Who is the “public”?

“Wait a minute!” I said. “I am the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said, “You are the public, and you are the public!”

 

In an interview earlier this year, David Mendoza recalled making this comment. He was referring to a moment in the late 1980s when he was in the midst of a debate about public funding for the arts. Three students – Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, and Lizzie Trelawney-Vernon – at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design – conducted the interview as part of an internship with me, Alum in Residence. We were delving into the history and files of Arts Wire, an online network that started at about the same time as the incident in David’s story. The students decided to produce a podcast series including interviews with intriguing people they found in the files. David was definitely on their list. The hour-long interview, with David in Bali and we in an apartment near the university, covered many of David’s experiences.1 The following exchange took place at the end of the interview.

DAVID: I want to put in one last pitch for public funding for the arts.  Anne, do you remember my pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC”?

ANNE: Oh, I still have a couple, David. I should start wearing one.

DAVID: I created that pin because I got so tired of people using the word “public” and saying, “I’m against public funding for the arts. I’m against public funding for this, or public support shouldn’t go for that.” At some debate I was in, I said, “Wait a minute! I am the public!” I pointed to people in the room and said “You are the public, and you are the public.” The anomalous idea that a public means someone who is not me or not many other people…I just wouldn’t accept that. So I created a pin that said, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” And we distributed it widely. People loved this pin because they got it immediately, because they knew they were not being included when the word “public” was used.

What public funding for the arts did, what the NEA did, what NYSCA and many other arts councils did, was diversify the arts in America. They realized that not just a few major European-based institutions were the arts in America: there were all kinds of others. Just last night I was listening to PBS NewsHour and learned there’s a revival of Zoot Suit, Luis Valdéz’s play that he created with Teatro Campesino in California, which went on to Broadway and a movie. Now it’s being revived again. And once again, it has relevance, to the Chicano community especially. Teatro Campesino was supported by both the California Arts Council and the NEA. That theater would never have been supported by a Koch/Trump type of philanthropy, though I don’t actually want to include Trump because he’s really not a philanthropist. But people who were known for their philanthropy gave big money to what they liked. Nothing wrong with that, but there was nobody to give money to Teatro Campesino. That’s what public support for the arts did. And, that’s why we created that pin, “I AM THE PUBLIC.” Everyone who wore it was part of the public.

JESSICA: I just want to chime in…Anne has one of these pins in the office. And when she told me the story about it, it really spoke to me and I tend to tell a lot of people about it. Personally, I am myself Hispanic and a lot of my co-workers are minorities as well, you know, Pakistani, Taiwanese. I mentioned this same pin to them, actually just today. I mentioned it to them in the art context but also in terms of what’s happening today. And they loved it, and they were just, like… YES, this is exactly it.

DAVID: Yes! Maybe your first activism after this podcast could be, just make some! Just make it!

VOICES ON TOP OF EACH OTHER: Just make some!  Yeah!  And… create some. Definitely!

DAVID: I’m telling you, it was amazing. Actually the message is quite, I don’t want to say deep, but profound in a way…patting myself on the back a little, I guess. But I remember, for example, a Gay Pride March [in Seattle], which used to be on Broadway in those days. We were marching and had bags of them and were handing them out. People loved this pin! They got its message immediately. Then I’d see it on people all over Seattle. I think it’s a very good thing to revive! They’re not expensive…just reproduce it.

JESSICA: It’s so funny, I was just thinking about this today. After mentioning them to my co-workers, it was, wow! I just want to make more and start giving them to people. Yeah… it’s just amazing. It doesn’t have to be in the art context, but just in general…what that actually means to people. Just making them realize they are part of this whole debate. They are the public. “Yeah! I am, and I really should have a bigger say in what’s going on.”

KAREN: It’s a reaffirmation of your own value. This understanding that, like, wait a second, I’m culpable. I’m responsible. And that means that I also have power and I have agency. That is really important! We so often become isolated in the sense that we think, well, my opinion is this. But the point is not that. The point is that my opinion is as valid as the “public’s” opinion, that everybody has an individual opinion, and that, all together, is what creates any group, right? even on the scale of the country.

DAVID: And remember, you have to always be aware that when you hear someone talk about the “public,” they probably have an idea of it that doesn’t include a lot of people. They’re excluding part of the public.

ANNE: When you come back in June or July, David, we’ll give you a new pin.

JESSICA: Yeah, we need to revive this!

DAVID: Yes!  I have one in my little treasured storage chest in Seattle. It’s time, it’s time again. We’ve come full circle with what’s happening right now.

KAREN: If you had the opportunity to share some advice or to provide some guidance to people who are wanting to be involved now and wanting to be active now, in the current moment, what might you say?

DAVID: I was so devastated after the election that when I left the U.S. last December, people here would ask, “What’s wrong with you?” I really had thought, with the election of Obama, that all the work we’d done had slowly progressed, one step forward, one step back, and onward. I thought we finally had arrived where we’d been trying to get all these years, though of course, there was still a long way to go. And then this sudden turn… I just felt like it had been a waste in a way.

But I’ll tell you what heartens me right now, where I find solace and hope is seeing all these people who are turning up at the town hall meetings of Congresspeople around, in Nebraska and Kansas, that I’ve been reading about, and in Texas. Republicans in Congress are having meetings with 800, 1000, 1500 people showing up who are well-informed, who are angry, who are speaking out. My god, we never had anything like that in those days. We would only have dreamed we could have orchestrated something like that. What’s truly important now is showing up first and secondly opening your mouth. That would be the advice I’d have. Show up, open your mouth, and be informed.

“That would be the advice I’d have.
Show up, open your mouth, and be informed.”

 


AFTERWORD
:  At one of our weekly meetings a month or so after the podcast recording, the group of interns surprised me with several hundred brand-new pins. You can bet that one way or another, they’ll make sure David gets some of the new ones.

• • • • •

NOTE

1 Jessica Capó created a website for posting the series of podcasts produced by the interns from their work with Arts Wire files. There will be about 15 episodes in the final series. They’re posted weekly on Fridays. The site is here., and the interview with David is titled, “Golden Horseshoe.” You’ll find a list of all the podcasts with live links to the audio at the “podcast” tab, and a brief description and additional notes at “extras.”

The podcast production is definitely low-tech, just the make-it-up-ourselves style I love. We gather at Jess’s apartment a few blocks from campus (my office reverberates too much) around a dining table with a small microphone and a cell phone on the speakerphone setting. You might need to adjust your ears a bit.

Final note: You can also read a memoir David wrote about his life since graduating from the UW, here.


