The 20Under40 Interview Series, Part 1: Edward P. Clapp

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Your favorite author with editor Edward P. Clapp. The "13" is the name of the bar, not a hex on my luck.

Edited by Edward P. Clapp and featuring essays by 20 under-40 arts leaders and thinkers, 20Under40: Re-Inventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century is a late-2010/early-2011 must-read, although if you do try to read it in a single sitting, the only person responsible for the splattered brain matter will unquestionably, dear reader, be you. What the book really is is a paean to innovation — to the unaddressed need for a drastic overhaul of the role of the arts and arts education in American society, including a serious examination of the battered and bruised business model by which art in our nation is served, created, developed, supported, marketed, consumed and digested.

At a Dec. 13 launch party for the book here in New York City (see photo), Clapp referred to the book as the “beginning of a conversation.” That’s true. If one-twentieth of the ideas in this book for revitalizing the arts should incite a reality check — or actual change — in the sector, it will be viewed as the beginning of an era.

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Your favorite blogger with editor Edward P. Clapp. The “13” happens to be the bar’s name, not a hex.

The stated mission of the book (and nifty proactive website) is to “create a dialogue about the improving and evolving the arts in the 21st century.” I’d argue that the effect of the book is equally interesting, as it calls out received wisdom left, right and center, and takes the arts-sector firmament, once thought concrete, and utterly liquifies it. There’s been much buzz lately around the two words “challenging assumptions.” Well, here’s a document that actually does this. Clapp and his contributors know full well how entrenched certain beliefs are. Jobs, incomes, benefits; boards, committees, power-brokers; policy wonks and politicians — not to mention arts and arts-advocacy groups, actual art works and, hey, actual artists — all have stakes in the status quo, even when “status quo” means fiscally emaciated, aesthetically unglued and intellectually stymied. I don’t think there’s a way to prep readers for how revolutionary some of the ideas in the book really are. I think it’s because they’re often so obvious. The book asks — well, demands — that the sector reimagine, reinvent and rearm itself for a new century, one ready to enter its second decade, rather than remain mired in the century we left behind.

So who is this editor, Edward P. Clapp?

From the website:

Edward P. Clapp has worked in the arts sector as a practicing artist, teaching artist, arts administrator, academic, and arts researcher. As a writer, Edward’s poetry and fiction have appeared in journals and anthologies in the US and UK and his plays…have been produced in New York. In addition to his current work as a writer and arts education/leadership consultant, Edward is also a doctoral student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education…

In his introduction, Edward writes eloquently about how 20Under40 came to be, complete with a vivid anecdote or two in the place of what one typically endures from academics: unbuttered toast. Rather than to recapitulate all the history of the book, however, I’ll simply advise you once again to buy it.

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Before I publish the Q&A that I conducted with Edward by phone two weeks ago, I want to offer a few thoughts.

As a conceit, a line of demarcation, I was deeply conflicted about any project with an “under-40” label. Headhunters and human resources people will tell you under penalty of televised Chinese water torture that they’re against ageism in the workplace, but anyone with a pulse knows that ageism is alive and well and perhaps nowhere more blunt, more evident, than in the arts. In many ways, it’s a rigged gig. And, as Edward says with equal bluntness in his answer to one of my questions, our arts leaders are an “ossified” group whose reluctance to yield their thrones is strangling the sector at precisely the moment new blood is most needed. With at least one, if not two, generations of arts leaders unable rise to the surface, what we are currently bearing witness to is a slow, steady flight of intellectual capital.

At the same time, 40 seemed disturbingly arbitrary to me — a point Edward doesn’t necessarily refute. It seems faintly absurd to say this, but if under-40 is some sort of societal standard, George Bernard Shaw would best be remembered as a gifted theater and music critic and Grandma Moses would best be remembered for battling moths in worsted wool. The book’s project advisor is a fellow named Eric Booth; in his foreword, Booth doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the risks of using age as a dividing line:

There were surprises along the way for both of us. As we distributed the “Call for Chapter Proposals,” [Edward] engaged in some online dialogues to spark interest. He was surprised (and hurt at first) to have some over-40-year-old professionals react negatively to the very notion of a book giving voice to the ideas of the young. …I knew that many people who had devoted large parts of their lives to the arts sector felt frustrated, under-respected, and under-utilized by a field that is badly organized to tap and reward talent. Some become bitter after decades of service to a field that underpays and under-acknowledges its dedicated, passionate lifers (as well as its young talent). And indeed, much of the flak that Edward took came down to Baby Boomers saying, “How dare you give beginners a vehicle that allows their voices to be heard, when I haven’t had that. Is my twenty years of experience chopped liver?”

