# Arts in Milwaukee – MARNsalon I: Marty Pottenger
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MARNsalon I: Marty Pottenger



Marty Pottenger is a theater artist, animateur, and social practitioner since 1975. She is the Founding Director of Art At Work (AAW), a national initiative that increases cities’ resilience through strategic art projects addressing contemporary social challenges. Nominated for National League of Cities ‘Best Practices’ award, AAW projects include police/community relations, racial segregation, labor/management conflicts, community health, and gentrification/homelessness. AAW partners with municipal/county governments, unions, community organizations, and artists, with current projects in Portland ME, Philadelphia, Boston and Broward County, FL. Pottenger’s plays include OBIE-winning “City Water Tunnel", “ABUNDANCE: America & Money”, based on interviews with 30 millionaires and 30 minimum wage workers; and #PhillySavesEarth (2016) written during her 2016 MacDowell residency. Her TEDx talk is on YouTube. http://www.martypottenger.com.


For almost fifteen years, I made art – solo performances as part of women’s and lesbian liberation - but refused to call myself an artist, thinking that ‘art’ and ‘artists’ belonged to a system of privilege and exclusion that I did not want to support. But as I learned more about social justice movements, I realized how wrong I was and that artists have been central in many of those efforts.

So since then, 1987, I’ve been making performances and art, as an activist. The projects usually last several years and involve art – performance, poetry, storytelling, movement, photography – as well as dialogues, listening exchanges and the participation of between a few hundred and a few thousand people.

The dramatic increase in inequity in this country gave birth to a national community arts and dialogue project called ABUNDANCE: America & Money (1998- 2004). Hosted by seven commissioning cities, I traveled around the country asking 30 multimillionaires and 30 minimum wage workers that same eight questions beginning with “What’s your earliest memory connected to money in any way at all?” and ending with “How much is enough for you?” Workshops with 5000 people over the 5 years taught me enough to write a play that toured the seven cities, each performance ended with a listening dialogue with the audience that at times lasted as long as the 90 minute play. That’s how desperate we were/are to have a place to think together about money, resource, equity.

In 1993 I spent three years on a community arts project called “City Water Tunnel #3” about the current building of NYC’s third water tunnel – 64 miles long, 60 years construction, 25 deaths, and as deep in the ground as the Chrysler Building is high. CWT#3 was my first official residency with a city agency – NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection – and a union – the sandhogs union Local 147. As the final performances, exhibits, celebrations made clear, the miners, geologists, and engineers, were also photographers, storytellers, and visionaries. If you search under “press”, you can find the article I wrote about the project at http://www.martypottenger.com

Ten years ago, anticipating that we, as a country and world, would soon be facing a dramatic scale and intensity of challenges filled with crises and opportunities, I moved to Portland, Maine to work out of City Hall and pilot Art At Work, national initiative to address non-arts based municipal/community challenges with arts solutions. It’s been a wonderful ten years, creating projects with police officers, public works construction crews, nurses, planners, lawyers, activists, accountants, neighborhood associations, and more. Part of the work was to spread the word to other cities and help seed projects when possible. Holyoke, Boston, Broward County, London have all done just that.

At the same time I was experimenting with police officers and poetry, a new field was growing in the USA called Creative Placemaking with my work becoming a part of it directly and indirectly. Like so many of us, I am concerned when I see that much of the resources are directed to projects that further a type of gentrification that deepens inequities rather than correcting them. I just heard the term ‘Creative Placetaking’ at a Northern New England Planners conference three weeks ago and was encouraged.

As society re-engages in addressing issues that have long stymied social progress, there is a different role for art, a type of creative placemaking that puts people at the center. After all, isn’t the conversations we have in the parks that matter most, whether the benches we are sharing are rusty, newly painted or works of art? The process of making art dramatically increases our ability to tap into a flexible intelligence, to function collaboratively, analyze complex challenges, integrate contradictory perspectives, envision a positive outcome and take the inspired risks that lead to innovative solutions.

For the last ten years, as Director of Art At Work in the city manager’s office of Portland, Maine, I have explored whether arts projects can deliver solutions to problems that have everything to do with relationships and nothing to do with the arts. I have had the honor of working with hundreds of amazing local artists, municipal employees, elected officials and residents. Together they have created over five hundred original works and engaged tens of thousands of Mainers. My reflections on one of the projects with the police follow below.

Thin Blue Lines: Police + Historic Low Morale = Poetry.
Though this project was completed years before our nation began recognizing the horrific history of police officers killing black men and women, art’s power to address, challenge, heal and transform individuals, practices and policies remains. It’s 2007 and my arrival to Portland happens to coincide with a crisis in the police department. The city is about to appoint a new police chief and the officers are fiercely opposed. While I had not planned for Art At Work’s first project to be with the police, reality intervened. With little positive experience with police myself, I spent the first six months getting to know their culture – asking officers, command and administrative staff what mattered, who did they ‘look to’ and what art – if any – was already being made? Without hesitation, over 40% of the department said they - and the department as a whole - were experiencing ‘historically low morale’. Clearly a situation that any city leader or socially-vulnerable resident would confirm is an expensive and potentially explosive problem to have.