David Mendoza – The past half-century

This story starts at the University of Washington, heads off to Europe, comes  back to the Seattle art world, then moves on to New York City, the fierce battles of the Culture Wars, and his life in Bali today, while reminding us of our continuing need for vigilance, activism, and courage.


Fifty years ago, David Mendoza and I graduated in the same year from the same university with undergraduate degrees in the same subject, art history.1 As the official “Alum in Residence” at the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design for the 2016-2017 academic year, I invited David, who has remained a friend, to come back to the school and join me in a conversation about what he’s done with the years since we graduated.

So, on November 21, 2016, he and I sat in the school’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery with an assembled group of students, faculty, staff, and community members. My opening question to David was, “So, what have you done with your art history degree?” As he told us the story that follows, it was clear that he’d given the question a lot of thought in advance. And no one wanted him to stop once he got started.

 A resume can tell you that David has been director of the Foster/White Gallery, executive assistant to the chair of the New York State Council on the Arts, the first director of Artist Trust, the first executive director of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, and a long-time board member of Art Matters foundation. He has lived on Bali since 1998, where he produces a line of clothing and home goods with a focus on natural dyes, handmade batik, and preserving traditional craft techniques of Southeast Asia.

But the real story can’t be captured in a resume. It’s full of twists and turns that affect a life forever, of people and events encountered unexpectedly, and of the power of following both your dreams and your intuition and fighting for what you believe in.

You can read his story below or download it here.

Anne Focke


 

David Mendoza in conversation with Anne Focke at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, November 21, 2016. Photo by Nadia Ahmed.

What did you do with your art history degree? a memoir

David Mendoza 
November 21, 2016

 

Fifty-three years ago today, November 21, was a Wednesday. The next day about noon, and late as usual, I was running across the Quad to a class in Parrington Hall when I ran into one of my pals running in the opposite direction. He said, “JFK has been shot,” and kept running. That was 1963.

DEGREE

I graduated in 1967 during a tumultuous time in our nation and on campus. I started at the UW as a Business major, switched to Architecture, then to Interior Design, and, after being called to a meeting with Professor Warren Hill, switched one more time to Art History. Warren – we became friends later – was a professor in Interior Design, and he, shall we say, urged me to switch majors. I couldn’t draft – same problem in architecture. So I surveyed my accumulated credits. Not only did I have quite a few credits in Art History – including architecture and design history – but I’d earned good grades and loved the subject. So, here I am, all these years later, talking to you as an ancient alum.

I was trying to finish my art history thesis for our brilliant professor, Lawrence D. Steefel, while experimenting with pot and listening to Sgt. Pepper. The topic of my paper was Dada, and in retrospect it was a very Dada time with the Vietnam War (or American War as the Vietnamese call it) and the cultural revolution (the eve of the “Summer of Love”). Studying the Dada artists, their performances, and their anti-war positions all tossed together with the world around me meant that, in early May 1967, I found myself unable to fashion a coherent thesis paper. As the month rolled by and the deadline for turning it in approached, I had pretty much decided that after five years of university and lots of credits, I was not going to graduate and get a degree. My focus turned to how I would explain all this to my parents who had struggled to help pay college costs for me – the first in our family to attend.

The topic of my paper was Dada, and in retrospect
it was a very Dada time.

Probably through a combination of wine, pot, angst, and itchiness to get out of school and into the “real world,” I decided to make an appointment with Professor Steefel. I still can remember clearly that day – nervous, resigned to reality, and eager to get it over with. I actually prepared some notes to try to explain what had happened to me. These included references to lyrics on Sgt. Pepper as well as Dada history. It was a long meeting, maybe two hours. He asked me questions, and we had a very expanded discussion. I thanked him and left, feeling relieved that the meeting and my college career and degree were over.

About a week later, grades were distributed. When I opened mine, I found that Professor Steefel had given me an A and the five credits I needed for my degree. I was in shock. In just a moment, my whole life turned a new corner.

EUROPE

After working as a waiter to make money, I left for my grand tour of Europe in the fall of 1967. It was time to see all the paintings, sculpture, and cathedrals I had only seen projected from slides on a screen. Being the romantic that I realized much later I was, I decided to go to Europe by ship. So I took a train across the U.S. to New York City and Grand Central Station, never having been before. Once there, I immediately got off the train and into a taxi that took me to the 40th Street piers to board the S.S. France. Nowadays, the only place you see the scene I encountered is in old movies – crowds of people, some boarding and some saying good bye to departing loved ones. Like in the movies, the France departed in the late afternoon and, as we passed the Statue of Liberty, we were all standing at the railing admiring New York City.

 •

My eight months in Europe started in London visiting museums and castles and seeing some theater, and then continued on to Amsterdam and Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. My plans to take a train from there to Paris changed at a party hosted by someone I met in Amsterdam where I met a good friend of the host. An American woman, older than me, she had just arrived from Stuttgart where she had bought a new Porsche. Apparently, she did this every year. I told her my plans, and she said, “Why don’t you ride with me instead to the south of France?” I hesitated, but my host said, “Don’t be crazy. Marilyn knows France very well. You would be lucky to have her as a guide, and you’d get a free ride as well!” So I did.

This is just what the doctor ordered for my romantic
“tour de France.”

Marilyn had rented an apartment in a small village near Nice named Haut-de-Cagnes. She had visited several times before and had fallen in love with a woman who lived there. I stayed with her until she helped – pushed – me to find a room. The village was magical, one of the so-called villages perchés, or “perched villages,” high above the Mediterranean. There were no cars, only steep and winding walkways, and a gathering of expats and French, Bohemian and worldly. This is just what the doctor ordered for my romantic tour de France.

One rainy day about a month after I arrived, I was walking across the plaza in front of the Chateau. I saw a black man with a suitcase and typewriter case talking to one of the old French women in black who lived there. As I approached I heard he was American and did not speak French so I approached to ask if I could help. He said, “Oh, are you American? Do you speak French?” I said yes and helped him find the apartment he had rented in the village. He had just arrived via Marseilles from Africa and had come to write a book. His name was Alex Haley, and he was grateful for my help.

Being an “old timer” in the village by then, I helped Alex get settled and, over the next few days, showed him around and introduced him to Marilyn. We three had dinners and wine and chats. Alex told us he was writing a book that traced his African-American ancestors back to Africa before they were brought as slaves to the U.S. Marilyn and I looked at each other skeptically, but Alex was a great storyteller and he proceeded over these meals to tell us bits and pieces of what he had found. His stories were filled with people who had names like Chicken George, Kunta Kinte, and Izzie. While in Africa, he told us, he had recorded griots, storytellers who were the keepers of family and tribal history.

