McQueen for a Day

When I was in New York last week, I was happy to be able to make some time to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Savage Beauty exhibit, which explored the work of Alexander McQueen. The retrospective has been so popular that I was encouraged to arrive at the museum before opening in order to get in line.

I got there about an hour early (I am not a subway master yet and wanted to be on the safe side) and enjoyed my morning on the steps (a la Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen). As promised, a line began to form. It grew and grew and grew until it stretched down the steps and along the sidewalk, prompting museum staff to establish a second line–which, instead of stemming the line, caused the waiting throng of people to seemingly double.

The exhibit itself was fascinating. While it draws from just a snippet of McQueen’s work, it seeks to explore the overarching themes and concerns of his designs. It moves essentially chronologically to give visitors a sense of the change in his work over time. For this reason, beginning with selections from his thesis collection, which featured exquisitely tailored pieces on rolling dress forms, situates the viewer in what might become his most conventional take on fashion.

The museum’s website for the show features some really wonderful photograph excerpts as well as the corresponding audio tour bits. You can also watch narrated video’s of McQueen’s shows to get an idea of how he turned the objective viewing of his work into a highly charged, dramatic experience for the audience.

The critics and even McQueen himself, in the quotations and commentary provided, return again and again to the importance of McQueen’s training as a Savile Row tailor. McQueen found the most inspiring part of his design work took place on the model as he fit her into the clothes. Fit was everything, and it’s clear throughout the collection that the impeccable marriage of clothing and model are at the heart of his accomplishment.

Although Project Runway has legitimized the purpose of the designer-as-tailor, it still feels like McQueen was of a different breed. In the show, he claims to work by hand, often himself, on the garments because he enjoys it, not because it’s some kind of statement on fashion. I think this love is present in the work.

The focus on craft is such a good reminder to me as a poet. Craft isn’t sexy because at its most accomplished, it becomes invisible. We strive to keep our seams from showing, to keep our reader from stepping out of the movement of the poem (at least on a first read) and down into the nuts and bolts of its language and structure. If language is our thread, the structure of our poems–as diverse among as the words we choose–are our signature stitches.

An Open Letter to My Literary Community

Dear Writers of America,

Why aren’t you more actively engaged in supporting federal, state, and local funding for the arts?

Many of us, myself included, have found personal benefit in this funding. Several years ago, I was one of 11 artists to receive a $5,000 grant for poetry from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. The poems receiving that award ultimately became the centerpieces of my first collection, The First Risk. The funding I received from the Arizona Commission not only provided significant financial support as I balanced my “two full time job life” (one that paid/one (being a writer) that didn’t), it also provided me with the emotional fuel to complete the collection.

In the 90s, Congress decided that artists funded by the National Endowment for the Arts were doing harm to traditional American values. In response, they cut funding to the Endowment, crippling its ability to support individual artists. Today, writers and jazz musicians are the only independent artists eligible to receive project grants from the National Endowment.

Each winter, we as a community celebrate our colleagues, peers, and friends who receive this generous and essential awards. We revel in the knowledge that poetry and fiction matter to our culture, that many of us who work low income jobs or without health insurance can find legitimacy through our art.

Each year, the National Endowment and state arts agencies provide millions of dollars to the organizations that allow us to connect with our audiences and readers: nonprofit presses (now the bread and butter of poetry publishing), literary centers, writing conferences, publishing collectives, book review outlets, and so on.

While federal or state funding should never be considered a crutch or an essential income stream, it is important. To paraphrase Adrienne Rich, federal funding is not “more necessary” than sales revenue, donations, or grants–“but it is necessary.”

In an article published today, The Huffington Post reports that Congress is yet again pilfering the measley arts coffers in an effort to close our budget gap.

And, if we don’t act, they will take that money.

They have already taken the arts out of our schools. Now they will take money away from our presses, meaning fewer books can be published. They will take money away from our literary centers, meaning fewer writers can be remunerated for appearing there, fewer staff can be hired and sustained. They will take money away from our state and local arts agencies, whose goals are to fund smaller projects and organizations, more individual artists in other disciplines.

They will pull the plug on the arts, and many of our organizations–well run or not–will wither and die.

The good news is there is something you can do. (And, if you ask me, there’s something you must do.) Become an advocate for the arts by telling your story. Explain the value arts organizations give to YOU, your family, your community.

