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Debating politics and the arts

As we gear up for the 2018 Arts Midwest Conference, we’re looking back at some Professional Development highlights from last year. Is there a topic, speaker, or format you think we should tackle? Tell us your ideas and submit a proposal by February 15.

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When we introduced debates as a format for Professional Development sessions, it was only a couple of months before the 2016 Presidential election. Colleagues debated the issues around subscriptions and the use of mobile devices during performances. They were an instant hit, and the nod to politics felt playful and timely.


The first debates at the Arts Midwest Conference took place in 2016 in Milwaukee. Photo by Joshua Feist.

A year later, we knew our attendees were hungry for opportunities to engage in an open, honest, and civil conversation about how American politics were impacting their work with communities and artists, as well as the arts more broadly. So we decided one of the debates should be about the role politics plays in arts programming and the work being created for our stages. Two pairs of colleagues each took on a different side of the debate, arguing in support and against the statement: Arts centers must take a political stance.

As you might expect, there was no clear “winner” of the debate and everyone involved acknowledged the complexity and nuance required to navigate these questions, especially how the issues play out differently across a wide range of contexts and situations. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity for attendees to engage head on with the issues, and the conversations that started in that room undoubtedly continued throughout the rest of the Conference and beyond.


For a second year, the debates at the Conference were moderated by Tim Sauers from the Overture Center in Madison, WI. Photo by Terry Gilliam.

Steve Duchrow and Kathleen Spehar spoke in support of arts centers being political. They developed a list of tips for presenting politically-inspired work, and after receiving several requests from attendees they graciously compiled their notes into a handout that was distributed after the Conference. Here’s what they shared:

Arts programming that engages political discourse and civic discussion

By Steve Duchrow, Director of Performing Arts at Elgin Community College, and Kathleen Spehar, Director of the O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University

People Help Support What They Create

Civil conversations are difficult with people carrying torches and pitchforks. Begin your conversations early, before you book the artist. Enlist allies from reasonable leaders on different sides of the argument that can respectfully discuss this.

Reframe the Language of the Word Political

Change the word. Use different language. The charge of “being political” can polarize others before you start talking. Instead of “being political,” you can: have conversations, engage citizens, create dialogue, allow civic discourse, let people talk, have neighbors talk, discuss important community issues or hold a non-rant-old school-unlimited character-twitterless party. The art you present just helps people talk about it.

Tie Your Mission into Civic Duty

Why would a patriot be afraid of discourse and simple conversation? Patriotism and democracy are full-time jobs. You are simply do your civic duty since this requires discussing the issues that impact the democracy. It’s critical to have the messy and uncomfortable public conversations before issues build to violence. Discourse is America’s grandest tradition. It is anti-democratic when we don’t talk. It is unpatriotic to avoid your community issues.

Remember, the word political has a great word origin

It might be a charged word at this time, but engaging your community actually supports the origin of the word. The Greek and Latin etymology of political implies “Community” and “Local Action and Engagement”. The Greek root or etymology is politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens”.

If you are accused of being political, listen first and explore without getting defensive

Give open ended responses “Tell Me More”, “Help me understand your concern”.

  • Remember a complaint could be the start of the dialogue that you seek. Is this complaint is an opportunity? Could you use it to further the dialogue and build a relationship?
  • Point out the balance that you present in your series
  • Point out that you believe that leadership starts with conversations that creates the impetus for possible community solutions.

Discuss that Art demonstrates the complexity of issues and the multiple contradictory sides

Perhaps use an example – What is the effect of presenting a theatre work on Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried. Does it: help Vietnam Veterans heal, stir up anger among Vietnam Veterans, support the troops or not support the troops?

Don’t Preach From the Sanctimonious Pulpit

We don’t have to be the “Know It All.” Few people relate to this approach. People might be relieved that you too are not sure what answers there are to these confusing issues. You are suggesting that convening the community through art is a catalyst to deepen a conversation. It’s okay to admit we don’t have all the answers. We need each other to discuss difficult matters. We shouldn’t always communicate “I know the answer, let me fix this by presenting this art.” This places the product ahead of the process.

Steve DuchrowSteve Duchrow uses Vachel Lindsay’s, Gospel of Beauty to “strive for beauty, democracy, and holiness” in art. Elgin Community College Arts Center serves 13 arts ensembles, offers 4000 classroom sessions and holds 270 performances annually. He often places art, where the people live, in domestic violence shelters, schools, addiction centers, hospitals, cafeterias and police stations. He believes in the citizen artist. He’s a former Arts Midwest Conference Co-Chair, was NAPAMA’s 2015 Presenter of the Year and been an arts presenting professional for 35 years. He renovated the Raue Center For The Arts in Crystal Lake, IL and revived a performance series at NIU, in DeKalb, IL.

Kathleen SpeharKathleen Spehar is an arts director, manager, educator and advocate. She’s held leadership positions with Twin Cities arts organizations and taught in Japan, Florida and the Midwest. In addition, she’s led organizations in strategic partnerships, turnaround plans, audience development, fundraising, and marketing initiatives, managed business operations, curated programming, co-produced artistic works and managed projects between the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Currently, Spehar is the Executive Director of The O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University and a past leadership fellow with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters.