In the months preceding the 2012 conference in New York City, Marta Moreno Vega (Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diaspora Institute) and Randy Martin (New York University) convened a series of "cultural equity" roundtables at NYU that sought, in part, to bring a more diverse group of stakeholders into the intellectual and creative visioning process. Having a community-based cultural organization co-sponsor an IA conference for the first time was the most intentional and concrete way we had yet attempted to make space for community partners to play a leading role in naming and shaping the event's agenda and priorities.
From the first, Bill Aguado, lifelong New Yorker and director for 30 years of the Bronx Council on the Arts, asserted the importance of including "the independent artist" in our thinking and planning. While most of the conference committee conversations about higher education partnerships focused on the bridges and barriers to successful partnerships between universities and cultural organizations, Bill, in his calm but emphatic way, continued to ask, "What about the artist?" And when the conversation lingered too long on other aspects of planning, he would patiently ask again, "What about the independent artist?"
I hadn't known Bill prior to the meetings, and, frankly, his question barely registered at first. Within IA, when we discussed artists, we tended to focus on those directly affiliated with higher education, or those working in the organizational nonprofit sector. Beyond that, there is always such a swirl of ideas and logistical concerns that emerge each year as we prepare the conference that Bill's question was just one among scores.
His persistence finally paid off—a not uncommon occurrence in Bill's life and career, I would discover. Eventually, we agreed that he curate two different installations of New York City–based artists' work that would run in adjacent rooms for the duration of the conference, interrupted only by a discussion that Bill and the artists would lead.
After the conference, I reached out to Bill to talk about the event and the installations and to discuss in more depth his insistence that IA must recognize the importance of embracing artists as part of the "heart and soul of the organization."
Kevin Bott: Bill, what were you hoping to accomplish when you brought up the issue of the independent artist during the planning meetings?
Bill Aguado: Very simply, I wanted to talk about the artist, who is never really included in conversations because the conversation is always limited to the 501(c)(3) organizations. I've been on a mission for a number of years about this because I see the artists and I work with the artists. I just don't feel that the independent artist should be limited to a secondary role in any cultural planning or in any cultural symposium or conference. So that's the question for me: How do you include the independent artist?
KB: Planning past IA conferences, I believed that the only practical way we could hope to include artists not affiliated with higher ed was through the community-based organizations (CBOs). Part of that comes from, you know, standard organizing thinking, which says that you partner with organizations, that power lies in organizations.
BA: I think it's important to understand why we need to see the difference between artists and CBOs and why it's important to devise different strategies for engaging them. Since I ran a nonprofit for 30 years, let me say first that IA hasn't come up with a sufficient answer to the question that CBOs will inevitably ask of it, which is, How will we benefit? What will we get out of it? What usually happens in a situation where an organization like IA—or a college or university—looking to partner with a CBO, is that the CBO is looking for a kind of lifeline, so that it can continue to exist. See, we're all in a state of saying, "Will we make it next week?" There's the hope that a relationship might be created that will provide a flow of resources into the CBO. In short, we're looking for a payday. And with reason! As much as we like the idea of partnering with you, and partnering in general, people in our positions need to be thinking about the bottom line.
The bottom line for the artist is to create. They see the pitfalls of the 501(c)(3) model. Some of the best young minds are not in the nonprofit world anymore. They're turning away from that because, listen, who wants to be a Bill Aguado and work 70 hours a week for how many years and hope you have a pension at the end of it all? Artists want to create, so they have short-term relationships. And they do some pop-up projects within those relationships. And they move on to the next relationship. These relationships remain important because you can always go back to them. It's also a future network. I spend a lot of time with artists, just listening to them, trying to figure out what they're thinking about. They will continue to create, to survive. There wasn't an NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] 400 years ago. There wasn't an NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] 300 years ago. The most entrepreneurial people will find a way to do it, quietly, and well, on their own. If they don't succeed, they will try again. I know a spoken-word artist, Lemon Anderson, who had a one-person show at Joe Papp's theater [The Public in New York City]. He said, "When I fail, I fail forward."
KB: So we attempted for the first time to invite individual, non-higher-ed-affiliated artists to the conference. Can you talk about your experience of curating the installations?
BA: First, I want to say that I was surprised by you and by the Imagining America organization because I didn't expect that my suggestions would be received the way they were. It was refreshing to feel that I was being heard throughout the process and not just patronized. Second, the media session at the conference was an opportunity. It was a step. [Laughing] It was a very, very small step, but I'm OK with that.
KB: What do think those sessions accomplished?
BA: On the one hand it was informative. IA gave us a very generous opportunity to display the artists' work throughout the conference. But if we had 15 people come through the doors, it was a lot. So that tells me that there is still a lot of work to be done to bring the importance of the artist into the conversation at Imagining America. On the other hand, the fact that it existed allowed the voice of the independent artist to be heard.
