Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Activism with Philly Arts for Black Lives Matter
During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.
In this episode, Community Engagement Manager Tenara Calem sits down with Anne Ishii (Executive Director of Asian Arts Initiative), Danny Orendorff (Executive Director of Vox Populi), and Maori Karmael Holmes (Artistic Director and CEO of BlackStar Film Festival), the leaders of a new coalition called Philly Arts for Black Lives Matter. Philly Arts for BLM emerged following the proposed city budget cuts to Philadelphia’s municipal arts funding. Though the budget has already been voted on (and with it, restored the Philadelphia Cultural Fund), this important conversation demonstrates all the ways in which arts organizations can illuminate the path ahead for racial and economic justice in the city of Philadelphia.
To learn more about this work, visit: https://phlartsforblacklives.com/
Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Raina Searles and I’m the Marketing Manager at FringeArts. In the wake of the global Coronavirus pandemic. Many of us, especially those in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic social disruptions. One thing FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our artists and community partners with all of you listening through this podcast. We’re diving into how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. You can learn more about what we’re doing at FringeArts by visiting fringearts.com/covid-19. And as always, enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Tenara: Hey, folks. A quick note here from Tenara, the Community Engagement Manager at Fringe Arts. This recording is a conversation between the organizers of Philly Arts for Black Lives Matter, a coalition of Philly arts leaders organizing to end white supremacy in our industry and in our city. You’ll hear me talking with Anne Ishii from Asian Arts Initiatives, Danny Orendorff from Vox Populi and Maori Karmael-Holmes from BlackStar Film Festival. Here’s the thing, though. Maori’s audio glitched. So for the bulk of this episode, you actually won’t hear her. Though you might hear me referencing you three or all of you, she comes back in towards the end of the episode. But also, we wanted to make sure that we could feature her more prominently. So early next week, we’ll be releasing a bonus episode of a conversation between just me Maori, where we get to go deeper into some of the topics we covered in today’s episode and more. I’ll also say that one of the things you will miss from these technical difficulties is Maori correcting me. Philly Arts for BLM is not an official part of the Black Lives Matter or Movement for Black Lives groups, but its own separate coalition that seeks to advance those organization’s goals through the arts industry. Thanks for tuning into this critical conversation and make sure you catch next week’s bonus episode with me and Maori.
Tenara: Thank you to the three of you for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. We’re going to start just with introductions. So can you tell the listeners who you are, which organization you work for and what your role is at that organization?
Anne Ishii: I’m Anne Ishii. I am the executive director at the Asian Arts Initiative, which has been around since 1993. I’ve just moved to Philly as of 2018.
Danny Orendorff: And I’m Danny Orendorff, I’m the Executive Director of Vox Populi and like Anne I arrived here in the summer of 2018, though Vox Populi has been in operation for over 30 years.
Tenara: Wow. Amazing. Great. So you all are organizers, some of the organizers for a contingent of the Black Lives Matter movement in Philly, specifically called Philly Artists for Black Lives, which includes an open letter to Mayor Kenney about his proposed budget and among other things. So can you talk a little bit about the formation of this specific coalition and how you all came to be working together on this?
Anne Ishii: Sure. I’ll take a first stab. So the three of us are part of a larger cohort of arts leaders and in May, when Kenny announced the first pass up his fiscal 21 budget for the city, it had eliminated the Arts and Culture agency and budget entirely. So there was a group of us already galvanized to respond to that budget and then when the protests began… And, you know, we’d already been talking about how arts leaders could do more to inform leadership of the city, it felt really important as we saw more more organizations, really statements of solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, that we make sure that we are actually walking the walk, right? And so initially, this is, as far as you know, from my point of view. I think we felt a like an impetus or a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable as a cohort of arts leaders and what our arts and culture organizations are able to do. What are the commitments we want to make? So to be very clear about what it means to support black lives and to you know, that the message needs to be defund the police. And just in tandem with this other conversation that was happening around how we can have more meaningful roles in city leadership and city planning. And that was a conversation that we were having independently and then all together. So I know Maori and I were texting back and forth, same with Danny, and then a variety of people were sort of in conversation. But the three of us really felt like this needed to be a website, or a public letter first. And the first campaign was to establish some critical mass in our industry. And then for it to be online so that as many people could participate in it as not just leaders, but as managers or workers or frontline staff in the arts and culture sector.