Sometimes, when I visited him for a meal and wine, he would tell me more of these stories sitting in front of the big stone fireplace, and I still found his tales far-fetched and unbelievable. I began to think of him as “Uncle Remus.” At that time, Alex had a reputation as a celebrity interviewer for Playboy magazine and also as the author of The Autobiography of Malcom X. This meant that, from time to time, he had to return to the U.S. to interview someone for Playboy – and to make some money. When he left he offered me his apartment to save money from my travel budget. In exchange I helped transcribe some of his audio tapes on his old typewriter.

One time, when Alex was away the phone rang and a hoarse voice asked, “Alex?” I replied that he was in the U.S. The caller was James Baldwin, on his way to the south of France. He wanted to meet up with Alex who had discussed doing an interview with him. James had a bad cold and was in a bad mood. His French then-boyfriend had left him in London. James was looking for the boyfriend, whom he suspected was somewhere down here near Nice. After that trip, James fell in love with the area and rented a villa in Saint Paul du Vence, a village higher in the hills than Haut de Cagnes and famous for a Matisse Chapel. Baldwin lived there until he died.

 “Thank you for your help and friendship here in Haut de Cagnes
while I am writing
Before this Anger.” – Alex Haley

Although I was very happy in that village and didn’t want to leave, Alex encouraged me to continue my journey and my adventure. He was right. On departing he gave me a paperback copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and signed it, “Thank you for your help and friendship here in Haut de Cagnes while I am writing Before this Anger.” That was his original title for the book that later became famous as Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

At Museé Picasso, Antibes, France, 1967

SEATTLE AGAIN

When I returned to Seattle in April 1968, the “anger” that Alex referred to was in full force. Continue reading →

Time away at home, addendum

Yesterday was a perfect time-away day at home.

After spending the first hour of the day letting friends know about new pieces added to my blog (a task that gives me a satisfying sense of completion), I put some notes, my laptop, and an umbrella in a small pack and, with my pack on my back, headed out for a long walk. Despite a weather forecast of clouds and rain with a possible thunderstorm and hail, I planned to be out much of the day on a course I would determine as I went.

I walked a few blocks before stopping for breakfast at a neighborhood coffeeshop, where I also read through past notes for a complicated piece I’m trying to write. Part-way through the longer next leg of my walk, the sun began to prove the forecast wrong. What a gift! After a couple of miles of steep, winding streets and views of the Cascades,  I stopped  for coffee at a tiny coffeeshop where I struggled to find a path through the ideas in the writing. I didn’t actually pull out my computer, but I found at least a preliminary place to begin and started out again. The sun had taken over completely as I headed down the hill attracted by a set of stairs I hadn’t walked before and then headed straight east toward the Aboretum.

A map of my walk made after the fact

Just before reaching the park, I stopped at a cafe/coffeeshop for lunch. I fiddled with my notes as I ate, but forced myself to actually begin before I left. By the time I walked out, clouds covered the sky and the rain had begun. Umbrella up, I headed into the Arboretum and followed a trail along the west edge that I hadn’t walked before, with pines at the start and hollies toward the end. The treat at the end of the trail was a bakery/cafe just outside the park entrance. Over another cup of coffee and a treat, I made pretty good progress in my writing, at least getting a few thoughts into a document on my computer. Sheets of rain came down while I worked.

A bit later, bright sun pulled me outside again, this time to walk an almost straight line home. The straight line I’d walked before reaching the park was level, this one definitely was not. My quick estimate of the elevation gain on one specific block – a short one, at that – was about 65 feet, though it felt like a 45 degree angle. After I got home, the energy of the walk continued and I worked for another hour or so.

The piece I’m writing is far from done, but the day convinced me that interesting places to walk and let my mind wander are another requirement of a satisfying time away.


Ah . . . for time away!

Lately I’ve been longing for a time away but haven’t managed to pull one off for way too many months. So, inspired by my friend Mary, I’m trying to create a short one right here, where I live.

Mary and I go a long way back. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, she and I each headed up an artist-centered organization, she in New York City, I in Seattle. From time to time we’d threaten to exchange jobs, each convinced that it must be easier in the other’s city. Today she’s an artist in her own right, a writer of poetry and librettos who often collaborates with composers, video artists, and others.1 Once, when we were talking about my need for retreats and times away, she declared, “What I want is a retreat right here on Montague Street!”

Montague Street

Today, my calendar opened up with at least three, maybe four, absolutely blank days. With no time to plan a trip out of town, it was finally time to take up Mary’s challenge.

Reflecting on what makes a rewarding time away brought back memories of the one I consider to be my first. In early 1989, I had just finished two large projects that ran consecutively, each of which alone could have been all-consuming. “I deserve a reward,” I thought to myself. After events involving many smart but strong-willed people, project deadlines, and financial pressures – the gift I gave myself was a retreat, a chance to get away, to be quiet and alone for a while, to think and walk and read. My partner of the time thought I was a little nuts, wanting to go off and spend time by myself.

Madame Marie’s Suite (from Palace Hotel website today, it’s a little fancier than in 1989)

I didn’t go far. I got a room for a week at the Palace Hotel in Port Townsend. Built in 1889, the Capt. H.L. Tibbals Building housed the hotel, which, according to the hotel’s literature, operated as a brothel from 1925-33. I spent the week in “Marie’s Suite,” named for the Madame of the house. From her corner room on the second floor I had a nice view down to the intersection of Tyler and Water Street, Port Townsend’s main downtown drag. I moved the furniture around to put a table in front of the window. Natural light and some sort of view, I now know, is an important aspect of my times away.

Palace Hotel with Marie’s suite on the corner behind a tree that wasn’t as big in 1989

Among the essentials I packed up to take along was the first computer I ever owned, a Mac 512 acquired in 1985. Weighing 16.5 pounds, it was fondly called “the luggable” back then, as “portable” was not yet an adjective used to describe computers.

Other essential materials for a time away are a few books, paper and pens, and good walking shoes. Without having to pack them in, I have all these things, albeit slightly updated, here at home.

What I don’t have here is the focusing isolation offered by being in a different space and a less familiar community, away from the many daily little tasks that are always present at home. My will power will be tested.2

««««««•»»»»»»

1 Mary Griffin and “Blue” Gene Tyranny, “Recollections: Songs from Aphasia,” presented at Roulette last year.

2 Of course, now I’ve used up most of one of my days making this. Is this how I meant to spend my time away? Or am I procrastinating?  Hard to say.


