This internship started with a conversation with Anne where she asked me what it is that I study. When I told her that I studied art, she asked if I was an artist. I replied that I study and practice art, but I do not consider myself an artist. She mentioned that she felt the same way about her writing. This was my first time interacting with Anne, but I already understood so much about the way that she thought.
When I asked what her medium is, she told me this was it. Creating organizations, projects, etc. This was her medium. At first, this was hard to wrap my head around. I am so used to studying artists whose media are plaster, clay, metal, and oil on canvas, but not organizations. How many organizations and projects could she really have created? It turns out, there have been several, and getting to know Anne is the only way to find this out because of how humble she is about her creations.
Anne’s attitude toward creating new projects and tackling anything head on is inspiring to say the least, and I feel it is a reason why this internship has been able to go so far. It has given me, for instance, several opportunities, such as being able to curate my own show, learning how to run a podcast, and even writing and editing a piece like this one to be posted online. She has taught us interns so much about being an artist that we would not otherwise have gained from our classes at the University of Washington.
I have gotten a look into a history where, luckily, my subjects are still around.
This internship turned out to be much more than simple archiving, which the initial description of the position implied. I have had the opportunity to learn skills, such as podcasting, that I have been curious about for quite some time. I have gotten a look into a history where, luckily, my subjects are still around. I have been able to talk to them about the files I have been going through for months on end. Because of our podcasts, I have talked to them about the problems that were occurring at the time and what they felt about it. This is probably one of the most important pieces of the internship to me, because we’re able to create a verbal history of the era.
For many people, the 1980s and 1990s might seem as though they just lived them, but we’re getting to a point where there will be no recollection of the technology they had in those days, like big breathing boxes of computers, dial-up connections, and floppy disks. Being able to talk to individuals who were online so early on and were a part of systems like MetaNet where Arts Wire began is incredibly important. These were some of the pioneers of what arts organizations could have done and built for the community.
It is important to create an oral history, or spoken archive, of such moments in time, especially because of the way this history was built. Almost everything was online or by telephone, and the internet was not yet easily available. It only makes sense to have these memories and moments uploaded for the current internet community to enjoy. It’s hard to imagine a world without these online systems, but that’s just what our interviewees helped us to imagine. What was it like before we were able to type in a simple Google search?
It’s hard to imagine this life, where thinking about typing online just seemed stressful and responses took days rather than minutes or seconds.
Going through the archives, it’s hard to imagine this life, where thinking about typing online just seemed stressful and responses took days rather than minutes or seconds. However, that’s why it’s so important to talk to the people who were there at the time and can recall what was happening then. What was it like to live in these moments where the technology was changing so drastically?
This internship may have turned out to be a lifelong project, since I haven’t had enough time to realize just how I have benefitted from it and what exactly I have learned. The exploration with my fellow interns is still occurring, and I don’t know that there is an ending to it quite yet.
Jessica Capó received an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Visual Arts from the UW School of Art + Art History + Design in June 2017. She was one of two interns who spent the entire year with me. Among other things, she became our “techie,” taking responsibility, for instance, for figuring out how to set up a podcast and then being in charge of setting up the equipment each time and hosting us around her dining table because my office at the School was too echoey.
“Wait a minute!” I said. “Iam 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.
• • • • •
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I returned to Seattle in April 1968, the “anger” that Alex referred to was in full force. Continue reading →
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.1Literatura 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.
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.”
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.
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!).
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.
“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.”
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?
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 Piercythat 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.
The 2005 AFALA award sculpture was created by Robert Teeple.
Photo of Beth Sellars by SWAE Photography is courtesy of Suyama Space.
One way I’ll be “carrying on” in 2017 is through my “office hours” with Artist Trust as part of the Jini Dellaccio Project. Every month I continue to reserve the second and fourth Wednesday afternoon at 1:30 and 3:30 for these conversations. You can sign up here.
Last summer “office hours” was a fairly unformed and open-ended idea. The notion was based on amazing conversations I’ve had over the years with people who just wanted to talk and on a vague sense that seven decades of life and work experience might prove useful or at least interesting to others. I also imagined the conversations would be two-way exchanges and that I’d be a primary beneficiary.