Danny Orendorff: Yeah. And I would, I would say similarly, you know, I think that when Mayor Kenney announced that budget, you know, we saw so starkly the tendency to divest from Philadelphia communities in preference for the police. Right? And increases to the police budget. And this way in which, you know, the police have come to be the sort of end all be all lazy solution in the minds of city officials to all of the various complex issues facing this city and in particular, black and brown communities. So, you know, to see that so starkly reflected in the actual dollars and cents and the numbers on the budget was just a moment, I think, to really say that defund the police is about abolition of a violent force in this city, as well as the call to invest in communities and invent new solutions to the various problems that the city faces, and the arts and culture sector needing to be responsible to that, needing to speak to that and having a role within the conversation.
Tenara: Yeah so I’m curious. I would love to talk more about the role that the arts and culture sector can play in this movement. In the letter you all mentioned, the Youth Arts and Self Empowerment Project is an example of something that was defunded from Mayor Kenny’s budget. So I guess for those who don’t know what that program is, if you all might share some details about it, but also about how art can play a central role in disrupting the traditional narrative of crime and criminals and law and order, etc.. And how then arts and culture sector like organizations can be leaders in this movement.
Anne Ishii: So I think, well I’ll start with the Youth Arts Self Empowerment Project, being a collective of arts leaders it provides arts… I guess it would be called arts therapy or art therapy, but also art leadership training and curriculum for people with criminal justice backgrounds. So. And specifically around young folks in Philadelphia. So I do know that the teaching artists are usually graduates of some of the programs that they provide. And they do really brilliant work in.. Kind of with the juvenile population coming out of the criminal justice system. I think their mission generally is to end the school to prison pipeline. So there’s another abolition we want to talk about, of course. And I think just to speak to the role that arts and culture can play. I mean, there’s a role, but there’s also responsibility, right? It’s not just what can we do, but what we do need to do and the responsibility we have as leaders in this sector, you know, coming from a Los Angeles in a New York context, I have to say, coming to the city, I’ve never met so many arts and culture organizations and entities that are so deeply invested in community. And the you know, there’s always this sort of distinction made of like arts against, you know, not against, but in in juxtaposition to human services or education or health or welfare. They’re not mutually exclusive. And I see that all of the organizations I’ve worked with do provide these services as part of their mission. So I think of it more as a responsibility rather than an opportunity.
Danny Orendorff: Yeah and I would say that, you know, the relationship between the arts and the criminal justice system is one that I think is a particularly powerful conversation when it comes to youth, which obviously YASP you know, focuses on. And that is because the criminal justice system, particularly in its targeting of black and brown youth, is set up to disenfranchise young people. Right? To make them feel like they have no future, that they can’t participate in society. And that is such an incredible way in which young people, particularly young, black and brown people, are shut down and shut out from the future. And I believe that arts and culture programing and arts and culture offerings allows and give space for young people to express themselves, to define new features, to imagine alternatives, and to really think beyond the restrictions and the confinement, the literal and the sort of metaphorical confinement that our incredibly, you know, carceral state puts on young people. So I think that the free space of arts and culture provides such an incredible antidote to the system that is otherwise oppressive and shutting people out.
Anne Ishii: I want to… Yes, exactly. We’re overpoliced, and it’s it’s a very deliberate agenda. Right? To police really specific communities, specifically black and brown bodies. And I also want to add just, macro economically, right, like our our country is built on making things look more and more like the police that don’t need to be part of the security state. So, like when, you know, Homeland Security was set up in the wake of 9/11, FEMA used to be a housing department agency and now it’s Department of Defense or you know, and it was also it was like a joint agency between the Department of Housing and Department of Parks. And now it’s just a defense line item. Ditto ICE, you know immigration used to be a labor issue and now it’s a security issue. So, you know, there are all these things that are not supposed to be treated like security threats that we have sort of reinterpreted because of politics. And exactly because of where the money is. And I mean, I think, you know, in a way, I guess with arts and culture, the case is not.. It’s much harder to make that case right? If, like Department of Homeland Security, if Defense wanted to usurp our budgets. But, you know, I think there’s also this problem in sort of as a culture, as Americans, you know, we just kind of take for granted that that’s not the way we need to operate. You know, things that are just so far from needing to be in that conversation around defense and security.
