What Can Art Do Now: A Conversation Between Shaun Leonardo, Brett Cook, Martha Wilson, and Pablo Helguera, An Incomplete Archive of Activist Art, 2 Volumes, The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation

How has the meaning and impact of art over the last 10 to 20 years changed? If there’s a specific timeframe within the last two decades that seems particularly potent, feel free to zero in on the moment when art’s impact has been especially poignant for you.

What is most palpable to me is the way conversations have shifted around defining social practice. I think there is no accident that may practitioners have adopted the term ‘socially engaged’ as it implies a certain accountability to the participants called into the work. Over the last 10 years, artists have become more attuned to the ways there are inherent power dynamics at play in works that involve cooperation versus participation–forwarding a particular agenda meant to be fulfilled by “actors” rather than a framework that allows for co-design and co-authorship. The question of ethics is (and should be), therefore, much more at the forefront, with an understanding that without an assessment of the flow of power, even the most well-intentioned projects may cause harm to the communities it purports to support and uplift.

How has social justice changed in relation to art over the last few decades? What is the effect of the cultural sector’s increased interest in social justice?

I would argue that there is not an increased desire nor interest among art spaces in engaging social justice issues but rather an increased demand that art spaces do so. What artists and administrators, particularly black and brown individuals, wish to point out is the inherent hypocrisy of institutions that project, on face-value, democratic values of equal justice and inclusion, yet do not hold these same values as necessary in their inner-workings. In the day to day operations of such institutions, those contradictions of ‘what we want to see in the world’ versus ‘who we are in the world’ play out in often subtle yet insidious ways, with equity, care and accountability taking a back seat to financial gain and the maintaining of hierarchical power.

What is the role of alternative spaces and nonprofits in nurturing artistic practices? To what extent can art spaces operate as sites for organizing and activism?

Its has always been and remains simple: artists need time and space. Alternative and nonprofit art spaces can be sites of both experimentation and care. What does it mean to partner with artists to build a more just and equitable creative community? At Recess we state that it is in our mission to welcome radical thinkers to imagine networks of community resilience and safety. It is with time for collective imagination and space for a collective sense of belonging that we are offered an environment in which we can visualize the necessary steps toward an abolitionist horizon. It is with space that artists join organizing efforts to respond to sociopolitical urgencies. It is with time that artists commit to the longer work of narrative revision to impact culture.

With this conversation taking place a little more than a year after the coronavirus lockdown began, do you consider the value of art to have changed in your own practice, or that of your community? Following on that, how do we return to art and art spaces post-pandemic? How do you think the value of art and art spaces changed as we begin to recover from the pandemic? 

I have stronger conviction in the value of my work and that of art generally. Art provides a space, even momentarily, for a person to contemplate their everyday existence—to gather meaning. Art remains the only thing that offers a person the complexity of an experience that is both respite and resistance, both a processing and recovery. I do believe the objectives of my work have shifted. It will be the task of social practitioners, in particular, to create new pathways toward a sense of belonging: to engage our fears and anxieties of sharing space, engage the politics of public space, and to re-train us in being together.

Are there any recent collective, individual, and/or community-based efforts that exemplify the power of art in times of uncertainty?

I could certainly speak to my practice at Assembly, an arts-based diversion program that I co-founded at Recess 6 years ago as an intervention in the criminal justice system. But instead, I will use this space to amplify our current efforts at Recess as it points to the ways care has become increasingly central to how we hold up our majority-Black staff, artists, and system-involved participants in this era of overlapping crises.

Through a process of rigorous reflection, staff and Board created an abolitionist framework to be applied to programs and operations, and a mission that works toward the removal of interlocked systems that cause harm, with a simultaneous investment in networks of community resilience and safety. For instance, we have rolled out a cohort of Assembly with participants referred by our Peer Leaders instead of by the courts. Our youth, therefore, offer the program to their peers from a place of care rather than a fear of carceral consequences. We are building a rubric for youth-driven community safety, without police, that likewise stems from a place of respect and trust.

We are also honing internal operations to support similar artist-led processes of accountability with external partners. We, therefore, continue to build structures that do not rely on existing models designed to preserve white supremacy. This methodology implies caring for artists and staff with the same rigor we use to build programs and provide for program participants—instating universal starting salary and health benefits as well as care and mental health service.

We believe in artistic leadership and vision, and so, look at the organization like an arts project. We believe artists are uniquely situated to address social injustice due to the creative toolkit they possess and their ability to offer nuanced perspectives. To operate as an artist gives Recess permission to continuously ask difficult questions of itself—to never be fixed in its behaviors and functions and to, therefore, meet uncertainty with possibility.