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Community, Creativity, and Catastrophe
A Freirean Approach to an Arts Sector in Crisis
We are in a time of catastrophe and of reckoning. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted industries globally and has been particularly devastating for the arts sector. As an arts manager and artist, I’ve watched the economic fallout of the pandemic trigger financial insecurity and record-breaking unemployment throughout the industry I love—including the organization where I worked. According to a national study by Americans for the Arts published in early May 2020, and updated on March 8th 2021, nonprofit arts organizations lost an estimated $15.3 billion during the pandemic, as well as 898,000 jobs. While COVID-19 has created an existential reckoning for many small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and institutions, it is not the only reckoning that has been amplified this year. After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, sustained protests stimulated a national conversation about racial justice beyond what has been seen in the United States in my lifetime. This conversation around race prompted increased scrutiny of organizational track records on equity, diversity, and inclusion, and urged organizations to tackle racial justice as a core focus of their work.
The hardships faced this year have demonstrated not only how interconnected we are globally, but also how important resilience is on individual, organizational, and community levels. According to the RAND Corporation, "community resilience is a measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations.” The arts sector must cultivate resilience internally to survive the fallout of the pandemic, and it must also play a role in cultivating resilience in the greater community by bringing to the table creativity, innovation, imagination and connection—tools that can be used to improve mental and emotional health, to solve problems in collaborative ways, and to work through social issues. We must invest in our capacity to adapt to and expect change instead of working to prevent it. In this essay, I explore methods of building resilience as an arts sector both internally and externally.
Personal BackgroundI have been performing, consuming, and facilitating art for as long as I can remember. This interest led me to pursue a Music degree at Boston University, where I played the cello and studied music education as well as gave cello lessons, taught elementary school music, and assisted in conducting a youth orchestra. I have early memories of attending plays and symphony concerts, going to art museums, and listening to poetry readings. This continuous involvement in the arts led me to pursue graduate studies in Arts Management, and it also enhanced my desire to work professionally within the creative industries. My interest in multidisciplinary public programming has manifested through my work with Grand Park LA, cARTel: Collaborative Arts LA, and Community Arts Resources; I’ve assisted each of these organizations in producing arts programming in Southern California.
I have researched the theoretical foundations laid down by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire, and by theater practitioner and drama theorist Augusto Boal, to track the shift in audience attitudes and desires when it comes to the performing arts, and to describe participatory art forms emerging to meet those new conditions. The models created by Freire and Boal provide insight into the cultivation of resiliency and can help not only to build a stronger arts and cultural sector, but also to add value to the communities to which they belong. Through this theoretical lens, I look at changing trends in audience desires (and their implications), with the aim of working toward equity through organizational operations and programming. I also look at the potential for cultural programming to support public health.
Paolo Freire’s Problem-Posing ModelPaolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1970, describes two models of education: the Banking Model and the Problem-Posing Model. The Banking Model
The Problem-Posing Model of education, on the other hand, changes the dynamic of depositor, or empty vessel, to a more equitable teacher-student and student-teacher relationship. Freire explains, “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn[,] while being taught[,] also teach.” In a performing arts context, “student” can be substituted with “audience,” and “teacher” can be substituted with “performer” or “presenter.”
turns [the students] into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. . . . Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. . . . This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.
Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre and Rehearsing RevolutionAugusto Boal built upon the work of Freire, publishing his book Theatre of the Oppressed in 1979. He applies the Problem-Posing Model of education to theater, offering a method of intervention that turns theater into action that “[seeks] to connect acting to changing the world, by elaborating political projects and being politically active.” These methods are what Boal called “rehearsal-theatre,” and they include Forum Theatre, Invisible Theatre, Newspaper Theatre, Myth Theatre, Legislative Theatre, and Analytical Theatre. Of all of his methods, Forum Theatre has become the most well-known and used.
