Perspectives on Safety and Sustainability for Venues and Cultural Spaces
A conversation with Sophie Blumberg, Ben Johnson, and Jonathan Secor
Ben Johnson: As we emerge out of lockdown there is a lot of discussion around what safety means and that's an ever-changing definition. One committee I sit on is the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) where we try to figure out how to get emergency funding for a safe reopening. Looking at how fragile our ecosystems are, I’ve realized the production of creativity rests on the backs of arts producers and their artists. Unless there is some sort of tactical tool with data and funding to support the infrastructure and ecosystem, there is no safety net. I was never taught in school how to work with city municipalities to determine the future of the culture in my city and state. In the geographically large and diverse county that is Los Angeles, I get to witness a lot of interesting high-level conversations around what the future of cities looks like: greening the city, progressive social justice, density of new developments, etc. But we never talk about cultural infrastructure and preserving spaces for cultural community centers.
For me, the future of sustainability is coming up with plans that align with other major initiatives within cities and municipalities. We need to start preserving actual space. Otherwise, it's all just prone to gentrification with no support network. One example of high-level policy having an impact on the long-term sustainability of an ecosystem is the state of Minnesota. They created the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment which aligned support of the environment with support for the arts. Citizens were taxed at 0.375 percent sales tax increase to preserve the environment—lakes, streams, rivers, the wetlands, cleaning the state parks and trails, and preserving the prairies—while also maintaining an increase of funding for the arts for twenty-five years. It was an artist-centric initiative spread throughout the state.
Sophie Blumberg: I define safety and sustainability from multiple perspectives. It has to be baked in at every level of the conversation. It's not just about physical safety onstage; it's about emotional safety for performers in the creation processes and performances. How do we support the arts and make safe environments to operate in? How do we build an infrastructure for safety into our budgets and relationships, and make it sustainable at every level of the work? How are we using land, interfacing with the community, and talking about the work in the community? I'm a big fan of adrienne maree brown, who writes in Emergent Strategy: “What is easy, is sustainable.”
Jonathan Secor: Safety and sustainability are two very different things. When we get too safe and too sustainable, are we losing the art? In the early 2000s, the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) worked to identify the creative and cultural communities’ monetary contribution to the overall economy, stating that it was a “sector” unto itself.
Taking the Berkshires of western Massachusetts as an example, they captured the money coming into the communities from local arts and cultural organizations. This justified funding for the arts because the arts sector created jobs and income—not because the arts changed lives or held intrinsic value. MCC monetized it so much that we began to lose art for art's sake; it just became an income generator. Safety nets are necessary, but when do they become an impediment to risk-taking and innovation? How do we create safety that allows for risk across the board?
Sophie: Distinctions need to be made between safety in space for the artists (what it means to be safe for an organization) and what it means to be financially safe and secure. That is what you're talking about, the appeal to a sort of financial safety, but the core of the art gets lost. It's peeling apart those definitions of safety and how to balance them. Risk in art is the point. How does one create a space that is safe for risk?
Ben: When does safety become oppressive?
Jonathan: People and organizations getting the unrestricted Bezos grants of $10 million are suddenly “safe” but how does that change their ecosystem? Does it create an environment that is sustainable? Because there’s not always going to be white guilt.
Financial security has always been a big piece of the artistry puzzle. We sacrificed our own safety in the name of creating and producing work and keeping a roof over our heads.
Ben: Safety is about perspective. I've been in conversation with two amazing, young Black female producers: Genet Yitbarek and Addis Daniels. They founded an organization called Black Hour LA, which produces late-night parties and cultural events primarily for the Black community. In Los Angeles, there’s a massive amount of creativity, innovation, experimentation, and community-centered festivals happening. In many ways, this is a way to keep people mentally healthy and to make it known that community is still there, alive and persevering, during this trying time. The community found wellness by being together.
In our conversation, Genet and Addis talked about the city's oppressive permitting system and how it doesn’t allow for long-term sustainability and resilience. They talked about the constant surveillance and constant policing around any kind of creative event that they do and the difference between security and policing. Why is the first response always punitive, especially in Black cultural spaces? Genet and Addis suggested that perhaps producers need to provide their own culturally literate teams that are appropriate for the event. Could there be a policy for certain districts in Los Angeles that allow for police-free zones?
Sophie: Safety looks different depending on who a person is and where they are making work. So, the real question is, who is safe in this moment? What might make me feel safe might not make my colleague, or the Black artists I'm working with, feel safe. What are our assumptions about safety? This is about being intentional in how one builds safety and security for the people they're working with and the communities they're working in.
Ben: If it was possible to change everything tomorrow, what would it look like? What are the policies? What are the practices? That's how fast it needs to happen. Liberation needs to happen now. If someone owns their own facility, does that increase feelings of safety? Is it access to capital? Maybe that's how to provide sustainability; maybe the answer is to own something. If there is no easily-accessible system to help support that, then people are constantly at the mercy of whatever the system is.