Recognizing the tension between the value of collective knowledge and police officers’ ‘sealed lips’ approach to their work, I strategized various project ideas. We needed a project where officers could explore their personal and work lives as deeply as they chose, that was also user friendly enough to facilitate sharing with other officers as well as the public. For many months, the officers were absolutely opposed to the idea of writing poetry. As time went by, the connections between police work and poetry became even clearer to me. Poetry requires a flexibility, discipline, intuition, observational capacity, edge and muscle that uniquely reflects the work of policing.  I realized that for many officers, writing poetry required them to cross an uncrossable line. That out of respect for them, I needed to include an artistic discipline with an easier path to ‘yes’ for participation in the project. Photography offered a less socially-challenging but still powerful experience.

Working with real people and in real time offers challenges as deep as the rewards. A beloved officer, Rob Johnsey, died at home late one night, cleaning his gun, just as the poetry project was getting underway. At his memorial service, his wife asked his best friend, a lieutenant, to read one of Rob’s poems. As the lieutenant began reading, he shared how shocked he was to learn that Rob wrote poetry. It was then I realized that the project, intended to raise morale, should also raise money for Rob’s widow and children. So Thin Blue Lines began - a two year project where 40 officers, captains, lieutenants and 2 police chiefs were partnered with 20 poets and 20 photographers to create two professional calendars.  The project was designed to raise officers’ morale on the job and at home and improve community relations by raising awareness and expectations about police work among residents.

Two years later, 25% of the city’s police force had either written poems or taken photographs for two calendars that sold several thousand copies in bookstores and on Amazon. A Kellogg Foundation-funded evaluation showed that 83% of the participating officers reported that the project had significantly improved their morale. After publication, the relationship between the residents who heard of or purchased a calendar and the police was unlike anything anyone had seen before. Three months after publishing the calendar, we hosted a police poetry reading at our main library. There the police and poets read their poems to a standing-room-only crowd. After which, they divided up into their poet/officer pairings and facilitated civic dialogue groups about the relationship between the police and the community. To this day,eight years later, residents still mention what an impact Thin Blue Lines had on raising their understanding and expectations of real relationships with Portland police officers.  The project continued to grow over time and have even more unexpected results, you can read more about these at http://www.artatwork.us.

Making art with communities requires new understandings of what we're doing, new relationships with presenters and producers and audiences, new rules for how we work together and new visions for both the art and the activities that result in the art. These are exciting challenges. Challenges that mirror what community organizers, unions, community groups, social change organizations, schools and families are figuring out as well. Now is a splendid time to take this on. We are in excellent company.



Roundtable Venue: Artists Working in Education, 4315 W Vliet St, Milwaukee, WI 53208

Participants: Monica Miller, Sara Daleiden, Cynthia Henry, Sarah Luther, Riley Niemack, Katie Loughmiller, Kantara Souffrant, Pamela Anderson, Dominic Inouye, Beth Haskovec, Sally Witte, Karin Wolf, Evelyn Patricia Terry, Lynn Lucius, Maeve Jackson, Ted Brusubardis

Facilitator: Dasha Kelly

Dasha: I want to be able to get to some of the questions or commentary we have about Marty’s Purview, but in leading into that, I wrote down that a number of us use ‘art practice’ or ‘social practice’. I don’t think any of you set out when you were young baby artists to use this art to make the world better. In that event, are you comfortable with that term? How did you come to be comfortable with that term? How do you define that? Or is this idea of your art being a ‘practice’—not simply the practice of making things and doing things but having a broader impact beyond what you’ve created—not really of you? Who’s comfortable with that and who’s trying to get used to that moniker? What does that mean? Let’s have an open reflection on that as a term.

Sarah L: I like that term, because I like the idea that you’re never complete. Practice is something you do to get better at something. It’s something that builds up. If you’re calling your work a practice, that means you’re constantly building on it. It’s constantly changing. It’s more similar to a string of processes. It’s never done. I like the kind of open ended-ness of that word.

Cynthia: Well, I can’t draw a straight line, but I do know about artists and building a practice. I think you can put it in the realm of how a doctor builds his practice. You strive for excellence, you keep building and learning and you develop over time. So, as Sarah said, it’s never ending. You’re always learning and practicing to do the best it is that you can do. I think, you look for new ways to do things. As an artist, I would think one looks at different materials. With a social practice, one might ask themselves who can they inform and who can they aide. With both, how can they bring joy.

Sarah L: I like the connection to the idea of a doctor’s practice, because you’re constantly building the newest information in. You’re constantly melding practices. You’re grabbing other people’s ideas, professions and strategies. You’re always absorbing. That’s a great connection.

Pamela: For me, it has helped me honor what I’m doing. It’s brought new meaning to me. I think, in my older age, I’m becoming even more of a feminist and recognizing things that I saw growing up. I look around the world today and realize that so many things haven’t change. A lot has changed for the good but there’s still so much work to be done. Finding ways to connect to that with my art and to community is becoming more and more important to me. However, going back to what I originally said, growing up I always wanted to be an artist. I knew I was an artist, but I was afraid to call myself an artist because I hadn’t been to school for it. I’ve learned to honor that and that it doesn’t matter that I am an artist. I feel like I’m just becoming stronger. Using those words give it definition for me and make it important. Now, I can talk to other people about it as if it’s something important, which it is. I feel like I’m honoring a talent that I have in the right way, I guess.

Marty: There's a word: animateur. It took me thirty-five years to claim the word ‘artist.’ That was a long struggle. An activist was easier to claim; thus, I claimed that earlier. ‘Animateur’ is a French word that I think describes social practice, art making and working with communities. We keep bringing things to life. I very rarely use it, but I love it—the artist, activist, animateur thing. I didn’t want to add that in because art is already so oddly positioned in most people’s sense of the world, and it is not of close relation to the rest of the people. However, I love to offer it as a way of describing what we do. Of course, there are plenty of other cultures out there that have words they’ve used for a very long time that describe this work.

