Arts, Nonprofit, and Advocacy Leaders Weigh in on the Future, Structural Change, and Optimism
In response to massive upheavals in the arts, nonprofit, and social justice sectors as a result of COVID-19, Tim Cynova (Chief Operating Officer at Fractured Atlas) and Lauren Ruffin (Chief External Relations Officer), recognized that we need to be talking to each other. In the arts and nonprofit sectors, we need to hear about how other institutions are managing crises and uncertainty, and how they are envisioning our future. So, they started talking to their colleagues.
From March to May, they livestreamed 25 conversations at Work. Shouldn’t. Suck Live! The Morning(ish) Show.
Through wide-ranging conversations with dancers, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, educators, and others, Tim Cynova and Lauren Ruffin amplified the voices of people who have been making structural changes to their fields and found resonance across different disciplines and perspectives. We need open conversations about the real challenges and opportunities in our fields. And we need those conversations to lead to material changes for our lives as workers and for the communities we work with.
Work. Shouldn’t. Suck. was created by members of the Fractured Atlas team to help organizations and companies build diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces.
Catch up on the entire first “season” of WSS Live! And take a look at some of the wisdom and inspiration from some of their most powerful conversations.
Use the Rhythms of Nature to Understand Change
“Panarchy is this conceptual framework that helps us to understand complex systems. It helps us to understand the two seemingly contradictory characteristics of all complex systems, and that is stability and change. This idea of being in stasis and this idea of being in constant flux, held together as a complexity that helps us to understand what's happening in a system. So there's this idea of a cycle of life that happens in a system. And you can sort of imagine it as a forest life cycle. You know how trees kind of grow and flourish, and then build a canopy and all of the ecosystems and biodiversity that go along with a forest grow and change in shape along with those trees. Until you have huge canopy, you have a forest floor that's full of plants, and you have this complex system that is reliant on each other in order for its survival.
But then you get to a point where there is too much, there is too much growth, there's more than the forest can sustain.
And this is when you see things like rapid changes or collapse, something like a forest fire, or something else that dramatically changes the system. It creates sort of a clean forest floor and new opportunities for other things to grow, for new plants and for opportunistic growth in the rebel and the decay from the forest fire. So this panarchy cycle is sort of like a life cycle, and it helps us to understand stages of growth and stages of collapse, and how they go together to help shape and create complex systems.
Originally, it was conceptualized in 1860, the panarchy cycle, by Paul de Puydt, but it grows out of Indigenous knowledge. And if you think about it in terms of a plant life cycle or a forest life cycle, this is something that Indigenous elders had been talking about for millennia, and it's a way of understanding the world.
So if we understand that systems never stay the same, as Octavia Butler [wrote], "All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you." If systems never stayed the same and they're constantly in states of flux and change, how do we understand where we are in the cycle? How do we help influence change in a certain kind of way? And how do we make sure that we are those plants that are growing in the forest after debris, in order to build a new forest. So you can sort of understand it through the panarchy cycle. It's a really great way of understanding complex systems change.”
Learn from the Disability Justice Community
“I think what's been really coming to the fore is the experience of the disability community right now in particular, and the intersections of low-income, disabled folks. I don't know that this is affecting anyone more than folks in that level of precocity. Being in a disabled body is a really specific thing right now.
In general [there's] looking to disabled folks for sort of logistical and infrastructural changes. What does it mean to work remotely? What does it mean to be in a moment of physical distancing? Because so many disabled people live in a lot of physical distancing as a result of their own wellness and care needs. But I think the thing that's actually really funny to me is there's a difference between social distancing and physical distancing.
There's lots of ways that people make communities and there's lots of ways that people have to learn new intellectual and conceptual vernaculars to survive a physical distancing. I don't know how many folks are talking to disabled people about that.
I don't think it's enough to be like, "Oh, y'all have been using things like Zoom since the beginning of time. Cool." It's like, "No, there's like a whole other lexicon that exists in disability justice that I don't think people are really, really getting into, that I think could help non-disabled people in this moment of extreme terror as both physical distancing and possibly social distancing is such a new phenomenon.”
