Supporting the Intersection of Art and Activism

This week on HowlRound, we are exploring Theatre in the Age of Climate Change. How does our work reflect on, and respond to, the challenges brought on by a warming climate? How can we participate in the global conversation about what the future should look like, and do so in a way that is both inspiring and artistically rewarding? For the last entry in this series, I wanted to get the perspective of people who support theatre in the age of climate change. I reached out to Jennifer Sokolove, Program Director at the Compton Foundation in San Francisco, and asked her to tell us why Compton does what it does.—Chantal Bilodeau

In a February blog about writing and transgender characters, playwright MJ Kaufman asked, “How do I write the world I want to see? And how can I do this while also revealing the painful truths of the world I live in?” These two questions strike me as the fundamental challenges of any piece of theatre, or any art, that seeks to truly generate social change.

At the Compton Foundation, we have supported work to advance social and environmental change for more than half a century. But only in the last four years have we really begun to explore grantmaking at the intersection of art and activism. For many years, our grantmaking focused on fairly traditional methods for advancing environmental change; we funded community organizing, litigation, policy advocacy, and public education and outreach. We supported a lot of great work, and, outside our windows, in the actual world, things got worse and worse on all the issues we care about, including climate change.

In 2011, we took a step back to reflect on our priorities. We realized that the primary obstacle to the kind of world we want to bring about is the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, at a societal level, about who we are and what our relationships to each other and to nature should be. With that in mind, we started to explore what grantmaking to change those stories might look like. One of the obvious directions to explore was art. What other sectors tell such powerful stories about what is and what might be? Who better than an artist to help us see, hear, taste, and strive to touch a new reality?

The question of impact remains a challenge. Building a clear picture of the degree to which any one artistic endeavor changes conversations or behaviors can be tricky. And it’s even trickier if we want to support art, not just instrumental propaganda. While we believe there is a need for good propaganda on our issues, we want to support work that is less polemic—that opens space for its viewers to ask new questions and think in new ways.

To be fair, we had the deck stacked toward art in a way most foundations do not. Almost half of our board was comprised of practicing artists, and the two family members who were serving as president and vice president of the board (as they do now) are artists. That experience and inclination gave us the space to look around and see where and how our priority issues—not just climate, but also reproductive rights and justice, peace and security, and money in politics—were intersecting with the art world. Our artist leaders encouraged the board and staff to delve into the range of possible connections between creativity and activism, and to spend some time learning which artists were engaging with social and environmental movements by making a wide variety of experimental grants before arriving at a particular funding strategy.

a man rolling a cart
Residents of Miami map the potential flood zone in their neighborhood as part of the High Water Line project. The project, initiated by Eve Mosher, helped to spark the creation of the community-based group Resilient Miami. Photo by Jayme Gershen.

Since then, we have been on a steep learning curve. Our broad focus has forced us to learn an enormous number of practical things about a wide range of artistic fields, like the typical timing from project idea to launch, distribution patterns for finished work, and the economics of each artistic industry. It has led us to notice some striking patterns:

  • Artists want to engage. We wondered whether or not there would be a pipeline of projects, but we’ve seen no lack of desire from the art world.

  • Artists and activists operate in different cultures, and typically know little about one another’s worlds. This can make it difficult to collaborate, arguably limiting the effectiveness of creative work. The most successful projects in our portfolio, and, we hypothesize, more broadly in the world, have thoughtful strategies for spanning that divide.

  • Different art practices offer different kinds of visions, access to different audiences, and radically different timelines from concept to production. An effort to support art directed toward changing the world must have some sense of what the social and political context will be when the work is completed, how it might fit into the ecosystem of organizations working toward change, and how it might ride a wave of public attention to a particular issue.

  • Some creative fields are better organized to support this intersection of art and change. Other fields have less infrastructure making it more challenging for philanthropy to find the artists who most want to drive social and environmental change, and to support connections between those artists and the movement organizations that could help them.

The question of impact remains a challenge. Building a clear picture of the degree to which any one artistic endeavor changes conversations or behaviors can be tricky. And it’s even trickier if we want to support art, not just instrumental propaganda. While we believe there is a need for good propaganda on our issues, we want to support work that is less polemic—that opens space for its viewers to ask new questions and think in new ways. The good—and under-reported news—is that demonstrating the impact of art is not that much trickier than measuring the impact of most other funding. There are almost always too many variables at play over what is usually a long time frame to provide any convincing data on causation. This makes impact another space where creativity is critically important; our most interesting conversations on all of our grants, including those to artists, are usually about how they will know if their work makes a difference in the world.

Activists (and funders) have hoped for almost two decades that simply sharing the facts about issues like climate change will make people, and the politicians who lead them, alter their behaviors and their policies. Evidence suggests that this is rarely the case. As human beings, we are not rational in our decision-making. For Compton, that suggests that we must explore funding other approaches to social and environmental change work, approaches that engage emotion in addition to intellect, that help audiences get a visceral feel for the world we have, and the better world we might inhabit. That world is often out of reach in part because of our limits of imagination. Who better to help us shed those constraints than an artist?

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Thoughts from the curator

How does our work reflect on, and respond to, the challenges brought on by a warming climate? How can we participate in the global conversation about what the future should look like, and do so in a way that is both inspiring and artistically rewarding?

Theatre in the Age of Climate Change

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You raise a very good point : "While we believe there is a need for good propaganda on our issues, we want to support work that is less polemic—that opens space for its viewers to ask new questions and think in new ways. "

This is the real issue that faces any form of political art. How do you get that art in front of people who arguably "need" to see it?

For example, someone who opposes efforts to deal with climate change is unlikely to voluntarily attend a performance or gallery showing by someone promoting a "green agenda". And if the agenda is "sprung" on them without warning, they are likely to resent the experience.

Many artists, myself included, identify as politically progressive....and the issue we have to deal with is how to get our work in front of the people that we want to see it.

Nobody, regardless of political views, wants to attend an event where they will be attacked.

Are there artists who are genuinely willing to engage in a dialogue with people who may hold fundamentally opposing political views?

Yes. My 12 part epic on climate change, America's religious secular divide and economic inequality does that in a non-didactic, comic and empathetic way. IraGlass tweets “I am a superfan of writer/performer Heather Woodbury. Her newpodcast is a serial drama and all Earth Dayish”-- Every Day is Earth Day!Listen and get hooked Lhttps://itunes.apple.com/u...

https://twitter.com/iraglas...

Good post. Good work. Thanks Howlround and Compton Foundation. Made decision last year to anchor or at least tether my theater work to climate change, knowing theater's one of the few places where we get to care as much as we do, watch as closely as we're able, and connect as deeply as we can.

The project in the photo, the High Water Line, was initiated by Eve Mosher was it not? Would be nice if she was given attribution in the caption.