Dasha: That’s actually a perfect segue. I was going to ask when the idea of social practice or art being that magical thing is uncomfortable? When does it feels unwielding in terms of being a social practitioner with creative placemaking as a backdrop? Or as a creative collective being invited and or called to apply our skills in a different space? It was a thirty-five year journey to allowing yourself to use the word ‘artist’ with your own name in the same sentence. Going from being an artist to deliberately applying this art as a tool, how did you become comfortable with this impressive list of work?

Marty: I’m not sure if comfort was the horse I rode in on, but it was just clear from very early on that art changed things. I was about a year and a half—still in diapers—when I watched my mom walk into the living room in a super blue, funk mood. I mean, a super blue, funk mood. I reached down, and I grabbed up an empty, yellow, waste basket. I put it on my head and I did a little soft-shoe-thing with bare feet. She stopped and cracked up laughing. I hardly had seen her laugh period, so that was cool. However, I also realized then that something went from this to this in no time. I realized this changes things. This makes a difference. This is very powerful whatever this is. Hence as a kid, I was organizing neighbors and other people and putting on shows as well as working things out. We started working out tough times, recreating the scenarios—you stand there and you stand there. I could tell it was kind of an intuitive sorting process. Thus, I just kind of pursued that on and found the home I did in theater in high school. Then, they were so mean in college that I transferred out right away. It was heartbreaking to find how mean it could be in the theater department. I would say, “Who’s telling these people this is acceptable behavior? Where are they getting this idea?”

Then, I came out as a lesbian when the women’s movement was taking off. Growing up without the word ‘sexism’ is like growing up without the word ‘blue’. You know the sky is blue, the ocean is blue, your friend’s eyes are blue, your favorite dress is blue, and you don’t have a word for it. You actually can’t get mental traction without language, and I still think we are there in this work. If I I think critically, I think, “Really? ‘Social Practice’, really?” but we’ll get there. I don’t think we should slow down to let the language catch up with us. When I got that word ‘sexism,’ I could literally feel my brain re-sort and things made sense. It re-sorted backwards, which is also an interesting phenomenon. It went all the way back, and I was like, “Whoa, this makes sense.”

Therefore, were in the middle of the very first nationally recognized lesbian mother’s custody case, and I happened to be in this radical feminist institute that I saved up money to go to. They were throwing a benefit, and we were having major arguments—fierce, bloody arguments—about everything you could think of. That’s how we were cobbling theory and questions that at the time we really didn’t know the answers to: who were men biologically? Who were women biologically? And now, it’s gone where we’d never predicted! During that time, I realized I had never improvised because it was too scary. I was always in plays. Then, I realized, “Oh, there’s something that could happen here that would be very useful for all of this going on—all of this arguing, all of passion, all this catching.” So, I did my first ever improv performance in 1975. What happens in that kind of live performances is a quality of attention and a kind of transformative landscape. It sometimes goes very terribly, and I don’t think there is anything more painful than theater when it’s going badly—I really don’t. That’s pretty much it. I’ve been in performances where I am clawing the wall of my mind for the off switch, and there is no off switch. That was when I discovered the power of theater in the mind. I realized, “Oh, wait a minute. There really is no off switch. What is happening here? What part of me is connected to what is going on there that is this lively?” Thus, I did an improv performance. I saw it let our minds grapple and let our hearts be present. I did several years of women-only improv performances out in the country. I did it about the stuff that we were trying to figure out.  I realized there was a sharing, a connection and something very deep going on. Hence, that was social practice. I was thinking about it and trying to figure it out what was next.

Dasha: I’d like for us to have a chance to peek at some of the projects we talked about and talk about that shifting. A lot of this discussion is how we see ourselves on this journey or not. I am curious about this space of that solitary experience of an artist or creator. You have the idea. You may even have a commission. However, it’s you and these steps, and you know how to get from here to there. You’re working in community, working in collaboration, and working on objectives, where art is not the outcome but art is the pathway to get to that outcome. As artists, that requires us to shift, correct? Or are we allowed to be stubborn, not move and the world has to move around us? How do you enter with that mindset of a solo artist who’s used to creating and innovating? That’s why they brought you there. You’re being put in a police department, in the department of public works, in xyz corporation and in such-a-such-a community with these very instilled understandings. How can you respond? What has been an experience for everyone that’s done these types of projects? How does an artist adapt—and not just adapt and survive, but really apply what they’ve already made? It feels like we have to compromise sometimes. That’s a lot of questions: there is a question inside there. I’m telling you, it’s in there. As an artist, your typical practice of creating is different from being engaged and being the creative. What’s your advice?

Marty: Well, I know you’ve done a lot of work. I mean, it’s been a real gift to be here for this week. It’s been a gift to just meet several of you and hear about the work of other people that aren’t here. I don’t know if it messes up your facilitator brain or not, but I’d love if you’d take a crack at that yourself. I’d sure appreciate it.