Get involved on the state level by locating your state advocacy agency (often called “Alliance for the Arts,” “Citizens for the Arts,” “or “Action for the Arts”) and sign up to be notified when important votes come up in the legislature.

They will prepare your email or print letter for you. All you have to do is click send or print it out.

And it matters.

When 10 people contact a legislator about an issue, it makes a difference. If 100 people contact 10 legislators, it makes a significant difference. When 1,000 people contact 100 legislators, it has a snowball effect. Imagine what we could do if even just 1,000 writers signed up to be arts advocates and made a commitment to be more involved with arts policy in our country.

Writing is an isolating art. We are often not at the table when larger discussions of “the arts” occur. But that’s our own fault. We aren’t going to be invited to this party, so we need to crash it. We’ll make our own seat.

Help save federal funding for the arts by signing up for the Arts Action Fund through Americans for the Arts. You’ll get only a few emails each year updating you on the progress of our advocacy, and you’ll only be asked to send a few yourself.

Those twenty minutes you’ll spend this year advocating the arts can have twenty years of impact.

What else will you do this year to make such an incredible difference not only in the future of American art but the future of America?

A culture is remembered through its art. We are the makers of that memory. We are the makers of our future.

The Big Snapple

Some of you know my longstanding feeling about New York City.

It wasn’t kind.

That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed visiting there. In fact, I’ve probably enjoyed it too much. My last significant visit for vacation, I was in my mid-twenties. It was me, a financial aid check, and every bar in Manhattan. Not to mention the shopping. I bought shoes, bags, a cheap fake watch and sunglasses in Chinatown. Whatever I couldn’t wear, I drank. And whatever I didn’t drink, I ate. It was a five-day loop of that, of waking up around noon, fuzzy-headed and warmed by the July sun spilling in through the windows of my friend’s Brooklyn flat. It was strange men in bars. It was spontaneous trips to Pommes Frites, to walk by The Cock and hear scandalous stories of its backroom (but not going in).

In fact, the happiest thing this side of love happened to me in New York: I was name-checked–loudly–by Reb Livingston as I exited the Prada store on 5th Avenue. It was like a dream. Except in the dream I have a black AmEx and a poolboy named Brody Jenner.

Possibly I loved New York too much and knew if I lived there, I wouldn’t be living long.

But that’s not all of it. Tall cities are dark, depressing. Oppressive. I hate the streets like long corridors with oversized walls. The smells. Oh, the smells. If the air doesn’t smell like something edible, it smells like things that used to be edible, or were eaten and then, you know, returned to the earth, so to speak. Not to mention there’s a higher than normal incidence of body odor among people within Manhattan itself. I don’t know if there’s any correlation.

On previous trips to Manhattan, I felt like everyone around me was thin, smoking a cigarette I wasn’t able to smoke myself, and wearing black. It was like the entire city was populated by semioticians! Many of the people I met were either artists or bankers. I remember meeting a young woman–let’s call her Amanda–who mixed drinks at a bar that only had red lighting in it. It was like having a martini in a Soviet propaganda ad. She had a boyfriend, she said, but sometimes liked to make out with girls. I don’t know why that’s such a strong memory. She was blond; her hair was the color of blood in the light.

This time, here’s what I noticed:
> Manhattan men are having a fashion crisis
> It really does smell like I remembered
> It’s really fun

Beau and I hit the Guggenheim and I loved the exhibits. The permanent collection, with its Renoirs and Gauguins and Degas…es, was a treat, but my favorite exhibition was the Kazimir Malevich, a Russian Suprematist, whose cubist/abstract paintings were like Mondrian on psychotropic mushrooms. The current exhibition, Haunted, featured some really intriguing pieces too. Some were a miss for me. But it was such a great space in which to view art.

We bustled over to meet a friend of Beau’s for coffee. At her salon, while we waited, I had my first real honest-to-god non-literary real famous person sighting: Sigourney Weaver. I did a good job of not staring, although perhaps it was obvious I was trying desperately not to stare. Still–and not that you care or it matters–she is a normal looking person and she was very warm and kind with the staff at the salon. I like a nice famous person. I also like supermegapowerbitches too (Blair Waldorf), but only when they’ve earned it. I didn’t see one of those.

