Thursday, December 4, 2008

Intermedia Arts: Bringing Many Voices to the Table, Tom Borrup



This essay is aprt of a much longer essay titled The Administration of Cultural Democracy: Three Experiments which can be found at the following address: http://www.communityarts.net/readingroom/archivefiles/2003/09/administration.php

Intermedia Arts building in Minneapolis. View slideshow of additional images. Photo by Tom Borrup
Intermedia Arts is a multidisciplinary arts center in Minneapolis that is at the same time community-based and an advocate for artists. This is to say that it embraces a wide range of forms, styles and levels of craftsmanship by people of all ages in the surrounding neighborhoods and, at the same time, provides professional development, peer review, competitive fellowships and project commissions to artists from across the state.

While this unusual construct seems antithetical to some, cultural democracy, as Bau Graves points out, "demands, a both/and analysis, rather than either/or."

In much the same way the Center for Cultural Exchange balances traditional practices with the crossing of cultures and innovation, Intermedia Arts' dynamic combination advances artists' work while being "by-and-for the community." Professional artists are part of the community and considered leaders in the communities with whom Intermedia Arts forms partnerships. Partnerships with artists are essentially the same as those with schools, social-action organizations or any other community-based entity. At the same time, professional artists are not considered the only ones whose creative self-expression has value.

From the time Intermedia Arts was incorporated as a video access and training center in 1973, it straddled two worlds. Known until 1986 as University Community Video, for much of that time it relied on the dual support and participation of students at the University of Minnesota and activists and artists in the community.

I arrived in 1980 with my interests in and commitment to creativity and social change, and was attracted to the relatively young organization's strong reputation in social-documentary production and community-activist focus. Just like Wing Luke Museum's Ron Chew, I described my professional training and background as being in journalism and community organizing.

From its beginnings, Intermedia Arts served as the convener of communitywide dialogue, a dialogue both about culture and about issues of pressing concern to people in the community. Its 1970s origins as an activist video center saw its members or participants learning to take out a camera to express their views on a social/political condition or injustice, and, in doing so, to spark civic dialogue and social change. Through its 30 years and the many changes at Intermedia Arts during my tenure, the organization remained committed to participatory cultural practices and to dialogue driven by creative self-expression.

Intermedia Arts' mission, rearticulated in 1993, is "to serve as a catalyst that builds understanding among people through art." Squarely focused on an activist social agenda with art as the vehicle, the mission is true to its origins in the community video movement.

Expanding the Seats and the Table

The practice of engaging a large number of "guest" or "adjunct" curators grew out of the organization's desire in the 1980s to expand its discipline base from that of a media-arts organization to that of a multidisciplinary arts center.

To mark the transition from University Community Video to Intermedia Arts in 1986, it took on four discipline-specific curators on a contractual basis, each charged with devising a season and writing NEA and other grants in their respective areas of media, visual art, new music and performance art. This construct served the organization well for half a dozen years as it achieved credibility in different artistic disciplines among artists, audiences and funders, and as it developed internal capacity for presenting and exhibiting various art forms.

By the early 1990s, Intermedia Arts grew more complex. It encompassed a wider range of programs, especially in youth, education and artist services, and at the same time was focusing efforts on building relationships with more diverse audiences. From successes and failures with many community groups and artists I learned that more meaningful connections with specific audiences came from meaningful connections with artists who were members of – and leaders within – the different communities. New works of art created around themes or issues of concern to specific communities, and involving people within those communities, built even deeper relationships.

Much like the Center for Cultural Exchange, Intermedia also concluded that culturally appropriate formats and styles of presentation were required for the experience to be as true and meaningful as possible and for members of the respective communities to be comfortable participating. To put an Aztec Danza group on a formal stage might be more comfortable for middle- and upper-class white audiences, and it could be a way to sell tickets. However, its out of the context of community life and it would not represent the role these artist-activists play in their own community's cultural setting.

A successful 1992 series produced with the Native Arts Circle in a leased downtown loft space taught me valuable lessons. A packed house for the presentation of three traditional and contemporary American Indian musical performers included a vibrant mix of Natives, whites and blacks. An important discussion followed the event when some Intermedia Arts staff complained about the noisy kids who came and went, whispered and giggled throughout the performances. Partners helped us understand that kids are welcomed at cultural events in the Native community and their behavior is part of the experience. White audiences, intolerant of children's behavior, generally exclude them from many cultural events and then wonder why new generations won't adopt their traditions. This opened my eyes on a number of levels, not the least of which is that welcoming kids, and their less than subtle behaviors, is a good thing. Uptight white audiences will just have to deal with it.

