Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Inside/Outside - Art by Prison Inmates and Ex-Offenders

Leon Jesse James, "Space Modulator", acrylic on board. SCI Graterford

The Art in City Hall program of the City of Philadelphia has just opened a new exhibition, INSIDE/OUTSIDE - Art by Prison Inmates and Ex-Offenders. This is a wonderful, powerful, and thought-provoking new show and I encourage everyone to see it. It is open until October 29th, on the secod and fourth floors of City Hall. More information is available here. The show involves participating artists from SCI Graterford, The Philadelphia Prison System, Art for Justice, Snyderman-Works Galleries, Connection Training Services, and the Mural Arts Program's Youth Violence Reduction Partnership Guild Program, as well as local ex-offenders.

Thomas Schilk, "Beetle", melted plastic spoons, paint.
When I came to my position in 2008 as Chief Cultural Officer, one of the appeals of the position was the fact that the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter viewed the arts as being integral to virtually all aspects of how we build the best possible Philadelphia for our citizens and visitors. Art is not only a vehicle for attracting tourists, or providing a rich, rewarding environment for our citizens, but also a tool that can be used to heal, to educate, to bring people together, to help us better understand ourselves, and one another. This show highlights an especially powerful value of art - helping prisoners to express themselves, and hopefully provide a measure of rehabilitation as well as self-exploration and self-expression. In addition to prisoners, there is also a role the arts can play with ex-offenders, helping them onto a path that can better integrate them with society, with their community. For some, the most talented, the arts can even provide a valuable skill that can help create an income for them as they leave incarceration.

The artists and arts programs featured in this exhibition paint a rich picture of the incredible power of the arts, and the talent that can than lie within our most troubled, challenged populations. This is not easy stuff. Sometimes art can help prisoners express their anguish, their pain, their anger. Art can be a tool for telling their stories, and it can also be a vehicle for finding peace and solace. Ultimately we all wish for fewer people in prison, less gun violence, less criminal behavior. Art can play a role at both ends of this issue;  in helping young people express themselves, find their inner value and see the possibilities for them outside a life of crime, and also helping those that have gone down that path of crime to find a way back, and sometimes to understand the impact their actions have had on the lives of others.

This issue of the role of the arts in the lives of prisoners and ex-offenders, is so rich and so complex, there is no way it can be fully explored in one exhibition or one blog post. Recently, a documentary film was made called Concrete, Steel and Paint, that explored the issues around an effort by the restorative justive program of Mural Arts to use mural making as a way to bring together and create some healing between prisoners and victims of crime and their families and advocates. I think the movie powerfully conveys the strong emotions that can surface around these issues.(The film is featured as part of this exhibition.)

I was also able to recently visit the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, an extraordinary unique museum. While any attempt to but it into a "box" is doomed to fail, the museum celebrates the work of "outsider" artists, and many of the works in the collection were made by prisoners or by artists who had spent many years - even decades - incarcerated. This puts "prisoner art" in a different context, with other self-taught and nonprofessional artists.And this exhibition can be viewed from that perspective as well.

The origins of this show are interesting. Several months ago, the Mayor visited Graterford prison and was given paintings by many of the inmates who were active in their art program. When he returned he asked me if these could be displayed somewhere in City Hall. Rather than simply exhibit a few disconnected works, it seemed like an opportunity to tell a larger story. I met with the Art in City Hall advisory committee, and with Tu Huynh who directs the program, and a plan was developed to create a full Art in City Hall exhibition working with an array of partners.

The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, and the Art in City Hall program are proud to have been able to assemble this exhibition that brings art, justice and community together, and that hopefully will raise awareness of the critical role the arts can play in criminal justice and public safety.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Coburn and McCain - Giving the Arts a Starring Role Again

Posted this yesterday to the Huffington Post, where I now blog as well, and wanted to make sure followers of my own blog also had the opportunity to read it. Apologies for those getting notified twice!

Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain have issued their third list of what they present as misuse of stimulus dollars: Summertime Blues, "100 stimulus projects that give taxpayers the blues." Once again they have given arts projects a starring role. Jared Bernstein already wrote a piece about this on the Huffington Post.

Their previous lists included such activities as jazz festivals and Shakespeare theatres, and here in Philadelphia, a couple of theatre companies. The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance spoke out about the inclusion of local arts groups here. I also wrote about it on this blog.