Artist Trust and I started this experiment for real in September, and it’s proven to be just as amazing as the conversations that inspired it. The conversations have given me the opportunity to meet extraordinary people I hadn’t known before and to spend time with old friends, the kind of focused time that feels luxurious but that we give ourselves so seldom.
People – both women and men – of many ages signed up – some early in their lives, some in the middle thick of it, and others, like me, enmeshed in life’s upper layers. Some came with a specific question or project in mind, and a few said, in so many words, “I’m not sure why I made this appointment.” Regardless of what prompted it, in the end each conversation seemed to matter. Sometimes an experience from my past proved useful, many times we discovered something new or the beginning of a solution through our back-and-forth discussion, and other times it seemed that the simple chance to talk with someone who was interested and listened closely was enough. Each one took its own course, and the form remains just as open-ended as it started.
“Office hours” sounds more formal than they are, and they tend to last more than an hour. We meet at Artist Trust and usually walk down the street to a nearby coffee shop, or we simply take a walk and talk while walking. Come use me as a sounding board, pick my brain, or try out new ideas. Office hours are open to anyone. Let’s talk!
A spirit of making it up – of life and work as an experiment – has run through my life from the start.
When I was about six, I learned to twirl a baton at the same school where I had a few ballet lessons and learned to love tap dancing. From then on until sometime after I entered college, I always had a baton around. In my world, what twiddling-your-thumbs might have done for some meant twirling just about anything twirlable. . . a tennis racket, a stick from the side of the road, an especially big serving spoon, or even a new pencil. But my best “real” baton had a thin, shiny body and was carefully balanced with a large head on one end and a smaller cap with a weight inside on the other. I think it came from Sears. Remembering it even now, my fingers start moving automatically as if its shaft were rolling through them.
One moment stands out as a marker of the last phase of my twirling days. It came a few years into my college life and several giant steps into my hippie days of long hair, short skirts, and long, roped beads. That sunny afternoon, I learned that twirling, even with a good baton, was a complicated match with my lifestyle. That afternoon, I absent-mindedly picked up my baton to fill a few minutes. With one especially vigorous twist of the wrist to send the baton into the air, the head of the baton caught in my long strands of beads – bright blue and green – and it was as though they exploded. Bright beads flew everywhere. Despite the laughter of the moment, the baton seldom came out after that.
Between age six and college, though, my baton inspired an early instance of what I mean by “making it up.” Perhaps out of a need to find friends in a new high school, I gradually convinced a group of girls to twirl with me. I don’t remember if we actually took lessons or if they had also been in twirling classes when younger or if we simply drew on what I could remember. But I made sure that we had regular practices, that we made up and learned “routines,” found recorded music to march to, created outfits, and eventually convinced the school that it needed marching majorettes at football games. Even though our school had no band, the five of us marched in patterns to recorded music, twirling and tossing our batons into the air at halftime. It was one of the things I was remembered for at my 50th high school reunion.
The thesaurus contains many synonyms for “make up” that reinforce the way I’ve used the phrase to refer to what I do: imagine, invent, conceive, create, improvise, put together, put in order, dream up, whip up, wangle. The meaning shifts around – I also like fabulize, fictionalize, pretend, concoct, build castles in the air, wing it, play-act, play by ear, and just plain play. And it’s used when we take a school make-up test, put on make up, or kiss and make up. Other terms take darker turns – manipulate, fake it, trump it up, stretch the truth, falsify, fib, lie. These may be the risks that come with this aspect of my nature, of my makeup.
As an approach to life, making it up is still my way, even as I live into my eighth decade. I want to keep living an experiment, tossing possibility into the air without knowing quite where it will come down and whether I’ll catch it again this time.
“Half a century” seems SO long ago, much longer than 50 years. “Five decades” feels closer to my experience; after all, I can count up to five on one hand. No matter how it’s put, though, that’s about how much time has passed since I received my undergraduate degree in Art History from the University of Washington. It was 1967.