A Catalyst for and a Critic of Change

In 1994, Intermedia Arts moved from the leased downtown loft space and the converted church that served as its headquarters since 1978, a building adjacent to the University of Minnesota campus, and provided at no cost by the university. It purchased and relocated to a converted auto-repair shop in a dynamic, culturally and economically diverse south Minneapolis neighborhood, an area known for decades as a stronghold of artists and social-change activists.

A successful $1.5-million fundraising campaign gave the organization a well-designed, 10,000-square-foot, flexible arts and community center. It includes galleries, a social space with a kitchen, 125-seat theater, office, classroom, working spaces and a semi-boxed-in outdoor area behind the building for parking and events.

Lyndale Avenue, on which Intermedia purchased the building, now looks like a page out of Richard Florida's "Rise of the Creative Class." During the decade since the purchase, the street evolved into a two-mile bohemian strip. It's anchored at one end by the Walker Art Center/Guthrie Theater complex, and moves south into commercial and residential neighborhoods.

When Intermedia Arts relocated there, it was a mixed area of light industry, retail and residential. One could count a couple dozen auto-related repair and supply businesses, electrical, plumbing and roofing contractors and woodworking shops. Less than 10 years later, all are gone save two auto-repair shops. One vacant store front has converted twice, first to a cyber café and then to a tapas and wine bar.

The two-mile strip now includes a dozen espresso cafés, over a dozen ethnic restaurants, three or four yoga/martial-arts studios, a huge upscale food co-op, a dozen new- and used-clothing stores, a dozen hair salons and the usual assortment of pet, tea, bicycle, art framing, photo-copy, graphic design, vitamin and hydroponic gardening shops. Besides Intermedia Arts, the two-mile stretch is now home to half a dozen other nonprofit arts organizations. Less than a block either side of Lyndale Avenue are 20 more arts groups, largely housed in a seven-story converted office building owned by the nonprofit developer Artspace Projects, and more bars, cafes, restaurants and shops. Upscale housing developments are now rising on blocks previously occupied by parking lots and industrial supply yards.

The eagerly awaited 2000 census confirmed that the population on the east side of Lyndale Avenue had increased dramatically in diversity (comprising no majority group), and at the same time an upper-income, 90+ percent white majority remained virtually unchanged on the west side of the street. Housing values had risen for several straight years at a rate faster than any other neighborhood in the City.

These rapidly changing neighborhoods, and the myriad gentrification issues arising through that process, became one of the focal points for Intermedia Arts programming and topics for sometimes heated civic dialogue.

A multiyear program supported by numerous local and national foundations put artists to work as catalysts to build relationships between youth, seniors, growing Latino, African and Asian immigrant communities, and urban planning and development entities. Supplemented by an Animating Democracy Initiative grant through Americans for the Arts, Intermedia Arts tackled issues of gentrification and displacement through art projects that asked the diverse residents the question: What makes you feel safe in your community?

Possibly the largest continuous audience attraction at Intermedia Arts – and certainly the biggest publicity attraction – are the 320-feet of exterior walls designated for graffiti artists. A 24-hour stream of mostly young people could be observed perusing the walls that faced the parking and back lots. These exterior gallery visitors brought and used cameras, sketch pads, markers or spray cans to document or explore their own aesthetics, or to leave behind their signature. The front and visible end of the building facing Lyndale Avenue included three discreet surfaces on which spray can murals were commissioned and rotated annually. Walls on the side and rear were a bit more free-form, some rotating twice annually, some repainted almost daily.

Early to embrace all the elements of the Hip Hop culture, Intermedia Arts endured years of criticism from police, a few pro-gentrification public officials and a handful of neighborhood real-estate speculators – ironically the very people benefiting from Intermedia Arts' presence. The problematic work with the graffiti walls may have been Intermedia Arts' most risky but ultimately successful foray into the complex practice of cultural democracy and arts-based civic dialogue.