Sophie: Financial security has always been a big piece of the artistry puzzle. We sacrificed our own safety in the name of creating and producing work and keeping a roof over our heads. I think part of the urgency is that we've all realized this past year that we just can't work that way anymore. It is unsustainable.
Ben: So much of safety is about cultural capacity building; it's safety and sensitivity.
Jonathan: These are the same questions we were asking thirty-five years ago. The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) sixteenth annual DanceAfrica Festival began with a motorcycle procession by a Black motorcycle club. They were carrying the flags of all the African nations from 125th street to the front of the BAM Opera House. We built a stage in front of BAM for a blessing ceremony. Around the stage, we wrapped the police barricades in kente cloth and stationed members of the Nation of Islam for security. We asked the police officers to be in their formal uniforms and to be in the back of the audience, not the front.
What's interesting now is the urgency in the dialogue. People are not going to wait. My generation was like, “Things will get better gradually.” What I'm witnessing from those who are younger is that there is a sense of: “We're not going to wait. It needs to be changed now!” If I can support that, get behind that, and then get out of the way, it's doing the right thing.
Sophie: And this leads us to artists being listened to. Independent producer, Meredith Boggia, recently shared an incredible document that serves as a guideline for what safety looks like for her artists. It states: “Here's what I need to feel safe,” establishing the artist's expectation that their needs will be heard and building in accountability for the organization.
Ben: Yes, and Creating New Futures also includes materials on how to recover from mistakes and provides resources for presenters to engage in self-education.
Sophie: We also have to think about our audiences. If our audiences don't feel safe coming to a concert venue and they have communicated that, what are the mechanisms for reporting when they continue to feel unsafe? As things are opening up and we are scrambling to get things back on their feet again, we have to ask: How are we holding ourselves accountable for the changes we've been talking about? How are we having all of our stakeholders (our audiences, our boards, our artists) hold us accountable? And what are we doing to build that accountability into our processes?
Ben: This includes calling out bad behavior by presenters, artists, and organizations. We are also figuring out how to deal with audiences and artists who are just happy to be in full houses again. How do we manage the uncontrollable in a constantly shifting landscape?
Jonathan: This gets me thinking—and I’m going to play devil’s advocate here—at what point do we create spaces that are so safe that creativity doesn't happen? How do we create a balance of risk and safety where there's no room or place for abuse? How do we continue to create containers that are open enough for multiple voices to be heard in multiple ways while allowing rigorous work to be made?
Sophie: If people don't feel emotionally safe, they can't take risks. It actually creates a barrier to being able to take artistic risks. So, how do we communicate effectively in order to create a space that is safe for everyone to operate in and create their best work? How do we create space where no one is threatened or personally put at risk? We want to create work with rigor and be able to direct our attention to the work itself.
Ben: This is always going to be a nuanced conversation. There are some presenters, producers, and artists who already do this work. They have been doing it for a long time and they do it really well. We're creating contractual language around safety that didn't exist before. I see artists doing risky work all over this town. It's underground and it's on the tops of mountains. It's packed, it's dirty, it's messy, and it's so alive.
Sophie: Who defines the boundaries of what is safe? Speaking from my own experience, I was a young assistant director being sexually harassed by a member of the artistic team. I went to report it to the general manager because I felt unsafe in the room. The response was, “He does it to me too.” That was it. I remember very clearly: I, a young artist who was not empowered to define my own boundaries of safety, had to continue working with someone who I didn’t feel safe with and there was no protection for me. Who is defining the boundary of safety in a room for an artist, for a producer, and especially for younger artists who are coming up in the world?
If people don't feel emotionally safe, they can't take risks. It actually creates a barrier to being able to take artistic risks.
Ben: Hopefully there's good mentorship and modeling going on. Hopefully some of these better practices are articulated and will become part of the everyday working models of organizations. There's still a lot of horrible behavior out there and people in power are more likely to get away with it than people who don't have the power.
Sophie: Yes, power and hierarchical dynamics play into that. I'm a big fan of reporting and accountability. I see more and more nondiscrimination and non-harassment clauses in agreements. Everyone is signing that piece of paper that says, “it is bad to harass people,” but what are the mechanisms provided if harassment happens? We as producers and presenters have a duty to care and part of care is clarity on who to report bad behavior to. What are the mechanisms for support? We might not even know how to prepare for an artist telling us, “This thing made me feel unsafe in the space.” This is why we need a multitude of perspectives. We can't just have one person decide what is safe and unsafe in a room, or in an organization.
[CURATOR’S NOTE: At this point in the conversation, Jonathan had to leave. Sophie and Ben stayed on to continue the discussion.]