In the intervening decades, I’ve been an invited guest in a few college classes here and elsewhere, edited writings by wonderful scholars, attended events on college campuses, and donated papers to Special Collections at the UW Libraries. But I haven’t spent any real time in an academic setting – not taking classes, teaching, or doing research.
Alum in Residence
All this is why it’s such a special opportunity to have been appointed Alum in Residence* at the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design for the coming school year. It’s exciting, if a little daunting, to walk through the front doors of the School, knowing that I have an office upstairs and that pretty soon the halls, empty now, will be filled with students and faculty and staff.
“So, what will you do?”
When I’ve mentioned my new role to friends, their first question is almost always, “So, what does that mean? What will you do?” And, as I usually say when venturing out on a new project, “Well, I’m not completely sure yet. I get to help make it up!” Which doesn’t mean, of course, that we have no idea what I’ll do or that we don’t have some plans. But my enthusiasm comes partly from knowing that we’ll be learning what the position can be as we go through the year. I’ve been given considerable flexibility in the way I use my time, partly because it’s an unfunded position. I’ve been encouraged not to feel pressure to take on everything that comes my way. As someone who often tries to do everything and all at once, this will take some self-discipline. I’m already learning that the School is a very busy place.
Although we know the program will morph and change over the year, here’s what’s planned as the year begins:
Archives. Over the years I’ve lived through a lot of history. Perhaps as a faint echo of my art history education, I’ve accumulated many documents and ephemera from that history – and/or, Artist Trust, Artech, Arts Wire, early artist fellowship programs nationwide, Grantmakers in the Arts, and more. Some of this is already in Special Collections at the UW Libraries, though much more is in my own storage. My position as Alum in Residence gives me the opportunity to offer internships to students who might want to work with me to examine this history, organize materials, and perhaps find homes for some of it. We will also view the materials through a contemporary lens, as a springboard for discourse and writing on topics of relevance today.
Open door office hours. I’ve been given a nice office – with a window even! – and I’ll establish specific times when I’ll be there with the door open, welcoming anyone who wants to talk about just about anything. You can use me as a sounding board, pick my brain about the past, try out a new idea . . . whatever. No scheduling needed. As I’ve said about my office hours with Artist Trust, I think of these as two-way exchanges. They could be called, “mutual mentoring”. I’ll learn a lot, and I hope it will be mutual. Specific times will be set as soon as I understand more about the flow of activity at the School once it gets underway in late September.
Conversations with purpose. I’ll host informal but focused discussions that build on my 15 years or so organizing conversations in different forms and in collaboration with others. I look forward to extending this practice to the School and to making connections between the School and the community.
One event is already on the books: on Monday, November 21, the UW’s entire undergraduate art history class of 1967 will host a conversation – all two of us. The other graduate in my class, David Mendoza, remains a friend today. We’ll talk together about those years (as far as we can remember them) and about what we’ve done since then with the preparation our art history degrees gave us. Our conversation will then spill over and involve anyone who joins us.
Class visits. As possible and at the invitation of faculty, I’ll participate in classroom sessions or other activities. (A past example from another school is briefly described here.)
“How did this come about?”
A second question friends ask is, “How did this happen? Did you apply? Did they seek you out?” As with many new things, the beginning point is a little fuzzy. Perhaps it’s like the headwaters of a river. Does a river start with this little stream or with that one? with the confluence where they come together or with a whole drainage basin? I suppose that’s why the word is usually plural, there’s almost never just a single source.
From my perspective, the Alum in Residence started with many of the same questions I ask in other contexts. Since someone my age today will live, on average, 30 years longer than someone did 100 years ago, what are we going to do with those extra years, so many of which are past the official age of “retirement”? If we aren’t completely undone struggling for money to cover our costs, how do we stay active, keep learning, and continue to be engaged, contributing members of the community?
Wanting a home where I could explore questions like these but not wanting to create a new organization, I looked around for compatible institutions that might house experiments to find and try out answers to these questions. Good conversations with several people in institutions both in and out of the arts yielded some declines but gave me good solid start. Artist Trust was one place where the idea stuck. I’m so glad to have the fiscal sponsorship of Artist Trust in a collaboration that is developing the Jini Dellaccio Project. (See more about this project here.)