My publicly defended stance in support of sanctioned areas for this aerosol art form cost me a mayoral appointment to the City Arts Commission in 2000. After a four-year battle over graffiti played out in the media had all but faded, the pro-gentrification city councilmember, who happened to represent Intermedia Arts' district, renewed her attacks on my support of Hip Hop art. The mayor was forced to withdraw my appointment for fear of being cast as soft on graffiti taggers as an election year approached.

Weaving Diverse Strands

"Culture," writes Roadside Theater director Dudley Cocke (in Vega and Greene's "Appalachia, Democracy and Cultural Equity"), "carries a peoples' profound expression of their self-hood. Only when people can meet as equals, without the threat of domination, can they risk their art and culture. Cultural equity, then, is integral to democracy and the making of an American people from our many diverse strands."

In order to have at the table more and more of the many voices in the community, Intermedia Arts experimented with an expanded rotating slate of "curators." For instance, bringing the Native American community to the table required partnerships with Native cultural and community groups, with Native artists, and with a Native "curator." Creating a GLBT film festival required engaging a queer-identified filmmaker who had a demonstrated passion for bringing new queer-made media to queer and non-queer audiences alike. Intermedia Arts' origins in the media arts, and the vision of the artist as a community leader or "animator," made this approach second nature.

While Intermedia Arts regularly worked with specific ethnic communities in assembling arts presentations or programs, the mix was typically more complex. Being a multidisciplinary center as well as a multicultural one, required curatorial constructs that could engage artists in one or more medium around a theme, or that could bring a group of social-issue-based organizations together with artists making new work addressing the topic. It was still important to maintain relationships through programming and through artists with specific communities, yet it was the recombinant or new creative activity that was most in keeping with Intermedia Arts mission, and what I found most satisfying in the work

Different from the Center for Cultural Exchange, Intermedia Arts focuses primarily on local artists, and on the creation of new work, with presentation a necessary part of the process but not an end. Intermedia Arts is often a beginning point, or a stop along the way, for artists developing or testing new work. Bau Graves' ethnomusicology orientation attracts him to recreating authentic experiences that ground citizens in their cultural identity and be shared with others. My satisfaction came more in fostering new cross-cultural artist and community relationships that result in new creative work and new common ground on which people can act together in both a social and a civic context.

Keeping a trim core staff while finding the right expertise and community connections to pull off its wide-ranging mandate was best addressed by building on the eclectic range – and sometimes significant number – of independent contractors to take the helm of projects. And, sometimes they used formal or informal committees to guide a project.

One recurring guest curator proposed a series of activities around gender in 1997 named "The Genders That Be." Her process was one that set a standard and was emulated for years to come. Identifying as a butch lesbian herself, she was well connected in the GLBT community. The advisory group she assembled took on the assignment with vigor. A remarkably diverse group of community activists and transgendered committee participants took on many roles that included shaping the series' concept, building connections with various subculture and "mainstream" organizations, making arrangements for speakers, bringing food to receptions and contributing materials for the resource room built into the gallery. One group member was a cross-dressing Sears salesman from the suburbs, who dutifully showed up for meetings and later brought his wife to programs.

The ambitious seven-week series included a photography exhibition, paintings by local artists, a film series, several local performance artists, a well-known performer from the West Coast and a series of panel discussions. It relied on a strong coalition of community organizations and volunteers to raise money and pull together the programs. Audiences were strong and consistent, press coverage was extensive and surprisingly positive. The St. Paul daily newspaper, in addition to a feature story, devoted considerable space to a listing of educational resources, Web sites, books and service organizations for those wanting to know more or needing assistance.

The fact that an established arts center would fully embrace and celebrate the creativity of a culture often discriminated against, or at best shoved aside, built relationships that will last a long time. The sensitive and respectful process used by the guest curator was an inspirational model.

Building on the Network of "Curators"

The Genders That Be curator was one of the many Intermedia Arts relied upon to build relationships and bring specific technical or aesthetic experience to the table. These are individuals Malcolm Gladwell, in "The Tipping Point," would call "connectors."

Bau Graves, in his "Cultural Democracy" manuscript, writes, "Culture advances because of the dedication of the handful of individuals who care enough to make it happen. They know lots of people… (and) organizing their fellows is built into their nature. Every community has a core group of participators whose level of dedication is extremely high. They are the motivators who sustain community over the long haul."

Developing this network of curators was also a way to broaden and deepen the capacity of the community – the various communities – over the long term to develop and implement cultural programs, democratizing the role of programmer, much like the work of the Center for Cultural Exchange.