String Tales – my “literatura de cordel”

Pamphlets, broadsides, newsletters, flyers,
leaflets, booklets, chapbooks, and zines

From one to maybe 24 pages, quickly and cheaply produced and easily distributed – these print forms fit my style. Over the years I’ve produced many variations on the form.

Recently, I’ve started turning some of my blog posts into small publications. I make them myself and call them “String Tales.” I reformat the text and images, print them on an inexpensive color printer that prints up to 11×17 inches, fold them twice, hang them on a line, and give them away.

The inspiration for the form is a tradition I first learned about from Don Russell, a friend in Washington DC who founded and runs Provisions Library: Art for Social Change.1 Literatura de cordel, or “string literature,”  is a popular form of publishing that thrives in Brazil. Don and a team from Provisions traveled to Brazil to research the tradition. After their trip, the Provisions team put together a mobile print workshop and took it into DC neighborhoods.

Wanting to know more, I followed leads from the Provisions website to other references and stories about this “string literature” and who makes it.

They are the bards of the backlands, traveling with their poems from town to town and market to market. Practitioners of an art form that originated in medieval Europe and is now mostly obsolete elsewhere, they nonetheless continue to thrive here.2
              — Larry Rohter describing “the troubadours of Brazil’s backlands”

These poets and storytellers travel through towns in northeastern Brazil, reciting or singing their stories and poems in marketplaces, often to townspeople unable to read or write, and offering them for sale in small, cheaply-printed booklets pinned on cords or strings (cordel) hung across market stalls. Bold woodcut graphics on the covers attract passers-by.

The roots of the tradition are deep, fed by many sources – one-page flyers brought to Brazil from Portugal in the 16th and 17th centuries, song traditions of medieval troubadours, Iberian ballads, and moral themes from biblical stories and from African and Brazilian-Indian traditions.

Literatura de cordel is a living, breathing, popular tradition with themes that range from fantastic heroes to local politics. According to a blurb describing a 2011 symposium on cordel, themes include “critiques of current international and local events, humor and satire, adventure, romance, sensational or moralistic narratives, religion, the exploits of heroes and bandits, environmental concerns, educational advice on health and child-care, and more.”3

In addition to the traditional chapbooks, cordel blogs are now active on the internet. A quick online search for “cordel blogs” demonstrated just how true this is. Even though I know no Portuguese, I lost myself moving from one site to the next.

Especially as the form is practiced today, cordel stories can take oral or print or now digital forms. I’ve long been fascinated by the potential of a story or an idea that begins in live conversation and gets picked up and shared in print, with details and meaning shifting slightly. Then that print piece, in turn, might be put online, again with adaptations. Or the order might change, with a digital piece prompting a conversation, which becomes a reference in a book or magazine.

I’m grateful for the capacity of digital networks to send messages, like my blog posts, across otherwise impassable distances. But I’m willing to bet that when I hand someone one of my String Tales rather than giving them a link to my website, the chance that they’ll actually read it increases a hundredfold.

References

1. Provisions Library: Art for Social Change
From the website: “Provisions investigates the relationship between art and social change through research, production, and education. From its library home in George Mason University’s School of Art in Fairfax, Virginia and at sites throughout the District, Provisions produces and supports projects in the US Capitol Region and across the globe.”

2. “Troubadours of Brazil’s Backlands,” Larry Rohter, The New York Times, June 14, 2005.

3. Literatura de Cordel: Continuity and Change in Brazilian Popular Culture, a symposium, American Folklife Center, 2011.

Sources of cordel photos

Arte em cordel, Museu do Cordel Curiosidades.

Aula de arte, Literatura de Cordel, 19 de Novembro de 2015.

Espaço de la Cruz, Fotos – Decoração e diversão 2.

Photos of String Tales are my own.


What’s my piece of the puzzle? Is resistance enough?

Like many of my friends, I’m still struggling to find my place in the political, economic, and social circumstances of our world today. What do I have to offer in building a “countervailing force”?1

During the week-long pause after the 2016 election, I and many others in my very blue part of the country, simply wandered around stunned, caught our breath, and wondered how the results would change our lives and our priorities. But then the energy began to build. We needed to get out, talk with others, and figure out what to do. More people have been stepping up to become active than I’ve seen in decades. It didn’t take long before a deluge of news reports, alerts for critical causes, and entreaties to join this or that action started appearing in our email boxes and Facebook pages, on printed notices delivered by “snail mail” or stapled to telephone poles, and in conversations with friends over coffee or the telephone. There are marches to join, news reports to read, letters to send, meetings to attend or organize, and occasionally thoughtful talks and essays that help give perspective and context.

Back in fall 2015, when I created my website I added a subtitle to remind me of a basic fact that I keep forgetting, “You can’t do everything . . . at least not all at once.” That’s been hard to remember lately. And I thought by now I’d be clearer about how to narrow my focus, how to best use my skills and knowledge, short of trying to do it all.

Conversations often help me start figuring out something going on in my life. In this case, I need help finding the shape of my particular piece of the much bigger puzzle. One thing I’ve done is join with four or five other people who are interested in how we talk about the task facing us—about language and reframing the conversation (with a nod to George Lakoff)2 and John Boylan’s call for a new narrative.3 Our conversation has taken place in person and through lots of exchanged stories and articles. Just recently, I took time to write down and send some of my thoughts to them before an upcoming meeting. What started as a simple email message got to feeling more ponderous than an email message should be, it was more like an essay. So in addition to sending it to them, I fussed with it, made it a little more like an essay, and include it here.

February 22, 2017

Greetings all,

By now, I think I’ve read everything you’ve sent, along with other things that have come my way. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get my arms around it all and what I want to do with it. What questions am I trying to answer? What do I have to offer? I definitely haven’t sorted it out yet, and I’m familiar with the tendency to think the latest thing I read or hear is the most important or the most urgent. I fully expect to keep learning and adjusting. Our conversation prompted me to write, to try to make a few ideas in a few pieces I’ve read hold still long enough to really see them. Here goes . . .

“Resistance” is crucial, but not enough. Unlike a couple of the writers I cite, I certainly believe resistance and protest are needed and make a difference. I’m so glad there are other people who are more active in the streets and on the phone than I am.

David Frum (“What effective protest could look like”4) had lots of good thoughts around why demonstrations won’t stop Trump, about the difference between self-expression and persuasion and our need for a large goal, like “protecting our democracy from authoritarianism.” And I especially liked his observation that “it is the steady and often tedious work of organization that sustains democracy.” (I so much identify with the, often invisible, behind-the-scenes work of organizing . . . organizing this or anything, for that matter). Frum wants us to “be motivated by hope, not outrage.” But beyond protest, he says little about what the hope and organizing should aim for.