While exploring possibilities with Artist Trust, I was also paying attention to new energy bubbling up at my alma mater. So, as part of the same search, I sent a query to Jamie Walker, director of the School of Art + Art History + Design, expressing my interest in the possibility of establishing some kind of “chair” or residency within a sympathetic organization that would allow me to pursue this experiment and share my decades of experience with others in a mutual exchange. “Since a position like this doesn’t seem to exist at this point,” I wrote, “I’m doing what comes naturally, making it up.”
As it turned out, my focus on the work and contributions of older people along with my history at the School resonated with Jamie’s interest in developing closer relationships with School alumni and, as he said, “taking possession of our own history.” The timing was right, it seems, for our respective ideas to meet, bounce around, adapt, expand, and come together. The process, he said, is “fortuitous and that’s different from luck.” As we talked about how we each get things done, he said he likes “to encourage things to happen that haven’t happened before,” and he often does this essentially from the side. Which, in my lexicon of such things, means exactly what we were doing: listening to each other, nudging, getting little obstacles out of the way, letting initial ideas soften and meld together. So, through our conversation, along with his doing all the necessary administrative work inside the University, we’ve come out the other side of these conversations with this Alum in Residence program.
I love watching and being part of a process like this – one idea bouncing against and intersecting with another, within a specific set of circumstances, adapting and shifting to find what’s shared, resulting in something that can look as though it were planned that way from the start.
One last quiet aspiration. In the past month, I’ve received many helpful introductions to the school and its people. In one of these, I heard someone fondly described as the “resident hipster.” If I try hard, perhaps by the end of the year I’ll have earned a similar status as the “resident geezer”…and in the process break down a few stereotypes of just who gets to be a geezer.
* About the word “alum,” to quote Merriam-Webster: “Many people are comfortable using the word alumni to refer to someone who was a student of a particular school. However, others feel quite strongly that this is an error and that the following Latin forms should be used: alumnus (for one male), alumni (for multiple males, or for a mix of males and females), alumna (for one female), and alumnae (for multiple females). The shortened form alum and its plural form alums began to be used in the 19th century. Initially, alum was widely viewed as highly colloquial or informal, but is increasing in use as a gender-neutral alternative.
“Successful economic development must be an improvisational drift into unprecedented kinds of work that carry unprecedented problems, then drifting into improvised solutions, which carry further unprecedented work carrying unprecedented problems…”
Jane Jacobs Cities and the Wealth of Nations
The 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ birth is being celebrated this year by many people around the world. Jacobs is best known for her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a powerful critique of 1950s urban planning. Her influence on the field of urban planning is considered revolutionary.
My own introduction to her thinking, though, was a different book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, written more than two decades later (1985). In what seems to me a natural extension of her thinking about the physical form of cities, she had begun to consider the economy of cities, to “probe the mysteries of economic structure,” as she put it. In this book I found, as I wrote at the time, “new ways to connect artists and the world of economics.”
After reading Cities and the Wealth of Nations, I invited Jacobs to participate in a 1988 conference I was organizing about “creative support for artists” because I saw in her ideas a place for artists in economic development as she described it. She wrote back and, though declining my invitation, sent me a copy of her book, The Economy of Cities (1969) because of my interest. A source for this book was a question she asked herself: Why do some cities decline and die while others live and grow? A common assumption she challenged is that economies depend for their growth on large industrial and economic institutions – the huge modern corporations that are still so dominant. In Cities and the Wealth of Nations she took this inquiry further.
In a 2001 interview, when asked what she’d be remembered for most, she said, “the most important thing I’ve contributed is my discussion of what makes economic expansion happen. This is something that has puzzled people always. I think I’ve figured out what it is.”1 When she wrote Cities and the Wealth of Nations, she hadn’t quite “figured it out” yet (a summary of her economic theory came later in The Nature of Economies, 2000), but I found plenty in that book to expand my thinking.