Center Togetherness and Interdependence
MBJ: “We cannot extract out of this moment the DNA or the genetics that precipitated it. But we can be future-thinking about how we reorganize leadership structures and the purpose and mandates, certainly of our performing arts center, but just our cultural centers period. So you might've had a director of the performing arts, you might've had someone that curated dance and those positions are going to be incredibly necessary. But if the proscenium theater or the gallery is still the beating heart of your organization after this is over, then you're doing it wrong. We have a new mandate to bring people together in a different kind of way. So we can't be politically inert. We can't not think about our financial acuity as it relates to our organizations and we also have to spark not just the political imagination, but the creative imagination too. I don't think it's as much of a DNA question as it is a mutation. Now that we're all X-Men, what's our superpower going to be.”
LY: “I think one of the first anchors to even getting to a place where you can reimagine structurally whether it's leadership, whether it's departmental engagement, whether it's cross-culture and community, whether it's residency...is the notion of the interdependence and togetherness as a core alliance for your whole existence. [If not,] then your thinking has been completely compromised. Anything else that follows from that is shallow and can't even be recruited because you can't even identify where you are in relationships with others and where collectively you hold strength. I've had conversations with amazing artists. We talked about togetherness and the importance of togetherness and how this is amplifying and could be amplifying the opportunity for us to strengthen our practice and valuing of togetherness, not as a hobby.
Not as a thing you do on the side. Not as a program, a separate party. But togetherness as a core understanding of how you function and where your value proposition as an institution and as individuals and those institutions live...We need to strengthen the tools of how we apply interdependence that's beyond an intellectual framework and that the value of how we understand whether we're hitting our indicators or our milestones, whatever that thing is. If it isn't hinged on what's happening with others within the ecosystem of your existence, then it's compromised. It's shallow. It is not maximizing its potential results. I think our work is to build the tools and the language and the constructions for that connectivity tissue to not just be an idea.”
Find New Solidarity and Reevaluate Creative Work
“The WHO and the UN launched a call for art for this moment. And you have to submit completed work that will be judged by a panel unnamed panel, and you will receive no compensation. Just exposure. Which, particularly in this moment, I think exposure is a thing we can all agree is not what anyone needs. So I think that I want to stay in that optimistic place, but I also think it's important to acknowledge that that will take a lot of work, to undo our norms around how we value creative production, how we value meaning-making. And that these kinds of crises, if you aren't, and if we aren't collectively as a community, really intentional about what we rebuild, then they just reinforce existing systemic disparities.
So I think there's an opportunity to really think about how we rebuild. [My biggest wish] isn't the idea of a new kind of workforce of artists that goes to work. I think it is about rebuilding from this crisis, but also addressing some of those big systemic disparities. Really thinking about how we rebuild in a way that is the future we want to see, versus just getting back to what we thought was normal a month ago.
Another learning that I think we can take from this moment is that, as artists, I think it's important for us to build solidarity with those other sectors, that sometimes our strongest allies are maybe outside of the arts, are other folks who are in those freelance and contract worker communities. [But] I have a healthy skepticism about just how those systems are going to work, and how well they might work for contractors and freelancers and particularly folks like artists and creative makers who have really irregular income streams, and aren't able to say, like, ‘Well, my contract was for $1,000 a month for a year. It was for this residency and these two shows.’"
Build Resilient and Responsive Teams Before a Crisis Hits
“We at YBCA have been undergoing a pretty radical transformation [before COVID-19]. We had been really considering how a multidisciplinary arts center can move from being a presenter on exhibition things to being highly transactional in terms of its relationship with artists and with audiences. How could it become a real creative home for its community?
I think to do that, you've got to start with your team. You've got to practice what you're going to preach. So we've been working for years really at this work. I think people have to understand it takes such a long time, but we've been working for years to really think about the culture of the organization, how we work together.
One of the first things that we did was transform our workspace into a hub, much more of a coworking environment, much more of a collaboration space. In recent years, we collapsed all of the curatorial departments.
We created one program and engagement team and we really worked to be an organization, not a set of silos, not a bunch of different disciplines but a crew that is working together to try to achieve something.
You also have to create the conditions where people can live with ambiguity and the idea that change really is, and it's just constant. If we're going to be a relevant organization that is contributing to the community around us, we're going to change constantly. I think it's about that culture and it's about that building of a unit that can sort of navigate that together so that when you don't know where you are, where you're trying to go, somebody else has got your back. People are working together, you're not alone. I can't say it's been perfect. It's been really hard and definitely painful.”
The Transfer of Wealth is a Transfer of Power
“Money always tells a story… The way that money has been used reflects how people in power think and feel about POC and Indigenous people. Philanthropy, where money goes and where it doesn't go, also paints a picture on what is really important. Regardless of what we say on our website, or what our missions are, the money tells the story of what life we're really about. When I think in the stimulus packages, you see the same thing happening in terms of who was prioritized in these relief efforts.