Dasha: Oh, sure! I think I’m going to take an experience of doing consulting, where they say, “We want you to come in because you have check, check, check, check… We like these seven things about you, and we want those seven things at our table.” So, you’re stoked. You’re going to bring seven things, but “oh, you want two and six?” “No, no all those together. All those together.” Part of it is that you have this vision of what this should be. Thus, some of it is removing the ego—excuse me, no, a lot of it is removing the ego—and looking at the bigger picture. Also, we get excited about ideas: we are idea people. Therefore, the other end of that is not getting so pulled into the project that you’re also helping that person with their part that you have nothing to do with. That is because a lot of the time when we create we see things holistically. Hence, the first step is being really clear about what is the outcome. I think that’s been really helpful. Otherwise, our hamsters can start kicking out ideas on this project or this draft or these people we can pull together, and we can just spin wild with ideas. Afterall, they may like all of them. Then, you’re burning yourself out as well as not serving the reason why this was pulled together. It’s being creative for the sake of being creative. I think, as a creative person who loves to talk ideas, learning how to reign in those natural inclinations is very important. That way you do not derail the project. It has made me ask better questions of the folks who brought me to the table. Is this to make things look pretty, or do we want these groups to belong better? What is the goal, and what is the real, for-real goal? I just learned to ask better questions so I’m more mindful of my time. Our time is our inventory. It helps me align myself with projects when it gets frustrating. Then, I’m still excited to be at the table, and I don’t’ feel used. I don’t feel pimped out. I don’t feel like I’m just chasing a check, because that’s cute in the beginning, but it’s not worth my soul. Therefore, it’s been really helpful to acknowledge how I’m constructed as a creator and how that can be an asset or derail my project.

Marty: I’m sure I have a very lively ego with everyone else, but it, also, is that a lot of the ego seems to lay in the outcome of the project. I think, most people that do make art set up their own restrictions, and it makes the work better. For example, now your studio is as big as a closet, or you stubbed your foot and have to dance on one leg. We figure it out. I think, the kind of in-motion liveliness of this kind of work with other people just offers its own mix of discovered and unexpected. The night of the dress rehearsal for the police performance there were seven police officers, and we were performing it the next day. Well, two dropped out. So, now there’s the play. It’s written. It’s there, and, of course, two dropped out. In another play with the city of Portland people, the mayor was in it, and I kept inviting the president of the NAACP to come, to come, to come... She is the the kind of person who often doesn’t come and didn’t come. Finally, I called her the night of the dress rehearsal and said, “Listen, we are having the dress rehearsal tonight if you want come on by.” She comes and watches it. She sees the mayor, a Sudanese leader and a member of the Maine MicMac Nation. She sees everybody. All of you in theater know that at this point you have your hands full. Nonetheless, at the end, I went over to her and said, “What do you think?” She said it was good, and I said, “Listen, you know, if you want you can still be in it.” Remember, we were opening for a real run in the real theater the next night. She said, “I’d like that.” So, the next afternoon, at 1:00 we got on the speaker phone, and we called her Aunt Betty and Banger, Maine to get some family history. Out of that, I wrote out a piece, and she knocked the show away. The excerpt is on youtube. Search “Homeland Security Marty Pottenger” and you’ll see Rachel Talbot Ross tell the story of being an eleventh generation African American Mainer. That’s just fun if you can get yourself lined up that way.

Dasha: What have been some other experiences in aligning your artistic sensibilities with this outcome driven—maybe, it feels less artistic—way of working? What are some of your experiences on aligning yourself up with those partnerships or projects?

Pamela: I love the connections it makes. By having conversations, the connections that I’m making with the people in the community are my changing my life. I am currently the Pfister Artist in Residence. Dominic is the current Pfister Narrator. With everything that has recently happened in Milwaukee, and the fact that I just moved to Sherman Park and Dominic is getting involved in the area, we were hoping we could make a connection at work. However, I didn’t anticipate that it was going to be in that area and that it was going to be even more important. I feel like everything is happening just at the right time. Just listening for opportunities and having chance conversations with him brought him here tonight. I feel like it’s having an impact.

Dasha: With this being in the early stages, what have been the conversations you are having with non-artists or the entities that you are going to be partnering with or relying upon to make whatever this is happen? Whether that is Sherman Park residents or the Pfister marketing folks that only want it to happen at the bar?

Dominic: I can speak to that a little bit. I mean, I quit teaching after 22 years—I retired basically—so that I could have time for my own creativity or to be able to channel it in a different way that isn’t just for the 20 kids in my class. In the past, I’ve started projects. I think maybe that might be my medium, ‘project starter.’ It’s in my head: I want to do it. Then, I just literally go make a website. I call people and get them excited about it. Then they’ll say, “Let’s do this.” So, I’ll go get a space and before I know it, I realize I have four of them. That’s kind of what is going on right now. I think that kind of creating a space that people feel excited to be in is what I try to do. I try to create a space for people that have a common idea, common concern, common issue. Then, give them some direction, listen to them and allow all of their voices to be heard, while not knowing exactly where it is going to go. I always have an idea of what I want it to look like. However, that consistently changes after talking to people and they share their ideas, such as “that’s not going to work,” “what if we do this-,” or “can we do this-.” I always try to shoo comments like “this is your project,” or questions like “what do you want me to do?” or “what are we going to do on this one?” I literally will say, “I don’t know, what are we going to do?” because I really don’t like that it’s my project. Maybe, that’s me not feeling like I’m an artist, or maybe, it’s because I want other people to be the artist and have that creative space—not just the individual. It’s funny, because today, I was trying to get a group together to do a writing project with youth in Sherman Park that will then be created into a performance piece. Yet before, I was just about ready to give that up because I had brought in too many projects. I’m trying to get paid and am still figuring out consulting. So, I was really okay with letting it slide. I kept telling myself there are so many other great things happening it Milwaukee—what is this project that I’m trying to do? I was almost there, and then, people started emailing me, “This is really cool! We should call up this person and this person and this person.” I started getting emails that they have the place, the space and the time. It’s now a January/February thing. We have a new theme. I guess, I gave them that space. I just allowed them to own it. It’s hard because it’s easy for me not having a fulltime job anymore to do whatever I want.
Dasha: Are there other experiences where similarly it’s the I vs. the we? Where you’re not really sure where you should stand or how you could stand?

