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From Artistic Joy to Collective Wellness with Marc Bamuthi Joseph

November 20, 2023


Meany Center is privileged to host Marc Bamuthi Joseph — artist, activist and vice president of social impact at the Kennedy Center — as our Artistic Partner for the 2023-24 Season. This year, Marc is collaborating with Meany to launch a multi-year, campus-wide initiative, “From Artistic Joy to Collective Wellness.”

In October, UW Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs Ed Taylor interviewed Marc about this project.

Learn more about Meany Center's 2023–24 Artistic Partner Marc Bamuthi Joseph and From Artistic Joy to Collective Wellness

The following is a lightly edited transcript of the complete interview:

How do you describe yourself?

I make culture for a living as part of my passion, and also as a conduit to a transformative future. Making culture for me often takes the form of writing for performance. 

And sometimes that's a small poem, and sometimes it's an opera. But my role as vice president of Social Impact at the Kennedy Center is also really important because I thus have the privilege of using an institutional lever, in this case, our National Cultural Center, to think about what it is to model pedagogically what a smart investment in artistic intellect can look like in terms of the preservation of our democracy.

You see art-making as an act of teaching and an act of liberatory pedagogy?

I'm an acolyte of Paolo Ferrari, so I absolutely move in that vector. I think art-making as a cultural interface has to be intentional. And maybe because I have an educational background, I think about learning environments and growing environments and think about how inquiry is a key instrument in maximizing learning and collective growth.

And sometimes that happens in a theater like the Meany Center, and sometimes it happens in a classroom or laboratory that are so pervasive here on campus. And sometimes it happens through policy work at a cultural center and all in a very public way.

This year, in collaboration with the Meany Center, you’re working with the theme From Artistic Joy to Collective Wellness. Break down those words. 

I like to say that I don't believe in art that doesn't bleed or sweat or cry.

Maybe it is ancestral, but the evidence of labor in terms of art and creative practice is really central to me. You know, a lot of times you break down the form of a poem into meter or rhythm or syntax, but I often think about poetry also as adjudicated by sweat and the evidence of work.

So in the same way that labor is evidence of artistic practice, I think using joy as a North star or as an emanating force or kind of animating force for why it is that we make art is also really important. 

In this case, Joy is really a corollary to inspiration. So, locating artistic practice emanating from joy in service of civic inspiration or systemic inspiration is, I think, the foundation of that part of the phrase.

Collective wellness really speaks to the interdependence of well-being that's necessary for a healthy society. It's not to say that there is one standard of health. It is to say that we are in a time when we have to consider healing in public. 

So towards the aim of public healing, how do we frame wellbeing in terms of maximizing people's participation, maximizing access, and also loosening this idea that wellness is an individual act, that, unlike the economic enterprise, the marketplace of health has to be reciprocal. There has to be mutuality and energetic reciprocity if we are to be a healthy society.

These are powerful words—interdependence and reciprocity, the public nature of our healing and wellness. How does all of that manifest in your work with Meany Center?

I've lived on the West Coast for most of my adult life, got married here, raised my kids here. So I have a fond relationship to Seattle. I've had shows at Bumbershoot, I've been at On the Boards, and ACT theater, the Intiman—I've been in many different performance venues in and around the area.

But I never had a direct interface with the University of Washington or with the Meany Center specifically. Right around the time that George Floyd was killed in 2020, my partners at SOZO media and I started talking about healing forward, and we framed our work not in terms of an anti-racist ambition, but the ambition of systemic allyship. And we held a kind of mini conference about systemic allyship.

Michelle attended the conference, and I think what we had to say and the way that we held space really resonated with her, so she was curious about taking on a more prolonged relationship with this language and with these practices. 

We spent a year working with the entire staff of the Meany Center, thinking about these principles, thinking about the idea of systemic allyship, talking about pipeline issues, pedagogical issues.

What that ultimately yielded, I think, was a theory of change that really centered wellness on campus. We wanted to think about the health of students transitioning from their high schools or even from their undergraduate experiences into a not quite post-pandemic reality and how the arts and wellness and a direct and stated theory of change could all work together.

We started with a conversation that featured, directors and deans and an assortment of folks from all over campus running various programs from the School of the Built Environment to the galleries on campus, to the college of Ats and Sciences—just a really spectacular array of folks that I call the creative ecosystem. 

I think nature loves diversity and so does culture. It takes many different kinds of minds operating in very many different kinds of ways to actually produce a healthy cultural and intellectual landscape.

You brought together leadership of the campus schools and colleges that often don't always speak to each other, and students and staff at the university as well as community members. And you posed some questions.

The first question, the leading question is: when in your American life have you felt most free? It's a question that comes out of a broader inquiry that I'm doing about the Declaration of Independence, given that 2026 will mark the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. I don't think that you can legislate liberation.

The second question, was:  what tools or protocols or programs or policies or relationships have you developed in service of that feeling? Know this is a way of thinking about collective well-being—just a little bit differently. Center this idea of freedom and then think pretty hard about how you scaffold your own life, your own behaviors in order to serve that feeling of freedom.

In your collaboration with Meany, what are some of the ways in which this is going to be enacted?

I think one of the things that we wanted to make sure to say was that the relationship between arts and wellness isn't linear and it isn't necessarily predicated upon analysis of artistic outcomes. What I mean by that is, you don't have to see a dance and think about how it makes you well.  

In this case, artist modality, artist inquiry, artist interrogation—the ways that artists operationalize in order to make art can also be used to think about how institutions make policy. In many cases, culture precedes policy.

So to have this culture of inquiry that's really rooted in emotion and memory and to develop policy and discourse out of that is really what I'll be doing here through lectures, through conversations, through performances and through community gatherings over the course of the next year.

What are ways that members of the community can be involved and engaged with you?

With this project, I believe in a culture of invitation.

I like to say I had the best 30th birthday party ever. For my 30th birthday, I asked 20 people that I'm inspired by one question:  if you could start a culture with 20 people, who would you start the culture with? And I said, bring three of those people to my house on my birthday and I'll take it from there. 

This idea again, as a kind of antecedent, as a kind of seminal inquiry, who would you want to start a culture with? The idea that you invite from there is part of what we're bringing into this borderlessness, this more permeable way of working.

You will spend a year engaged with Meany and the university and the community. After a year when you look back, what's your hope for what we may have accomplished together? 

Well, let's start with when we look back. 

Because, you know, you look back after a year and you may not recognize much growth. I'm going to be 48 soon. I'm not the same person I was at 38 and not the same person I was at 28, not the same person I was at 18 or eight. Over time, if we're lucky, if we're privileged with breath, we grow, we change.

So rather than looking back after a year, what I encourage folks to consider is the horizon. Be intentional about the seeds that we're planting through these conversations and so forth and think about a five-year horizon or a six- or seven- year horizon.

What are we feeding ourselves right now in order to be the body politic that we wish to be seven years from now? The language of joy as just part of the pedestrian vernacular of the university is something that I think we desire, the language of collective responsibility. I hope that is just a literacy that we all share.

We talked about safety and we talked about possibility. I think those are two very powerful notes that speak to both our collective well-being and also to an artistic perspective. 

I hope that part of the health of our student body, our staff, our faculty is more steeped in this idea that we don't have to just produce.

We have to produce possibility for ourselves and for one another.