Turning Our Eyes Forward

Convergence is such a beautiful word. It is so active, alive, in motion.

I recently came across a definition that said, simply, “convergence: a coordinated turning of the eyes.” In this instance, convergence is when our eyes form a single point on corresponding retinal areas to bring an image into focus. Convergence is a word about vision. Another definition said that convergence is the “net flow of air into a given region.” So, it is about oxygen, it is about buoying, it is about collaboration.

I got interested in this word while participating in National Arts Strategy’s Chief Executive Program. At the Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, a gathering of arts leaders were charged with understanding how convergence comes into play in today’s competitive context. To be relevant in a crazy fast world, we have to be able to anticipate what is coming, what is changing, what people might need or want but they may not even be able to name.

Yet, our lives are increasingly filtered and compartmentalized. We rarely interact meaningfully with people whose economic realities are different from our own. Eli Parisser, in his book The Filter Bubble reminds us that our online lives may enable global connection but in an increasingly curated way. We get our news from our friends. We “friend” our friends’ friends. We eat where people who are like us eat. Facebook tells us who we know, broadcasts the articles we read, and knows what kinds of shoes we like (it is definitive, I like a wedge).

In this context, how can we imagine a new future for theater? How will we make art that speaks to the increasingly diverse and fractured communities that make up our cities? What do people want and need now, and what is the role of art?

The organization I have worked with for the past fifteen years is called Intersection: a similarly suggestive and active word. Intersection for the Arts, by name and by nature, embraces convergence. It exists to create experiences for diverse groups of people to come together to share, learn, act, and change.

In the midst of the Great Depression, the New Deal’s WPA firmly demonstrated that art can play a frontline role in response to the challenges we face in our cities. Today, there is a growing movement around Creative Placemaking championed by the NEA and evidenced by the birth of a visionary new funding initiative called ArtPlace America. Contemporary Creative Placemaking is defined, in simple terms, as revitalization through cross-sector initiatives that animate space and spur economic opportunity. It is well established that art creates a sense of place, reclaims underused or blighted space, activates citizens across typical boundaries, and inspires the heart and reignites the soul of challenged neighborhoods. In fact, there is “no single industry that attracts other sectors to the extent that arts and culture does.” (Center for an Urban Future) Yet, we also know that artists and arts organizations often serve a pioneering purpose and then are priced-out along with the people who were indigenous and most vulnerable.

So what do we do? People are struggling to survive, much less thrive in our cities. There is no work for an overwhelming portion of the American public. Blighted, vacant neighborhoods across America are in need of social and economic reinvention. Artists are struggling and theater seats are empty. Development often results in gentrification and beautiful but expensive, privileged places that stand empty. Art and artists are exploited, instead of utilized and integrated as key components in equitable social development. But can we land on the paradigm where art and neighborhood development converge into sustained opportunities for people who are otherwise further marginalized?

Intersection has an epic story of convergence that is still unfolding. A story of synergy and serendipity—a new home, extraordinary partnerships, and a leap that is unmatched in the organization’s nearly fifty-year history. We think our story is an important one for right now.

Online lives may enable global connection but in an increasingly curated way

a woman looking at the camera
Deborah Cullinan. Photo by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. 

Some background: we arrived where we are because we started the process of looking for a new facility several years ago. At the time, we were approaching this pursuit in a very traditional way; thinking that if we just had a bigger theater, a gallery that opened to the street, a building that we owned—everything would be OK.

Quickly, the failing economy, rapidly changing neighborhoods, and the continued revelation of new forms of technology set a much larger context for Intersection’s quest for stability and space. As we lost buildings to speculators and negotiated with panicked property owners, we were watching how quickly a neighborhood can fall apart. In one instance, a gorgeous set of buildings in San Francisco’s Mission District that had housed an iconic alternative educational center stood vacant. Neighboring businesses had closed. Blight sharply increased. An entire city block was disrupted. At the same time, long-standing arts organizations were slipping away and questions about our need for new models were bubbling up with increasing intensity. The changing world and our fragile place as an arts organization challenged us to think carefully about the concept of cultural space in this new century and about this forty-seven-year-old organization’s role and real impact in an ever-evolving landscape.

A door closed with each lost building, only to open a new door to a new building and a new set of possibilities in terms of partnerships and the cultivation of real-time community. Neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, building by building, Intersection met new people and these new friends breathed their ideas into a growing vision for a different kind of cultural center—a collaborative approach to creative placemaking that responds to the realities and needs of the people living, working, learning, and playing around it.

Through this process, we cultivated amazing partnerships and envisioned a place where artists are central to positive change in our communities—a place where silos are dissolved and new language, metaphors, and ways to work together can emerge.  A place that combines the unboundaried collaborative possibilities offered by the Internet with real-time exchange between all kinds of different people. In one instance of serendipity, we met The Hub Bay Area (an affiliate of The Hub—a global network of co-working spaces, events, and support for social entrepreneurs) because we were competing for the same building. Within moments of meeting, we decided that we would all be better off if we lived together—creating a convergent community of artists and entrepreneurs all working toward new models for positive social change.

In 2009, as yet another coveted building fell out of contract, we met The Hearst Corporation and Forest City Development. Hearst, the major media corporation that owns the San Francisco Chronicle, was working with Forest City to repurpose four acres of nearly vacant property in a dynamic downtown neighborhood. Though much grander in scale, their vision was not unlike our own—a vision that asserts the central role that art and creativity play in inclusive community-building and the making of powerful places.

