Is ArtPrize On Mission?
The mission of ArtPrize is to “be a catalyst for collisions and connections between artists and communities, for the sake of infusing vitality and courage into culture.” Have we collectively missed the point of it all by focusing too much attention on the conversation, the connections and the collisions vs leaning deeper into what it means to infuse vitality and courage into culture?
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Standing underneath the Metaphorest Project wearing my “Ask Me” vest on my final Wayfinding shift of ArtPrize 2011, the real conversations finally started. Beyond the number of hours or the technical properties of the project, people came from near and far with a genuine desire to understand the meaning of the metaphors. While explaining the significance of the little girl reaching for the stars as symbolic of our need to dream, I was struck by this force of positive energy and enthusiasm from a young woman standing next to me. I learned she was in pursuit of her undergraduate degree and interning at a local company. When asked about her long term plans, she gazed up at the mural, and said, “its all about following your dreams right? Like that little girl reaching for the stars, my dream is to get my master’s degree in international business, travel the world, and make a difference for the next generation."
Welcome to the best of ArtPrize 2011-the conversation! After spending my career working to ensure a brighter future for our nation's youth, I found this particular conversation to be filled with inspiration and hope. But I am left wondering, is that all? Is there a deeper purpose to all this conversation? Moreover, how does the conversation make our community better?
One technique that is often used in strategic planning is a SWOT analysis where stakeholders identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing an organization. One of the greatest strengths of this movement we have come to know as ArtPrize has been the unprecedented success of the first three years. Ironically, this has also been one of ArtPrize’s greatest weaknesses.
The public has expectations of ArtPrize that surpass the organization's capacity despite the fact that ArtPrize only received its 501c3 status in December 2010-less than a year ago! A nonprofit organization is comprised of living, breathing human beings, and organizations, like humans, go through life cycles. ArtPrize the movement may have been born three years ago, but ArtPrize the nonprofit is in its infancy. This means systems aren’t refined yet, programs are still experimental in nature, staff expertise still emerging, and the leadership must wrestle with who their “customers” are, what it means to be missional, and how to plan for survival, relevance and sustainability in the most volatile economic climate of our lifetime.
While there are plenty of weaknesses at this organizational stage, there are also plenty of opportunities. In fact, the greatest opportunity for ArtPrize insiders in the short term is to listen, reflect, learn and be willing to adapt and change. This will take intentionality and discipline to 1) collect , organize and distill stakeholder feedback; 2) balance and prioritize the competing demands and 3) increase the organization's capacity to deliver on mission. ArtPrize will survive, but long term relevancy and resiliency of the organization will depend on how effectively and efficiently they can operationalize their mission.
How can you help make ArtPrize better? Fill out the surveys that were delivered to your inbox this week! Yes, everyone who has had any affiliation with ArtPrize got one. Even if you feel like you’ve said it all before on Twitter, Facebook, or during last call, it is in your best interest and ArtPrize’s to provide the feedback within the structure they have provided. My not-so-secret hope is that these surveys are just a starting point to a much deeper and more intentional season of listening, appreciative inquiry and crucial conversations with diverse stakeholders that include artists, curators, venues, volunteers, donors, staff and others that could contribute value and meaning.
The mission of ArtPrize, to “be a catalyst for collisions and connections between artists and communities, for the sake of infusing vitality and courage into culture.” Have we collectively missed the point of it all by focusing too much attention on the conversation, the connections and the collisions versus leaning deeper into the heart of the mission, which is to infuse vitality and courage into culture?
So what does that mean? To infuse is to cause to be permeated with something that alters usually for the better. Vitality is exuberant physical strength or mental vigor, capacity for survival, the continuation of a meaningful purposeful existence, and the power to live or grow. Courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger or pain without fear; bravery. Culture is the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. YES! Now that is a mission that inspires and aspires!
Reflecting on ArtPrize 2011, there were deeply provocative works of art that touched my heart, challenged my worldview and gave me insights into what it means to infuse vitality and courage in one’s journey with mental illness, cancer, discrimination, disability, unemployment, poverty, sex trafficking and even death. Here’s the irony, for some: many of these were curated by our local faith community, emphasizing a common theme of social justice and a call to reach out to the most maligned, excluded and under-represented in our community with a spirit of love, compassion and inclusion. Yet, because faith communities as a venue were an afterthought, many ArtPrize connoisseurs missed the opportunity to see these works of art, which never made it into our consciousness much less the collective conversations.
Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that “good” art has to possess subtext and metaphors and lead to action. But for some of us, isn't that the element that can make a good piece of art "great?” If we look closer at the mission of ArtPrize, we may just find that there are universal truths which we are called to seek. What could be more altruistic, hopeful and healing than using the medium of art to infuse vitality and courage into culture? I am inspired and intrigued by this notion, particularly in this community, at this point in our history, where there is so much struggle to survive and thrive, and a generation of nonprofits created for the purpose of addressing unmet needs with unwavering commitment to excellence.
One of my the most profound conversations I had during ArtPrize 2011 occurred last week when I ran into Mia Tovannati. She was on her way back home to California and it was one of those divine appointments wrapped up in a random encounter. The morning that she won ArtPrize, after all the votes were cast but before the big announcement, her mom died. In one moment, you know your life will never be the same. Is there anything that makes a person more in touch with what it means to be alive than being confronted with death? And where do many of us turn in when faced with inextricable grief? A community of faith, a higher power, a God that may be called by many different names and take on very different representations? Yet there were many-including me-who initially rejected the idea of Crucifixion winning ArtPrize, and some who still can’t accept it. Why? That’s the conversation I really want to have. From the artist and the art to the founder and the organization, why was there so much criticism that turned cruel this year? And why did it take the death of Mia's mom for me to lead with grace over judgement?
At first I thought it was the shared experience of facing death. But the more I thought about it, I realized it was the shared experience of resurrection, life after death. Mia lived out one of the happiest and saddest days of her life in front of a community that was polarized between voting her number one and rejecting both the artist and the art. To bear witness to her vulnerability, humility, grace and strength was nothing short of sacred. I felt her pain that night, and again last week when we had our first conversation. In reality, Mia didn't just create a work of art entitled Crucifixion, she experienced it firsthand: life, death and resurrection. Our conversation only lasted about 15 minutes, but it was connected, authentic, meaningful and relevent. She never intended to bring Crucifixion here. It was a random set of circumstances that brought her and Jesus here, for reasons far beyond winning ArtPrize. Her gift to this community was a mosaic of Jesus, intended to represent universal love, acceptance and forgiveness. A timeless call to action that I want to be more intentional about practicing. Mia told me, “At its best, ArtPrize is about following your dreams.” From Metaphorest to Crucifixion, the message is the same. When we are challenged and inspired to infuse vitality and courage into life, community and culture, ArtPrize will go from good to great.
Erica Curry Van Ee, M.P.A., has 20 years experience in grantmaking, program administration, contract management, and evaluation. Her content expertise includes child, youth, organization, and community development. She received her master's degree in public and nonprofit administration from GVSU. Professionally, she has served locally with Heart of West Michigan United Way, the Grand Rapids Public Schools and Girl Scouts of Michigan Trails. Nationally, she has worked for KIDS HOPE USA, the Forum for Youth Investment and the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality. Erica joined the staff of Johnson Center for Philanthropy in August 2010 where she provides training and technical assistance on topics that include organizational and program effectiveness, evaluating for impact, data-driven decision making, and generational differences in volunteerism.