Tenara: Well, so I’d love to talk about the ways that arts organizations, or at least if you all have examples of arts organizations that have made successful steps towards divesting from this carceral state. You can feel free to mention your own organizations or any other any other examples that you can think of. But, you know, I’d love to hear from you all if you know of specific institutions that have been making awesome strides towards that.
Anne Ishii: I, I just I’ll start with just with the Asian Arts Initiative was founded during a very similar civic crisis of tensions inside communities of color in response to the protests in 1993 and just sort of a lot of culminating events but the biggest one being the Rodney King, you know, the video and then the trial. And this was just like I wasn’t here for it, but I know our organization was initially started as an interracial coalition to respond to this with, how can the arts serve this question? And you know that was when we in the Asian-American community, we were talking about like, what are police alternatives? Because this was a very damaging time for Asian-owned businesses. So it was treated like an economic campaign but, you know, I do know the first step in this is sort of just answering that basic question of like, who else can you call? And there’s so many small community grassroots organizations that make themselves really great alternatives to the police. And I think of all of them initially, and they’re not quite arts organizations in the traditional sense, but they’re they are very firmly cultural organizations who wield the arts. And I mean, there’s so many inside Philly. I can’t really speak to their specific divestment strategies from place. But I know that they position themselves as alternatives. So, you know, like a VietLead or a SEAMAAC or AAU. So. And that’s just in the Asian-American community.
Danny Orendorff: Yeah. I mean, I would point to, you know, in the recent developments of the Walker Art Center, and the MCA Chicago, some of the first to cut any financial or official ties with the police as one place to kind of look to see how major arts entities are responding and hopefully setting the pace for other arts entities nationwide as well as Universities. But to Anne’s point, I also think that, you know, you see sort of the philanthropic world getting behind a lot of arts and criminal justice initiatives like the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation for Safety and Justice Initiative. And I was actually a part of a project, I’m from Chicago. And that’s kind of where I really kind of was brought up for my formative years. And did a lot of thinking around police and prison abolition. And I think it’s important to note that these are community-based efforts. You know, this is stuff that is coming from the people. Right? So one of the things that was cool about this project I was involved in over the last few years in Chicago called Envisioning Justice, was to actually reallocate a lot of that arts funding towards groups like the Let Us Breathe Collective or a restorative justice initiative that was being started in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. And, you know, because this is creative work, it’s creative work, community work, and it’s inventive and it is happening in tandem with artists and with community organizers. And I think it’s a much overdue investment in that work.
Tenara: Well, I’m so glad that you brought up the question of resources. Because in your letter, you all have demanded that the mayor acknowledge systemic violence against indigenous, black and communities of color, which include the intentional deprivation of shared resources. And so I’d love to hear from all of you how we see this intentional deprivation of shared resources playing out specifically in arts and culture in Philadelphia.
Anne Ishii: I think, yeah. I mean, to speak exactly to Maori’s point, like this is the first time I have taken a concerted look at a city’s budget. But it’s it’s so embarrassing. I mean, I was just humiliated with the language, the mayor used specifically too. I mean the intentional deprivation. He literally said the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy would cease to exist. There was no room for us to, you know that’s.. That’s, why would you say that way? And the fact that there isn’t meaningful representation from our sector. To me, I think they know that the arts won’t go away. They just don’t think we need that level of representation, protections. But in any workplace, any community always need, you always need a voice. And we know that in City Hall, that requires a position as close to the cabinet as possible. So, you know, I’m also just so appalled and can’t really forgive any of this language around sort of justifying it around, like budgeting for safety and health. Like, that’s what I keep hearing from them. And the proof’s in the pudding. That’s actually complete, that’s a complete falsehood.