Forum Theatre transforms audience members into active participants. While Forum Theatre is a specific form of theater, its lessons can be applied more generally. Boal saw his philosophy of theater as a “rehearsal of revolution” in which performers and audience members can collaboratively imagine a different world. I would argue that in rehearsing revolution, we are also rehearsing resilience—imagining a new world can be a way of collectively overcoming and withstanding adversity. Both the Problem-Posing Model—the idea that individuals are not empty vessels but instead bring their own knowledge and understandings to learning and experiencing—and the idea of rehearsing resilience can be used by the arts sector to build resilience and relevance both internally, within organizations, and in communities through programming and engagement.
Building Resilience in the Arts Sector
Changing Trends, Expanding ProgrammingAccording to RAND’s 2001 report, written by Kevin McCarthy et al., The Performing Arts: Trends and Their Implications, the popularity of live performance is diminishing. This, McCarthy goes on to say, is the result of sociodemographic trends in American audiences, including the need for flexibility and choice around leisure activities. McCarthy describes this phenomenon as it relates to generational demographics and technological advancements, noting, “Baby boomers will gradually be replaced by a younger generation that appears less inclined to attend live performances and is more comfortable with entertainment provided through the internet and other emerging technologies.” This technological and generational change has fueled the rise of interactive, immersive and technologically influenced performance, and this process has only been accelerated by the restrictions implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Operas are now available online, on demand. Dance workshops now happen on Instagram Live. Poetry readings take place over Zoom.
The way art is being made and experienced by audiences is changing as our communal understanding of culture changes. It remains to be seen what the long-term ramifications of this year’s mandatory digital programming will be, but at this point, technologically enhanced performance seems like it is here to stay. While this shift might scare stalwarts, it also affords arts managers an opportunity for radical departure. This is an opening to engage audiences in fresh, new ways, even for traditional art forms and institutions. Using Freire and Boal’s Problem-Posing Model of education and theater, artists, institutions, and audiences can work toward expanding the range of experiences in the performing arts to include more people in meaningful ways. This, in turn, will increase the relevance and resilience of the arts sector.
Resilience and Equity2020 has laid bare the inequities in the United States and in the arts sector. Americans for the Arts has found that “Black, Indigenous artists of color have higher rates of unemployment than white artists due to the pandemic (69% vs. 60%) and expect to lose a larger percentage of their 2020 income (61% vs. 56%).” As Trupti Rami writes on the impact of social media activism on cultural institutions, “the art world often prides itself on its progressive ideals, and being open to new ideas, but in no small part because it is mostly funded by an overwhelmingly white patron class, its power structures and its work culture remain steadfastly un-diverse, and—in many ways—unaware.” While this inequity has certainly been highlighted over the past twelve months, the art sector had been grappling with issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion long before 2020.
According to a literature review conducted by the Los Angeles Department of Arts and Culture in 2016, concerns about diversity, cultural equity, and inclusion have been part of American arts policy since the early days of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965. Grappling with these issues goes beyond doing “what’s right” or being politically correct. A lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our workplaces, our programming, and our canon is driving away audience members and threatening the resilience and sustainability of the sector as a whole. The 2017 Culture Track report found that people of color are 82% more likely to stay away from arts and cultural experiences because activities don’t reflect a range of backgrounds and that people with disabilities are 59% more likely to avoid traditional cultural activities because of a negative experience. A lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in both the content and the management of cultural organizations has long been impacting the arts sector, and while scrutiny may have increased, addressing these issues wiil be a matter of long-term resilience and sustainability.
Organizations can work to align not only their programming but also their operations with their missions in the name of long-term sustainability and increased equity. This process will look different for each organization, and may include looking at hiring practices and the demographic makeup of staff, working with consultants to expand options for patrons with disabilities or families with small children, or re-evaluating revenue models to sustain financial stability while expanding the accessibility of programming. This process requires the experimentation, openness, and rehearsal described by Boal in his participatory theater techniques.