Indeed, Edward’s introduction asserts that if under-40 is a disease of bias, we’re all infected:

…I argued that 20Under40 did indeed exercise bias by restricting eligibility to younger arts professionals under the age of forty, but this was a form of positive bias geared towards including a collective group of individuals in a broader conversation from which they were largely excluded….

The idea to highlight the top twenty somebodies under the age of forty in any given domain is nothing new. Articles in local newspapers, trade publications, and business journals frequently publish lists of the top twenty so-and-sos under forty in a given profession. It baffled me to think that the arts sector would respond to negatively to this concept….

Why under forty? A flip response would be “because everyone else is doing it.” [But] keeping this demographic’s voice on mute not only frustrates young leaders and causes them to become disenchanted with their work in the arts, it also denies the field of the much needed 21st century insights that these individuals uniquely possess.

For me, as someone already a year past eligibility as the deadline for chapters passed (on Aug. 31, 2009), the question was whether to feel deliberately marginalized, which I sometimes do (thank you, Fractured Atlas; thank you, Arts and Business Council), or realize that if 40 is arbitrary, if 40 is the chosen demographic because there has to be some sort of chosen demographic, then might I just as easily ignore 40 as a barometer of professional validation and dive in?

Only an unwound watch won’t keep time. Clapp is 36. The author of the first chapter, Brian Newman, turns 40 in 2011.

What the book is — in the sense of making folks passionate about the arts conscious of their age — is a snapshot in time, like any photograph, video or sound recording. By 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020, some of the book will undoubtedly appear prescient, while some will appear wacky and straight-up wrong, while still other aspects of the book will stand as the testimony of dreamers and rabble-rousers at a dire, if salvageable, arts moment of the 21st century. Rather than blame my parents for conceiving me in 1967 (I was born in 1968), I’m joining the conversation: the CFR will publish a Q&A with the author of each chapter of the book over the next 20 weeks. Twenty Q&As in 20 weeks is a lot, especially for me. I think the book is critical enough to warrant it.

Nor will the discussion begin (or end) here. There are discussion pages for each chapter on the 20Under40 site (though someone ought to moderate them) and the tweets are flying fast and furious.

I also recommend you read this previous blog interview with Clapp, too.

So let’s begin.

Remember the elephant in the room — the upset among those not fortunate enough to be born before 1970 and therefore ineligible to contribute to the book?
There was a lot of push-back from the field, especially from people who are kind of in your position, Leonard: “Who drew this line?” The best thing I can say about an August 31, 2009 determinant — well, a flip response, in addition to the one I wrote in my introduction, is it was the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. That was one revolution and, so, let’s celebrate another. It’s just the right time, I think. There was a lot to address in my introduction.

I agree with that. You know, in a society where we like bite-size chunks, there’s an awful lot to chew on. It’s not like there’s some overarching thesis: “the arts sector is broken, here’s how we’ll fix it.”
I’ve spoken about the book a number of times, and some discerning person in the audience once asked me, “So, what have you learned?” One of the things I’ve learned is that this is not just an under-40 problem; there’s an ossification of people at the top. To put this in context, I worked on a study called The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education. Essentially, the project addressed the fact that arts education is good, yes, yes, yes, and the fact that there is a lot of mediocre arts education out there. We asked people from the field, more than 400 people in the field of arts education, a question: Who are the top theorists they look up to? Who are the big individuals they read? And only four, really, stood out. People only identified a few golden individuals as field leaders. And these people’s stuff has been read for 20 or 30 years.

Meaning?
Meaning there are no young guns. Certain people are go-tos. But there’s something — I can’t really put my finger on it yet — journals and conferences, I mean, do little justice. There has to be a mechanism focused on diversity of views. You can’t just go to the same voices over and over.

But why you? Why are you the editor, other than the fact that you conceived the book?
I was like a writer-in-residence, poet-in-residence, at the Bronx River Art Center. I helped to put teaching artists in homeless centers and in performing arts high schools and I helped to direct the literary component that the Bronx Council on the Arts did. When the world blew up on September 11, 2001, immediately the city pretty much cut out half the staff — I mean, the effect of 9/11 on public giving in the arts, on the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, was huge, with funding hacked to go to supporting the police and fire departments. I’m going to sound like a horrible person — but it was an interesting moment for me. I was young guy then, 25, 26, and I had just finished my masters in creative writing, and I was out of work all of a sudden and I felt terrible. I was doing programs in difficult environments with kids who had always been treated like mechanisms in a machine. I’m a white guy and it was all “F you, white guy, we’ve seen 10 of you!” And I thought — you’re not going to distance me like that. So I emailed the kids I’d been working with and, every Saturday morning at 10am, I said I’d go to this or that museum and it became a thing — the kids started to show up. For me, arts and arts education is very personal.