Danny Orendorff: Well, and it was like so it’s so insulting as well, because you literally see the city boasting about arts and culture in this city. Literally everything they put out. I remember even the day that, you know, the budget cuts were announced where, you know, the language that Anne is talking about was was put out there. You know, my boyfriend got a job posting from the city that was looking for a software engineer, and literally in the first sentence, it’s like, ‘the city of Philadelphia, with its robust arts and culture’. And I like, you just want to pull your hair out of your head because you’re like the double talk and the hypocrisy within within the marketing of the city versus like the actual dollars and cents to back it up. It’s just it’s just enormous. And and I mean and it speaks to the fact, I think as well that, you know, there is way more artists in Philadelphia seeking out opportunities, wanting to get involved in something, wanting to put on an exhibition or program or start something new than there are actual opportunities for them and especially paid ones. Like they’re just the the you know, the fact of the matter is so many of our arts organizations are really out of pocket and are like, dependent upon, you know, really, in my opinion, dated models of like dues to members, and artists paying to participate. And I think that we’re really behind when it comes to valuing artistic labor, undoing a lot of these old models and mentalities and recognizing artistic labor as labor that needs to be compensated and lifted up. So, you know, that’s all just to say that I think like Philadelphia is such an incredible volunteer spirit. I’ve been so inspired by that. And I think that also speaks to inequities. Right. Like, who has the to participate in something that is a volunteer led organization because they have spare time or they have spare money or they have spare energy and who doesn’t? And that just serves to create and reproduce so many more divisions and inequities in the city.
Tenara: Yes. Yeah. It’s it’s hit it’s hitting everybody hard, obviously. I had the ability to testify on this, like, really wild experience of like a city council session on Microsoft teams. And it was fascinating to to hear all the people that are vying for this budget. Right. And who are getting their funding, like, pulled out from underneath them. And I think that there is a temptation, at least for me, as I am working in collaboration with folks who’s budgeting issues pose much more dire and immediate, immediate and urgent threats. You know, like we’re losing our house, like we’re going to lose our ability to pay our rent. We don’t have food. You know, I’m glad Anne that you mentioned SEAMAAC, because they’re a group that I’ve worked with a lot. And the fact that their response in the Covid crisis is ‘we’re going to feed people’ is I think, like really telling of the kinds of issues like on the table. And so then it becomes, you know, I end up falling into this trap that the arts are a luxury. And so why am I asking for more funding for the arts when people can’t, like, feed themselves? And then it’s it’s it’s really empowering to hear you all frame the arts as necessary to human life as food and that they don’t have to be in competition with each other. They actually can walk hand-in-hand. Anyway, in information arts are really important. So at Fringe Arts, we’re we’re really reckoning with our own history that has contributed to biases. And it’s made everyone at the organization do a lot of deep thinking. And so something that we’ve noticed is this tension between a desire to spring into action and also the desire to sit really deeply and just talk about the foundation of our operations and see in what ways the harm is rooted there. And so I imagine that this tension is not unique. And if it’s not, I’d love to hear from from the three of you, if this is a tension that you feel in your own work or if you encounter in your in your peers and colleagues. And then if you do, how you navigate through those two tensions.