David Brooks (“After the women’s march”5) also made a case that ”marches can never be effective opposition to Trump.” Their focus is wrong, he says, and grass roots movements only rarely lead to change, the civil rights movement being an exception; most change is made through the Democratic and Republican parties. He also says that the central challenge today “is to rebind a functioning polity and to modernize a binding American idea”—a coherent vision. That resonates with the sense we have of the need for reframing and a new narrative, but his call for “a better nationalism” and one that balances “the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality” doesn’t work for all of us.

Even finding new language isn’t enough by itself. New language also needs to help us get ahead of the moment and take a deeper look at how we understand and talk about what we hope to see happen. In a piece in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, “Negative Energy”,6 the author, Beverly Gage, gives a brief overview of the history of resistance, and says that, today, we certainly have plenty to resist against. But what is the resistance for? She asks it this way, “If ‘yes’ seems impossible and ‘no’ seems insufficient, what fills the space in between?” And toward the end, she suggests that we need to think about “where we want history to go.” I thought, right. Where do we want it to go? This actually lies behind much of my concern. And going back to our discussion . . . the language, the new narrative, the reframing needs to reflect it, the “where.”

Then, in a recent Guardian Weekly, I found this: “Welcome to the Age of Anger,7” by Pankaj Mishra, with the subtitle: “The seismic events of 2016 have revealed a world in chaos—and one that old ideas of liberal rationalism can no longer explain.” One thing I like about his perspective is that it goes way beyond Trump and this election. It reaches 200 years back in time and outside the boundaries of this country to other parts of the world. Reading it helped me know that, If I’m to have any idea of how to move forward, I needed a better understanding of how we got here and what we’re actually facing. Mishra’s piece gives me a helpful, new place to start. Although, as the Guardian says, it’s a “long read,” it’s definitely worth it.

Here are a few snapshots of Mishra’s thinking: he was quoted in a Washington Post review8 of his new book, The Age of Anger: A history of the present (published 2017), saying, “Now with the victory of Donald Trump, it has become impossible to deny or obscure the great chasm. . .between an elite that seizes modernity’s choicest fruits while disdaining older truths and uprooted masses, who, on finding themselves cheated of the same fruits, recoil into cultural supremacism, populism and rancorous brutality.” In the opening paragraph of his piece in the Guardian, he stresses that, “It is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world.”

Toward the end of the Guardian piece, after detailing the long history of this chasm and times it has widened in the past, he considers where we go from here. The reviews of his book that I’ve read hold him accountable for not offering any solutions. Not having read the book, I can’t counter this. But in the Guardian essay, while he doesn’t offer answers, but he does suggest some places to begin:

We need a more sophisticated analysis of how today’s landscape of hyperrational power has coerced a new and increasingly potent irrationalism into existence.”

And later . . .

Even to get our basic bearings we need, above all, greater precision in matters of the soul. The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality, and prosperity.”

Finally, to throw just one more (much shorter) piece your way, I was glad to find a fairly recent column, again in the Guardian Weekly, by George Monbiot, “The case for despair is made. Now let’s start to get out of the mess we’re in.”9 His piece starts to give me a more solid place to begin. He caught my attention when he referred to Mishra—for example, writing:

“Pankaj Mishra, in his book Age of Anger, explains the current crises as new manifestations of one long disruption that has been ripping up society for 200 years or more. Our sanitised histories of Europe and America allow us to forget that bedlam and carnage, civil and international war, colonialism and overseas slaughter, racism and genocide, were the norms of this period, not exceptions.”

I was encouraged, though, that Monbiot continued by saying that in the face of convincing evidence for despair, “This column will try to champion new approaches to politics, economics, and social change. There is no going back, no comfort in old certainties. We must rethink the world from first principles.” And on top of that, given the keen interest I have in the commons (no surprise to many who know me), I was especially heartened by what came next:

There are many points at which I could begin, but it seems to me that an obvious one is this. The market alone cannot meet our needs; nor can the state. Both, by rooting out attachment, help fuel the alienation, rage and anomie that breed extremism. One element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.”

He spends most of the rest of the column expanding on what the commons are and why they have great potential now, a discussion that he ends by saying: “In other words, reviving the commons can act as a counterweight to the atomizing, alienating forces now generating a thousand forms of toxic reaction.”

Then to close the column, he gives himself what seemed to be an audacious goal: to explore a wide range of potential solutions and “start to develop a synthesis: a new political, economic and social story that might be matched to the demands of the 21st century.” I like that he plans to do this “with the help of your comments and suggestions,” though I’m not yet sure how we readers can contribute. I’ve gone to his website, <monbiot.com>, and found that interspersed among other writings, he pursues his large goal in a series of three pieces so far: this one, retitled, “The Fortifying Commons,” as well as “All Together Now” and “All about that Base.” I plan to follow along.

The commons are so much on my mind that you won’t be surprised to know that comments by two of you jump out at me. One of you ended an email saying:

It would be a good idea to look at every issue and every program through this lens—is this a program that benefits us as a community, regardless of who specifically benefits more or less under it? Is the common good substantial enough to tolerate the redistribution? Can the redistribution be managed in a reasonably fair way? How can we talk compellingly about the common good?”

And, a second might be a little more of a stretch: you made an appeal for a narrative that can be seen as everyday “common sense,” that isn’t oppositional, that includes “plural stories,” all of which reflect values that I associate with the commons. Both the “common good“ and “common sense” seem closely related to the commons.

Carry on!  I’m so grateful to be in this conversation with you.

Anne


Notes

  1. A bigger choir, a countervailing force,” posted on my website on 12/31/16.
  2. Don’t think of a rampaging elephant: Linguist George Lakoff explains how the Democrats helped elect Trump,” Salon.com, 1/15/17.
  3. A new narrative,” John Boylan Essays and Comment, 12/14/16.
  4. What effective protest could look like,” David Frum, The Atlantic, 2/6/17.
  5. After the women’s march,” David Brooks, The New York Times, 1/2417/
  6. “Negative energy” (it seems to have a different title online), Beverly Gage, The New York Times, 1/31/17.
  7. Welcome to the age of anger,” Pankaj Mishra, The Guardian, 12/8/16.
  8. Inside the anger that gave us Donald Trump,” by Carlos Lozada, Washington Post, 2/16/17.
  9. The case for despair is made. Now let’s start to get out of the mess we’re in,” George Monbiot, The Guardian, 12/13/16.