After a nice coffee break, we dove into The Strand, which was crawling with people. The only thing I wanted? A t-shirt to replace the one I spilled food on. They didn’t have my size. They DID have a big sign by one of the shirts with Dan Humphrey on it that said AS SEEN ON GOSSIP GIRL, which made it sting even more.

We walked about 800 blocks back to our hotel and then changed to go see American Idiot, the musical based on the Green Day album of the same name. We were really early. I won’t lie. We were wearing the same thing we wore to the Lammys. (Reduce, reuse, rewear!) Just about everyone else going to the show looked like Jesse James: jeans, West Coast Choppers t-shirts. Some people went fancy with a long-sleeved polo shirt and a pair of Wranglers. The show itself was great. I knew most of the music really well. The set is astounding–it goes up and up and up. At the top of a fire escape that goes almost the entire height of the stage, a lone violinist sat playing her music. I felt for her. Being up that high would have made me dizzy and nauseated.

The choreography was what I’d call “masculine,” meaning it was minimal and mostly punching and stomping. Some performances were great, some…seemed like they couldn’t sing very well. As you know, I’ve often said musical theatre is neither musical nor theatre, but I make exceptions when the source material is non-traditional (American Idiot, Mamma Mia! or transgressive in some way (Spring Awakening, Jesus Christ Superstar).

Afterwards, we sauntered back to the hotel, fell asleep, and then woke up early to get on our BoltBus back to DC. A quick trip! But, possibly the best kind.

The Future of Arts Leadership Green Paper

This season, Americans for the Arts is hosting an online salon on arts-related topics surrounding our future. As part of our work of the Emerging Leader Council, I crafted this green paper in collaboration with the ELC’s ideas about where our leaders (and leadership) are heading. You can follow and participate in the discussion here.

We owe a great debt to the generation of leaders who established the nonprofit arts sector as a viable career choice, one that both offered and required preparation and expertise. Those leaders, who established and shepherded arts nonprofits from fledgling grassroots efforts to massively successful organizations, have in turn mentored and developed the next generation of arts leader. Along with their support, today’s nonprofit workforce can access formal education in arts management graduate programs, which have become common nationwide, as well as join professional development organizations that segment us by field, by discipline, by region, and by our level of experience. This means our ability to pool resources—human, intellectual, and community-based—is at an all-time high. It also means that we, like our sector, are accustomed to—and thrive on—change.

That’s fortunate, because our sector is in constant change. In the last twenty-five years, much of this has been due to technology, with its great leaps forward that have radically altered both the way we get work done as well as how we communicate with our constituents and with our colleagues. With the increased education and awareness of the nonprofit model, we’ve learned that in order for our organizations to thrive, we have to think with a mission and behave like a business. Borrowing standards, practices, and policies from our for-profit colleagues have been an essential part of the professionalization of our sector, and it has ensured the continued success of many nonprofits. We must not be “nonprofit” in the sense that our businesses make no income; instead, we must be “not-for-profit,” an important distinction.

As leaders, we have learned not to fear change, but to embrace it. The future of leadership must do more than just embrace change, however; it must anticipate it, rely on it to push our organizations forward. We have identified several effective strategies to implement change management into organizations as part of healthy life cycles.

Conventional wisdom has been encouraging leaders to become well-rounded, being “competent” in all areas of management and leadership, but we ask why this should be so. Competence is rarely invigorating, nor does it inspire change; it encourages stasis. As in physics, when all variables are held constant, the system remains inert. The last ten years have demonstrated that the world in which we live and work is anything but inert, that change is pandemic, and that the speed with which change occurs has only increased. In the life cycles of organizations, different skills will be needed at different stages. In times of growth and expansion, an entrepreneurial leader can be visionary and motivational to the constituency. In times of stabilization, a more administration savvy leader can steady the ship. In times of external change (such as the recent recession), resourceful and collaborative leaders can be most effective. It is a rare individual who can be entrepreneurial, bureaucratic, and collaborative all at the same time, but it is sometimes possible for a single individual to evidence these skills in a single tenure. But we hold that this individual is a rare find.

Small organizations—the vast majority of our sector—sometimes fear change, particularly staffing changes, because vacant positions prevent work from being done and knowledge from trickling down into databases and organizational files. Instead of fearing staff attrition, we should incorporate it into our organizational goals and visions. While the traditional, even corporate, ideal is to create professional growth opportunities for staff from within, the reality is that smaller nonprofits will not have this luxury. The fluidity of staff and projects will be acknowledged, and even embraced. Strategic plans provide the best sense of what kind of staff and leader an organization will need for a five to seven year period. Based on the goals and objectives of their plans, organizations should both capitalize on the strengths of their particular leader and make arrangements to staff the organization with the necessary skills to carry out the work ahead.