This new list includes, by my count, ten arts-related projects among the 100 they cite. Of particular note is that they include (sharing #98) the Creative Industry Workforce Grant program operated by my Office, in partnership with our Commerce Department, funded through "Community Development Block Grant - Recovery (CDBG-R)" money. A total of $500,000 was granted to eight projects. All grantees were carefully chosen through a rigorous and highly competitive process that looked at both short-term construction jobs (these were all capital projects) to provide an immediate stimulus effect, and longer term generation of low and moderate income jobs through creative industry activity. Funded projects were a mix of for-profit creative industry development and non-profit arts projects. Here are some examples:
  • $60,000 for the creation of artist studio and creative business incubator space to help ex-offenders with creative talents develop micro-enterprises and employable skills.
  • $50,000 towards  the construction of a new 12,000 square foot affordable performance, visual and media arts space combined with mixed-use residential and commercial space.
  • $40,000 towards the creation of artist-in-residence space in a recycling plant that will allow artists to work with materials diverted from the recycling and landfill stream and educate the public about recycling.
All these projects employ construction workers in the short term, and artists, creative industry workers, and support staff as an outgrowth of the construction creating new businesses and jobs. In addition to the Recovery mandate, the CDBG program mandate required us to also ensure we were assisting low and moderate income people and communities.

All of these people employed as a result of this investment spend money, buy groceries, pay rent, make car payments, just like any other citizen. Does their economic activity somehow not count? Is the tax that they pay somehow different from a department store (or a defense contractor)?

As I said in my earlier post, I do not doubt that there are many poorly executed stimulus funded projects that are not working as intended. I think some that is unavoidable given the very nature of distributing huge sums of money quickly, in a decentralized way, combined with enormous red tape and demand for immediate results. And I don't doubt that perhaps some of them might be arts projects. It is clear, however, that in compiling this report arts projects could "do no right" as far as the authors were concerned.  An insect museum in Raleigh NC makes the list because they have too few visitors to justify being funded, while a glass museum in Tacoma makes the list because their visitorship appears to be healthy and they therefore do not merit support.

What I can argue with is the clear intent to single out arts (and historic preservation) projects. And I can certainly object to the characterization of Philadelphia's Creative Industry Workforce grant program as meriting inclusion in the McCain-Coburn report. It may not be perfect, but it was a modest, innovative effort to foster creative businesses and jobs, and help neighborhoods in need of investment. Isn't that something we should be doing?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

A number of recent articles and threads of exploration have gotten me thinking about the importance of the role of the arts and design in transforming our everyday life. I think we are moving toward an era where the traditional enjoyment of art (performing or visual) in a passive way in a facility/space constructed expressly for that purpose will not die, but will find itself joined (perhaps surpassed) by art that subversively injects itself into our everyday life - you don't make the choice to participate. It chooses you - it is an intervention that is unexpected. This can be disturbing, delightful, inspiring, sometimes all at the same time. I have written before about the "arts flash mob"phenomenon and its vial arts equivalent, here, and here, and here.

Here are a few of the items that have inspired me to think about this more deeply. Paul Goldberger reviews in the current New Yorker the new Herzog and deMeuron building in Miami. What is this new structure by this great international architecture team? A parking garage! That most ubiquitous of urban structures that is generally accepted as truly deadening to the built environment. Yet H&dM make it a thing of beauty - light, airy, modern, a work of art. So now that most ordinary act of parking your car in an urban garage can in a sense immerse you in an artistic experience. Similarly, one of the new initiatives of the Mural Arts Program is to cover almost the entire exterior of the large (ugly, traditional) parking garage at Philadelphia International Airport in a mural called "How Philly Moves."

If you look at the schedule of the Live Arts-Philly Fringe Festival you will also find that much of the work is breaking the boundaries of "traditional art", not just in form and content, but in location and the very relationship between the art and the audience. The Maine Center for Creativity has initiated a project called Art All Around, that will involve painting the entire surface 8 huge oil storage tanks (plus the tops of 8 more), so now that classic American experience of driving by "tank farms" (think New Jersey Turnpike near Newark Airport) can be transformed into a startling encounter with art. The French artist JR has transformed favelas in Rio De Janeiro, and other poor communities around the world with his photography-based art. There is now an effort underway by the artist team Haas&Hahn, with the Firmeza Foundation to literally transform an entire favela into a work of art. If successful, the poorest most disenfranchised Brazilians will be literally living within one massive work of art. It may not put food on their tables, but it will bring beauty into their lives and attract international attention to their living conditions. In Chicago you have "Art on Track" that since 2008 has annually transformed an entire 8-car Chicago Transit Authority train into a rolling art gallery.

I think a number of factors are driving this phenomenon and will continue to fuel it. One is the democratization of art. New generations of artists and audiences don't want to be elitist, to limit their work or their cultural experience to an ivory tower. or a price point that leaves out a huge section of the population. Another is the growing interest in interactive work, in the process of creation, especially among younger people. And finally I think those that are in the business of making and presenting art are desperate to reach a broad audience and find it increasingly difficult to reach them just in the theatre or in the museum. So they seek ways to put their art in the street, in train stations, in sports stadiums, along the highway, in supermarkets. I for one think this is a healthy trend. This is not just about Web 2.0 and new technology; this is about a whole new approach to the relationship between art and audience. This is about making our everyday life more arts-infused.