This is a time of instability. A time for us to reflect on our sustainability as individuals, artists and organizations and reflect on how we’ve been depending on systems built by the interests of specific groups — structures that project an image of safety and consistency that hides how fickle and volatile they can be.
The NEA has felt that tug of war. And we have yet to see how the current administration will impact this institution. This instability is a wake-up call. We must find alternative ways to be sustainable instead of depending on traditional sources of arts funding.
One of the main concerns around cuts to the NEA is the impact it will have on funding for state art councils throughout the nation. State councils are critical entities in their respective locations; they support the arts and culture environment specific to their cities and the dynamic communities of residents living there. This has a ripple effect that will impact many organizations and groups that rely on their state council support to exist and thrive. These groups will be shaken; they will struggle and will need to find new ways of creating sustainable work, if they survive.
There’s another factor that we need to put in context here: It’s not uncommon for non-profits and artists to be swayed by funders and cater to their interests in order to survive. And many of these institutions serve Western European ideals of artistic excellence, defined and defended by privileged groups. It is our responsibility as artists, curators/producers and arts managers to ensure integrity in our practice and our work, as well as to support the growth of healthy, diverse and strong communities of creative people. If traditional sources like the NEA lose support, that might liberate the arts to be braver, more vocal and less tame — to truly become more equitable and representative of the time and place where we live and create.
Art is not meant to be safe or inaccessible. High-end art institutions — with their own agendas — have made us believe this. Many of us on the ground, doing real work, understand that true freedom of expression flourishes outside of the restraints imposed by the market. And we understand that the value of art goes beyond it as commodity; it’s about creative practice and how this is part of our lives as individuals. Art is an expression of culture. If it remains only in service to the market or privileged groups, then it becomes stifled and does not grow to reflect our present and envision our future; it becomes a tool of conquest and oppression.
Why do we invest so much of ourselves in art-making and in empowering other creators? Art is how individuals and groups explore and claim their identities and how people take ownership of their own narratives and truths instead of letting others determine that for them. This sparks pride, ownership and sense of community, place and belonging. Art is voice and it sets the ground for civic engagement, political action and economic development. This is how cities are reenvisioned: through the activation of their people. This is how art can be a catalyst for social change. And this is the value it brings to our humanity. That is why we nurture creative communities at AS220 and why we have long been considered a sustainable model of what is now called creative placemaking.
At a time of instability is when art must flourish unstifled; it won’t stop even if traditional sources of support disappear. The resilience of artists has long been known. We will always find a way. We have already found ways, through partnerships, cross-sector collaborations and creative entrepreneurship. Now, the next step is to strengthen our partnerships so we can create robust networks of support in reenvisioning our present and future in service to art and community.