Maori: This is Maori again. I don’t I missed obviously what you all were just talking about in terms of scarcity mentality, but I firmly believe scarcity mentality comes from living with capitalism. And I also believe that the desire to rush to action is also stemming from the capital is needed to produce, produce, produce, produce. Right? Like this idea that we should be on our grind. I think it came up on social media, at least in the black Twitter sphere, about, you know, sort of like what you should be doing while you’re in quarantine. You know, grind, grind, grind. Like so this moment. And there’s, of course, like another wave of folks who are against that. Primarily, there’s a Instagram account called the Nap Ministry, Nap Ministry, which I find brilliant. And that that account is particularly directed at black and brown folks who have been working hard for 400 years. This is not the time to grind, its the time to rest. Right. And so what it makes me think about what you’re asking in terms of Fringe Arts, which I agree has definitely had some blindspots with regard to race in my experience, living in Philadelphia, as many white-led organizations have, I don’t feel the need for my black-led, BIPOC-staffed organization to respond rapidly. I don’t think anyone needs to feel like they have to respond rapidly. I’d rather people respond thoughtfully and seriously. I have watched a lot of our peers rush to get statements out that have been wonderfully pulled apart by… I’m gonna be very generalists here and say they’re like millennial and Gen-Z staff, which has been really kind of amazing to watch, like the take down of these presidents of museums and for, you know, entry-level staff to be like, hold up, wait a minute. But I do think there’s something to, you know, thinking about. I think it was the Met that put out the piece with Glenn Ligon without talking to him and like just this way in which people are inflicting additional harm in trying to do the right thing because they’re rushing so they’re using the work and the intellectual property of black and brown artists in their attempt to, you know, sort of correct the wrongs. And so I don’t think you should do that in a rushed manner unless there is something rapid, actually, that you should respond to. So, I mean I think again, that’s this idea that the murder of George Floyd is something new and there is not this reflection that this is a 400 year old issue. And so there is a local arts leader who I will leave unnamed for the purposes of this show, who yesterday came under some fire for attempting, in his words, and I’m paraphrasing, to put forth what he saw as the opinion of certain South Philly largely white residents of retaining their cultural heritage in the face of gentrification, assuming that gentrification is in support of Black Lives Matter. And so by taking down statues of Columbus and renaming things named after Columbus, that was erasing their history, and rushing and gentrification, which to me is highly problematic, like so much so that like my blood is boiling because it’s such a reductive presentation. You know, like you cannot get more colonized than Columbus. Right. Like, he’s the OG. He invented it. You know what I mean? So this idea that that is is the person that these South Philly residents want to uphold is so flawed. But anyway, I say all of that to say I have mostly for the part of myself and Blackstar, we do not feel rushed because this is the work we’ve been doing. Like we exist because this work was not existing and not being addressed. And so I really think right now it is the time of white-led organizations and white people to do work. But I think it needs to be thoughtful and it needs to be systemic. One other example I want to share is that I know a group of all white curators is attempting to raise money to, I guess, sort of promote black leadership in the arts. And my response when I heard about this was that they should leave their jobs. Right? Like my thought is like if you’re really serious about this kind of structural shift, then you make, you get up from the table. You make space or black and brown and indigenous bodies to have the jobs that you currently occupy. And I know that’s that’s that’s obviously a super binary statement and is not possible. Right? Like, I’m not saying that you can’t have I mean, that some of my favorite curators, like Helen Molesworth, doing incredible work. I’m not saying that there has to be this like immediately, but I think the thought is not there about how you make space for folks. It isn’t raising money for black leadership. The leaders are there. The jobs are not or the pipelines are not, or the recognition of the kind of work that they’ve been doing is not there.
Anne Ishii: Well, I want to I want to dovetail because I actually have a counterpoint, but with the same with the same intent, which is I think from a nonprofit’s point of view, I sense I get frustrated at how everything gets papered, how everything gets bogged in bureaucracy. And like, you know, I do think that that’s another tool, maybe not of capitalism, per say, but maybe even feudalism or there’s just something very insipid about, you know, the rigor that is demanded of nonprofit organizations. And so for me, I do think urgency is still important from this context, just because we do allow ourselves to take not time, but even, because it’s not spent being thoughtful. It’s spent basically working for the IRS, which is what it feels like sometimes, right? I mean, I guess that’s a that’s a slightly different problem, but kind of addressing this sense of like speed and like, what are we doing with our time? And for some organizations who are built on a mission that have that has already taken this into consideration versus for others who, you know, let’s let’s be honest. Like, I think a lot of this urgency. Yes. Capitalism. Yes. We’re taught to be, you know, on 24/7. Also, I mean, classically, this is just like defensive deflection, right? Like not to be all psychoanalytical, but I think the elephant in the room, if we’re talking about, like reckonings and sort of self assessments and evaluations of problematic whatever is is the funding. I mean, you know, like arts organizations, certainly we have we have our work cut out for us. But you know, the philanthropy industry and the major funders, I think if they weren’t already going through an existential crisis, I really hope this leads to a complete seat change in leadership. I mean, I know it’s happening, but it really needs to happen now.
