Blogs mnartists.blog Shanai Matteson

Shanai Matteson is a public artist and arts organizer who lives in Minneapolis. She's Co-Director of Works Progress, a public art and design studio that creates collaborative projects with other artists, organizations and groups. Find her on twitter @shanai_haana & @works_progress

Artists are Vulnerable

Every few weeks, that TED talk by Brene Brown about the power of vulnerability makes its way across my social media feed, and for a moment I find myself thinking, “Yes, vulnerability! We need more of that around here.” But vulnerability is like failure and innovation, one of those neat ideas that catches like wildfire, sweeping through […]

Artwork by Timothy Cronin of Husbands Printmaking Studio

Artwork by Timothy Cronin of Husbands Printmaking Studio

Every few weeks, that TED talk by Brene Brown about the power of vulnerability makes its way across my social media feed, and for a moment I find myself thinking, “Yes, vulnerability! We need more of that around here.”

But vulnerability is like failure and innovation, one of those neat ideas that catches like wildfire, sweeping through leadership seminars and association conferences. For a moment we all profess to know what it means, and to see the value in it. We hurry to detail the ways in which we and our work exemplify the concept. We’re vulnerable. We’re innovative. We fail, and because we’re doing it right, we learn from our failures.

Then some time passes. We forget the wise words of Brene Brown and the other TED prophets, and we go back to business as usual.

In the business I’m in — socially engaged art and design—business as usual means competing for resources and recognition, even as we profess our collective community spirit. It involves putting a positive spin on even our most disappointing programs and projects, as we trumpet the virtues of failure. It means keeping an ear to the ground for opportunity, and working like expert operators to position ourselves to receive, even as we call ourselves advocates for others. It means working around the clock and professing to love our jobs, even though we’re tired and overworked and under-compensated. It means keeping our guard up against anything and anyone that might challenge our approach, even though we celebrate vulnerability.

This past week, a friend called me from a parking ramp. She was in tears, trying to regain her composure after meeting with an aggressive collaborator who has power over her work. She wondered out loud how she could continue working in what had become a toxic environment. She also wondered how she could stop working. The project in question was one she had conceived over many months of intense thinking and delicate relationship-building. She felt attached to it, and rightfully so. Not to mention that like so many others, my friend’s financial situation is precarious. She literally cannot afford to bail on the project, though she confessed to me that she hasn’t been happy in months, and isn’t making her best work as a result.

My friend is an artist, and she’s not unique in this experience, or in feeling this way about it. I’ve had countless conversations of this kind over the past months with peers: artists and other independent creative producers who work on what claim to be “artist-led” collaborative projects for the benefit of artists and communities, but which in practice seem to be business-as-usual non-profit programs.

Artists are vulnerable, and not in the Brene Brown sense of that word. When we collaborate with non-profit organizations or other groups, we have to navigate complex political and social landscapes, often without the insider knowledge that can keep one from inadvertently stepping in landmines. This kind of learning takes time. We go to lots of meetings, and we’re not paid for most of them. We share our creative thinking up the food chain, with good intentions and the expectation that we can trust those who claim to have our interests at heart. Once in awhile this results in a paid opportunity to create meaningful artwork, but often we see our ideas emerge watered-down or with strings attached. In the worst cases, we see our ideas or words emerge unattributed in the shiny new initiative of an organization that has little regard for us or our goals.

When we do create work, we usually do so with limited resources. This leaves almost no time for the important steps of synthesis and reflection, or for telling our own story of what transpired. Instead, we read about our projects and see photos of our work used instrumentally in the communications of non-profit organizations and funders, often without any consultation or consent.

I hear it expressed quietly all the time, that feeling that we have little power or authority over the conditions of our work, even as our work is used to gain larger grants and more recognition for leaders in our field. Meanwhile, we live with fear of retribution should we speak publicly about our concerns.

My friend, the one who left the parking ramp—she did what I’ve done many times in the past. She took a deep breath and went back to creating artistic projects, trying to stay true to her own values, vowing to do things differently should she ever be in a position of power. She said the hardest thing for her is the realization that as artists, we seem to have no one in our corner. Lots of people are champions for the arts, especially now that it seems more people recognize the important contributions of art to our lives and communities; but when it comes to standing up for artists, she didn’t know who to turn to except her peers.

I think there’s power in that realization, though it’s hard to know just what to do with it. Yes, we are vulnerable, and we’re not alone.

Republished from Medium with permission of the author. 

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