosystem at all levels, creating more low-level, paying gigs with creativity at their core?
  • What if we altered our structures to allow for failure and experimentation?
  • What if we gave artists a governance role in organisations? 
  • What if all performances were free? (for more on this idea, see TiFT’s new free admission structure!)
  • What if performing arts spaces (virtual or physical) were available to community members?
  • What if we intentionally created space for building community outside of performances (beyond talkbacks)?
  • What if community members’ curiosity overcame their inhibitions? How can audiences have a say, a response, a dialogue with the artists, in the moment?
  • What if the audience was not a “them” but part of a “we” with artists and administrators? What if the audience was on the stage?
  • What if we allowed the relationship with community to become its own entity - to grow and change?
  • What if a community really needs to grapple with an issue and no one is dealing with it?  What is the artist’s responsibility?  Is it solely the artist’s responsibility?
  • What if artists took other people as a starting point for their creative process?
  • What if arts organizations were the roots that feed the community?

The goal of this Spotlight was not to walk away with concrete programs, but to bring like-minded people together to connect, discuss, and imagine change. As this (by no means exhaustive) list makes clear, the group was eager to do so! The energy in the virtual room was palpable, conveying a clear desire for new, radical ideas in our sector. Participants reflected:

“I left inspired.  I have been wanting to focus on artists and process and community and not on product. This session has given me confidence and ideas to move forward.” 

“It was just so valuable to be in the 'space' with everyone with room to brainstorm and think big and freely. Ways of questioning practices and assumptions will be useful in my practice. “

“This is a time to reflect on what changes are possible - COVID as an opportunity”

We hope to continue to bring artists and arts professionals together to continue these conversations in the future!



Community Engagement Resources from Doug Borwick

Doug Borwick is a US-based artist, arts administrator, and leading advocate for community engagement in the arts.

Nurturing Local Culture: Stories from Creative People and Places

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