The past four months have only strengthened my conviction about what the arts do for humanity and why the practice of them is so critical for us right now. Making art exercises our individual and collective ability to shape the future by strengthening our capacity to imagine and to hope. In light of what’s happened since the death of George Floyd and so many others, it occurs to me that humanity’s resiliency, whether in recovering from a pandemic or in addressing social injustice, depends on the strength of our imagination and our ability to feel compassion. Without these two abilities, it’s impossible to hold onto hope — for change, for a future that is better.
We need the arts not only for the kind of renewal that boosts our recovery from months of isolation due to COVID-19, but also for renewal that helps us address the collective trauma we are experiencing after witnessing racist acts of violence. We must shore up both our compassion and our imagination to disrupt cycles of injustice that go on and on; otherwise, rage inevitably emerges from not acknowledging these cycles and from not righting these wrongs. When our capacities for compassion and imagination are weak, we are a lesser kind of humanity, unequipped to address our own problems or those of the world around us. Arts experiences foster our capacity to feel compassion and to imagine a different way of being, which is our link not merely to survive, but to thrive and to be fully human.
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This means that those of us who work in arts and culture are primary caretakers of an absolutely essential public value. We have a crucial role as facilitators, creators, nurturers, promoters and producers of arts experiences — ones that connect people, address their emotions and stories, ignite precious human imagination and deepen our ability to understand others unlike ourselves.
The past months have also reinforced my belief that the arts field must evolve so we can deliver impactful experiences and processes that strengthen society. Evolving towards this end means
rethinking and retooling so we can more fully support emotional, psychological and intellectual health. The arts field has long exalted the artistic virtuosity of the few and deployed it for the relatively few more, who, most likely, are over 50, white and have higher education degrees and greater income. What we need are arts institutions that aim to celebrate and cultivate the creative power of everyone, including many who don’t feel particularly welcomed by us or compelled by what we currently offer.
"The arts field has long exalted the artistic virtuosity of the few and deployed it for the relatively few more, who, most likely, are over 50, white and have higher education degrees and greater income."<br>Josephine Ramirez
Fortunately, the arts field is rich with accounts of many mid-size and smaller arts organizations that have alwaysoperated in the way I’m describing while other large ones, such as The Music Center, where I work, are steadily transforming themselves even in the midst of a pandemic and a crushing economy. As a civic institution dedicated to arts created by, with and for the people of L.A. County, The Music Center’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and access cannot be realized through one program, but is a central commitment to our work. For example, even though The Music Center board shifted substantially and is now comprised of 40 % BIPOC membership, we are not by any means “one and done” — our vision demands continual internal organizational change (currently both the board and the staff are in the midst of planning conversations about anti-racism). Similarly, we know that our programming opportunities, designed so people can participate in unconventional, interactive, less formal, and more free and low-cost arts experiences, must also keep stretching towards greater relevance and reflect what L.A. County looks like.
For the arts field, addressing program content is only part of the work ahead. Acknowledging our collective complicity in the structural racism embedded in all our organizations is where we must begin. The clear-eyed, methodical and often painful work of changing an organization’s core is not for leaders who lack tenacity, vision or flexibility. Yet, particularly now, in the face of so much serious wear and damaging tear on the social, cultural and emotional fabric of our lives, it’s essential for arts organizations to choose impact and relevance, reimagining what we do, how we do it and who it’s for.
“We are seeing humanity awaken to a new level of awareness of systemic injustice in the world, the suffering it causes, and of the role each of us play in perpetuating these systems — predominantly by those of us with privilege and power. We would do well to remember that evil can only be substantially overcome by collective good. When one part is hurt, we all share in that pain, and if one part is liberated, we all share in the joy.” <br> — Richard Rohr
Top Image: Ballet Folklorico Nueva Antequera joins the celebration of the grand reopening of The Music Center’s newly renovated plaza during The Music Center’s Plaza for All Celebration. | Courtesy of The Music Center