Freire’s idea of the Problem-Posing Model, described earlier, can also be extrapolated to institutions and their operations as a whole. If we consider the institution not as an empty vessel, per the Banking Model, but rather as full of dynamic employees—with ties to potential audiences, situated within a community, located in a rich and specific geographical region—underutilized resources in the organization can be identified through dialog. The beauty of the Problem-Posing Model is that the organization, the audience members, and the employees can each learn as well as teach and create. By drawing on these already available resources, institutions can better respond to the crises affecting the industry.
The arts and cultural sector is full of creativity, innovation, collaboration, and gumption. I believe we have the capacity to adapt and build resilience through the work we do, as well as through the products of our work. Finding ways, programmatically and organizationally, to rehearse our liberation and resilience through our boardrooms, curators, programmers, artists, projects, and performances will help to build a more vibrant and sustainable sector.
Building Community Resilience through the Arts
In addition to strengthening our sector, we must heed the responsibilities we have to communities outside of the walls of our institutions. As Kim Zeuli, Maria Rosario Jackson, and Seth Beattie put it in their article, “Reckoning with a Reckoning: How Cultural Institutions Can Advance Equity,” “being is not doing. Arts and cultural organizations must offer more than their mere existence to transform their communities.”
With global restrictions and stay-at-home orders, COVID-19’s impact has gone beyond physical health implications to affect the mental, economic, and financial health of individuals and communities. A study by Nirmita Panchal, et al., published in 2020, found that 53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. So, how can the arts sector help? How can artists and arts organizations contribute to community health and resilience?
Preliminary findings in an ongoing study by University College London, in partnership with the University of Florida and Americans for the Arts, has found that just 30 minutes of arts activity daily lowers anxiety and depression and increases life satisfaction. This is hardly the first study to link the arts with positive physical, mental, and emotional health outcomes. As indicated by this research, the arts sector is in a unique position to help build resilience during one of our largest health crises, as well as to proactively build resilience in communities. Resilience is not only relevant to public health, it can also be an important component of social justice movements, helping to pave the way toward a more equitable future.
Rehearsing Resilience: Exploring ArtsWok’s Both Sides, NowIn 2018, I saw a theater performance in Singapore entitled Exit that doubled as a public health intervention and an incubator of community resilience. It was part of a larger community engagement project called Both Sides, Now, and was co-presented by the Lien Foundation, Ang Chin Moh Foundation, Drama Box, and ArtsWok Collaborative, in collaboration with community partners Yishun Health (Wellness Kampung) and Montfort Care (GoodLife!). Exit discussed end-of-life decisions—a heavy and taboo topic—through Boal’s Forum Theatre format. The project’s intention was for audience members to learn about end-of-life issues, from medical and legal concerns to emotional and social needs, and pick up skills to talk about these topics with their loved ones.
The experience of attending Exit began the moment the audience arrived at the performance space. The play took place at the base of a housing complex and across from a hawker center—a food court considered to be one of “Singapore’s community dining rooms.” While we waited for the play to start, Exit began with volunteer-led reflection and craft activities based on the themes of illness, death, and dying, as well as a sing-along of familiar songs in multiple languages, and a sharing of tea and desserts. Just before the play started, an announcement was made in all of the languages spoken in Singapore—English, Chinese, and Malay—about what to expect. In typical Forum Theatre format, Exit began with scenes scripted and rehearsed by actors, and was followed by a facilitated discussion with the audience about the content as well as the choices made by the actors. It concluded with audience members coming up on the stage and influencing the scenarios in the play. Throughout the play, a translation of the actors' lines was transmitted in three languages on easily viewable screens. If an audience member couldn’t read, a volunteer would translate for them verbally. After the play, conversations were facilitated by volunteers about end-of-life care decisions. The decisions made by the creators of Exit, from the location of the performance to the translation into multiple languages, made the performance as accessible as possible, and helped to create a fulfilling and transcendent experience for those who attended. The project also included a puppetry performance, The Wind Came Home, which focused on coping with illness and loss, a visual art installation, and a series of workshops.