Ben: If a person is going to call themselves a good presenter, they must be sensitive to the needs of everyone around them—not just their funders. In institutions, co-workers don’t always get along and they're entrenched in a difficult system. The work is hard and laborious. How do we sustain it? A lot of this is so dependent upon how organizational leaders act, behave, and mentor. I like the new models of decentralized leadership that I have been seeing in the last few years. And here I mean more co-authorship and co-creation. If we’re rooted in that in a really meaningful and intentional way, I think that it does help address safety as much as we possibly can within our own industry.
Sophie: In the last year and a half, everything broke. It’s been an equalizer across the field; we've all been broken! Everything shut down and we couldn't work the way we used to. All of a sudden our legacy models were disrupted and together we entered into this moment of collective visioning—which is a really beautiful thing.
In my work with Producer Hub, I speak with many different sectors of the community at every experience level and hear what the future could and should look like. We had a conversation recently about force majeure (which is the least sexy of topics to have in a webinar) and we all came out of this conversation asking: “How do we use a contract to access our humanity?” That is a way more sustainable way of thinking about contracting as relationship building.
How do we approach these things from a place of intention, understanding that there is a person on the other end of that contract? That is a shift which I hope to see carried forward. We are used to being told to grin and bear it and that the field is always going to be unsustainable. Many of my peers—these incredible artists who were all in the same mentorship or apprenticeship and started out running storefront theatre companies with me in Chicago, etc.—so many of them have left the field because it was unsustainable and unsafe for them.
Ben: You burn out with the struggle.
Ben: Right before the pandemic, a big word in the presenting field was “disruption”. But it really wasn't about disruption at all. Disruption really happened with COVID and Black Lives Matter; it was the real conversation of systemic disruption, not aesthetic disruption.
Sophie: Disruption is messy; it’s sort of like building a plane while flying it. And I don't think I was seeing that happen before the pandemic but I'm seeing it happen now. Disruption is inconvenient; it doesn't fit into the models. There's no cookie-cutter for it, which I think is a harder and way more creative way to go.
Ben: Sustainability is about resilience models and quick action responsiveness. Some were able to pivot pretty easily these past seventeen months, but some weren't. And when working in a city, to get anything done takes a whole world of politics, policies, and red tape. Cities are designed to not allow anything to magically happen. At the same time, magical things do happen.
I think the important thing now is to insert new language and new ways of working. We're nothing without artists and arts administrators who amplify and grow the new, incubating whatever wildness and risk that needs to happen in order to safely push the whole thing forward. For example, the model Rachel Chanoff is creating with her Artists at Work program.
Sophie: You're totally right! Rachel Chanoff and her Artists at Work program is fully inspired by predecessors like Hallie Flanagan and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), who inspired a whole different model of putting artists to work. This year more than any other, we all recognize that arts workers are important. Culture and art have been the things that have gotten us through while we’re sitting in our homes—if we were lucky enough to still have homes this year.
Ben: Artists help us deal with mental health and bring community back together; the art of gathering. Sustainability for artists is also about the residency centers. For me that means building Los Angeles as a new residency hub for long-term incubation. We can support artists in ways that they haven't been supported before. We're really thinking about what the new models are that support early incubation, development of work, and rehearsal and production support.
We're nothing without artists and arts administrators who amplify and grow the new, incubating whatever wildness and risk that needs to happen in order to safely push the whole thing forward.
Sophie: That's really exciting. I love the idea of that long-term incubation. How does one provide support in a way that prioritizes what artists need? One of the things I see so much is how artists will shift a project in order to get a specific chunk of funding. This does not necessarily serve the project; it’s just funding to get it to the next leg of what it might actually need. What if funders shifted their requirements to actually support the artist?
Ben: In Los Angeles, there isn't the same kind of philanthropy and funding that New York or San Francisco gets. Because of that, the artists are reliant on county and city grants and the grants are really small, so productions are small and project-specific. It’s more like seed funding. You can't do anything of scale, anything that's durational, or anything that has a bigger impact. Therefore, everything has been critiqued as either under-produced or under-rehearsed because there isn't the money, infrastructure, and systems. I often think about that in terms of how we still create value systems around what we think is good art or bad art.
Sophie: It's also what we're inheriting in terms of what is good art. What is art in the first place? What are the sandboxes we build for performance and for art across the board? It sounds like what you're doing, Ben, is breaking the sandbox and building many different possibilities for artists. I think what you're saying, and I agree with this, is that artists are often handed a template of how art is supposed to be. Artists get three weeks of rehearsal, then they have performances for a week—now go! It does not have to be that way anymore.
Ben: What is “healthy” is continually challenging our perceptions and our practices and always asking: Is this the right way of doing something? Is there a better way? Are our best practices really best practices? Who are they best practices for? If we're not in it, witnessing it, and trying to be an active participant in that change, then we are not changing.
Sophie: This goes back to what Jonathan was saying. How do theatremakers create safety while also moving forward and taking risks—without letting themselves get too comfortable and too relaxed into it? Everyone has a right to feel safe.
Ben: We should create a whole sustainability plan for all the cultural arts providers in this country.
Sophie: Sold! Sign me up.