Katie: I feel like I have a hard time just being myself—just being an artist. For example, one particular performance that some of you here have seen relies on people showing up and being there. I have work, but it's all to facilitate dialogue. Without the dialogue, the work would fail. Luckily, people have shown up every time I’ve done it; however, I have a hard time presenting the work on its own without the dialogue. Then, people will talk about it and that’s a great conversation. All the same, it’s been hard to say, “This my art. This is my creation,” when what happens is what the participants bring to it. I’ve especially felt this way as I’ve been applying to present it other places or applying for residencies. I have a hard time taking credit for that, even though I’m helping facilitate it.

Dominic: I think, then, it's just time to celebrate it. There is something cool about being a celebrator of good ideas, of things that work or what everybody brings to the table and being able to be okay with giving feedback and receiving it. I think that’s part of what you and I are doing that’s a little bit different than creating a piece of artwork or performance or something.

Dasha: Well it seems then that there are minimal questions and a lot of head nodding. We are all bought into this. So, then why isn’t the city perfect? We are all bought in: art is going to make everything better. We are comfortable with collaboration. I’m an artist and a social practitioner. I like making relationships...

Evelyn: There are only a few of us. There are only a few people thinking like that.

Dasha: Because it feels like it’s not worth it, or because they haven’t been in the privilege of these types of circles? I’m pretty special, but I’m not super, super special. We do have the sensibility, why aren’t those sensibilities being acted out?

Evelyn: There aren’t many people like you. I don’t know where they are, but they’re probably not in Milwaukee. I’m here, but I’m not like you. I may be doing projects but just listening tonight, I hear that in the projects the outcome is not art. I’m always the outcome is art. My outcome is not beyond that. As long as I’ve been doing this for almost 50 years, I’ve never felt like I was going to transform the community at all. That was not my outcome. Even when I say what my outcome is while writing a grant, they don’t agree. Barbara Lee was explaining to me that the reason why I didn’t get the grant was because I kept saying that my outcome in making art books with children was to teach them how to eat better and eat raw food. That was my outcome, but you can’t prove my outcome. I responded that I can prove it, but will they accept it?

Dasha: Thank you. I think you made a really important point. That was kind of the layup, slam dunk you just made with this conversation. We know we are artists, but we don’t always know that we are social practitioners. More importantly, we may not want to have that burden, that responsibility or that challenge of making, creating, or divising something that is supposed to cure things. You might’ve wanted to check it out; you are doing these magical things. However, you have this intention with your art. So, where does that divide exist—where I am an artist who happens to make transformative impacts, but that’s not my intention? I’m making great stuff or doing these works, but they are making broader pieces, broader work, broader impact intended or not.

Evelyn: What I’m saying is that there are not enough people who will receive, fund, or work. There are not enough people outside of this area for me to connect with. I’m not sure how you do it.

Dasha: Me either.

Evelyn: Well, you do it well.

Dasha: I’m blessed and get really lucky. The idea of having a practice means you are always expanding the ‘how,’ the ‘what’ and the ‘if’ of all those things; as opposed to, “I am a writer. This writing became this, then became performance, and then became youth work.” It’s allowing that to expand. This is where we are, whether it does and doesn’t overlap with the city, with these communities and with these social issues. There’s this train that is plowing through our cities—all of them. We don’t have to drive them. We don’t have to be the conductor of this thing. Yet, we have opportunities and there is an interest of at least thinking about where you might jump on or not. I feel like that is where this circle is, and I know, personally, you are here because you are busy with your art in the world. So, we are able to have this dialogue of what that can mean, what it doesn’t have to mean, how we find funding, how we hold each other and where it perseveres.

Marty: You reminded me of something, and I’m going to preface with that I have a saying: “I try to never let anything skip by way of a strong opinion.” Knowing little about our history, I’m thinking it’s possible that part of what’s happening is we are healing a kind of culturally manufactured ‘hats-off to the notions around capitalism’ that says it's better-than/worse-than, and it’s all about specialties. We may be kind of bringing back together a creative action or creativity and reclaiming it as part of our inheritance. It’s a part of who we are. We are humans, but we are also bringing back what has been in the past a historically integrated relationship with our communities.

Karin: That resonates with me. My grandmother grew up in a kind of peasant culture in Transylvania. Everybody did amateur theater. I’m sure it was horrible, but they all did it. They all learned to do handiwork—that’s what she called sewing. They all learned just so many ways of creative expression that was integrated into daily life. So, it kind of changed things. She lived in a refugee camp for five years. Still, she was able to buy a flour sack bag, rip it open, embroider it and create beauty in the room that she had to live in with a family for five years. Thus, I feel like maybe it is a cycle that is coming back to integrating with daily life. You hear more and more ‘art and public health.’ You hear all these things: it’s coming back through placemaking, planning through health departments, through the social-practice model of artists integrated with community. I feel like one of the things that I love to do is connect artists with those opportunities in my community. It’s such a pleasure to bring in an artist who thinks they can make kids get this connection about how to eat well. In fact, one artist right now is working with kids that are in the program that’s that last step before jail. He did large scale photographs with them, self portraits, and every time he met with them he brought in different food. He started his first class saying, “What do you think of as a healthy meal?” People had no idea how to answer it. Then, he said, “If you had—he used some sort of sports person they would have recognized—over for dinner what would you feed him? He needs to eat something healthy.” Every time he comes into class, he brings in something different or weird that they haven’t been exposed to. During this process of art making and community building, he said in each class he’s found at least two or three geniuses. There are maybe ten kids—two of them will probably have a lot better chance making this world work for them because of this project.