Both Sides, Now is a great example of a proactive arts-based community resilience program that has yielded measurable results. The collaborative and interactive design of Both Sides, Now helped the participants cultivate the tools that are now required to contend with the impacts of the current public health crisis. While the organizers could not have known there would be a global pandemic, the resiliency it built to face illness, death, and dying became increasingly necessary. This program fortified the resilience and health of the communities it touched, which included over fifty community health centers in which the play was performed.
Resilience as Revolution: Exploring the Opera Sweet LandWhile Both Sides, Now proactively built community resilience before a public health crisis, resilience can also be built in real time in reaction to adversity. An example of one such production is Sweet Land, an opera created by a team of Indigenous and POC composers, librettists, costumers, and directors that tackles issues of American identity, colonization, and race, while centering Indigenous perspectives. These social issues represent an ongoing adversity—and are considered a public health crisis—where building resilience requires reckoning in the moment, understanding the past, and imagining the future. The opera follows two groups: “The Hosts” of a land and “The Arrivals” to that land. The play has two different story tracks, and while they start and end in unison, audience members diverge for separate perspectives of the narrative as it unfolds. These perspectives erase and complicate each other, and, in order to get both perspectives, the play must be watched two times, urging the audience to reckon with America’s violent past of genocide, slavery, and persecution.
The unique format of Both Sides, Now doesn't follow Boal's Forum Theatre's prioritization of audience agency. Instead, it follows Freire’s Problem-Posing Model of interrogation and interaction between the location, the actors, the characters, and the audience members. Taking place in Los Angeles State Historic Park in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, Sweet Land honors the history and memories of the land. As Michael Dear writes in the program notes, “The notion of place is at the heart of the way we remember.” Thinking of the location of the performance as an integral part of memory-keeping and meaning-making changes the dynamic of the park from a passive landscape to an active participant in the performance.
Arts institutions, arts managers, and artists can turn toward Freire’s Problem-Posing Model to help spark conversations around racial justice. The Problem-Posing Model relies on active dialogue and requires a willingness to have difficult conversations with organizations, art makers, and audience members. Without willingness to engage, this process of building resilience cannot commence. The Problem-Posing Model also requires deep listening to perspectives outside of dominant ones, as well as reimagining where history, memory, knowledge, and contributions may be found, as illustrated by Sweet Land.
The many adverse situations facing organizations and individuals today raise vital questions concerning the future of the creative industries. How do we get work and financial support into the hands of the 63% of artists who are fully unemployed due to the pandemic? How do we support organizations that are reinventing the work they do in light of changes in governmental public health restrictions, audience trends, and technological advancements? How can we align operational structures with mission statements and goals for equity and sustainability? How can the arts help process the trauma of lives lost—whether to COVID-19 or to police brutality? Tackling these issues will require building resilience in the arts and cultural sector and in our communities. This work requires multi-faceted and innovative approaches with investment from all stakeholders: the organizations themselves, community members, artists, and funding sources such as foundations and governmental agencies.
The principles of generating resilience discussed in this essay can be applied to crises ranging from issues of public health to social justice. Not only can the arts build resilience in communities through programming that reflects Freire and Boal’s philosophies, but it can also build internal organizational resilience by applying those same models. Investing in resilience is not just an altruistic offer from the arts to society at large; it also directly benefits the cultural sector by increasing its own short-term survival as well as its long-term sustainability in a changing world.
