Arts and equity in the neighbourhood – “You’re either at the table or you’re on the menu” – Questions of participation

WCMT Fellowship 2016 research: innovation in participation in public urban green space. Portland, Oregon, US.

I attended a few sessions of the Alliance of Artist Communities Conference while in Portland Oregon. AAC is an international association of artists’ residencies — a diverse field of more than 1,500 programs worldwide that support artists of any discipline in the development of new creative work.

The conference held a number of sessions relevant to my research, as well as a profoundly inspiring keynote by Buffy Sainte-Marie (see end of post). It was good to participate and get a strong sense of the contexts and practices around artist residencies, through the largely North American representation. The event was a rich collection of tours, workshops, break out sessions, meetings and presentations – see the 2016 Conference program. It was also good to hear this before many of the presentations, a powerful message and action: I want to begin by acknowledging and paying respect to the local Multnomah and Grand Ronde people, the traditional custodians of the occupied and colonized land we are meeting upon today.

Conferences tend to be a mixed bag for me: alienating hotel environments, waiters and waitresses some of whom are probably aspiring artists doing a day job, rooms with names such as Windsor, Cambridge … and I often find myself alone when it’s obvious I should be busy talking. This conference was no exception.  Given a focus on the arts, I guess I’m hoping for one to feel more like a Sister Corita Kent art session than a corporate reception.  But a few sessions down the line, some inspiring thoughts noted while listening to energetic and interesting speakers, I can now confidently say that I had the most important moment of my research in Portland at that conference, when in the Arts + Equity in the Neighborhood session, artist Sharita Towne said:

“You’re either at the table or you’re on the menu.

How do we get people off the menu and at the table? I think about that all the time with my work, my art.”

Sharita’s astute and arrow-like statement says all that needs to be said about participation; about the role of arts organisations in civic responsibility in relation to racial equity, about artists and makers designing participatory engagement. The statement takes us back to the start, it reminds us: if you’re not part of the process of making or designing a project or activity, then you are likely to be consumed as the audience or participatory group. 

As someone who makes a lot of participatory and social arts projects, I’m keenly aware of the importance of thinking about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it every second of the way: who holds the power? what about equity? is the outcome already determined and you’re just pretending there is a process? what agency do participants have? does the project reflect the diversity of the neighbourhood or the city? where and who is the neighbourhood? who am I not talking to?  why do we think something might be good for others? why do we think others need what we have designed?  Many many questions … particularly about racial equity.

Sharita’s statement is sharp as a pin. It asks: where are you starting? who has brought the table into the room? who is not at the table yet? who is not participating? what can you do about it?  …. Public space – who’s using it?


These moments of gaining insight are unpredictable (being in the right place at the right time to hear something). Yet when they happen, you can’t imagine being anywhere else. And that moment becomes a line and a tether to a point around which you circle – an orbit around a flare that influences and contours all the other research and thinking.  I could have easily missed it. I was in a dilemma about what to attend next – I even went into another session because the title sounded so interesting (The Righting Arm) and then just before it started, I left the room to attend Sharita Towne’s session, with a recollection of my friend artist Erica Meryl Thomas having recommended it. I’m so grateful I was there.

Since that conference session, this invitation to think around “You’re either at the table or you’re on the menu” has been so useful and important for me in relation to participation in public space, to equity, to race and culture. It’s part of the open and visibly still-in-process public spaces in Berlin such as the urban farms, Tempelhofer and Mauer Park, and it’s in the words of Cyndy and Danita as programmers of the Fieldhouse Studio Residencies in Vancouver.

The second thing that was key to this session was the conversation after the presentation: the entire conversation must be composed by questions. Along with the invitation: It’s ok not to feel comfortable. This felt revolutionary, relevant and alive. I’ve been in similar discussion structures before, but it was something to do with the quality of the material and insights in the initial presentation that meant we all focused very powerfully, thoughtfully, emotionally – we were curious, sensitive and present.

Here are the conference sessions with notes:

Arts + Equity in the Neighborhood: The Role and Responsibility of Arts Organizations in Gentrifying Cities with Yaelle Amir | Curator, Newspace Center for Photography, Shir Ly Grisanti | Founding Director, c3:initiative, Gia Hamilton | Director, Joan Mitchell Center (moderator), and Sharita Towne | Artist
In response to concerns raised by rapid changes in Portland, OR, Newspace Center for Photography and c3:initiative released a call to local artists for projects investigating gentrification and displacement in Portland. This session will consider the approach of the residency and pose questions about the civic responsibility of art organizations working in the public realm. Following the panel discussion, attendees will participate in a kaleidoscope Conversation to explore larger questions of the art organization’s role in serving the needs of their local communities. The conversation starts with a question at a central table, inviting others to join the table, responding only in the form of questions.