Cynthia: I’m trying to remember my art history. I have to go back many, many years to UWM here, but when I think about social practices, I realize nothing's really new in art or anything else. When I think about German art and Roman art, it’s always been protests that were social practice. The term that we are putting on art today, social practice, has always been apart of art: it just takes on a different name. With each different generation, artists have always been the messengers. Through cartoons, protests or artists like Kathe Kollwitz. It’s not new, we are just doing it in a different manner. I do believe it is something that will continue to grow. Social practices, such as protest art, make a difference in society, and we all must indulge sevenfold. I do it wholeheartedly.

Kantara: I have to think out loud to get to my point. Every few years, I come across an obstacle for myself—call it a crisis. I’m not from Milwaukee. I have been here for about a year and two months. My background is in ritual art, which sees art as inherently tied to community, about moving spirit and not created for art’s sake. I feel like as I get older, I also get more exhausted. I get more exhausted at seeing patterns remain and recycle. Human beings recreate the same cycles, and we aren’t really any smarter than we should be from the lessons we’ve learned. This year and in this moment, I feel the weight of that a bit more. I feel a little unable to dream and to see where art can really shift. Actually, the only thing that keeps me dreaming is thinking about: if I had a child, how would l like them to move through the world. What kind of world would I want them to inherit? That’s the only place I can think of dreaming. I realize in this conversation that I would want that child to be able to take risks. I would want that child to trust that their decision to show up for their art would be inherently transformative, because it would mean that they are tapping into purpose. I think, because we live in a capitalistic, patriarchal, racist, colonial world, it keeps us from dreaming a little bit and really getting out of the cycles that we are in. I haven’t figured out how to negotiate the 9:00 to 5:00. It has been a blessing that allows me to reach communities that I didn’t think I’d be able to, but I haven’t found a way of dreaming while also existing in a structure that’s not designed for us to dream.

Dasha: We are all going to breathe that in. Yes, to everything. In that experience and in that truth, I feel hearts thumping. I would like to invite questions or observations in that space of I get it, but I don’t see it. I see it but not all that time. I question it, and I’m tired. Yet, I still have this yearning and commitment to a better everything—better future community. The lofty goals are the projects Marty has made herself available for. You can see within their lines all the grit, all the arguments, all the long meetings, and all the hang ups that had to happen for them to even be things that occurred. I invite your questions and observations in trying to imagine your craft or your art within this conversation. I think, Marty could share from this sense of not idealism but being human. You just go, how did you possibly think that sending the border control into people’s neighborhoods was ever going to be okay? How did you not see that was not all right? How do you bring your full self there and not feel like you’re laying your own self down for slaughter?

Dasha: But, I want to have a chance for everyone to kind of download a bit. This has been a lot. I know you all are hearing the wheels spinning inside of the conversations—inside of what’s been said and what hasn’t. What is sitting with you? What questions have been stirred? What ‘respectacle’ is happening with your own hamster about your work, our community, moving forward, and what’s possible? Like what: a play can happen from a bunch of city workers in a cage? What is your reflection of this discussion? It can be as small as, “In this moment, it makes me remember,” or as large as, “I’m actually going to go and do that guys project.” Please share. It doesn’t have to be elegant. You don’t have to have it all thought through. We are artists. We can respect that process. So who is willing to ramble first?

Riley: I’ve always been really interested in social change and human rights. However, I’ve never really been able to understand it all. I came from a privileged family, a lot of privilege. So, how do I put myself in a position with my art to work with people and have them respect where I came from—as I am trying to respect them—when we are from two different places? Where are the boundaries? Are there boundaries? How do I come together and allow people to be and speak for themselves without me speaking over them? That’s been a lot of the thoughts going on in my head, listening all of you around me who are actually doing it. I keep asking myself, how can I do that? How can I help?

Marty: Riley, I’ve found my thoughts are mixed on privilege. I’ve realized the people who grew up around me are every bit as much just as everyone else. The people you call family and the people you call community, they are all desperate for connection, for closeness and for voice.

Pamela: I see groups connecting in Milwaukee that haven’t connected in the last couple of decades. I’m having trouble going to everything that’s happening. I see events but it’s hard to do it all.    

Ted: I’ve been kind of listening once removed, because I’m monitoring the sound. A lot of this discussion sounded familiar to me. In some ways I think a lot has changed. I do notice more groups and opportunities for artists, especially now more than I have in the past. Then, I read Milwaukee’s funding for artists compared to Madison’s or to another city our size, and I wonder, “Well, if it really is so important, why aren’t more people behind it?” I didn’t hear anything super revealing, tonight, but what I’m hearing is pleasant and hopeful. Maybe, it’s just hard to see the change when you are in it. Maybe, that’s part of what I’m describing. Maybe there is this renaissance happening around us, but it's just hard to see because we are in it.