As an audience-development strategy, connectors and people Gladwell calls "mavens," bring people to cultural experiences they might not otherwise venture to. Mavens are trend-setters, people with wide social circles who are relied upon for advice and recommendations pertaining to restaurants, films, museums or other cultural activities.

Intermedia Arts' programming-development and management strategy was based on building a wide network of these connectors and mavens, essentially having them on contract to pull together events and programs that they have a passionate interest in and to invite their social circles to partake.

Each of these independent contractors brought their expertise in art and cultural forms and connections within their communities, and they generally had an agenda of creating change, making an impact in their own or the broader community. They came to Intermedia Arts with project proposals of their invention, or they were contacted and recruited to carry out projects developed by staff or advisory committees.

As this approach began to evolve, I found it necessary to get this group of people together and organized an annual day-long meeting of the entire slate of adjunct curators with key staff. In the early 1990s this included about a dozen people, mostly artists with large and small, ongoing and intermittent "curator" contracts. The meeting was called the "programming summit" and had several purposes. On the practical level, it was a way of roughing out an annual schedule across all programs and disciplines. It was also intended to help find and forge synergies and internal partnerships. The gathering presented opportunities for new ideas to bubble up, and served as the beginning of curatorial-skill development or capacity building for this growing roster of adjunct curators.

In the mid-'90s, as the new building was completed, program planning was gearing up. Fueled by a multiyear Wallace Readers' Digest Fund grant, I invited a broader group to the table, under the name "Food & Dreams." Its participants were treated to a buffet meal before open-ended "what would you like to see" conversations. Its members included neighborhood and social-issue activists, partner organizations, artists and adjunct curators, all with an eye toward diverse cultural inclusion. I had learned much earlier that honoring people's presence and ideas by providing food was essential, as well as another opportunity, through an eclectic menu, to share in a cultural experience.

In an approach slightly different from the Center for Cultural Exchange, Intermedia Arts was more issue-focused in consulting its community, asking questions about social issues and concerns – and looking for metaphors that could be transformed into multidisciplinary art series.

One series resulting from those conversations inspired by a similar program coordinated in Chicago by an artist there, came to be known alternately as "Red and Black" and "Fry Bread and Chitlins." It was conceived as a prolonged program to explore the dynamic 500-year relationship between Native Americans and African Americans, and their many cultural connections. (It's estimated that at least 80 percent of African Americans whose ancestors were brought to America as slaves have some Native American heritage, in spite of the fact that 400 years of documented public policy to prevent alliances between the two peoples.)

A series of educational and "bonding" partnership meetings continued over nearly a three-year period, before and during two seasons of public programs that were presented. Most events included food and ritual, a cultural sharing, extended to all comers. Work was shared in visual art, dance, music and spoken word. A number of cross-cultural artist projects resulted from relationships formed by the process.

The Food & Dreams planning group was put on hold after three years primarily because it was generating too many good ideas, and the organization's staff and programming capacity was being overtaxed.

Making Sense of Complexity

By 2002, I counted 39 independent contractors in various capacities on Intermedia Arts' roster. They were most often artists, sometimes teachers, parents, community organizers or all of the above. They were not employees expected to adapt to and work within an institutional culture. They had various communication styles and ways of relating to their tasks, including deadlines.

An adjunct curator, for example, would be engaged to coordinate a presentation of work by students from three nearby elementary schools, all of which had worked with Intermedia Arts to host artist residencies in various media and various grade levels. The curator had to interface on the one end with teachers, school administration, parents and kids. On the other she had to work with Intermedia Arts staff to design the format of the exhibition, schedule musical and spoken-word events in the theater, and plan a parent/teacher/community reception. In addition to the education staff, this included working with personnel in marketing, production, exhibition and sometimes development.

At the same time, the number of organizations with which Intermedia Arts partnered – and planned to partner on one of many programs and events – during an 18-month planning widow, was nearly double the number of curators -- over 60. Partners included social-service, environmental, advocacy, education or other arts organizations. Sometimes their staffs also served as the adjunct curator on a project. This was a way to begin to expand the thinking and capacity within those groups to work with the arts as a vehicle to advance a social agenda, and it was a way to secure a resource commitment from the partner group.

