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Art and Social Impact

December 10, 2021

“Are artists powerful catalysts for social change?”

That was the question up for discussion on November 18, 2021, on the campus of Harvard University where Meany Center Executive and Artistic Director Michelle Witt was invited to design and moderate a panel on the performing arts and social impact for the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative. Her exciting panelists, a group of visionary thinkers whom she is working with through Mellon Foundation-funded research, agreed to join her for a lively conversation on the topic.

Along with her collaborator Dr. Catherine Cole, Michelle spearheaded a Mellon Foundation-funded UW Arts and Creativity Initiative: designing collaborations between artists and communities, supporting faculty research, developing new interdisciplinary courses on creativity and furthering artists’ open-ended creative process.

“I hope today’s discussion sparks new ideas about social impact and the arts,” Michelle said — and during the ensuing 90 minutes, sparks did fly!

Meklit Hadero — a musician and UW Creative Research Fellow — was the first to answer. “I’ve done some research in the ways music experiences actually change our physical being. When people sing together, their hearts and brainwaves sync up. Any social change requires a group of people to move together towards a goal — and we have an ancient tool for that: art!”

For Emil Kang, Program Director for Arts & Culture at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the answer was a little more nuanced: “All humans are interested in social change,” he said. “And artists are human. In many cases, the artists don’t separate art from activism, but the marketplace forces a separation. Historically, our society values their output more than it values the artists themselves.”

Introducing himself as the “bad fairy” from Sleeping Beauty who wasn’t invited to the christening, choreographer and UW Creative Research Fellow Bill T. Jones offered a contrary opinion, “I don’t believe that art can do anything more than exist. Artists can’t create art that will end war — it’s not politics and it’s not science. It’s a click away from being religion — and if you try to impose your religion on other people, they generally resist.”

“Artists are seducers,” he went on. “We have to entertain to get butts in seats. I would like to think that people will come to my theater and see something they have never seen — and some people will be changed by it, but not everybody.”

It was left up to Janet Wong, Associate Artistic Director of New York Live Arts, to straddle the two sides. “I believe that art has an important impact on social change,” she said. “A deposed politician once said in a room full of arts people that there are two ways to shift ideas: one is through policy, imposing a law that may or may not last. The other way is what artists do — to change hearts and minds.”

From there the conversation ranged across a variety of topics from leadership to individual vs. organizational vision to the problem of funding in the arts. Emil Kang stated the problem succinctly:

“The starving artist trope is part of the problem. It perpetuates the sense of art as charity. For centuries, artists have worked in multiple sectors, but somehow, we now narrowly define arts as being within the nonprofit realm — connected with seeing artists as people who NEED. Artists taking money is not a bad thing; they should be allowed to cross corporate tax structures, work for nonprofit and for-profit systems.”

Meklit, who in addition to her career as a performing artist is also Chief of Program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, described a truly radical funding model at her organization.

“First, I have to own and understand that we do have a foot in capitalism,” she said. “How you manage to support equity, knowing that capitalism does not lead to equitable systems, is the question.

“We need new systems to support risk, but we need new systems period. This is part of systemic changes that we are going through on a large, large scale. One thing we try to think about at YBCA is how we can support systems and also pilot projects that show these new systems actually work.” She described a pilot program that guaranteed 190 artists $1,000 a month. The pilot includes rigorous study to see how this affects their ability to stay in San Francisco, their ability to do their work, and the impact they and their art have on their local communities.

She went on to talk about taking a cohort of artists working on behalf of community development to a SOCAP conference (an organization of social impact investors) where they competed for social impact investments. The artists didn’t want to be in competition with each other, so they decided if any one of them received funding, it would be shared across the group. They committed to each other’s projects, not just for the conference but well beyond it. In the end, they each received $250,000.

“This is about trusting artists,” Meklit said. “This is a model of participatory philanthropy that can lift up artists and put them in the lead.”

Michelle’s last question to the panel was about their vision for the future at this intersection of artistic practice and social change.

“Let’s rephrase the question,” Bill suggested. “First, how do you feel about the world… climate change, racism, extremism? Then, how do we do our art practice in the face of that future?”

It was a moment of quiet reflection and honest appraisal of the state of the world today. Yet, even in the face of the undeniable challenges Bill described, each member of the panel found some hope for the future.

For Emil Kang, “the future is really about letting artists define what art is, and for the public to respect and admire that commitment. Art is not about form or aesthetics—it’s about the humanity of the artist.”

Janet Wong answered Michelle’s question with one of her own: “What is my responsibility as an individual to make change in the world? And what does that mean to art? In this country we can only talk in terms of money: ‘This is how much we will make if we have theaters in this neighborhood that will lead to restaurants and commerce. But what is the value of ART?’ ”

“I need to say I am sad about where things are at,” Meklit responded. “When I get to the place of anger, I lift up my sail so it can move me, but underneath that sail is an ocean of sadness. Still, I need to be able to look my son in the eye and say I did my part — which is predicated on what and who I am.”

Even the “bad fairy” found solace in his work. “The world is dark,” Bill said, “but you always have to have something to hold onto, to inspire yourself. For me, it is beauty — make something beautiful in your work through music, dance.”

And then he proved the point, challenging Meklit to sing then and there, and promising to dance if she did. Thus, the evening ended by answering its own question with one body moving to the sound of one voice — and bringing all of us along with them.