Archaic social media – Arts Wire uncovered

Imagine it is 1989

The internet is barely known, email is a strange and difficult idea, and the World Wide Web hasn’t been invented yet. But the censorship wars are raging, the AIDS crisis is hitting artists hard, and debates about public support of the arts in Congress and elsewhere are fiery. Artists and others in the arts need to connect as a community across distances. Arts Wire was created to meet that challenge and is now being rediscovered.

Banner headline for Arts Wire’s front page, the “Hub,” November 1992

What was Arts Wire?

In early 1989, I puzzled over how to spread the news and make the connections that artists needed. I soon learned about the “information superhighway” and found mentors in San Francisco and Washington DC. Named Arts Wire later that year, the network was built by a small group of us spread from coast to coast—Seattle, Ann Arbor, the Bay area, New York, Arizona, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and more. The New York Foundation for the Arts was its first supporter and its home base throughout. It got started through paper memos, telephone calls, occasional face-to-face meetings and went online on CompuServe, Sprintnet, and finally the internet. We made our own place online with help from a network provider in Arlington (VA) and later moved to Carnegie Mellon.

Arts Wire proselytized on behalf of this new tool, and its staff educated and trained new folks to use the then-baffling technology. The news on Arts Wire came from its staff, steering committee, and individual users—artists, arts funders, and staff of arts organizations, public arts agencies, arts service organizations, and arts advocacy groups. Arts Wire enticed associations to join and bring their members online—National Association of Artists Organizations, National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, Native Arts Network, CraftNet, VisualAIDS, Association of Hispanic Arts, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, American Music Center, NewMusNet (led by composer Pauline Oliveros), and many more.

Despite the ethic of the day—Don’t use paper! Save it on floppies!—I just couldn’t give up my attachment to words on paper. While trying to be frugal, I nevertheless printed out many “online captures” of what we were doing. As we’ve learned 25 years later, ink on paper is much more stable than the magnetic coating on floppy disks…rusty paper clips aside.

 AND_NOW? Archaic Social Media

In 2016, Arts Wire came back into my life as I figured out what to do with my new role as Alum in Residence at the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design. For one, I thought, why not clear out my storage unit? It was stuffed with banker boxes of materials from a life of “projects.” Interns and I could inventory, discuss, and find a home for them.

Two undergrads signed up for fall quarter, two more joined us in the winter, for a total of two art students and two art history students. Arts Wire would be a good, discrete project to start with. All four interns—Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, Zach Heinemeyer, and Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon—have taken the project on with intelligence, imagination, and overflowing enthusiasm.

As the intern team digs into the 16 banker boxes of my print-outs and other materials, they’re creating an inventory and engaging in conversations with me and with special guests about what they’re finding. They’re learning about archiving, but also about how a new entity can be created and what the early days of the technology were like (before they were born). They’ve found things that make them laugh out loud and things that are completely puzzling. As importantly, they find sobering news of events going on in Arts Wire’s times and discover how related the news is to the news of our world today—censorship, health crises, discrimination, political battles, protests, media debates, and the impact of the latest technologies. They’ve mentioned gaining a new understanding of history with the advantage that they can talk with people who were there and are still alive now (many, even, still kicking!).

Lizzie, Zach, Anne, Jess, Tommer Peterson (Arts Wire publication director), and Karen, recording a podcast for AND_NOW?

Toward the end of February 2017, they produced and presented a series of public programs to start sharing what they learned. The series, named “AND_NOW?” after the opening prompt on Arts Wire’s first home page, included:

  • A week-long take-over of the art school’s Instagram account – #AND_NOW?
  • An exhibition, “AND_NOW? Archaic Social Media,” that drew on material from Arts Wire files and ran from February 23 to March 10 at Parnassus, the school’s storied coffee shop
  • A podcast series, “AND NOW? Archaic Social Media” <andnowpodcast.wordpress.com>, launched on February 24 that includes interviews with people involved in Arts Wire as well as wide-ranging conversations that investigate, through today’s eyes, ideas found in Arts Wire files.

My files only go from early 1989 through about 1995 when I bowed out. Other people, in other parts of the country, can continue the story, post-1995. One person who has written much of this history is Judy Malloy, an early social media poet and arts writer, and an important Arts Wire staff member. Recently she wrote a chapter about Arts Wire for a book she edited, Social Media Archeology and Poetics, published last year.1 One of my favorite quotes from that chapter comes from Kenny Greenberg, who, in a 1994 review of Arts Wire for Internet World, observed:

As with art—Gophers, SIGs, and HTTP sites notwithstanding—it is the human spirit that makes Arts Wire special. The voices behind the information and the personal reactions to the data make Arts Wire a lively place.

1  Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, published by The MIT Press, 2016.

This work is possible because of support from the Jini Dellaccio Project.


We must fight to protect democracy in a digital age. – Lucy Bernholz

Lucy Bernholz is a self-professed “philanthropy wonk.” Among other things she is currently director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. For the past eight years, I’ve worked with her as editor and “co-conspirator” of an annual monograph. Lucy’s “Blueprint” series is a forecast for philanthropy and the social economy about the ways we use private resources for public benefit. Each year, she identifies big ideas that matter for the coming year and offers a series of annual predictions and critical developments to watch in the future (“glimpses”) .

From the start Lucy has written primarily for readers engaged in the worlds of philanthropy, nonprofits, and social investing. Over the years, though, I’ve increasingly found that what I learn from her informs my thinking and my actions in many ways and is useful way beyond my direct involvement in these fields. So I’m eager to share some of her ideas through excerpts from the most recent Philanthropy and Social Economy: Blueprint 2017, originally published in December 2016. What follows is most of the introduction, a short passage from “Glimpses of the Future,” and a sobering excerpt from her conclusion. At the end of the excerpts, you’ll find more information as well as links that allow you to follow her thinking.

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From the Introduction…

“We must fight to protect civil society and democracy; they do not defend themselves.”

Paradoxes abound. Some global indices show democracy on the rise around the globe, while other measures stress that spaces for civil society are closing. Since democracy depends on civil society, it’s hard to know how both can be true.1  In another head- scratcher, a year that was defined by the politics of lies also saw
an increase in the systemic faith in data and algorithmic analysis as guides to a better future. Resolution of these paradoxes comes down to human action—we must fight to protect civil society and democracy; they do not defend themselves. We must interrogate and make understandable the digital tools and data we use to make decisions, as they are simply encoded versions of our values.