At Intersection, we are defining Placemaking as a sustained convergence of inspiration, connectivity, and opportunity. It is a process—much like the process of making theater—where people come together to create inclusive places and experiences. It is not only artists and arts organizations moving into vacant storefronts at below market rates, it is also about meaning, beauty, connection, and opportunity. In addition to work in the public realm, collaborative community projects create connectivity and opportunity—things like temporary street markets, neighborhood festivals, shifting art installations and sticker campaigns, or more permanent installations such as landscaping, street furniture, murals, pop-up theater or community centers. For example, we are working with a local organization called Off the Grid to create a convergence of local food and performance that animates a dark tunnel and adjacent underutilized alleyways. Mobile trucks offering unique local food will combine with pop-up performances on weekday afternoons to reclaim this unique intersection in downtown San Francisco. In this way, tunnels can be transformed from ominous places where bad things can happen into gathering places where we can nourish and be inspired.

In our minds, the convergence lies in the way in which we equally value the things that make a community whole. We need meaningful, beautiful, distinctive places that instill a sense of pride—that help us to form a dynamic and inclusive conversation about what community is and ought to be. Without this sense of unity and pride, we are not together and we are marginalized by what is new and different. We cannot overlook the negative impact of places that lack the inspiration and meaning that is necessary to help people reclaim their lives. As theater-makers, we have a civic role as placemakers—instigators of imagination and connectivity. By this I mean that we must be less precious about our theaters and much more visionary about the role that theater can play in making places that can change people’s lives.

So, what is that role?

Regardless of venue, theater—its process—is a place. Think about it. In the process of making theater, there is so much possibility for a broad array of people to imagine themselves as part of something larger—that we can see ourselves in creative solutions and we feel success in helping to address each other's challenges. In fact, I would argue that the process of theater is its market edge. This unique ability to create places where people with different skills come together and create whole new worlds.

To survive, theater must rise to this challenge and think of itself not as a venue but as an incredibly rich resource with unique skill in cultivating collaboration, facilitating exchange, and creating dynamic new places in a constantly changing world. We have the opportunity to be part of a movement that inspires people to make places—whether they are churches, parking lots, community centers, or theaters—that emphasize process and exchange. Not just static public art, but places that are responsive to the changing needs of the people who inhabit it.

In this context, Intersection’s story continues to unfold. We are now playing a lead role in this project known as 5M, which is a dynamic community of artists, social entrepreneurs, technology innovators, inventers and makers working together across boundaries to reimagine community and inspire breakthrough change. In 2010, we opened a satellite exhibition space with the Hub Bay Area in the Chronicle Building. The Hub built the space and pays the rent. They ask us to simply activate it. Together, we explore the intersection of art and social change, of nonprofit and for-profit.

When we opened the gallery, we thought we had hit the perfect balance of old and new. We would maintain our theater in the location Intersection had occupied for twenty-five years while exploring this new world of development and entrepreneurship. Within months, we realized that wasn’t bold enough. In April 2011, we chose to completely let go of the theater to explore the creation of a new kind of space that makes sense in the world today. We realized that the process we embarked on several years ago was not about space—it was about exploration and convergence. We understood that the change theater needs now is not incremental. It is huge.

We are now located in the Chronicle Building in a space that defies the venue-based traditions we have known—office and art hub by day; event and performance space by night.  We are making theater all over the place—in the streets, in the vacant buildings, and in our office. We are at the heart of a glorious experiment that will not only suggest more sustainable models for nonprofit arts organizations but also for radical cross-sector community and cultural development. It is a gorgeous convergence.

People ask us all the time: where is your theater? Our response is that our theater is everywhere.

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I was struck by the bravery it took to completely let go of your home and create a new one, a new identity and a new set of commitments with such ardent faith. A inspired set of precepts to live by - thank you for taking the time to write this. Note that either staying inside a more traditional framework or reinvisioning a completely new one are both super difficult - one might as well reinvent. Reaching new (to you and 'us' in the art world) communities and creating synergies and connections within those established norms more difficult still! But nonetheless, the process of making the work and our skills will prove necessary - vital - essential - in days ahead and I for one hope to be standing with you.

Deborah,Thanks to you and to Intersection for sharing with all of us your amazing vision -- and actions! The idea that theatre is already -- and always has been -- an extraordinary "convergence" of talent, creativity and placemaking is powerful and hugely inspiring, whether one makes art behind a proscenium or in the streets.

Thanks Deborah!

I love the concept of breaking open and sharing the skills inherit to the process of theater making. That things like collaboration, idea sharing, confidence, listening - all skills we take for granted and are placed at the core of our training and processes - are actually major assets in a bankrupt world.

I have been working with some product designers on this concept via improv, rhythm and theater games. It's been very interesting to go back to the core of how people interact with a group of artists who are not performers and in a highly collaborative and competitive business. Its amazing how these skills that we take for granted are not evolved in any way outside of our theater world.

Beautiful. Your determined, inventive, and enterprising spirit shines through. Thanks for the continued inspiration, Deborah.

Deb, that was articulate and straight to the heart, as always... I miss the whole Intersection crew and hope to see you all (and the new space) very soon!

Deb, these two ideas-

1)
Regardless of venue, theater—its process—is a place... In the process of making theater, there is so much possibility for a broad array of people to imagine themselves as part of something larger—that we can see ourselves in creative solutions and we feel success in helping to address each other’s challenges.

and 2)
To survive, theater must rise to this challenge and think of itself not as a venue but as an incredibly rich resource with unique skill in cultivating collaboration, facilitating exchange, and creating dynamic new places in a constantly changing world.

- these thoughts and the practice from which they grow are what innovation means to me.

Thanks.
Michael Rohd

Wow, what a stunningly articulate article. I think so many of us have been trying to think of 'new solutions' that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that groups like yours have been at this, slowly making inroads and alliances, for so long. And it's amazing to see it finally come to fruition. Thank you for your articulate illustration of the cycles that artists and organizations often get caught up in, and for your clear understanding of the work we might do to make something better.