Within philanthropy, only 8% of grants actually go to communities of color. So I am challenging my colleagues in this space, through my work at the Schott Foundation, through my work with Decolonizing Wealth, to hold up a mirror and do that hard work of [asking] ‘Am I perpetuating a colonizer mindset, or colonial dynamics that are inherent in this system that have to be dismantled in order to liberate those resources and move money to where the hurt is the worst?’ Which for me is in communities of color.
We're not asking for a handout in our communities. We are extending a lifeline into your own humanity and into your own liberation and healing by giving to our communities. I think this transfer of wealth is helping to reset a balance of power and resources that will help our communities in the long term have what we need through a self-determined process to survive and sustain ourselves. We often get caught up on thinking about a good grant and an effective grant and as you were saying at the start of the show Tim, that 5%, I want the 95%. I want your grant and I also want capital. I want folks to divest from these harmful and destructive industries and actually write large checks out of their endowments and hand that money over to these Native and Black and Latino and other communities of color led intermediaries that are doing this work already embedded in community. That's the way that we decolonize wealth and shift wealth in a way that is closing the race wealth gap.”
Stay Wary of Companies and Organizations Exploiting Crises for Their Brand Image
“You have those from the brands to the CSR [corporate social responsibility], to the foundations, even the nonprofits who are making it about themselves, finding a way to tie up this crisis into the mission-critical work or the way that their brand is doing X, Y and Z, or the very small percentage of their resources that they're putting towards these types of efforts.
Now, basically the stories that we're going to tell our grandkids are, “We stayed home and we posted on TikTok or we ran a CSR campaign and we gave away a hundred thousand dollars for a company that produces billions.” These are not compelling stories that we're going to want to be sharing down the generations. I think now everybody needs to do what makes the most sense to protect themselves and their community. But people ask very fundamental questions of, especially in places like foundations, you had money, what did you do with it? How hard did you make it for people to get it? How much of the story that you told was about yourself instead of those on the front lines?
There are these things that I think we'll start to track over time. And I think the hope is that the leaders who are really getting it right, they're supporting the people around them. They're finding a way to support their counterparts in other cities. They're checking in with their staff and their community, and they're finding ways of being relevant, supportive. And I think like most organizations, given how quick this is changing in two weeks, you don't want to look like a fool because you said or you pushed the wrong thing, given the need for ventilators or whether COVID is going to come back or talking about opportunity when people are dying. So I think about all of that through the lens of my experience in Silicon Valley. If I get another CSR email or hear what aggressive action that Warby Parker is taking in [response to] COVID, I'm going to lose my mind.”
New Creative Practices Demand Optimism
“You know, I think my attitude is we're doing the best we can. We're going to pay everybody for as long as the money holds up. So mostly we've gone up virtually as uniquely as good can do, being that I am a physical company. I made a piece for Zoom for the gala. I thought how would you do it? But nothing was edited because I refused to do that. I wanted them flying all around the nine boxes, that was not going to happen.
I'm adjusting, trying not to have an attitude. Our content is in the rhythm of action. Not words. We're not music and it's gone, gone, gone, gone. You know, so get humble. I guess those are the details. I think everybody's trying to make adjustments and dance companies are particularly hard because you're paying humans to do physical things outside or inside, and that's gone, but I can keep the paying humans for as long as we can.
We've had four-hour Zoom rehearsals to make this piece, Horizon Line. They're in their little rooms or rooms somewhere around Manhattan, the Bronx, and it's physically difficult, mentally difficult, spiritually difficult. Would we do it anyway? I don't get into regret or cope. You know, I expunged them from my vocabulary many decades ago. It's a present-tense idea and philosophically, it's also a present-tense idea. So there are things, a little detritus on the ground that we have that we can harness. And that's what we're trying to do. And the cheery attitude, no swearing at SLAM, because we mic our staff and the kids will hear you. And also you can increase your vocabulary if you promise not to swear. Anytime someone swears at SLAM, you have to give me a quarter.”
As we move forward building during this pandemic and after, Fractured Atlas is keeping tabs on and sharing insights from others in our field. We are looking to others who are providing support and visioning for the future.
We spoke with the collective that put together the viral Google Doc turned website, COVID-19 Freelance Artist Resource. They gave us a look at how they came together as a collective, and how they are sharing resources for immediate relief and thinking about the long-term systemic change that we need.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.