We foresee more and more situations wherein employees and organizations can create mutual “win-win” scenarios that involve a three to five year employee commitment (shorter term employment) to pull the organization toward a specific goal. For example, an organization beginning a branding process should invest in a multiyear commitment to a design professional who seeks to build a portfolio that will further her own career agenda; at the end of the period, the employee can move on (and up) while the organization brings in an employee whose skills will stabilize the brand rather than continue to innovate it. The trend in our culture means workers will have more jobs in their lifetimes, and this is because people are constantly seeking education, training, and new opportunities to grow and develop, as well as to advance to positions of greater responsibility in their careers. Because arts organizations can be small or specialized, it could take years, even a decade before an employee would hope to move up the ladder in one organization. We need to encourage transition between organizations as a means to keep all our organizations fresh, vibrant, and forward thinking.

As leaders, we can spark change and development in our organizations by creating and maintaining smart staff development programs and evaluation processes that are employee-focused. We agree that some organizations cannot match salaries of our for-profit peers and thereby risk losing talented and effective labor to other sectors, so the strategy of including staff development and training as benefits might be viewed as an important opportunity for bright, advancement-minded individuals. Evaluation programs that are employee-minded stress the importance of skills and development needs, not “successes” and “failures.” For all staff, not just leaders, 360-degree reviews provide a panoptic sense of their impact and effectiveness. This practice also encourages employees to be reflective not only about their performance, but about how the effect the organization as a whole. This kind of external concern, this fundamental self-awareness, is an important trait of a good leader and often one of the first to develop.

Collaborate and participative leadership strategies—a flat-organization structure in which staff make concerted contributions to the organization’s leadership—can also serve a staff development function while building in a means for seamless succession. The win for organizations when they employ collaborative leadership strategies is that they ultimately plan for succession. By observing them first hand, employees learn the skills and qualities of good leadership. They will appreciate the increased investment in their abilities, and as leaders, we should not fear losing this expertise to other organizations. It is certain in our future employees will leave organizations for better opportunities. We must accept that. But we should not let attrition cripple our approach to maximizing the time we do have with our staffs because this ultimately only hurts our own organizations. In addition, by contributing to the skill development of the field, we cultivate a healthy and savvy sector workforce of peers who will buoy the nonprofit arts in our country. The camaraderie of the field will continue to be important as it has in the past, and our networks of associates, mentors, and mentees will only become more essential as technology makes us able to collaborate over great distances.

Lastly, we must confront, without fear, significant organizational change. Whenever a for-profit industry bubbles in a period of great expansion and growth, everyone accepts that some of them will fail, will close. We, too, must accept this of ourselves. As more and more arts nonprofits have developed, so has the competition for financial resources, for funding. It’s possible that, like for-profit business, the market and/or the community cannot sustain the sheer number of organizations coming into existence. Looking ahead, some of our organizations will close. Some will forge cooperative partnerships with other nonprofits, while others will seek alliances with for-profit colleagues. Some organizations will merge to pool resources and missions. And some will continue to grow. The nonprofit life cycle includes this, plans for this. Even when it will be difficult to do so, as leaders, we must make these difficult decisions.

It may seem oversimplified, but the only consistent aspect of leadership will be the necessity of change leadership. We foresee a future of arts management wherein arts leaders do not remain in their positions for decades unless they are able to evolve with their organization’s change needs. It could be that the relationship Executive Director and Managing Director (or other second-in-command) will become even more essential and that it is through staff evolutions in these positions that we will see the most effective use of change leadership. For most of our workforce, it will mean job transition, in the interest of skill building and leadership development, will be the primary goal rather than dedication to a single organization or cause. We can see reflections of this in our for-profit peer organizations as well, meaning that our vision of the future of nonprofit leadership is in line with trends in other sectors as well.

Audience & Experiment

This weekend Beau and I went to a theatre production–I’ll try to keep the details of it as vague as possible, unless otherwise relevant, because the point of my post today isn’t about the show’s quality, but my response to it.

