Caitlin Strokosch of National Performance Network
Caitlin Strokosch serves as president and CEO of the National Performance Network (NPN), a national peer organization-based arts service organization. She has been working professionally as an arts administrator for about 20 years but is a classically-trained cellist who has also sang and played guitar in a punk band. We sat down with Caitlin in New Orleans to talk about what’s happening in the creative communities of New Orleans and how NPN has worked with artists across the country to help advance their careers.
What is the mission of National Performance Network?
The mission of the National Performance Network is to advance a more just and equitable world. We think about that within the context of support for performing artists and for arts presenters around the country. One of the things that's really critically important for us is geographic parity, so we're interested in the services that both we can provide and other places like Fractured Atlas that have a broad reach into lots of different parts of the country—whether it's the deep South, or rural, remote communities, and particularly artist-centered kinds of services.
What sorts of services does National Performance Network provide to artists and creative professionals?
Today we're really peer organizations helping to inform each other's work. We also have a fiscal sponsorship project. Ours is much more hands-on and small scale— predominantly local artists. So there's a nice supplement to the kind of work that Fractured Atlas does.
Can you talk about how arts organizations support artists so that they can have more sustainable careers?
I think one of the things that NPN has really been wrestling with, and one of the ways that we're particularly aligned with Fractured Atlas, is in thinking about not just the kind of transactional ways that we support artists, but what it means to really build artist power, and to support artists own self-determination around what having sustained careers looks like for them.
For some it's just money. For others, it's professional development opportunities; ability to travel; ability to pivot in their work and move in a new direction— whatever that looks like for artists. I think that we need to start with the question of what they want, what they need, and what a sustainable career it looks like for them.
And again, this issue of power over just resources I think is really important. Resources are things that can be given and taken away. Power, as it is built, is a thing that the people should have. And I think that self-determination is obviously really key to that.
How does living in New Orleans impact your work?
I've been living in New Orleans now for about three and a half years. I was doing some work projects down here for about a decade before that and visiting as a visitor for a decade before that. I'm still very much learning and I expect to continue to learn about New Orleans for the duration of my time here and, if I leave, I will continue to learn about New Orleans. I think that growing up in the Midwest, and then, living in New England, being in the South is a very different kind of place to be, and it's something that I don't take for granted that I understand. I'm only really starting to scratch that surface.
I think that there is a sense of how the physical environment here, how the history of this place, how all of that informs every part of the fabric of this community. In the arts community, in the philanthropic community, how it affects economic justice, neighborhoods. All these things are really tied together with the environment here, the physical environment, and the history here, in a way that I think would be hard to understand if you weren't here.
And, as I said, I'm only starting to understand it, but I think what I have really come to wonder in the last few years since I've been here is, how do we, as an organization, and how do I, as hopefully an ally, advocate for this place in a way that is authentic, informed, honest, and accepts the complexities that are here without fetishizing the magic of New Orleans? It is magical. And also, it's complicated.
What are the challenges of being a national arts service organization while serving a local community?
The challenges of being a national art service organization with a local program are interesting. Most of the pushback that we get is actually from national constituents or national funders who see our local program as less than the national work that we do. We think of that really differently within NPN, obviously. For us, the local program is the way that we practice our values on the ground, that we support other organizations and artists doing in their own communities. We need to practice that as well and it's not enough to just be national.
For us, I think it's an opportunity for us to show what being place-based looks like. For us to think about what social justice means, in terms of being a good neighbor and a good member of our community. The challenges are largely funding. There's very little funding here for the kind of work that we do, and so, our local program is actually mostly funded by national funders, and we've had some great folks support that work. But, it's a very small-scale program of what we do and it's a really hard thing for us to scale up because of that.
What has been your personal experience with Fractured Atlas?
Most of my experience has been as an arts leader. I used to run the Alliance of Artists Communities, which is also a very artist-centered national service organization and, at that time in particular, we were looking at more ways that organization could offer more services to its members and its artists.
My experience with Fractured Atlas has always been one of real admiration at the ability to scale the programs. Watching Fractured Atlas over the last 10-15 years, how it's grown, how it's changed its programming, and the nimbleness that's been inherent in the DNA of Fractured Atlas. And watching, over the last couple of years, the ability to really change its whole organizational structure and to take on a much more explicit role around racial justice. To see how that has happened, for me, personally, I think is really inspiring and has been a great, pure organization to look to as I do this work myself.
What is the relationship between National Performance Network and Fractured Atlas?
We have had some partnerships with Fractured Atlas over the years, particularly to provide more direct services to artists. So some of the professional development programs, when Fractured Atlas used to offer access to health insurance, fiscally-sponsored projects, things like that.
We've often partnered with Fractured Atlas, or even just recommended Fractured Atlas to the artists that we support because we can't be all things to everybody. And, I think, more importantly, over the last couple of years as Fractured Atlas' work has changed, it's just been a good partnership to think about what it looks like to be advancing racial and cultural equity in the arts, and to do so on a national scale, and to do so in really artist-centered kind of way.
What’s one thing that you like about the changes happening at Fractured Atlas?
I think one of the ways that I have come to really admire Fractured Atlas is in its different model of leadership and watching the transformation over the last couple of years. I think we need more and better models of what shared leadership looks like, about what leading through change looks like, about really taking on organizational transformation in a way that serves justice and equity different than the kind of hierarchical approaches that most of us had inherited in our organizations. I am excited to see how Fractured Atlas continues to adapt, particularly as I think about ways that NPN might evolve and how I might help build a team that feels like they all have leadership within them as well.
And, I think, more importantly over the last couple of years as Fractured Atlas’ work has changed, it's just been a good partnership to think about in terms of what it looks like to be advancing racial and cultural equity in the arts. And to do so on a national scale in a really artist-centered kind of way.
There’s still time to register for National Performance Network’s Annual Conference, taking place December 10-13, 2019 in New Orleans!
About Molaundo Jones
Molaundo Jones is a visual artist, entrepreneur, and arts adminstrator. As Social Media Specialist, he creates strategies and content for social media marketing and works with our members to develop a comprehensive calendar of events. Molaundo is a New York native, earned his MFA in Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts, and BA in Marketing at Morehouse College. He is founder of The Clever Agency, a communications consultancy and develops professional development programs for Queens Council on the Arts. He has also worked with the New York Foundation on the Arts' Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program and Artist as Entrepreneur Bootcamp and has served as a grant panelist for Bryant Park Corporation, Brooklyn Arts Council, and the Museum of Art and Design.