Danny Orendorff: Yeah and I’d say too. I found that many of the largest institutions, you know, would put out these kind of passive statements around like ‘we’re listening’ or ‘we’re learning’, you know. And I just kind of I feel like there’s so much impatience with that, particularly for those organizations that have the resources and the abilities to really invest in systemic and structural changes within their organizations and throughout the cities that they exist within. And I guess I’ve just been thinking a lot about language and have become increasingly frustrated with the use of the term radical, you know, as in like calling the demand to defund the police radical. And just talking to people and saying, like, what is so, really so radical about suggesting that this massive state sponsored entity, which historically and perpetually murders black people without remorse or retribution, probably shouldn’t exist at all, or shouldn’t be receiving the bulk of money that a city generates. You know, it’s if there’s anything that I think like the outpouring of support on the streets and amongst staff and amongst artists, within organizations and over social media has revealed over the last month is that this point of view isn’t necessarily radical. It’s popular. And, you know, I think that arts and culture organizations have a duty to normalize that, to make a world without police seem less and less like an impossible idea. And more and more like a realistic one that’s within our reach.
Tenara: Well, and to your… I can’t remember exactly who it was that said this, but somebody earlier had mentioned that because the arts have the capacity to ignite imagination in ways that, you know, other sectors don’t. It seems really it seems like an enormous shame that the arts organizations in our city don’t help facilitate the process of imagining a future without… Outside of this carceral state and without police, you know, because it’s so within the tools at our disposal. So I want to be conscious of the fact that we don’t have a lot of time left. This has been such an incredible conversation. So, again, I will say thank you to the three of you for joining the podcast and for sharing all about your work and what has gone into it. So the the budget is being voted on today or tomorrow?
Anne Ishii: Now, right? Yeah.
Tenara: Now, like as we are recording this on a Thursday. OK. So so we’re going to link the open letter in the podcast description. So for those of you who are listening and want to check it out, you can, by the, by the time you hear this. The budget will likely have been voted on. So instead of asking, like more about the demands on our city council members and on our mayor, I would love to ask you in the last couple of minutes, all three of you, what else Philadelphia arts and culture leaders and also artists can do as next steps in furthering this work? If there’s something specific or actionable that you have coming down the pipeline or if there’s just something a little bit more open ended.
Anne Ishii: Real quick. So our next stage of the work is actually to provide some real tactile next steps. And one of them is a statement. So our statement will be in addition to the letter, but really being a little clearer. You know, this is a movement where the leaders really need to show up now. So we are encouraging people in management and and on the front line to talk to their leaders and their boards about really getting organizations to unaffiliate themselves or disinvest or divest from the police. And that that needs to happen at a much higher level than, quote, just 3000 arts workers. And so, yeah, that’s that’s one really concrete first next step, I think, for people.
Maori: I mean, the thing that I would think about is something that I think the three of us have noticed that’s happening with some of our peer leaders in their desire to correct this- the issues stemming from this, they’re looking at diversity and equity training, which in my opinion, they should have been doing that is made the trendy thing to do for at least the last decade. That is not the same as anti-racism training. And that’s also not the same as developing an anti-opression framework, which, of course, is like intersectional. Right? And which I think everyone should be doing. And I would encourage them to really expand their thinking about the kinds of training that their staffs and board will undergo to be really, in Danny’s words, not radical, but to be really expansive in.
Danny Orendorff: Yeah and I think, too, it’s like there’s being, you know, an incredible amount of tuning in to the conversation. Right? Like around the budget, around how budgets are generated, how they’re decided upon, etc.. And I feel like, you know, now that this budget for the next fiscal year is being decided upon, it’s like, OK, what’s the next? What’s the next thing to focus on? Is it ending the abatement? Is it initiating a pilot program? You know, and really continuing the work of educating ourselves about progressive revenue options for our city to recover from Covid-19. And to uplift those messages in our own work, in our own coalition building. And to that end, I’m I’m excited that artists are getting together, you know, I’ve been working with people from Girls Rock Philly, and Spiral Q, Big Picture Alliance to really think about what an artist coalition or an artist Congress can be to really be advocating for ourselves and continuing, continuing the work.
Tenara: Well, thank you again. And hopefully we’ll be in touch soon.
Maori: Thank you so much.
Anne Ishii: Thanks for having us.
Danny Orendorff: Thank you.