KB: What are some of the steps IA can take to bring in the voice of the independent artist and the perspectives of the CBOs?
BA: If you're serious then, first, IA is going to have to hire a staffer who can do it, and who is very dedicated to this. It's important that IA remain committed to the whole process by which I mean that IA has to be part of several networks. IA needs to understand who is out there and must hire someone who can follow up with artist collectives and groups. The person who IA brings in has to be part of these networks and has to know what these networks are doing.
I don't mean this as an insult, but IA is very insulated. You talk to each other and everyone pats each other on the back, and you're doing a good job—in your own universe. You have to go beyond the family. You have to see opportunities beyond the family. You need to develop relationships with other national networks. And you need to be active so that when these networks are having their conferences, you are invited to present. If you want to expand the impact of what you're doing, you need to create new values that are essential for IA members to partake in, so that it enhances everyone's ability to create legitimate relationships.
If I were a decision maker at IA, I would apply to major funders, now, to create a commission program that would coincide with the conference in 2015. That's just an example of one way that IA could directly support independent artists. I feel very strongly that, ultimately, it's the individual who makes the statement and moves it forward. Creating the conditions that cultivate those individuals is what's essential. My interest is in seeing how best to integrate the artist within IA, not just at conference time, but as part of the heart and the soul of the organization as it moves forward.
KB: You were an organizer and an educator before you were involved in the arts. Where does your passion for the arts and artists come from?
BA: That's right. I come from an organizing and education background. I came to the [Bronx] Council at the end of the seventies because I got so frustrated with the politics of community organizing. I wanted to hide out for a while, and I took a position as a grants administrator. Three years later, I was the director. The arts became an important tool for me. It became a way of engaging students. It was a way of engaging community, and I began to realize how important cultural assets were in a community's stabilization. The more I became engaged in the arts, the more I saw them as tools for individuals.
KB: What did the council see in you given that you didn't have experience in the arts?
BA: Well, I did have some experience with arts organizing, and there was a need to organize culture on the local level, whether it was instruction, training, or festivals. The council needed someone to do outreach for the rapidly changing Bronx. So I came on, and it was a new experience, a whole new culture, a whole different language that I had to learn. At the same time, I saw a lot of flaws and a lot of opportunities. I saw that the type of community organizing and programming that I had done could easily be transferred to cultural development. On the one hand, I was a cultural activist. And on the other, I was a community empowerment advocate. That's what I wanted to do with the council: put arts in the forefront and then use all the other assets I could bring in from my community organizing and education background.
KB: How were you received initially?
BA: Some of my peers and colleagues were very critical of me, saying that I was creating a social work agency. They saw me as a social worker who could help the people by teaching them to appreciate the downtown cultural institutions.
But at the same time, I also had artists that were creating, and I had artists that were coming to me, saying, "We moved to the Bronx because of the Bronx Council on the Arts." You see, we gave artists a voice. We gave Latino artists a voice. Black artists a voice. White artists a voice. Everyone had a voice. We were representing the totality of the arts community, not just the nonprofit world.
KB: You created the Longwood Gallery, the Urban Arts Initiative, the Art Handlers Training Program. These were ambitious, out-of-the-box proposals in the South Bronx where as you've said, at that time, the idea of saying, "I am a Bronx artist" seemed absurd. How did you convince funders and policy makers to support your vision?
BA: I never saw the Bronx Council as the most important organization. I always saw myself as a huckster, having to sell it and resell it. I was a used car salesman. But believe me, with a size 11 Triple-E, once my foot is in the door, I don't leave! But the truth is, I had the value to sell. I was always selling the value of the artist in the community. And I would never compromise on that. I was tireless in my advocacy to funders and politicians. There are politicians in this city who came to not be able to stand the sight of me. But I had to fight on behalf of the artists.
I never wanted to take money away from anyone, but I wanted our fair share. I wanted the recognition of what artists brought in terms of value to our community. If in your economic development plan, you can find money for small businesses, why can't you find money for the artist? And sometimes I would tell elected officials, "Imagine the Council not being around. What would you not have? Pregones [Theater] would not be in the Bronx. The Bronx Museum would not have been created when it was. The Center for the Arts and Culture would have been very different. The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance would not be around. The Bronx Arts Center. Longwood." We had a need to nurture the artists here and nurture those resources that would become cultural anchors.
KB: Will you talk about the ways you've seen art affect the community's sense of itself?