Cities and the Wealth of Nations was in the pile of books I took with me to the Headlands Center of the Arts in 1991 where I spent 10 days reading, reflecting, and writing to pursue my inquiry into why artists didn’t seem to fit into the economic structure of our society. As I went along, I captured my thoughts in a paper, Artists and Economics: Notes from the Headlands. The section on Jane Jacobs follows here.
The act of writing the paper more closely resembled taking notes than writing a finished essay. It was a way of recording ideas that impressed me and that I thought might be useful at another time – as a source of more writing or as support for action and finding new directions. The paper remained open-ended, especially since I thought of it as notes for future use. It’s fun to pick it up again now and see how I’d argue with my 25-year-younger self.
Anne Focke, 2016
I bought Jane Jacobs’ Cities and the Wealth of Nations by mistake. I thought I was getting her earlier book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Cities and downtowns were very much on my mind at the time (1985-86). Besides, economics is not a subject I’d have been drawn to intentionally. A dry and mostly unmemorable college course on economics left me with the impression that economics was fairly unrelated to daily life. About all I remember is something about sole proprietorships and the structure of corporations, plus larger and even more intangible concepts like “capitalism” and “socialism.”
When I bought Jacobs’ book, I was very concerned with how money moved around and how to get it flowing to things I cared about – to artists and work and activities I valued. In the 70s and 80s, I had been responsible for and had tried to raise money for a small, non-profit, artist-run organization named and/or. Fundraising for this organization was not an easy task. I began to realize that the problems I faced were not just my own; the artists and art work I cared about typically struggled financially. My interest in getting money to artists led to other efforts: working to establish an organization to support artists in Washington State (Artist Trust) and organizing a national conference on “Creative Support for Creative Artists” that delved into the topic of how artists are (and mostly are not) supported by our society or by the communities where they live. For the most part, though, something called “economics” was not on my mind.
“Probing the mysteries of economic structure”
Jane Jacobs writes of “probing the mysteries of economic structure” and the “rise and decline of wealth.” The first chapter of Cities and the Wealth of Nations, “Fool’s Paradise,” recaps much of the history of economists’ work and concludes that “several centuries of hard ingenious thought about supply and demand … have told us almost nothing about the rise and decline of wealth … We are on our own.”
The understandings that Jacobs reveals and weaves through her writing, both in this book and in an earlier one, The Economy of Cities (1969), appeal to me in part because they seem drawn from real circumstances, from close attention and observation, and from making connections among the things she discovers rather than from applying abstracted theories or handed-down principles. I didn’t need prior knowledge to follow along with her and to “get it.”
One of Jacobs’ principal points is that cities are the basic economic unit, not nations. Most economic thought proceeds with an assumption that nations are the primary economic unit. Jacobs believes this unexamined assumption is a critical flaw.
Beyond this (and where I got really hooked), she identifies the primary forces that drive economic growth: “economic life develops by grace of innovating; it expands by grace of import-replacing.” (By “import-replacing,” Jacobs means the process whereby cities begin to produce for themselves what they once imported.)
The value she attributes to innovation, improvisation, and insight and their centrality to her understanding of economic life, seems to make room for artists in the economic scheme of things, even though she seldom mentions artists directly.
She doesn’t say that humans are driven to innovate or imitate, just that when we do, economic life grows.
“The drive to better oneself” – Adam Smith
Adam Smith (1703-1790), whose work is the basis of much classical marketplace economic theory (and who, like Jacobs, apparently reached his conclusions empirically) postulated that the prime force motivating economic life is self-interest, a desire to augment one’s own wealth and to better one’s own condition – which has been turned, by now, into a desire to consume and to acquire. To me, it seems that bettering one’s own condition could have meant lots of things – increasing our knowledge, enriching our spirit, adding and deepening friendships. Instead, our economy has become dependent on acquisition and consumption, and our society has become one that often seems to have little other purpose.
The “drive to better oneself” does not seem to play a strong role in Jacob’s thinking. But I’m not sure. She doesn’t write about it explicitly. Instead, she talks about the mechanisms of economic growth itself, about innovation and imitation (replacing imports) – not about self-interest, acquisitiveness, buying and selling, capital accumulation, or supply and demand. Her notions of economic health (growth and development) aren’t about accumulation, but rather are about energy, the process, initiative, and the generation of new ideas and “new little things.” In a sense, the process is only incidentally about getting bigger. Sometimes economic development (or growth) results in a city getting bigger, but sometimes it leads to renewal or to a reversal of decay and stagnation.