Maeve: As we were talking about practice and breaking down that term, I, personally, compared it to my background in athletics. You need a place to practice, and recently, it’s been really hard watching all the buildings I’ve been in become condos. We are losing those places to practice that we’ve worked so hard for. That is something I’m kind of grappling with right now, while looking for a studio space. I am realizing that my studio space cannot be in my house—it doesn’t work out that well. I am watching a lot of my friends that are artists leave the city, because they don’t have that place to practice. However, there are some really great things going on right now with people doing their own thing. That is inspiring.

Katie: I want to kind of go off of what Ted said. I recently met with an urban farmer, and he said something that has stuck with me. He wasn’t talking about art, but it’s still super related. I asked him what the challenges of the food system here in Milwaukee and the nation are. He said, “We all want utopia yesterday. We have to be patient.” We struggle with being patient. If it’s going to take two years, it’s going to take two years. If it’s going to take five years, it’ll take five years. If it’s going to take ten, it’s going to take ten. However, we can’t forget that what we are doing, this, is part of it. We all want all of these things, and we want them five minutes ago. We want to be able to come here and just be like, “Yay, we did it! How are things changing? Great.” I think that, especially, applies to me. Maybe, that’s even why I’m in Milwaukee/Midwest now where things are a little slower than the coasts. I have a problem with that. I’m always speeding up. I’ve always gravitated to New York City and L.A. where everything’s big and happening fast but there is no time to breathe, be comfortable and pause. There is another quote that is coming into my head from a podcast. It was something like, “It’s really hard to look forward to something when you are in the moment and you’re standing still.” You know it’s coming, but it’s about being comfortable in the right now.

Sarah L: I am going to jump in on that. I’ve been collecting thoughts for a while. One of the things that I noticed and really appreciated about Marty’s work was how long each project took and how much time she allowed each one to sit. When we are in the system, working that 9:00 to 5:00 or doing these other jobs that are trying to make you money and you are trying to do these projects on the side, it can be extremely difficult. Maybe, you are like me. I had a two month break this summer where I was like, “Okay, I can cram all this stuff into these two months. What can I do?” I went as hard as I could but I did not get everything done. Now, I have to go back to school and it’s done. In my practice, time is a medium. It’s our most precious thing we have to work with. I love what you said, Dasha, about knowing how to really spend it wisely. If it’s our material, how do we not use it wastefully? It’s really important to understand that time can be much bigger, projects can be much longer and we can really stretch these things out. For me, that is really nice to know. Especially, since I realized—when I was in school for art—I make my most interesting art when I am able to really spend time in one place and see what happens there. That’s kind of been where I started my practice in Milwaukee, and that’s how I’ve learned about this city. It’s how I’ve come to understand myself and the people around me better—through those dialogues that happen when you put yourself in one place for a long period of time. I dream of the day where I can be patient enough to have a project where I get to be in one place for eight years, instead of eight months or eight weeks. I think that was a really great take away for me.

A couple of other really quick thoughts: I find working with people unpredictable, difficult and exciting. When we are working with people and showing them this system that we know but we aren’t sure how to push out into the world further, I think just doing it can be a reminder to people that they can take ownership. I really love the work of social practice artists, because it looks like something that anyone can do. It’s not always a painting or object. It’s just an action or conversation. When we are working on something that’s a process, it’s very relatable and something anyone can grab onto. Some of the biggest moments I’ve had when working with people is when you can pass on the idea like they can do this too. They are just as big a part of this. You can remind them that they can have that ownership and can make changes too, and those can be really small actions. Finally, one other collected thought is: you need breaks. I know in my own practice I tend to have a project where I work with people and then a project where I don’t. Then, go back and forth. Milwaukee is a really difficult city—it’s beautiful, and I love living here. However, it’s really difficult, and the weight of it is sometimes so heavy that you feel like you can’t breathe. Yet, it’s worth it. You just need to take those breaks and give yourself that time.

Maeve: Sometimes, during those times where it feels really heavy, I think to myself: what if all of us weren’t here? What would the city be like? That kind of keeps me going. So, I think that we have some of those people who can really push through those down times, here. I think a lot of those people are in this room.

Katie: I think, it is also finding that network. I have been very lucky. I have only been here four months and I’ve already found a lot of you. I came from a place where I had a really great network of friends and family, but they did not feed the artist part of me that I’ve tried to quiet so many times. I would finally just give in and be like, “Okay, fine you can come out.” So, finding people who can nurture that and understand the struggles and needing breaks has been wonderful. The support network I have back home in Boston is supportive, but it is a blind support. They don’t really understand and are just like, “Yea, whatever you want. I’ll show up. I’ll be there.” It’s special to have people who understand the day-to-day struggle of taking on so many projects, of not feeling like you’re getting there or feeling like you’re getting there but then what. Having people who support you that know those struggles is super, super important—even if you’re not collaborating together, just collaborating on doing the work.

