Practice radical hospitality, radical citizenship in the arts

LOS ANGELES — The arts in America have become more professionalized, more administratively competent and more adapted to the market economy. After all, for years galleries, museums, theatre and dance companies, have been told that arts have to “pay their way” and become “more like a business.” Budget directors and grant writers seeking public or foundation funding have gotten used to pitching their appeals in line with “the theory of the quantifiable.”

But does this kind of thinking make arts more accessible? More meaningful? Will the arts continue to matter under this model?

These are the parameters set out by arts theorist Diane Ragsdale, who spoke to a crowd of committed cultural workers last Monday morning at the Mark Taper Forum. She titled her talk, “Transformation or Bust! When hustling tickets and contributors is just not cutting it anymore.” This kind of dialogue is happening all over the country, especially now, as Diane Rodriguez, who introduced the speaker, put it: “This is a time when no one can be neutral. Despair is betrayal.”

Now living in the Netherlands, where she is completing a doctoral dissertation on the relationship between regional theatre and Broadway, Ragsdale is a former fellow of the Mellon Foundation who has turned into something of a provocateur as a writer on arts issues in her blog Jumper.

The Mark Taper was the appropriate place for Ragsdale’s talk. Later that evening a community-wide tribute to the theatre’s late founding director Gordon Davidson took place. Davidson was a pioneer of regional theatre who instinctively recognized that theatre (and by extension other arts as well) would go into steep decline if it failed to invite the community in to create work that was relevant and meaningful to all the ethnic and racial groups of the city. One of his early successes was the Luis Valdez play Zoot Suit, which is being revived at the Taper this season on its 40th anniversary.

As Rodriguez said, theatre is “an art form shouldering communal responsibilities…a civic act.”

“We in the creative class,” Ragsdale began, were “among those who truly did not understand our country” in the last presidential election. For years, she said, we allowed the crisis to brew, and then it erupted. She quoted playwright Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame: “The great work begins.”

The theatre problem, in Ragsdale’s view, is “existential and systemic.” We see aging, and smaller, audiences in seats. According to the ruling business jargon, culture is an exploitable product, and theatergoers are consumers. Culture is a commodity. As in every other area of social life, where we have evolved from not simply a market economy but toward a fully integrated market society (think education, healthcare, housing), the role of art has become one that business sponsors, and the general public as well, see as a force for the economy.

How can arts organizations change their way of thinking so that what they do matters more — to people, and to our larger society? Ragsdale outlined five major proposals:

  1. 1. Let the community back in. Get away from professionalization of culture: Invite amateur performers from the community into productions alongside professionals. Commission new work by and about ordinary people. And always ask, “How can we make this project better?”
  2. 2. In the campaign against elitism, practice radical hospitality. Give free tickets to the community. Livestream theatre. Open a “theatre without walls” going out to streets and venues beyond your own safe space; in other words, bring art to the people, don’t necessarily demand that people come to your bricks and mortar. Focus on ethnic and class-based stories and themes, and challenge historic conceptions about what constitutes art. You cannot be neutral about who you’re for.

In your advertising and promotion, yes, you might feature smiling faces of patrons “of color” in their tuxedos on opening night at the opera, but what are they consuming? How much were those tickets, and how unattainable is that for poor people? Is this inviting a few “others” into the inner circles of the exclusive elite, or the leaders of our culture truly letting down their gates and reaching out to their neighbors?

Cultural organizations occupy a unique position to bring people together across the many divides in society. It would represent mere “business as usual” to ignore this opportunity and responsibility.

  1. 3. Be the kitchen table, be the campfire around which you can encourage ongoing, honest conversations around themes that are important to people, such as water, hunger, gentrification, killings, work. Reflect, discuss, debate, imagine together. Combine art with social experience (I am reminded of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who solved illiteracy by introducing texts about substantive issues that people cared about, such as landlessness, exploitation, poverty, sickness.) In short, what if arts centers existed to ignite radical citizenship?
  2. 4. Focus on impact rather than size. Form covenants emphasizing the moral agreement between partners in your community, rather than contracts, which are about donor levels and recognition. Create sustainable models: We need thousands of small enterprises everywhere. Fans (including in the sports world) don’t want to be customers, they want to be supporters.
  3. 5. Adopt a philosophy of meaning-making rather than money-making. Do we love our patrons or objectify them? Efficiency is not always the highest goal. At the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, to cite only one example that Ragsdale used, you can meet a personal art coach to work with you and guide you into the kinds of experiences that will lift up your goals and interests, and direct you into more “consumerist” activities, or more hands-on, participatory engagement in the community, as you wish. If the arts are to be a brake on the corporatization of everything, we might embrace artisanal values from before the Industrial Revolution.

The kinds of transformation in the cultural world that Ragsdale endorses can be applied to society at large. Do we, in the end, embrace the market or a different value system? Is it the scarcity of “stuff” that we need to solve by the accumulation of goods, or do we more essentially suffer from the scarcity of time and connection? Perhaps that is the abundant life that people seek, for which more possessions, or more consumption — even of art — can only be a fetishized substitute.

What are you laboring for? What values, goals, progress do you seek to express in the world? The arts can transform us into people who care.

Diane Ragsdale’s entire illustrated talk can be seen here.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first two books, "Five Days, Five Nights" and "The Six-Pointed Star," are available from International Publishers NY.