Innovation and inefficiencies
Jacobs has thought-provoking things to say about innovation and economic life:
To be effective as developers and expanders of economic life, she says, cities need innovations (or “inputs of human insight”) and import replacements (or “inputs of human capacity to make adaptive imitations”).
Innovations are made by adding new kinds of work, logically and naturally, to specific bits of older work. When this proceeds vigorously, a settlement becomes a city.
Adding new work to old is full of surprises and hard to predict. The process, she writes, is analogous to a form of logic – intuition – that artists use. It involves being alert to messages in the work being made. The creator must have an insight and make a new departure. Innovation does not emerge from the logic of a customer; it does not come from sales departments.
Innovations are complicated and diverse.
A few of the examples she named are innovations that are part of scientific research at universities and innovations within an existing enterprise, like the dressmaker who developed the brassiere and the mining company that developed many uses for the glue that holds sand to paper.
And also about development and messy inefficiencies:
Development work is messy, consumes time and energy, involves duplication of effort, and is theoretically wasteful. Cities are economically valuable because they are inefficient and impractical.
To stimulate further development, new improvisations and innovations must be continually injected into everyday life.
Conditions that promote efficient production and distribution of existing goods and services are diametrically opposed to conditions that promote economic development.
The period when an organization is most fertile is when it is small. Economic life can expand quickly within symbiotic collections of little messy enterprises, unpredictably and opportunistically changing in content.
Developing new work at a high rate, Jacobs says, requires access to much inefficiently dispensed capital (perhaps developing new art requires the same).
In a large organization nearly all the divisions of labor must be sterile. That is, they can’t actively add new kinds of work. If they did, the organization’s “community of purpose” would vanish. Even in nature, when an organism becomes complex, it keeps its reproductive cells confined to one small part of the organism only. Large organizations likewise set up specific “reproductive organs” – research and development departments. (When we who are concerned about artists and new work use “research and development” as our metaphor, we’re using a concept that’s borrowed from large organizations rather than from small messy enterprises.)
“The great cold of poverty”
“The great cold of poverty and economic stagnation is the absence of economic development,” and this economic process is rooted in the development work that goes on in impractical cities, where one kind of work leads inefficiently to another. Poverty has no causes, Jacobs writes, only prosperity has causes.
People in government (and large philanthropies) tend to seek sweeping answers to problems rather than bring their minds and resources to bear on a particular small problem in a particular place. Yet, according to Jacobs, the latter is how innovations of any sort are apt to begin – as specific solutions to specific problems in specific places. Nationally- or internationally-mandated solutions are at cross-purposes to development.
The primary economic conflict is not between employers and employees but between people with already well-established economic enterprises and those with new ones. New interests need a “third-hand” as a protector to allow them to get a start, and Jacobs believes this “third-hand” role is best played by governments.
Curiosity and drift
Successful economic development, Jacobs says, must be open-ended rather than goal-oriented. It must make itself up as it goes along. It must drift. It must be “an improvisational drift into unprecedented kinds of work that carry unprecedented problems, then drifting into improvised solutions, which carry further unprecedented work carrying unprecedented problems…” (Ellipsis is hers.) Goal-oriented, strategic planning assumes economic life can be conquered, mobilized, bullied – which works if the activity is warfare, but not if it is development. The last chapter of her book is titled simply, “Drift.”
Cyril Stanley Smith, quoted in Jacobs’ book, writes that necessity is not the mother of invention, rather necessity takes advantage of invention. Invention proceeds from something much more like aesthetic curiosity. Most minerals were discovered for use as pigments, Smith claims. Metallurgy began with the making of beads and other ornaments. Techniques for casting cannons were based on a technology developed to make bells. Further, big things grow from little things. New little things can be destroyed by their environments unless they are cherished for reasons more like aesthetic appreciation than like “practical utility” or success in the marketplace.