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- Anu Yadav, Healing through Story: A Toolkit on Grassroots Approaches (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture, 2020), 7.↵,
- Randy Cohen, “COVID-19’s Pandemic’s [sic] Impact on The Arts: Research Update: November 9, 2021,” Americans for the Arts, accessed December 14, 2020, https://www.americansforthearts.org/node/103614.↵
- Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui, and Jugal K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” The New York Times, July 3, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-size.html.↵
- “Community Resilience,” RAND Corporation, accessed December 14, 2020, https://www.rand.org/topics/community-resilience.html.↵
- Cailin Nolte, “Expanding Audience Experience: A Freirean Approach to Performing Arts Management,” (master’s thesis, Claremont Graduate University, 2018).↵
- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Penguin, 1972), 72.↵
- Ibid., 72.↵
- Sophie B. Coudrey, “Theatre of the Oppressed as a Political Method,” MR Online, July 5, 2019, https://mronline.org/2019/07/11/theatre-of-the-oppressed-as-a-political-method/.↵
- Augusto Boal, “Poetics of the Oppressed,” The Theatre of the Oppressed (London: Pluto Press, 1979), 120-50.↵
- Ibid., 155.↵
- June Jordan, “Poem for South African Women,” Directed by Desire: The Complete Poems of June Jordan (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), 248.↵
- Kevin McCarthy, “The Performing Arts: Trends and their Implications,” RAND Corporation, December 14, 2020, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB2504.html.↵
- Ibid., xix.↵
- Ibid., 2.↵
- Randy Cohen.↵
- Trupti F. Rami, “The Instagram Account ‘Change the Museum’ Is Doing Just That,” Vulture, July 15, 2020, https://www.vulture.com/2020/07/change-the-museum-instagram.html.↵
- Bronwyn Mauldin, Susannah Laramee Kidd, Jesse Ruskin, and Matthew Agustin, Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative: Literature Review, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, March 30, 2016, https://www.lacountyarts.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/ceii_litrev_execsumm_final.pdf.↵
- “Culture Track 2017,” La Placa Cohen: Culture Track, accessed December 14, 2020, https://s28475.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/CT2017-Topline-Deck-1.pdf.↵
- Kim Zeuli, Maria Rosario Jackson, and Seth Beattie, “Reckoning with a Reckoning: How Cultural Institutions Can Advance Equity,” Non Profit News | Nonprofit Quarterly, February 23, 2021, https://nonprofitquarterly.org/reckoning-with-a-reckoning-how-cultural-institutions-can-advance-equity/?fbclid=IwAR1QbN8eyjwYImm-vYOKkazrVKKsB1L70vatcy-AsBFNt8piClAPAFGToC8.↵
- Nirmita Panchal, Rabah Kamal, Kendal Orgera, Cynthia Cox, Rachel Garfield, Liz Hamel, Cailey Muñana, and Priya Chidambaram, “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use,” Kaiser Family Foundation, February 10, 2021, https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/view/footnotes/.↵
- Randy Cohen.↵
- J. Sonke, T. Golden, S. Francois, J. Hand, A. Chandra, L. Clemmons, D. Fakunle, M. R. Jackson, S. Magsamen, V. Rubin, K. Sams, and S. Springs, “Creating Healthy Communities through Cross-Sector Collaboration [White paper],” University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine / ArtPlace America, 2019, https://arts.ufl.edu/site/assets/files/174533/uf_chc_whitepaper_2019.pdf.↵
- “Both Sides, Now Interactive Play and Workshops to Inspire Meaningful End-of-Life Conversations,” Drama Box, October 20, 2020. http://web.archive.org/web/20190215051547/http://bothsidesnow.sg/downloads/Press_Release-Exit-ENG.pdf.↵
- Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore,“All Singapore under one roof,” National Geographic: Travel, accessed February 10, 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/partner-content-all-Singapore-under-one-roof.↵
- “Both Sides, Now Interactive Play and Workshops to Inspire Meaningful End-of-Life Conversations."↵
- “Sweet Land Trailer,” YouTube, February 20, 2020, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaImJFOGFUY.↵
- Kat Eschner, “Racism is undeniably a public health issue,” Popular Science, June 4, 2020, https://www.popsci.com/story/health/racism-public-health/.↵
- Micheal Dear, “Eye of the Beholder,” Sweet Land digital program, accessed March 15, 2022. 6. https://theindustryla.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/IND-SweetLand_digitalprogram_20-0320.pdf.↵
- Anu Yadav, 1.↵
- Randy Cohen.↵