Just got off a zoom meeting with the Fellows from the Artivate program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a program designed to foster artistic leaders. I was asked last year to be an artist in residence and to take part in this year’s Artivate Summit, which is taking place right now. This morning’s zoom meeting was the first event of the conference.
There were 12 fellows on the call--most of them recent grads of the School of the Arts--a dancer, a couple of film students, a metal worker, a lighting designer, a stage manager, a singer and several more working in a variety of media.
I asked them to introduce themselves by telling us how they would have described themselves and their work a year ago versus how they would describe themselves and their work now.
Everyone’s life looks incredibly different.
Many of the fellows are in their twenties--they’ve just graduated from college after having their last semester online, no proper graduation ceremony, you know the deal.
When they first invited me to be the resident artist it was because I had started The Secret City thirteen years ago and I myself stepped into a position of leadership. Of course with the events of this year, my role as the leader of this organization and this community has called on me to change the nature of our work--you all know this because you’ve been instrumental in that. These daily shows have been the result of this change--to find a way to gather people, to provide connection--i believe so much that this is what we are called to do right now--especially artists and creative people.
Now the focus of my work--and my message--for the summit is: how do artists adapt to what we’re going through and respond. To lead.
There’s a podcast that coincides with the summit; the interviewer asked me about my thoughts around artists and leadership. For me, the phrase artistic leader is a redundancy. Artists are leaders. We are at the forefront of society. We lead people to see things that they may not have seen before or to engage in ways they may not have engaged before. Art educates, inspires, creates cultural change.
There was an actor named Sam on the call. He said that last year at this time, he was planning for his senior showcases. This is what his entire college acting program led up to--four years of learning and planning and preparing to get to these showcases where they perform scenes for industry professionals with the hopes of getting an agent and getting folks excited about them and their work.
In March he was with his class in Atlanta, preparing for their first showcase. They would then be going to New York, LA and Chicago. But, suddenly, this thing that Sam had been looking forward to for a really long time--both the culmination of a period of work and the beginning to a career--just ended.
He’s living back at his parents’ house in DC now.
Toward the end of the session I took questions. Sam spoke up:
“What would you say is the thing to do right now, in light of everything,” he didn’t seem hopeless, but definitely without direction.
My casual self who’d been holding space for these people suddenly became flushed. I sat up. I knew how to answer this.
“This is when we go to work,” I said, “especially creative people. This moment is a call to action. Anyone who has an idea, this is the moment to make it happen. Anyone who is in the theater, especially if you live in a climate conducive to this, should be putting on shows outside--in the woods, in parking lots. Invite your friends and make something new. Reinvent the form. Invite people to come watch--socially distanced, of course. Dancers could be dancing in outdoor pavilions. Installations in strange new places. Whatever you can do or have thought about doing, this is the time to do it. And it may seem impossible but that’s what art does, works through impossibilities. We are all desperate for leaders right now. You are the leaders. Lead.”
Sunny, the staff moderator on the zoom call said, “It’s funny you mention that, we talk with the fellows about artists as leaders. The thing is, so many artists struggle with that word. Leader. Why do you think that is?”
By this point I was on fire--
“I’ll tell you why it is. Because artists are infantilized. We are told that making art is a kind of foolishness. That spending time making things from the imagination is silly. Imagination itself is silly, except in service to making money. Art and artists aren’t valued in our country. But,” and this is important, “artists are the leaders. Artists lead. They don’t have to become leaders, they are leaders.”
But how? How do we proceed?.
Accept what has happened. Surrender to these times--don’t give up, but surrender, and then: say yes. Respond, make something new. Include others in your vision. They and you will be saved by your work. We need you.