“Discoveries often happen on the way to something else.”
There is an order to the drift of economic life as it grows and expands, but it is not the order of challenge and response more common in the military. Rather, the order is more like biological evolution. The more niches filled within a given ecology, the more efficiently that ecology uses energy and the richer it is in life and the means to support life. Similarly, economies that produce amply and diversely for their own people and for export, are better off than economies that are specialized.
In addition to innovation, many other things are needed in an economically vital city – energetic adaptation and replacement of imports, a cluster of cities of the same size with which to trade, sources of inefficient and unorthodox capital for new little ventures, and a “third hand” that protects new ventures from established ones.
What about artists?
Artists and artist “incubators” are additional sources of innovation that were not on Jacobs’ mind. They need investments and nurture, too, and not for their practical utility.
“Friends of the Rag” was a loosely-knit group of between 20 and 50 artists, clothing designers, costume artists and artists making wearable sculpture who were active in Seattle in the mid ’70s. While it would be difficult to prove that these artists were in any sense directly responsible for the emergence of a strong fashion industry in the area, they may well have played a critical role in generating the energy that made Seattle a place for innovative fashion, clothing design, and imaginative costumes. They changed the atmosphere, the spirit and the overall sense of creativity and potential in the Seattle clothing world. They infused it with imagination and innovation.
Innovation, invention, and especially aesthetic curiosity are traits that are being specialized right out of our culture, and the trend may be intensified by the separation of artists into their own worlds. Separating artists from the ongoing life of communities (as happens increasingly) might actually be detrimental to a healthy economy. Jacobs wrote in a 1988 letter to me, “By isolating artists or relegating them to the margins of ‘normal’ life, we have also been eliminating from ‘normal’ life traits that are part and parcel of economic development.”
Is the economy of artists different?
How much is an artist’s process like other economic processes? Are the two similar, just in different realms? Or, if we assume that specialized realms once considered distinct often overlap, might we not find that the economics of artists’ worlds overlap with the broader economy?
Instead of speaking just of the “economy,” economic writers often refer to the “political economy” based on the assumption that the two (politics and economics) cannot be separated and that politics is not distinct from economics. Can creative or cultural concerns be separated any more easily from either politics or economics? What phrase might we use to reflect the reality that creativity and culture also are not distinct from the realms of economics and politics, and vice versa – maybe “political and cultural economy” or “creative political economy”?
How can we create ways to support the messy, inefficient work of artists and inject it into everyday life in specific places? In Jacobs’ terms, economic development occurs when cities “produce amply and diversely for their own people, as well as for others.” Isn’t there the chance that, in some inefficient and open-ended way, this will help cities increase their ability to produce amply and diversely for their own people, as well as for others?
Ways we could take action
We could learn from percent-for-art/public art programs that establish diversionary “toll gates” that direct to art work a small percentage of the money flowing to capital projects of various governmental jurisdictions. Presumably, this money feeds and nourishes the capital projects through artists’ work, as well as feeding and nourishing the artist. Using this experience, we could learn how “economic development” dollars work and where they flow within private and governmental agencies. Then we could set up similar toll gates and direct some of the money to artists, supporting them to nurture economic development with their energies, in the messy and inefficient way that Jacobs suggests.
We could provide a place for artists in “business incubators.” These facilities (sometimes governmental, sometimes private, sometimes university-based) provide work space, support, and working capital for new little ventures.
We could find places and roles for artists in private enterprises as well – in the research departments of large companies, in partnership with small innovative companies, and in collaboration with other inventors and scientists.
We could involve artists in the economic development process in other ways – make it more like an artist’s process. How could artists participate in setting economic policy and in deciding where economic development dollars flow?
And, just to repeat what Jacobs told me in her 1988 letter . . .
By isolating artists or relegating them to the margins of ‘normal’ life, we have also been eliminating from ‘normal’ life traits that are part and parcel of economic development.
1 “City Views: Urban studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy,” interview by Bill Steigerwald, Reason.com, June 2001, the quotation I use is on the last page. <jane jacobs interview Reason mag>