Looking Back on 2020

by Dee Boyle-Clapp, Director of the Arts Extension Service

Pandemic. Sorrow. Confusion. Anger. Loss. Hope. Vaccine. Gratitude.

This year was one of extremes; a lethal virus and incomprehensible loss of our fellow citizens; racial injustice and calls for systemic change; a planet on fire and demands for climate action; and the arts hit hard by closures, but stepping up to provide solace, hope and a path toward change.

"Immediately, the arts stepped up, offering the best of what they had, for free."

On March 6th, the coordinators of SXSW (South by Southwest) and the City of Austin Texas, responsibly cancelled the festival and started a cascade of closures, cancellations, and actions to protect one another. Quarantine and social distancing had begun.

Immediately, the arts stepped up, offering the best of what they had, for free. Around the globe, museums provided online access to exhibitions; symphonies and opera houses (re)played stellar performances; children’s book authors held readings; and performers offered daily mini-concerts, sing-alongs, puppet shows or other activities to provide fun and meaningful ways to pass time and stay connected to the outside world. Despite suffering job losses, furloughs and devastating economic hardship of their own, this generosity speaks to the commitment that artists and arts managers have to their audiences and their work.

Arts Service Organizations, including the Arts Extension Service, created versions of our AES Resource list during COVID-19, sharing and revising information to help small businesses, artists, arts nonprofits quickly find emergency grants and programs offering financial support. AES’s list included unique sections called Enjoyment of the Arts Online featuring online exhibitions and events, and an Instructor Resource section for educators who suddenly found themselves needing help to support their remote teaching. If this pandemic showed us anything, it is that those in the arts worked hard to hold us together through the beauty, power, and promise of many art forms.

"The awakening of many to their privilege brought soul searching, awareness-raising, confusion, and allyship for system restructuring has begun."

The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery resulted in this summer’s explosion of protests, solidarity, and demands for lasting change. This generation’s Civil Rights moment arrived and was met with throngs of people, risking illness to demand an end to this nation’s brutal, and too often, lethal treatment of people of color. The arts and artists responded with music, and murals, including Xena Goldman, Greta McLain, and Cadex Herrera’s mural of George Floyd, and most importantly, listening and introspection. The awakening of many to their privilege brought soul searching, awareness-raising, confusion, and allyship for system restructuring.

We have been thinking about these issues, too. Since 2017, AES has taught Cultural Equity in the Arts, offering 12 weeks of in-depth work guided by instructor, sculptor, and arts manager Vicki Meek. Led by Meek, our instructors took part in trainings to bring cultural equity and COVID-19 into our course curricula and face-to-face workshops, and we learned much from the presenters in one of our Creative Women Leading Climate symposium panels Climate Change and Communities of Color: How Artists are Responding. The need to listen and learn was met by the Massachusetts Cultural Council which created a  Racial Equity Listening Series  and recently posted what they have learned. This work is important, and puts issues into context, but what is next? How do we turn information into action? How can our actions create meaningful change?

"How do we create lasting change? We fight for it, and then we turn it into policy."

Two upcoming AES courses provide some necessary tools. First, in-the-works for nearly three years, this semester we offer our newest—and very timely—course, Creative Community Leadership, co-taught by Bill Cleveland and Kathryn Bentley. Their course teaches the essentials about the creative process and its application as a tool for social change including skills to practice effective creative community collaboration and partnership development. It also explores the structure and dynamics of social and cultural ecosystems, strategies for working effectively within them, looks at how race, rank, and privilege affect community cultural development, and teaches the practice of adaptive leadership in ever-changing environments.

How do we create lasting change? We fight for it, and then we turn it into policy. Dr. Min Cho, instructor of Cultural Policy and Advocacy, teaches how to turn ideas into tangible policy by providing instruction on the basic principles behind public policy, historical and current development of cultural policies, introduces the gatekeepers who enforce cultural policies, and shows students how to deftly position themselves through advocacy to address intended and unintended political forces.

2021 will be a pivotal year for the climate and will be the last real year in which we have ‘time’ to spare future generations from an unthinkable future. AES’ Creative Women Leading Climate Action symposium will resume with part two. Stay tuned for your invitation to take part. Again, this fall, the students in my Greening Your Arts Nonprofit class found that regardless of their location (this year we had students in India, China, as well as New York, Georgia, and New England) they each found ways to reduce their organizations’ and personal carbon footprint by 50% or more. We know how to do this, and we can!

I close 2020 with gratitude. An Oneida Nation tradition I observed during Spring 2020 trainings was their practice of opening each gathering with the recitation of a gratitude prayer for elements from nature and the creatures upon the planet. It is hard to be simultaneously angry or sad and grateful. Gratitude wins. I am deeply grateful that AES staff, instructors, and our families have been well and that our students who have contracted COVID-19 or are recovering. We at the Arts Extension Service will be here in 2021 to help move our field forward and we invite you to join us.

We at the Arts Extension Service close 2020 with best wishes.

Photo credit: Xena Goldman. This image shows the creation of the mural created by Xena Goldman, Greta McLain, and Cadex Herrera, memorializing George Floyd and other black victims of police violence located near the site in Minneapolis where Floyd died. The location of the mural acted as a place for people to gather, grieve, and organize. The mural inspired the making of public art in honor of George Floyd and other black and brown people lost to police brutality across the nation as well as important discussions about representation in public art-making.