Dancing While Black moderated conversation at Brooklyn Arts Exchange

Do you know what artists talk about? A seat at the table.

On Sunday, I spent the day at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange in a room full of dance, theater, music and performance artists. Rather than complaining about how “hard it is to make art,” we discussed practical strategies and discovered new questions from this topics that seem never-ending. We shared ways in which we can individually, and collectively, ‘lean in’, even when there are structures that continually under-value (read: completely disregard) the vital, non-monetary role arts and culture bring to our society. (The way real estate developers gobble up ‘hip’ neighborhoods should be enough of a sign post to solidify the artists’ place in the economic survival of our cities.) This is what artists talk about.

There continues to be this misplaced, infantilized notion of the artist and our contribution — a notion that includes the belief that many of us think of ourselves as victims. I’ll take a leap and speak for 99% of the artists I’ve encountered. We don’t see ourselves that way. It is completely antithetical to the very definition of artists as creators. We have to be resourceful by nature. Our existence depends on the creative and strategic thinking. The same thinking that should be coursing through our classrooms, boardrooms and congressional chambers. This is what artists talk about.

What we, (still speaking for my 99%), do not appreciate is being discounted by lame, tired, rhetoric, financial withholding and justifications for devaluing the role of the arts in our culture. We also resent the glib ‘parental’ response of ‘it’s so hard to ‘make it.’ Would you say to a budding doctor, ‘oh it cost so much to go to school. It’s so hard.’ No, you wouldn’t. Let’s let go of these narratives that do not serve the reality of our societal make up. Artists live here. And yes, it is hard. Like child rearing. The seasoned artists, already know this and the younger ones who are dedicated to cultivating an artist’s practice beyond the fantasy of American Idol insta-celebrity are learning. It is unacceptable that being an artist has become some kind of curse word; some kind of anti-intellectual, anti-economic and unworthy pursuit. Or worse, some rare luxury that only magical unicorns can afford; Or even more deadly, only for the wealthy to pursue. This is what artists talk about.

We are finding innovative ways to make and share work. We strive to run our artistry like businesses, are eager to be taught and seek better ways to become sustainable. Some of us have built successful systems. Some create within the market-demand structures (or in spite of them); some create to better children’s lives or the sick or the elderly; we discuss health insurance, employee troubles, long-term planning. We continue to be visionaries and persevere.

I reject the notion that monetary success is the only factor for being able to ‘sit at the table’ and have meaningful conversations. Especially conversations with philanthropic businesses and foundations that actually support creative endeavors. Even those artists that are hiding (or not hiding) within corporate environments, see things differently. Having an artist at the table is a value add.

Artists talk about the economic pressures that are derailing communities.

Artists talk about finding ways to collaborate with institutions to support their best intentions.

Artists talk about business structures that can work to support the work of artists.

Artists talk about how gentrification, police brutality, global warming and every ‘ism’.

Artists talk about how to raise their families.

Artists talk about the political outcomes of the upcoming elections and zoning laws.

Artists talk about creative capitalism (i.e. Bill Gates) and how can we create good works of art and maximize profits.

Artists talk about financial concerns and fiduciary responsibilities.

And yes, artists talk about the efficacy and beauty of what it is they are creating for others.

There is nothing untoward in this short list. Too often, we are not invited to sit in the room against the weight of a very limited perception of what we can talk about. Oh, don’t worry. We’re making our own rooms and are occasionally asked. It’s just too bad for those of you who are neglecting such a vast resource. As I see it, more people — artists and others — should listen to Seth Godin.

“Every day I meet people who have so much to give but have been bullied enough or frightened enough to hold it back. It’s time to stop complying with the system and draw your own map. You have brilliance in you, your contribution is essential, and the art you create is precious. Only you can do it, and you must.” — Seth Godin from Linchpin: Are you indispensable?

He’s offering a different view. More than just a place at the table. The artist is one of the legs.

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