Advocacy, leadership, public space

My second Artistic Leadership Adventures have taken me to Chicago and New York to attend a convention, meet artists, experience new work – and, in a welcome serendipity, to revisit two key moments in my creative development by reuniting with my first mentor and my most formative collaborators. In the final months of this rare period of longitudinal focus, I will test some new advocacy approaches and frame my next projects.

The story so far. This is a self-directed creative professional development spanning 18mo and supported by the Australia Council’s Artistic Leadership fund. My theme is Public space, public voice. The development is punctuated by travel but extends consistently across the entire period through research, writing, indexing and critique. This time last year I was in the north of England, London, the Swiss Alps and Geneva, immersing in a range of projects and perspectives through residencies, meetings and interviews, as well as experiencing a lot of new work. A collaboration has since emerged with Jean Maurice Varone of Éditions Vercorin for the 2017 project, and our preliminary framing is well underway.

My first stop on this trip was Chicago for the Americans for the Arts Convention, where I also attended the Public Art and Place-Making Preconference. The annual gathering of some 1,500 US arts advocates, this Convention was the biggest platform for timely public intervention I have ever experienced. Chicago was an inspirational setting for us, from its world-changing architecture and music, to the excellent collections of its public art spaces and galleries, to the maker space in its public library. An incredibly diverse range of advocates in leadership and predominantly non-leadership positions came together for new perspectives and best practice, as well as specialised sessions in key discipline areas through parallel preconventions.

The pre-convention on public art and place presented an overview of the most impactful new works across the US and Canada, as well as tours to Chicago artist-run spaces and public work. Highlights included Zhou B Art Center, Bridgeport Arts Center, multi-arts space MANA Contemporary, and Lacuna Artist Loft Studios; a detailed tour of the rapidly changing and enormously diverse neighbourhood of Pilsen; and dozens and dozens of conversations connecting practice, including chats with Kendal Henry and a morning roundtable on the role of the public art curator. The disindustrialisation and gentrification of Chicago (that Theaster Gates would go on to tell us about in coming days) has opened up significant space for artists, continuing Chicago’s history of ongoing, place-led cultural reinvention. The pre-convention closed with artist presentations which I cover in detail in my Storify.

The convention itself was also quite diverse. A key aim of the Americans for the Arts event is to foster the confidence as well as the skills to advocate, and as such, sessions that were billed as ‘deep dives’ were often sketchier in content than I’d hoped. On the other hand, keynotes by such accomplished experts as Theaster Gates and Tom Finkelpearl conveyed the strong sense of the kind of transformational change that a shared vision can create. Insights came from a range of perspectives, and the #AFTACON feed fast generated its own discussion:

The prevalence of non-leadership attendees put paid to something that Drama Victoria’s Emily Atkins once said that has always stayed with me: We must lead from where we are. For advocacy to be effective and well distributed, this is vital. Leadership is the compelling communication of a vision that inspires action, and visions for the future of Australia’s arts are needed now more than ever. Whether these visions are shared in casual conversations, social media or public orations, each instance is as significant as each other in making an Australian culture that values artistic practice.

On the whole, the experience gave me a valuable opportunity to benchmark Australian arts advocacy as well as my own – at this pivotal time of peak interest in arts policy, strategy and funding. Having tweeted all the way through the five-day event, I’ve Storified both the Preconference and the Convention.

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In New York my focus was more public space than public voice, meeting with a range of practitioners and seeing a lot of work. I remain deeply interested in the distinction between sited and distributed work that attains scale and impact, creating public spaces as a platform for advocacy. My meetings and visits were diverse, as is my interest in the many ways in which art creates public space. I understand public space in its broadest sense: spaces for accidental encounter; spaces of transit and distribution; spaces for discussion and exchange; spaces tangible and digital, architectural and discursive, personal and political.

