What is the power of a form?
Is it possible to create an organizational form that fosters and embodies values of rigor, experimentation, responsiveness, difference in all its forms, difficult ideas, ground-level work, open communication, listening, collective action, transparency in governance and decision-making, and new forms of equity and power?
These are only a few words and phrases pulled from a longer statement of the core values of Common Field,1 an organizing network that connects experimental, artist-run and artist-centered spaces, organizers, and initiatives nationally.
Common Field began about two years ago, but its roots go back at least as far as the early 2000s. The Warhol Initiative (1999-2012) not only funded small arts organizations but convened them every three years. Sparked at those convenings, the desire for a network coalesced further in 2011 with a conference in Chicago – “Hand in Glove.” This was followed in 2013 by a retreat organized by the network’s five founders and attended by its first founding members. Public membership in Common Field was announced at a Hand in Glove convening in Minneapolis in late 2015.
Until now, Common Field has operated as a program of one of its members. More recently though, it became clear that it was time to be independent, especially in light of the growth of its membership, annual convening, programs, and budget. I’m a member of Common Field’s Council and of the governance team charged with overseeing this process.
Creating a legal structure may not sound sexy or contentious, but Common Field was guided by deeply principled founding members who wanted an organizational structure grounded in the values they believe in, values that the current Council continues to share. I wasn’t a founder and didn’t participate in early discussions, but, as I understand it, there was a justifiable fear that in adopting an institutional form Common Field would also adopt the power dynamics, inequities, and closed hierarchical structure that we see too often in the world around us, whether in for-profit, nonprofit, or governmental institutions. The governance team took this charge head on.
Common Field’s 2017 summer “Field Notes,” put one of our conclusions this way: We are in agreement that, while becoming a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization is imperative, it is just as imperative to model a healthy and evolving example of this organizational form to our network. Martha Wilson – artist, founder/director of Franklin Furnace, and a fellow Council and governance team member with me – gave us wise counsel that we kept repeating in our discussions:
We can’t change the structure of a nonprofit, but we can change how we operate within this legal framework.
The work of the governance team was done with great support from legal consultants and Common Field’s staff and by using such tools as conference calls, shared online documents, and email. At one point in the governance team’s work, we were debating some of the fine points in the proposed bylaws. Perhaps buffered by distance, I took a philosophical side trip in my email response, citing artists Wendell Berry, Martha Graham, and Pauline Oliveros. My email message follows.
Note: My 20-year-old friends find it hard to believe that I actually write this way in an email message. In truth, the original didn’t include footnotes.
A form beyond legal structures
An email message
From: Anne Focke
Re: 501: Updated Bylaws
July 3, 2017 at 11:11 pm
Hi fellow governance folks,
I really appreciate the level of attention that you, Nat and Courtney, are giving this. Common Field will be stronger for your clear thinking. However, I want to take a little side trip before weighing in on the specifics here. (Apologies…I realize, now that I’m done, that this isn’t exactly a “little” side trip. It’s actually kinda long.)
It strikes me that, as important as they are, the legalities are only one way we might define or express the form we want Common Field to take. A second, complementary, maybe even necessary, way to express its form would take advantage of the power of imagination that we bring to it as artists. The words of artists helped me come to this suggestion.
Some of the words come from a book of essays2 by Wendell Berry that, coincidentally, I began reading while attending a NAAO3 conference years ago (mid-1980s, I think, at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago). In one essay, “People, Land, and Community,” Berry describes the faulty assumption that we can ever become smart enough to control the “demons at large.” He wrote:
The evidence is overwhelming that knowledge does not solve the “human problem.”
For our purposes here, I’d replace “knowledge” with facts or rules or legalities. A little later Berry says, “It is simply true that we do not and cannot know enough to make any important decision.” He applies this to marriage, farming, and community. I suspect that, for Common Field, it’s also true that, to clumsily paraphrase him, “No legal form can ever solve our human problem.” What I take from this is that, as hard as it is to make a decision the first time, the real work of making it a good decision comes after that, in continuing to understand and adapt it and to make the decision work in the real world.
Then, in another essay, “Poetry and Marriage,” which is more explicitly about form, Berry wrote this:
Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties…are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem: occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect…Writing in a set form, rightly understood, is anything but force and predetermination. One puts down the first line of the pattern in trust that life and language are abundant enough to complete it.
Maybe that’s what we’re doing now, writing the first line of Common Field’s pattern (a little corny, but…oh well). And we have to trust that life and our actions together are abundant enough to fill out the pattern that we begin.
This same essay includes other memorable sentences: “It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course.” And another…“The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
A living form, like an organizational structure, will constantly need tending, will constantly find new obstacles in its way. An insight from Martha Graham picks up this thought in an exchange recorded by Agnes de Mille in her memoir, Dance to the Piper. De Mille wrote:
The greatest thing [Martha] ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy….
I said, “When I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”
“No artist is pleased.”
“But then is there no satisfaction?”
“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and more alive than the others.”
All this is meant to offer an expanded context for our struggle to write these bylaws, while maybe removing some of the pressure to get them exactly right, right now. And it sets up a question: In addition to putting in place the legal framework that Common Field needs simply to work in the world today, can we approach Common Field as a creative form? Can we create a larger form — that is, beyond the legal structure — a form begun and continually renewed by a restless desire for something always alive and always better, a container for imagination and aspirations held together by commitment and trust that can take us past the obstructions that baffle us now and through the many obstacles that will undoubtedly baffle us in the future?
The kind of form I’m imagining needs more than legal bonds to hold it together and to release all the possibility inherent in this field. To my mind, the legalities are secondary to the real form we need. This larger form may, of course, partly be expressed in the “non-governing documents” we’ll be drafting next. And these will certainly be important. But perhaps we can also create an image or an action or a text that Common Field could re-stage or renew at its annual convening every year, a kind of ritual maybe. Or it might be something completely different. Perhaps it could begin at the convening this year, maybe something simple that could be adapted over time.
One example, though I’m not suggesting it for Common Field, comes from a 1980s conference about “creative support for creative artists” that closed with a piece by composer/performer Pauline Oliveros. In a bright dining room at lunch time (that is, no soft lights, no candles), Pauline directed us in humming together in an easy-to-follow pattern. That simple act, in unison, seemed to set us up to leave the conference with a larger sense of ourselves as a whole. The experience stays with me still.
The culture we live in today, even more than in Graham and de Mille’s or even Berry’s time, is caught up in, or to my mind trapped by, “metrics,” measurements, and the rational. It’s easy to forget that that’s only one aspect of being human, only one side of what defines our relationships with each other. It would be amazing if, over time, Common Field could find a way to express its non-rational form. It would go a long way to helping it be the singing stream in Berry’s essay.
Whew! I promise to be concise and rational in my next email.
A big hug to you all!
About the image
I was happy to find this image . . . it’s layered, both simple and complex, conveying a clear sense of structure that’s natural and pliable, but guided by clear underlying principles – bubbles, that look as though they’re in the process of shifting slowly.
- The full statement of “Core Values” can be found on Common Field’s “About” page on its website: <commonfield.org/about>.
- Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry, published by North Point Press,1983.
- NAAO, or the National Association of Artists’ Organizations, was founded in 1982 and held its last conference, I think, in 2000 in Brooklyn, New York. It served many of the same purposes that Common Field has been formed to meet.