BA: It's not like the arts are a separate entity. You take music, for example, in the South Bronx. Overwhelmingly Latino. Music is a language within the Latino community. Maybe pop. Maybe high culture. Whatever it was, it was always there. I just brushed the dust off of it and made it more prominent in the community. And when the dust was off, it was recognized as an asset to the community. Something that was on the side is suddenly seen as something important. It is seen as an important piece of what it transmitted between the people in the community. Over the course of generations, I have seen how the anchor of the Latino music maintained and strengthened the sense of community here. And it also led to the creation of new art, new hybrid forms.
KB: Like what?
BA: Every creative/artistic movement emerges outside of the mainstream. Think of graffiti. Young people needed to speak. Art was not offered in the schools so they took it upon themselves to create, and a movement began. Same with the graphic novel. Same with break dancing. Same with hip-hop. These were created on the outside, not within the boundaries of contemporary culture. Because we were committed to the music from our community, and because we asserted our community identity, the mainstream said, "Hey wait a minute, that's pretty cool." They say imitation is the best form of flattery. But what it means to me is that, through art, a certain lifestyle has been accepted.
KB: I've heard you say that artists' rights are civil rights. What do you mean by that?
BA: As a group of people, as an ethnic enclave, we [Latinos] were not allowed access to certain jobs, to education, or to relocate to certain communities. Likewise, our culture was not allowed to exist beyond the walls of the inner city. I look at culture not as a born art form but as something that is transmitted generation to generation. With civil rights, I'm saying that we have the right to create and express what it is we want to create and express.
You have to understand that the way our community was represented, it was like the flavor of the month. One black artist here in this column. One Latino over here in this column. That was how the South Bronx was reflected. That was the token expression of our communities. When I was in school back in the fifties and sixties, we only had one hero we could admire from each ethnic group. And what I'm saying is there's always more than one. There are always many, and they simply need the opportunity to be allowed to express themselves.
This is the kind of civil rights I'm talking about. We need to open the space for this kind of work to exist. No one wanted us to practice our art forms. Latin jazz, salsa: these were rice and beans music. But you look at Latin jazz artists who have gone on to win awards, Pulitzer Prizes. Because of the opening that allowed them to create, they were given room to grow and to learn and to mature and eventually become regarded as masters.
KB: I want to return to what you said about it seeming absurd at the time to think of someone calling themselves a "Bronx Artist." Was it difficult at first for the people to value themselves as creators of culture rather than as just consumers of it?
BA: Well that was part of my job, too. I didn't like when people said, "Oh, go to Bill at the Bronx Arts Council and ask him to tell us what to do." No! What I was trying to communicate was that no one is going to give you something. It's your right; you take it! That was the difference. After a while, people like me, like Marta [Moreno Vega] and a few others, we were advocating on one side, and on the other side, we were telling the people to take what was their right to take.
And while I was busy opening my big mouth, soon other people were coming up out of my environment: Fred Wilson, Betty-Sue Hertz, Eddie Torres. We all shared the same democratic principles. And we all became voices that screamed. We weren't screaming that we wanted to come in, not screaming that anyone had to let us in. We weren't asking to come in. We were saying, "You can't keep us out!"
That is the important point that I want to get across. We are moving forward. It doesn't matter if there are no more Bills or Martas or Fred Wilsons. Because there are young artists out there and they are demanding their place. And they are going to get their place. And they are going to be respected for who they are.
KB: I want to turn back, before we finish, to ask about partnerships between higher ed and community-based organizations. I know about many very good, mutually beneficial partnerships that exist between people in campuses and communities. But I also know the many ways the norms and the dominant epistemologies of higher ed often undermine the very partnerships they're celebrating in their brochures. I often think about the question Marta addressed to higher ed in her opening remarks at the conference, which was along the lines of "How can you say you're helping us when you are in the process of killing us?" What's your perspective on the dynamic between campuses and communities?
BA: I do believe that individuals within higher education have the best intentions. The world is full of best intentions. Is there malice? No. In their own mind, they think they're doing the best they can.
The problem is that you are defining "the best you can" within the limits of the university culture, which is very restrictive, very political, very competitive. Very few get beyond the limits of that culture. Engaging one artist, or one or two CBOs, will satisfy someone's agenda. But are you really reaching out into the community? Are you really listening to the voices of the community?
If you look at the maintenance people, office workers, cafeteria workers . . . Now I'm talking about the people on your own campus. Is anyone asking them what they think? No one has ever asked them what they thought. If you are looking for people to interact with, it's right there. They have passion. They have culture. They have values. But on campus, it's all undercover, and limited, by the constraints of being a maintenance person, a uniformed guard, a receptionist.
Until you recognize that you have cultural assets—that "community" you're looking for—within the very buildings that you inhabit, and that they co-inhabit with you, until you see them as legitimate voices, your best intentions don't matter. Because you're ignoring the most obvious. If you don't recognize the people who work for you, and with you, how are you going to recognize the value of some community that you have to go and look for?