Beth: I’m really thinking about projects that A.W.E. does and why some work well and others don’t. I think a lot of it has to do with whether or not your partners and the people you are working with already get it—if they get your values and why you are there. Being a person who comes from a different background and being more of a neighborhood and community development person, I’m always the person who’s trying to figure out whose language I need to talk in order to push a project forward. That can be exhausting and can sometimes feel disingenuous. Then there is that tension of arts for art’s sake vs. arts for an outcome which gets even more complicated at A.W.E. There has been an organizational changes from when the organization started to where the organization is now. It is really about who you are talking to and how you frame the work we are doing. You have to constantly be reframing it based on the audience. I think there is a struggle in that, especially when you really care about being authentic, understanding why people are so passionate about this work and what they want to see come out of it. In relation to where I’m at with who we are as an organization and the work we are doing in the community, for me, the biggest takeaway is figuring out when to go for it and when to know its not worth finding an in. During my conversation with Marty today, she shared her story about going through the union. She shared how the union has this power, solidarity and slew of understanding that if you can get through, all these other doors will open up. Then she, also, shared a story of somebody emailing and saying, “Over my dead body.”
You have to know if your partners—even if they are committed to you and you are committed to them—are essentially telling you, “Over my dead body,” because they may not be coming out and saying that. It’s figuring out when you walk away and shift your focus or when it is worth it to figure out another entry into the work.

Lynn: Well, I think it's all really heartening. I have this luxury of seeing a lot of what happens here and visiting many projects and people. There are so many spades in the earth right now and really there is so much happening. I think A.W.E is a banner of an organization that kind of understands that fluidity and wants. It’s just hard work. However, listening to everyone tonight, I think, “My gosh, to have this kind of support and this real, shared impulse,” I think it’s important that the words don’t get in the way. I thought Evelyn’s comment was so important about how you don’t have to define yourself in a specific way to be part of the club. Instead, it can get in the way of that shared impulse. I think sometimes there is a danger right now of some of these words and labels of practices being exclusionary. So, that’s maybe of caution, but you guys, just keep walking.

Sara: I have had a lot of complex thoughts but I’m feeling really contentious of time passing. It was probably about five years ago that I really invested in this program, partly in connection with Pamela. At that time, I was more based in Los Angeles and was just starting to getting a read on what was going on in the arts in Milwaukee. I felt they really affected me, because I learned how to be an artist in this city when I was in my early twenties. I had this core instinct with MARNsalons. Artists getting together, doing critical thinking, going through processes together, networking and having these kind of conversations is really important to me—probably because of some of the cultural interests that I have for this city in particular. So, it’s been such a pleasure to just listen tonight. I’ve spent a lot of time just facilitating in the last five years, and you’ve done an outstanding job, Dasha. You too, Monica, in just organizing all of this. Again, it matters what combination of us are in the room, and I know you put a great amount of thought into this. Marty, you have such a disarming way of talking about really complex things, your own experience and connecting it. I just really enjoy that about the way you speak and get it done. Kantara, I thought “how do you dream inside a space that’s not designed to dream” was such a beautiful publication. I feel, as artists and cultural workers, that us slowing down with each other and taking this kind of time like tonight to really look each other in the face and do the relationship work together really makes this space. After tonight, we will each go back and negotiate a broad range of languages in different contexts, some of which don't value arts and cultural production. I felt like I spoke fifteen versions of English, today—I’m a Cirque du Soleil code switcher. Anyway, I just think that this is really important. We can support each other to be open and explorative with how we are using our art, where and with whom we are using it and what doubt comes out of any of that. To me, I think that’s the point of making art, it all gets to be material to work with. I’m just feeling really grateful for all of you speaking so openly tonight.

Karin: I am so grateful to have been pulled into this. I never get this kind of support group stuff. I’m out there on another planet, disconnected from the universe. So, it’s very emotional for me to just be with a group of shared impulse people. This is so good. Milwaukee was such a home to me in my practice of Arts Administration and to be welcomed back and supported is really great. I’m going to go out there another today, and let them beat me.

Sally: Like some of the other administrator-type people, I have been thinking a lot of complex, swirling thoughts. I identify with your quotes. I think this may be my fifth meeting in the last week around arts and culture issues in the Milwaukee area. Some of the people have overlapped. Some of the people in this room have been to other meetings, but a lot of the groups are distinct. They are people operating in different orbits. That’s good in some ways, but it could be more helpful if people operated in the same orbit. It hurts me to hear that the artists are feeling exhausted and feeling down. I hope you do take time to take care of yourselves, because we need you. So, maybe we can have more get-togethers where we can bring food, bring towels and have yoga. Stay healthy and take time for yourself because your work is inspiring. Just like Lynn said, there are so many amazing things going on in Milwaukee and so many people driven to do wonderful things on behalf of community. Let’s nurture each other!

Marty: I’ll briefly ramble, and part of that is just saying thank you. At the time we reference this, it feels like the work happening here is extraordinary. I was in a meeting earlier today, and before we got started I said, “Learning more of Milwaukee’s history while here from people, reading and researching is heartbreaking and inspiring. It’s inspiring, and it’s heartbreaking.” I think anywhere we look these days we have all the right problems. We are looking at the things that we cannot figure out, yet. We are looking at the things we haven’t been able to stop, encourage, challenge, redirect, heal or let go of. I’m so grateful to be alive in a time when the health of the planet is in the balance. I feel deeply grateful to get to be alive, now, for this magnitude of challenge and opportunity. There is no way that we can heal this without healing so much of what we haven’t been able to figure out. I think, that is how human beings do it, historically. So, I’m impressed and confident. I love the term ‘practice’ and what you said about doctors and the idea of practice. This is building muscle. I love the urban farmer’s let it be the time that it takes. Having each other seems to be the most precious thing to not lose track of. This MARNsalons—I’ve never heard of something like this before in the other places I’ve been—is precious. Monica, thank you for being such a loving and thoughtful guide on my behalf. Sara, thank you for taking a panel of three and letting me come to Milwaukee to be part of your community. Thanks everybody for the work you do.