Education, artist support and community programs were sometimes interwoven. Events might include an exhibition, a series of adult or youth workshops, public performances (indoor or out), receptions or parties. Each of these contractors would be required to work with half a dozen Intermedia Arts staff in producing, in the aggregate, a constant stream of programs, often seven days a week. In fact, with meetings of teachers or other community leaders beginning at 7 a.m., and performances or rehearsals sometimes going past midnight, the building was abuzz 18 or more hours a day.

The organization struggled with making sense of the way it administratively structured its programs, as definitions were a moving target. Clusters labeled Presenting, Education or Artist Support were often arbitrary (yet necessary for budgeting, staff responsibility, grantwriting, promotion, etc.). Most of the so-called education and artist-support programs had presentational aspects, which sometimes comprised their primary identity; the presenting programs had elements stressing education and artist/community partnerships, which sometimes required the lion's share of resources or time. Lines were pretty soft between program categories.

As a community arts center and incubator of new work, Intermedia Arts chose not to construct a "mainstage" series or season so as not to privilege some work over others, indicating it was of higher caliber or somehow superior. This is an important value in cultural democracy, yet antithetical to the notion that cultural institutions are arbiters of quality. Mixing work by students with that of emerging artists, with commissioned or relatively high-budget work by accomplished artists, with work by members of cultural groups who don't typically put their creative work in a space defined for art was, to say the least, messy. Or was it a picture of cultural democracy in action?

As we evolved into this way of working during more than a decade, structures and systems emerged to prepare the guest curators and the staff for what to expect. Contracts were signed with specific deliverables and schedules. So-called "pre-production" and "production" meetings were held with each contractor and key staff members around each presentation or event.

However, with so many cooks in the kitchen, so many different recipes in the works, and such a relentless pace of activity, chaos was constantly poised to break out.

While trying to achieve some level of consistency in what audiences encountered, a careful dance was always performed to keep staff from telling curators and partners, "This is how we do things here," instead leaning towards "How would you like to do this?" The important challenge was to allow each program or event to find its own voice relative to the culture from which it was emanating.

Taking All Creative Expression Seriously

An enormous creative explosion was underway at Intermedia Arts in spaces defined as galleries and a theater, not to mention the outside walls or spaces around the building. Staff, board, neighbors, funders and peers who were traditionally trained in the arts didn't always consider all of it appropriate. It was difficult for the public – and sometimes even staff – to appreciate.

Attempts to "administer" cultural democracy had no end of frustrations and challenges. The crush of time, money and the demands of connecting with audiences and funders was ever present. Confronting marketing experts or funders who expected a singular curatorial voice or "brand identity" from the organization was rarely satisfying. They couldn't get their hands around the eclectic mix, or what they sometimes perceived as "lack of leadership."

Orienting staff members to see their roles as both teachers and learners was also a challenge. A theater production manager wanting his work to reflect professionalism and high standards felt thwarted by artists and curators whose experience varied widely, but who also had different values and concerns about how work was presented. And, yes, cultural philosophies aside, there were adjunct curators who simply lacked presentational skills or any concern for presentational style, leaving some audiences confused or unsatisfied. Finding the time and temperament for this internal dialogue and learning process was challenging, but was very much the next level to be addressed in building more capacity among the growing ranks of participants and leaders in advancing cultural democracy.

Understanding an arts center that is a place to help artists develop skills and create work is commonplace. Smaller arts organizations are pigeon-holed to serve artists or find their niche in presenting high-quality work in a limited cultural framework in dance, visual art, music, performance art or media. Community arts organizations are pigeon-holed as places to train kids and adult amateurs, and where resulting work is not taken seriously. Beginning to comprehend a professional arts organization's role as that of a cultural incubator, a place for all the community's voices and a training ground for all levels of cultural workers is very hard for most people in the arts.

As an unusual hybrid, fostering the diverse forms and styles of voices found in its urban neighborhood, Intermedia Arts was foremost trying to nurture a healthy, creative, and interactive community by taking everyone's creative expression seriously and by engaging in community concerns as an active institutional citizen.


Tom Borrup is a community activist, writer and consultant based in Minneapolis. He was executive director of Intermedia Arts from 1980 to 2003, and now works as a consultant to arts organizations, foundations and public agencies in several cities around the U.S.

Original CAN/API publication: September 2003

above copied from: http://www.communityarts.net/readingroom/archivefiles/2003/09/intermedia_arts.php

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