When I applied to be a Cultural Agent and read the fine print about hosting an Imagining, I was already thinking about what was next because often times we have these events, they feel good, you get people excited — and then what? I really didn’t want to perpetuate that pattern.Jess Solomon, Cultural Agent, Washington, DC
I couldn’t imagine here in Lawrence bringing these folks together, getting them all riled up and then saying, “Thank you for your input.” That’s not my style. It’s a small enough town that I think people expected more.Dave Loewenstein, Cultural Agent, Lawrence, KS
The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, where I have the pleasure of serving as Chief Policy Wonk, has just launched weekly blogposts. (To stay current on everything this great project is doing, enlist as a Citizen Artist: it’s fun, free, and vital.)
In April for the first in this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing two of the USDAC’s founding Cultural Agents, Jess Solomon from Washington, DC, and Dave Loewenstein from Lawrence, KS. Both signed on with the USDAC early in 2014 and organized inaugural Imaginings last summer.
On her website, Jess describes herself as Chief Alchemist at Art in Praxis, “Art + Culture At The Center of Strategy, Design and Community.” Dave’s website describes him as a “a muralist, writer, and printmaker.” And I will just say that everyone who knows either of them admires their energy, warmth, and prodigious abilities.
Dave and Jess opened the USDAC’s first two Field Offices – ongoing USDAC focal points for local cultural organizing and connecting-points for participation in USDAC National Actions such as this past January’s People’s State of The Union.
“Field Office” is an adaptable concept. In one place, it might be an actual physical space where people meet and collaborate (check out this photo of the Lawrence Field Office). In another, it’s a Facebook group and a moveable feast of gatherings, work sessions, and presentations. As Jess told me, “A lot of the shape it takes is dependent on who the Agent is, because they start with the Imagining. It’s almost as if the Imagining is the soil and whatever happens in that space is ultimately going to be reflected in a Field Office.”
Washington and Lawrence are about as different as two places can be.The nation’s capital is marked by stark contrasts, seats of power coexisting with the country’s second-highest poverty level, with a population of 660,000, half African American. Lawrence is a largely white university town of 90,000, 45 minutes west of Kansas City, ranked by the National Endowment for the Arts 12th among U.S. cities with the largest percentage of professional artists.
Both are home to large numbers of activists, and in that respect, Jess and Dave have a lot in common: creativity, persistence, and dedication to positive social change. Both are long-term thinkers, which is one reason why they jumped on the Field Office idea: it gave each of them a way to nourish and continue what was already emerging in their communities.
Dave told me he could see that “there was a demand for it to happen from the people who had attended the Imagining. That was because we saw right in front of us the need, the vision struck home, the values struck home, the process was something that people felt good about. No other group, no other gathering was doing this in this way here. There was work to do immediately.”
Jess also saw a local need that connection to the USDAC could fill: people wanted information on culture as the ground for social transformation, and for ways to apply that knowledge. She explained that the DC Field Office has been a learning community as well as a center for action.
“We’re in this interesting space where we’re not an activist group per se and we’re not necessarily all artists that have been trained in the fine arts,” Jess said. “There’s this interesting space in this city where we want to talk about equity and imagination and local and social justice in a way that’s not being talked about in either of those spaces. So part of our work has been finding ways to equip local USDAC folks with the language. There’s this energy around and they know it, they feel it, but some folks might not always feel equipped to give a definition of what cultural activity means in this city. So my work has also been educating myself so that I can take that back to the group. It’s become this really cool process where I’m not the only one chiming in, other people are bringing up other resources as well.”
Each Field Office has been distinct in how people respond to local issues and opportunities.The Lawrence Field Office has been “meeting regularly since last July. We get about ten or twelve per monthly meeting. The most interesting thing that we’ve been doing – and this is a direct result of the Imagining – is that we’ve been invited to facilitate conversations around arts and culture issues and neighborhood issues not just in Lawrence but across the state. We’ve been in Salina and we’ve been in Topeka and we just got an invitation yesterday to facilitate a national co-op housing group’s meeting that’s going to happen here.”
Dave continued: “We also collaborated with folks during the People’s Climate March and helped put on a sort of last-minute but wonderful event in a downtown park with folks from the Cowboy-Indian Alliance and Haskell Indian Nations University. We’ve had a presence at City Hall: we’re showing up, we’re speaking from the perspective of the Field Office. We’ve written a bunch of letters that we’ve put together as a group, commenting on issues that are happening. We worked on The People’s State of the Union, did a couple of those sessions that went really well. Most recently we’ve been meeting with the cultural planning team that’s been here to do Lawrence’s first-ever Cultural Plan. So there’s a lot. I think our next thing coming up is we’ll be on the annual Art Car parade, we’re going to have our own Field Office entry.”
The DC Field Office has produced two Imagining-type events after the initial Imagining last July 12th. “Between those events we’ve also started to think about how we want to work,” Jess told me. “We want to do several large-scale events a year and between them, support organizations that are already working at this intersection of art and change. We want to partner, to be kind of an amplifier and point out opportunities for more engagement, more imagination, to be more deliberate in our connection to art, specifically around economic development and social justice in D.C. For example, we were visible at a lot of public hearings when the Mayor was first coming into office. Now we’re submitting a proposal to take over a vacant space for three months as a Field Office and work with other partners to program around it.” The DC Field Office has also been madly creative online: check out this dynamic Twitter chat on the topic, “What is a Citizen Artist?”
That’s what these Field Offices have done so far: what did they learn doing it? Check this space next week for part two, sharing Jess’s and Dave’s experiences of local organizing around USDAC values and the challenges and opportunities of shared leadership.
Marva Wright adds something special to Bob Dylan’s always timely reminder: “Serve Somebody.”