By Jared Butler
To lift a weight so heavy,
Would take your courage, Sisyphus!
Although one’s heart is in the work,
Art is long and Time is short.
Charles Baudelaire, “Le Guignon” (Bad Luck, 1857)
Arguably this summer’s most provocative arts-related story in Georgia, the breakdown of the Macon Arts Alliance’s (MAA) Mill Hill Artist Residency Program was, to say the least, a disappointment.
That word resounded in each of my interviews with involved parties. “I’m disappointed and heartbroken,” said Chicago artist Samantha Hill, one of the program’s inaugural residents, “that I don’t get the chance to work with the amazing people doing amazing things in East Macon.” On July 26, barely three weeks into their residency, she and Brooklyn-based Ed Woodham were terminated for apparently, according to a statement released by the MAA, failing to “live up to specific items within their contractual agreements.”
While the MAA never went into much detail about these contractual obligations, communications director Lauren Lin related to me how the termination was “disappointing for everyone. This was an unfortunate ending no one would have hoped for.” At this point in our conversation Lin described the alliance’s plans to move forward as soon as possible, “to continue the momentum we’ve built over the last two years.”
“That is lighting fast,” I replied. The problems endemic to the residency program were becoming clear as Lin described how it was conceived. Two years ago, a consortium including Macon’s mayor, Robert Reichert, MAA executive director Jan Beeland, Beverly Blake of the Knight Foundation, and Karla Redding-Andrews of the Otis Redding Foundation took a trip to Bradenton, FL, and toured its arts village. Soon after, plans took shape to redevelop a section of East Macon’s Fort Hawkins neighborhood: The group intended to bring what they saw in Bradenton to Macon. Lin explained how the arts alliance, office of the mayor, participating non-profit organizations, and other municipal institutions aimed to stay faithful to the neighborhood’s history and character by working with local community leaders like Reverend James Baker, associate pastor of the New Fellowship Missionary Baptist church.
But these positive talking points overlooked a host of issues. The idea itself of importing the Bradenton model is problematic. In Bradenton, revitalization was sparked when residents and business owners already living in the area organized a guild, and their progress unfolded over the course of a decade. Further, according to the United States Census Bureau, while its estimated 2014 metro population is well over half a million, much larger than Macon’s metro area, Bradenton proper includes about 50,000 residents. Macon’s city population is at least two times larger. Adding to these population variances, demographics cement these cities’ incommensurability: Bradenton is almost 80% white. Historically and presently, race relations in the two cities are incomparable. The East Macon residency program’s top down approach and lightning fast timeline heavy-handedly simplified these complexities.
Issuing a national entry call for visiting artists only exacerbated the problem and further alienated Macon’s existing arts community. To be clear, the MAA alone did not select Hill and Woodham: two steering boards were formed for nominating and selecting resident artists. While the inaugural residents’ bodies of work evidence strong records of socially engaged art, most of their projects involve a level of specificity that takes an extended amount of time to achieve. Judging by the talking points provided by the MAA, and according to both artists, neither had the time nor archival access to actually do anything efficacious.
Hill, for instance, gathers archival data and interviews residents to compile oral and photographic histories in her Kinship Project, and had been in the process of sourcing information about East Macon. Woodham described how he’d begun working on what he called the “‘Listening Session,’ a small FM and internet radio station that would broadcast to the neighborhood and beyond.” Featuring “storytelling, cooking demonstrations – it was just in conceptual stages, but I did start getting some equipment, furniture, and an East Macon liaison I’d serendipitously met provided me with a collection of vinyl records.” The first and only Listening Session was held at the artists’ going away gathering at the Ampersand Guild, a collaborative arts space that Woodham described as “one of the few places Samantha and I found that was integrated, and was a gathering place for disenfranchised artists of all different media.”
Why not, then, involve Macon artists who were already familiar with the turf, especially considering that the national call, according to Lin, yielded only about 30 responses? “The call for entries made me believe that there was a deficit,” Hill said, “that there were not people interested in doing community-based work here. Then Ed and I arrived and saw that there were plenty of people doing just that!” Surely a Macon artist or collective, or one based elsewhere in Georgia would have allowed for the sincere community art that all parties were supposedly seeking. Perhaps a local artist or collective could have accomplished something more concrete, more visible, in a timelier manner. Art is long, so the saying goes, but time is short.
Every ambiguity, every misunderstanding leads to death; clear language and simple words are the only salvation.
Albert Camus, The Rebel, 1951
Time and language are essential considerations when the arts intersect with community development – when creativity collides with issues of race, class, profit, and political optics. Patience is necessary for artists, municipal entities, and private developers alike, no matter how forcefully the creative impulse burns, and even if patience is inconsistent with revenue generation. Chalk it up to optimism or even naiveté, but I don’t believe good or bad intentions on either side led to the residency program’s breakdown. Rather, time and language were uncommon denominators: variables never clearly defined that ultimately kept the equation from being balanced.
“They have the social practice jargon, and it looks good on paper, but in actuality that’s not what happened. They didn’t understand our work,” lamented Hill. “Maybe it’s time to get rid of the jargon.” She called to mind how jargon can sometimes twist like a snake eating its tail, serving no other purpose but its own eloquent utterance – or worse, serving ulterior purposes. Intended or not, language itself is a lens that screens and separates. It makes people and facts invisible.
I asked both artists what they’d learned from this experience, and if anything positive had resulted. “One of the silver linings,” replied Woodham, “is that there’s solidarity in our national community reaching out to us. This really is much more than we bargained for, but at the same time we’ve had a lot of really incredible support.” Hill echoed his sentiments: “Artists – we’re all pretty much kindred spirits – we have the same philosophies, same ethics, we’re also open people. We need to look at this social practice game with our eyes wide open. We have a lot of dreams and hopes and people can take advantage of that.”
That the residency’s most positive outcome was how it appeared to galvanize an “us and them” mentality concerned me. How could such a binary be a good thing? For a little reassurance, I reached out to Clinton Edminster, an eternal optimist and founding executive director of Art Rise Savannah. On the opposite end of I-16, a couple hours southeast of Macon, Art Rise has modeled sustainable and organic community development in the Hostess City.
“Galvanized and tight-knit communities of artists and art groups should be what we all strive for,” declared Edminster. “Even if there is a binary, that doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘us’ and ‘them’ cannot engage each other in highly effective ways. One benefit of the separation would be a focus on each group’s goals and specific needs.” He reminded me that, among its many qualities, “art is about communicating the future.” Its dynamism, flexibility, and tolerance of uncertainty are precisely why it lends itself so well to the goal of developing better communities.
All told, patience and clarity – and collaboration itself – have limits. A deadline and opposing sides standing ground across a line drawn boldly in the sand expose what’s at stake at the intersection of art and urban development. We can’t fudge over that “brutality,” as Edminster called it; “I don’t think the goal should be to make it safe to be creative; it should be to find those who are creative even in the most challenging environments.”
More than a challenge, every collision between art and city-building is disappointing. Disappointment is the feeling left when hopes and expectations are unfulfilled; art-making is itself disappointing. Crumpled sketches and ruined sculptural fragments littering any studio are records of unfulfilled ideas that had to be compromised in order to realize a completed work. Compromise and disappointment, then, are unavoidable steps in uniting the creative process with community development. A teachable moment in the last analysis, the Mill Hill residency breakdown shows that it’s necessary – and disappointing – to accept the distance between an idea and what the fabrication process can actually achieve.