Some truths hold. I spent part of 2016 working with the incredible artists behind the award-winning documentary Big Sonia. The film tells the story of an immigrant in Kansas City. She survived the holocaust, living through and being liberated from three Nazi concentration camps. She raises a family, survives economic changes that redraw the map in her Midwestern suburb, and only in her last decade begins to share her life story publicly. I won’t tell you more—go see the film. But here’s how lasting truths work.

The filmmakers worked for years, and as every artist or author knows, timing a release is tricky business. As it happened, Big Sonia premiered on the big screen on Wednesday, November 9, the day after the U.S. presidential election. Sonia, aged 91, was there. Her story—of
 resisting fascism; of surviving state-sponsored deportation, incarceration, and cultural destruction; of running a business through economic good times and collapse; and of always standing against the forces of hatred—resonated with amplified power on that particular day. But the story—and its truths—are timeless.

“I believe in democracy, and when my ideas fail at the polls, I work harder as a citizen.”

I did everything I could as an organizer, a voter, and a citizen to bring about a different outcome to the U.S. presidential election. I disagree completely with the candidate and winning coalition’s proposed economic, healthcare, security, and foreign policy proposals. I am scared by and motivated against their language, behavior, supporters, and proposals regarding immigrants, people of faith, people of color, LGBT people, and women. Economic inequality is the problem, but it cannot be fixed by social and political injustice. I believe in democracy, and, when my ideas fail at the polls, I work harder as a citizen.

I am telling you this because I don’t just think about civil society in democracies; my life depends on it. This was true before the U.S. election and will be true long after I stop publishing. That I can publish these words without fear of recrimination from my government is precisely the strength of the system. If I am recriminated against, or if others turn away from these words because I’ve expressed these differences, then that is both the future I fear and the one I write to prevent.

During the U.S presidential campaign, candidates from both major parties faced intense public scrutiny for their charitable activities. This exemplifies an issue—the blurring boundary between politics and philanthropy—that I’ve written about for years in this series and which boiled over in 2016. Similarly, both campaigns were defined by their digital practices—one by a reliance on Twitter and the other by a reliance on private email servers. The summer of 2016 showed us that governments that promise unhackable security will come to regret it (I’m looking at you, Australian census bureau and U.S. Democratic National Committee).

The vulnerability of our election technologies to digital malfeasance makes us wonder if the core act of voting is safe and reliable. There are historical antecedents that can guide us in these times (see Big Sonia, above), but our dependence on digital systems and the ways in which they facilitate both freedom and control, expression and censorship, surveillance and new economic powers is what we face anew.

“We are all digitally dependent now.”

Some might yearn for the pre-digital days of politics, when we didn’t worry about email hacks, server security, or social media campaigns. Those days are gone forever. When we stop and catch our breath, we realize this is true also of civil society. We are all digitally dependent now. This offers opportunity and risk, risk that extends beyond cybersecurity. Our digital dependence shapes the nature of data our nonprofits and foundations collect and what they do with it. It explains why new policy environments—from intellectual property law to telecommunications regulations—now determine who can participate, where, when, and at what cost. And it makes 
it ever more important to question our core assumptions about what resources we use for social good, how we exchange them, how we will pay for this work, and who will benefit.

This is the eighth annual Blueprint. I’ve spent 
the year learning with colleagues in the U.S., Australia, Austria, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Sweden. For several years I’ve been arguing that civil society and philanthropy must “assume digital.” The information we gather, store, and exchange electronically and the networks we use to do so are now an integrated part of the way civil society functions. Working internationally 
is a wonderful way to experience the breadth, depth, and diversity that this dependence takes.

Our digital networks are global, but the knotted mess of national and international regulations on everything from free speech to fundraising forced me to check my own assumptions and biases in each region. What is a nonprofit? What qualifies as philanthropic? Who regulates? What roles do co-ops, impact investing, online giving, text messaging, broadband, open source software, and philanthropy play in this setting? My effort to find answers to these questions informs the way I understand digital civil society, the social economy, and philanthropy in 2017.

From “Glimpses of the Future” . . .

“Digital space can be as closed as it can be open.”

Most discussion of social media, the internet, digital infrastructure, and data in the social sector—at least in wealthy democracies— emphasizes its “democratizing” nature and the ways in which it changes gatekeepers, amplifies voices, and enables mobilization. This is not the whole story, nor is it inevitable. Digital space can be as closed as it can be open. To keep civil society alive in digital spaces, we must change our assumptions about and our usage of the digital infrastructure. Small subgroups of civil society actors have long been trying to shape and protect digital rules and systems, whether that means fighting for broadband access or protecting people’s right to know when the companies they work with have their servers hacked. This now must become the fight for all of civil society, before the space closes and cannot be reopened.

From the Conclusion . . .

“Our dependence on digital data changes civil society.”

The very nature of civil society is changed by our dependence on digital data. The set of rights that civil society depends upon—free expression, free association, and the right to privacy—remain the same. But they manifest differently on Facebook than in the town commons of old.2 The relationships between national laws and norms matter more than ever before because of our global digital systems.

We cannot continue to act as if adapting our “analog” practices to digital resources will work. Digital data don’t work the way that time and money do. Digital infrastructure is not the same place as Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London. We need to create—collectively and urgently—new software code, new organizational practices, and new legal requirements if civil society is to continue to thrive in the digital age.

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 Footnotes

1  Agnes Cornell, Jørgen Møller, Svend-Erik Skaaning, and Staffan I. Lindberg, “Civil Society, Party Institutionalization and Democratic Breakdown in the Interwar Period,” University of Gothenburg, Working Paper, Series 2016: 24, The Varieties of Democracy Institute. Available online here.

2  See Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World.

Blueprint 2017 is published in partnership with GrantCraft, a service of the Foundation Center. The monograph can be downloaded for free here.

Blueprint 2017 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-noncommercial-noderivs 2.5 license.

Keeping up with Lucy

The best way to follow Lucy’s thinking is on her blog, Philanthropy2173. Subscriptions are free. Two good posts to check out are: “Civil Society Now,” November 11, 2016 and “Not in my name (or my email or mobile number),” January 14, 2017.

Previous years’ Blueprints can be downloaded at grantcraft.org or lucybernholz.com/books.

Information about Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab can be found here.
The Lab begins a description of itself this way: “The rapid adoption of digital tools for social and political action has resulted in a complicated new sphere we refer to as digital civil society. Digital civil society includes all the ways people and organizations voluntarily use private resources for public benefit in a digital age.”