It isn’t less personal if you’re over 40, though.
There’s this whole idea of ageism in our field, a whole question of what we do about it. This frustrates the heck out of me. I feel like, as teaching artists, as arts administrators, we can’t progress if there’s always someone under you who’ll take your job — or take some job — for less money. If there’s no sense of quality of expertise or professionalism, what do we have? Aren’t we screwed if we don’t, you know, step it up? These arts leaders sit around and go “Who can I hire, who can I pay less to?” There’s an exodus of potential in the field that I try to speak of my introduction to the book and it doesn’t get enough attention. The field is a mess.

OK, so a hardball question: Whose fault is it?
OK, I’ll point a finger at the field — I hesitate even to call it a field. I’ll call it a field but I won’t call it a profession. If you look up the literature on, for example, medicine, you have to take a Hippocratic Oath; there are professional journals and degrees, but we don’t really have those universal standards in the arts. Technically, we can’t call this a profession.

You’re dissing arts administration degree programs?
No. I’m saying the arts sector, which is broad and diverse, is siloed and siloed within its silos. I think it’s a problem. I think in order to make steps toward calling it a profession, it entails defining certain things and there are aspects where definitions won’t fly — where boxes around things won’t work. I wouldn’t point fingers against somebody, but I’d point a finger — well, I’m about to say I’d point a finger at the field’s traditions. I point a finger at the field’s core assumptions — that the field operates from an underdog status; that the field is strictly a nonprofit venture; that the field must always rely on public money and public opinion. People go to work in this field every day with the idea that it’s perfectly OK to pay a kid with six-figure debt $24,000 a year, to pay a person with 20 years of experience maybe $50,000. I think the assumptions, these principles of practice, are incredibly flawed, and we can’t rely on them anymore. It’s like an intern who works for a summer — half the field or more than half the field doesn’t even know or care about laws differentiating interns from slave labor. There were articles in the New York Times this year about internships and how institutions, or few institutions, actually look at the law. It’s not supposed to be about working someplace for free. It’s supposed to be providing the intern with the background they need to actually work at that institution.

You’re a sunny delight.
It’s the truth. Instead of asking “How can we mobilize our field?” we expect more from our arts sector and want to pay less for it and that pushes people out. People aren’t going to hang out for that long in a field that doesn’t value quality.

Where do they go?
Everywhere but the field. They’ve gone to other aspects of the philanthropic world, or to the corporate sector, or into businesses for themselves. They’ve gone on to be administrative assistants — in a corporate bank, for example, you’ll make $45,000 a year. People toss their arts education or fine arts background over their shoulder and you know what they say? They say, “You know what, I’m 35 years old. I haven’t that car and I haven’t that house and I haven’t those kids yet, so the hell with it.” It’s a core thing with millennials and x-ers in the arts and philanthropic sector to put off all these important life goals that the boomers achieved earlier in their lives. Then they have enough.

So, in a way, we’re back to the blame game. Is it because there’s no money or because of “ossified” leadership on top?
Both. There’s an element of privilege among arts leaders that’s pretty big. I try to put all my cards on the table. These aren’t easy pills to swallow.

Turning to another topic, what makes you think the nonprofit, 501(c)(3) business model and the infrastructure around it is going away anytime soon?
The people who think the 501(c)(3) model isn’t going down — well, we know who those people are and why they’re in the space they’re in. I know people who have benefited from this model. It’s sort of what they’ve been known to do. I wrote about the assumption in the book. Assumptions are things taken as truth without any validity that they are true. We inherently believe things because we’re told that’s how they work, we don’t question them. People in the 501(c)(3) world — they just keep working harder for less and less, keep trying to make it work, and they’re still, like, “Why would I question it?” I kind of feel it comes down to power. I think the arts leaders basically say, “If we give this over, what do we have?”

Final question: What is the role of government in the creative economy?
I think the role of government is to serve the people. I’m not about to point a finger at government. I think the field also has to engage it — the field has to kind of dance with government. But again, there’s an arrow turning in the road here — this is all under the assumption that 501(c)(3) model is the way to go. What if government was able to think differently? What if government was able to think about the arts, let’s say, as venture capitalists might think about a prospect? What if government could think the arts as an entrepreneurial pursuit that could advance the public good?