Sharita Towne talked about her work ‘Our City in Stereo’: and go here for the collected audio / podcast.

The project came out of a commission about gentrification in the city of Portland – Portland has the highest increase in rental in the USA. Sharita didn’t know what form the project would take at the start. The exhibition became a knowledge gathering space, bringing in other communities, a place of public programming and discussion for the African American community, as well as an exhibition, with open discussions. ‘Our role is bearing witness, in actively listening to what is going on’. How do we provide support to young black artists? Where can you be black in Portland? And Sharita’s question in relation to taking photographs: How do you take pictures of somebody in a way that brings them to the table instead of putting them on the menu?

The presentation was followed by a Kaleidoscope session, with the entire conversation composed by questions:

Here are some of the questions that were asked:

– what is the role for us in our communities to foster racial equity?

– what does self-care mean in late capitalism?

– how can we be inclusive?

– is it possible to be inclusive when your presence makes a negative impact?

– how do we hand over the keys when we want to keep owning the place?

– how are artists different from / the same as activists?

– how as an artist can you help stop gentrification?

– how do we open space to people who don’t / can’t participate?

– how do we decolonise our language around placemaking?

– how do we offer repair when we have tokenised somebody?

– how is your town or city being gentrified?


A short reflection on participation in social arts projects:

Sometimes, as artists and project managers, we may create an initial structure to invite others into because perhaps a project or an activity wouldn’t otherwise be able to start, or people wouldn’t have the impetus to meet – a structure, an invitation, a question can often inspire. Sometimes we can achieve a very open and transparent structure and process which enables growth, change and adaptation by the people who come forward, who take part. Sometimes those participants end up running the whole event or project themselves. In some cases, public participation is part of an agenda of consultation to build support for a set of outcomes that are already determined, both consciously and subconsciously.  Sometimes, artists, consultants and project managers cannot imagine other peoples’ ideas, cultures and attitudes beyond their own frame and context, even though they try hard. Assumptions are everywhere. Time is short, funding tight. People are often nervous about breaking out of their own demographics and familiar culture, so stick with people and places they know, even though the activity or project is supposed to open out. People copy structures and activities from other projects.  Anyone who has run participatory projects where you realise that you’ve made assumptions, or that you do have an agenda that you were pretending didn’t really exist, knows that feeling of discomfort. You can wriggle around as much as you want justifying your actions and intentions, but you know.


Other sessions at AAC Conference:

Self-Declared – the Practice and Politics of DIY Artist residencies with Roya Amirsoleymani, Community Engagement Manger for PICA, and artists Katy Asher, Emily Fitzgerald, Ariana Jacob, Erica Thomas and Taryn Tomasello.

Self-declared residencies suit a socially-engaged practice by creating opportunities for artists to work in non-arts contexts. The artists, writers and curators discussed an array of self-declared residencies by Portland artists that combine site-specific practice and public partnership in non-traditional settings (neighborhood associations, senior centers, barber shops, farms, industrial islands, domestic and office spaces), while considering successes, stumbling blocks and the potential for DIY residencies to function as acts of feminist resistance, ethical inclusion and institutional critique.

Making it Public: Residencies in Public Parks with Curators and Directors Donna Conwell, Lucas Artists Program, Montalvo Arts Center and Elizabeth Quinn, Caldera Arts

Many artists residencies are now located within public park settings – some are collaborative partnerships with National and County Park Services while others are more informal artist-led projects temporarily utilizing existing public park areas. Traditionally art in public parks has been associated with concepts like monumentality and permanence, while increasingly, artists are exploring temporary-based modes of practice that frequently involve community engagement, and often explore, critique and challenge the assumed ‘publicness’ of public park space. Explore two case studies where the development and incubation of new artist work in a public park setting has generated influential questions: Montalvo Arts Center, and Caldera Arts.

Notes from Buffy Sainte-Marie’s keynote:

“Artists need to stand up for what they believe in. The creative process is unique to each artist.

Sometimes an artist knows how and where to find a solution. Sometimes we take a risk.

We have to learn, we have to teach. The information about native cultures is just not out there. We have not done the research into the residential boarding schools that were sanctioned by the churches and run by the military. Blankets for land, blankets contaminated by Small Pox. Genocides have been acknowledged in Europe, native history here has not.

Gangs of alcoholics came from Europe to get us. They didn’t see us as human. Nature meant nothing to them. Connections of history are just not being made.

Are you here to improve, or damage?

I learned through my ears …

Live your courage!”

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