The New Colossus, 1883

The New Colossus

Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
 

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), a Jewish American author, wrote this sonnet in 1883 to help raise funds to build a pedestal and install the Statue of Liberty. The poem was engraved on that pedestal in 1903, where it remains today. Esther Schor, who wrote a biography of Lazarus, told The New York Times in 2011, “Emma Lazarus was the first American to make any sense of this statue.”

Within a day or so of President Trump’s executive order on immigration  (1/25/17), the words of this poem began appearing across the Internet. This time around, the mighty Colossus must be all of us—we the people.


Awards & leadership

Detail AFALA award, 2005

“Quietly and persistently, she did something radical.”

With these words, I recently toasted Beth Sellars, independent curator and artist, as she received the Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award from the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design.

Sometimes invisibly and usually behind the scenes, Beth has been working for artists for years . . . actually, for decades. She began as a curator for museums in Boise and Spokane before moving to Seattle in 1996 where she was curator of the City of Seattle’s portable art collection. She is best known, though, as the curator of Suyama Space. Founded in 1998 by Beth and architect George Suyama, Suyama Space was a much-loved and highly-esteemed art space in downtown Seattle that closed its last installation in December 2016. Located in a remarkable space that began as a livery stable more than a hundred years ago, Suyama Space presented 55 large-scale artist installations. (See Taryn Wiens’s essay, which both describes Suyama Space and serves as a eulogy: “The Closing of Suyama Space.”1)

In 2007, Seattle arts writer Regina Hackett wrote, “Beth Sellars knows where the art is. She has sought it out, organized it into exhibits and cheered it on at gallery openings and studio visits.”2) Always at the heart of her work are the artists. As Taryn Wiens wrote, “She is with each artist every step of the way from their initial research to installation, sometimes hanging from ropes and climbing to the tops of ladders, especially when the artists are afraid of heights.”

Beth Sellars at the closing party for Suyama Space

Thinking about leadership, T.s. Flock made the salient observation that Sellars has led with “ingenuity and advocacy.” The artists’ installations, he said, “were enabled by the quieter, less visible work of Sellars herself.”3 As I see it, the risks Beth has taken over the years embody the permission she gives artists who work with her and reveal a spirit akin to theirs. She leads by example.

Who gives and gets the award?

In 2005, Seattle’s 911 Media Arts Center created the Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award, sometimes fondly called the AFALA. Like many awards, it both celebrated leadership and raised money at the same time. I was honored and grateful to receive the first one and to have it named for me. I was also glad to help raise money for 911 and was especially pleased to know that the award would celebrate other people in the future.

In 2007, 2009, and 2011, the media arts center gave the award to three outstanding people: Richard Andrews, who started as a sculptor and has gone on to provide arts leadership at local and national levels; Helen Gurvich, who provided leadership through hard work behind the scenes, crucial if often invisible work that keeps things moving; and Ed Marquand, a designer who formed a company that produces fine art books and founded an incubator for artisan businesses in central Washington.

A few years ago the media arts center closed and the award seemed put to bed with it. To my surprise, though, the award has been picked up by the Advisory Board of the School of Art + Art History + Design at the University of Washington, my alma mater. They will celebrate Beth as the first recipient of the resuscitated award later this spring. Beth reflects so many of my beliefs about leadership that I couldn’t be happier with their choice.

What does “leadership” mean?

Receiving the award in 2005 made me think hard about leadership. While honored, receiving the award also made me a little uneasy. For one thing, singling out one person can miss the crucial point that just about anything meaningful takes many more people than one, and in my experience it takes more than one even at the core of it.

Importantly, awards too often miss insightful work that quietly changes lives and takes us forward. This kind of work is done every day by people whose efforts are invisible and unacknowledged. On an NPR program recently, I heard Atul Gawande, who acknowledged that his own work as a surgeon often took heroic form, told us it’s time to recognize and celebrate what he called, “incremental heroism,” the work done daily by primary care physicians. I like this notion and can easily apply it to Beth Sellars.

Before each award ceremony I prepared remarks that, among other things, included what I was thinking about leadership. As a kid I had a fairly narrow sense of leadership. One year, I described my preconceived notion of leadership as “breast-beating, out-spoken, rapid-fire, take-charge, mesmerize-audiences leadership.” That certainly didn’t feel like me. So I wondered each time, what is it about the things I’ve done or the way I’ve done them that demonstrates leadership?

Detail AFALA award, 2005

The notes I made in advance of each award ceremony were not what I actually said. Microphones and spotlights tend to make everything in my head leak out the back. So, here are a few excerpts from notes for what I meant to say.

Leadership takes many forms. Most importantly, I believe about leadership what I believe about most things: there’s not just one right way to do it.

Exceptional leaders often show up in unlikely places, doing unlikely work. I hope this award goes after the eccentric ones and people who might not have the conventional trappings of leadership.

I like big ideas and I love the people who have them, but, the leaders I care about most take good ideas and then hunker down and figure out how to make the ideas real. Big ideas become real through real work. And then those leaders let the real work affect their big ideas. They enjoy the challenge of finding pragmatic, sometimes small, steps that move good ideas into practice.

Work is a key. In 2005, as I thought about what it meant to be recognized as a leader, I figured it must be because of the work, because of what actually got done. And for me, the work is done . . .

By believing it’s possible.
By involving other people, by being curious about and listening to them, by thinking and working  together.
By being stubborn and letting things take time, 
though impatience definitely has its place.
By trying things out and not necessarily following the rules,
or not remembering the rules,
or not having the patience to learn them,
or working on something without rules yet.

At the time, I was editing a piece by Jenny Toomey (activist, rocker, business woman) whose email tagline came from Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” The same thing might be said about leadership.

Because hard work underlies the leadership I admire, at the end of the first AFALA ceremony and several times since then, I read “To be of use,” a poem by Marge Piercy that includes this stanza:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.4 

We will need as much as we can muster of exactly this kind of determination and persistence in the years ahead.

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Photo notes

The 2005 AFALA award sculpture was created by Robert Teeple.

Photo of Beth Sellars by SWAE Photography is courtesy of Suyama Space.

References

1 Taryn Wiens, “The Closing of Suyama Space,” Temporary Art Review, November 18, 2016.

2 Regina Hackett, “Beth Sellars has turned Suyama Space into one of the region’s top art venues,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, October 3, 2007.

3 T.s. Flock, “’Incremental Heroism:’ Beth Sellars receives the 2017 Anne Focke Arts Leadership Award,” VANGUARD Seattle, January 18, 2017.

4 “To Be of Use,” from Circles on the Water, by Marge Piercy, copyright 1982, Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. The whole poem is available online at the Poetry Foundation here .