I was in the theatre less than 30 seconds when I realized what I was witnessing was not theatre as I knew it, but a form of experimental/innovative/strange theatre–if you’ve seen She’s All That, think of Rachel Leigh Cook’s little performance art show and you’ll get the picture. The staging was minimalist to say the least, the costumes professional but a little strange, the acting bizarre. The lighting, I thought, was fantastic–beautiful, evocative, innovative. But it was the only thing you could say I “enjoyed.”

I got nothing out of the performance except confusion and consternation.

But it got me thinking about audiences and experimental poetry. Because I am fairly well indoctrinated into poetry, I understand some of the more consistent elements of it, or rationales, if you will, for creating it. Even when I don’t like experimental work, I can usually appreciate the concepts, the effort, the ideas, the risks. But when I was an audience for another art form, my boundaries of participation were much more strict. I not only did not enjoy the play I saw, I actually felt some hostility toward it. I actually thought, “What’s the point of doing this like this? Why not just do it in a straightfowardly dramatic way?”

And there’s the catch–

–because the way it was produced was part of the point. Sure, I get that the story is a psychological thriller and that two of the characters were crazy inbreds. Sure, I get it’s drawn from Gothic literature. I get those aspects of it.

But I did not enjoy the show, and it made me realize that one of my primary goals as an audience member that day was to find enjoyment, to be entertained in the mode in which I had expected. But I actually felt something I often hear people say after encountering poetry:

“I didn’t get it.”

And up until that afternoon, I had assumed that an audience member’s failure to “get” something was really a failure of the artist to communicate it. But after this show, I felt like I, as an audience member, was underprepared to appreciate the art I just experience, and it made me feel–frankly–weird and embarrassed, partly because I do consider myself somewhat “cultured,” whatever that means.

Now, if someone told me prior to the show, “It’s a little experimental and avant garde, so you’ll have to be patient,” I might have come out of it better. But the fact that I had no preparation for that, that I went in expecting one thing and got another, really had me flummoxed.

In terms of poetry, this raises some questions for me:

a. How can we, as poets, prepare our audiences to experience our work (on page or in voice)? What tools do they need that they might not already have? This would be a key question to understanding how to get new audiences involved in poetry.

b. How can we, as artists, contextualize our work for an underprepared audience? What’s the responsibility? I feel like some audiences will seek out their own education in this regard, but because audiences are notoriously lazy and prefer to be handed the tools they need, what else can we do, or how can we inspire them to seek more information?

To some degree, I think great art can transcend its form, meaning that even the most experimental work, when most effective, will appeal to and speak to an “under-indoctrinated” audience. Like how, as an eager film student, I was very put off by David Lynch’s Eraserhead but loved Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, even Mulholland Falls. I was moved by some of Maya Deren’s short films and loved Bruce Conner’s A Movie. But there again, I was in a specific audience context, there to learn and discover, not just to enjoy.

I feel like I’m getting lost in this maze of logic and discussion.

The Surprisingly Intricate Art of Scenic Painting

Beau and I were in New York (not city) in part to go visit one of his former instructors at a place called Cobalt Studios, an arts and education organization that both creates backdrops for professional theatres and also trains scenic painters in the art.

We got a tour of the rustic facility, which is located on a roughly 150-year-old farm house in White Lake. Students who study scenic painting there live in a–well, rustic–farm house on the property and study in another building–maybe a barn?–on the property. It is virtually in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dense trees and visited by deer throughout the morning and evening. It was truly an idyllic place to visit and spend time.

In the summer, they run an intensive scenic painting program that really pushes students’ skills as far as they can go. The things they created really shocked me for both their elegance and their false-realness. And that might be the paradox of scenic painting–those artists are tasked with creating realistic-seeming facsimiles of real things, or to evoke the essence of a time and place, often creating three-dimensional images that are flat, filled with approximated shadows and textures.

I saw shockingly real-looking hand-painted portraits of hanging drapes, of marble carvings, of piers with seagalls flying overhead.

I told Beau later, I didn’t realize this was like, a thing.

He asked, How did you think it worked?

I said, I thought they were printed. By machines. They always look so real.

He said, That’s the art.

So I was humbled by their talents and vision. We had the chance to chat with some of the current summer students, who were kind and hilarious, and also very talented.

The next time you’re at the theatre, I hope you’ll consider the careful hands who painted the intricate set pieces and backdrops.