At MoMA Paola Antonelli and I discussed the role of the institution in fostering public spaces for the exchange of ideas, against the proliferation of commercial platforms such as TED, Remix and Vivid that keep powering public demand. Her role as Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA demands a singular approach to leadership that reinterprets the institution with its every acquisition, while slowly fostering change within the institution to allow for more responsive curation. I contrasted this approach to discussions last year with Rory Hyde and the V&A’s Rapid Response Collecting, as well as to my discussions at PS1 the previous day: a space that started as an artist-led community sprawled across the site of a former school, but which is now a curatorial model that’s part of the MoMA institution. With its next steps a place-making project at Rockaway, closer to the original PS1 model is perhaps El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in East Harlem, a dynamic mixed use of 89 live/work space for artists and their families with around 1000m2 of space for arts organisations. With my new involvement on the board of Contemporary Arts Precincts Ltd, about to embark on the framing of the Collingwood former TAFE site, these were practical insights and valuable conversations.

I met many artists during my time in the US, and given my specific focus, was referred to many more. Leading the MFA program at Parsons, The New School NYC, Simone Douglas has an artistic practice with a strongly environmental focus, and thanks to Ian Strange we were able to get together in the Village. Her upcoming Broken Hill work Promise, a 35m boat of ice, is a stunning regional art gesture that redistributes diverted water to local communities at a site that was once part of a great inland sea.

The first of my two timely reunions was with A/Prof Lisabeth During, who leads the art theory and professional practice program at the Pratt. Lis had introduced me to Hegel, Nietzsche and Deleuze, and she supervised my masters-length honours thesis on the Aufhebung and the will to power. She taught with passion and great style, bringing the work to bear on the contemporary condition in ways that compelled adventurous writing and further research. Lis fostered my curiosity and rigour, and opened my mind to the experimental yet highly disciplined practices of Bataille, Deleuze & Guattari and Foucault, who continue to influence my thinking and my practice.

Reuniting with several of my Bauhaus collaborators has been very important across this Artistic Leadership journey, and although the reconnections have been incidental to the work, they’ve been vital to the development. In New York I caught up with architects Kayt Brumder and Jorge Pereira, and media artist and teacher Adele Madelo, while last year in London I’d had the opportunity to catch up with industrial designer Nick Rawcliffe, another of our collaborators. In the tradition of the original Bauhaus, the premise of our 2001-2002 collaborations was intended to be one of meaningful cross-disciplinarity. Along with Mumbai-based architect Mahesh Radhakrishnan, Kayt, Jorge and I had been one of the Serve City teams working up an urban determination for a specific tract of land in our project city, while working on individual and group projects across the preceding year. We lived and worked in close quarters in Dessau, with studios in the Gropius masterpiece, and we gave one another the freedom to test, critique, succeed, fail, fail again and resolve. Fine conditions for a lifetime of friendship.

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With all of this in mind, analysing my own leadership into its artistic elements has brought to the fore the architectonic with which I approach my work. I have always approached my creative as well as my professional work with a balance of frameworks and provocations, with the development of productive frameworks being my key strength. I’ve long talked about the competing tensions structure sets you free and plan unintended consequences, but now I’ve come to see them as key techniques that I deploy across diverse contexts. I have deliberately framed the work of this 18mo development as adventures in Artistic Leadership. I have wanted to stretch myself, to make journeys, to have edifying experiences – and to enjoy myself, to understand better and better what work I enjoy enough to develop across a lifetime.

Among the weeks of these most recent adventures and with several months to go, I have led and reviewed the first iteration of the impactful Small Town Transformations project at Regional Arts Victoria, and am currently framing the second. I have presented the keynote at xCommunicate by UTV as part of Vivid Ideas, bringing together leading practitioners across all disciplines making creative interventions in public space. I have led a session on ‘Deep practice, experimental practice’ at Independent Convergence. And I’m about to present an advocacy workshop at APACA’s Mobilise, a session at the Museums & Galleries conference, as well as a talk on my Artistic Leadership adventures to date for SAMAG in Sydney. I have months to go on INDEX-SYSTEM, and plenty of critical reflection left, and so much to uncover.

My next immediate focus is on networks and practices in Australian arts advocacy, including critical reflections on my own practice. More on this soon.

 

IMAGE: Jackie Chang, Signs of Life (1999). Ceramic and glass. Fabricated by Peter Colombo Artistic Mosaics. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Arts for Transit and MTA New York City Transit. Part of a series by Jackie Chang at the intersection between the Brooklyn subway’s Metropolitan Av and Lorimer St stations.