[Evolution > Revolution?]

by Carlton Turner

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for [Evolution > Revolution?]

(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

For me, there is a very distinct difference between evolution and revolution and I am not entirely sure what re-evolution is. A revolution orbits the same dynamics. What changes is positioning — who’s in power, who’s on top. It’s like a revolving door — the door doesn’t move, it’s just a cycle of people in and out of that door. In evolution the entire being, the entire system, changes; it’s a move not just in positioning but in purpose. For me, an evolution marks that you’ve learned something and you’ve graduated to a different level. Sometimes that means that you are starting over, shifting the entire dynamic and your understanding of something completely. The evolutionary practice is one in which we’re constantly seeking transformation, not just transition.

Organizational Evolution > Audience Development

Some of the questions this blog salon asks are really important ones: “When making work, who is it for? Who is making decisions? Who is impacted? How is the audience invited into a process, a work, a building over time?” It’s always about the audience — how can we shift the audience, re-educate the audience, how can we cultivate a new audience? But I think that the emphasis on audience is misplaced because this blog series is not directed towards the audience, it is directed towards the arts leaders. And as leaders I think we need less focus on the audience and more on understanding how organizations can shift their practices to be more relevant to changing times, changing demographics, to all of the shifts that are happening as our communities and our world are evolving. We need to ask: how is the organization evolving? How does the mission evolve? How does the purpose of your organization and the work that you’re creating, presenting, producing evolve to match the need of an audience at this particular moment in history?

In February, I sat on a panel at the DanceNYC symposium and one of my fellow panelists, Denise Saunders Thompson of the International Association of Blacks in Dance offered this quote from the article, “What is Inclusion?” by Shafik Asante:

No one has the right to invite others in! It definitely becomes our responsibility as a society to remove all barriers which uphold exclusion since none of us have the authority to “invite” others “in”! So what is inclusion? Inclusion is recognizing our universal “oneness” and interdependence. Inclusion is recognizing that we are “one” even though we are not the “same”. The act of inclusion means fighting against exclusion and all of the social diseases exclusion gives birth to — i.e. racism, sexism, handicapism, etc. Fighting for inclusion also involves assuring that all support systems are available to those who need such support. Providing and maintaining support systems is a civic responsibility, not a favor. We were all born “in”. Society will immediately improve at the point we honor this truth!!

Asante speaks a powerful truth: No one has permission to invite anyone. That just by being human beings, we are invited. That we’re here. We’re all part of this. When questions of audience development arise, these words challenges us to examine ourselves and our organizations. The problem is that  we’ve  created opportunities for exclusion. The problem is not in the invitation, its in the exclusion.

So, those initial questions in reverse would be: why doesn’t the audience member feel engaged? Why do they feel like this work isn’t for them? Why are the barriers for them to participate in the decision making process? And what put the culture or the artistic process so far out of reach of the audience that they feel like they need to be invited back into the process? Because, from a cultural position, the art belongs to the community — it belongs to the culture, not to the artist. The artist is there in service of the culture they are representing. And we’ve shifted that dynamic to where the audience is there in service of the artist or the institution,  rather than the institution being in service to the audience.

Thinking about this in terms of evolution: the process of evolving responds to the environment around you. The problem that we’re facing as an arts sector, as a performing arts sector specifically, is we’ve disconnected ourselves from the natural and social environment and created a very insular space in which to make and show art. We see this happening with institutions in the ethereal sense — an organization, a 501(c)(3) — and in the physical sense, a bricks and mortar building that is so tied to programming that it’s hard for people to think outside of that structure. We see this happening with institutions that weren’t necessarily created in response to a demand from the community, but as a way to pay homage to an artist or group, or a particular discipline. And so many of the buildings are constructed as a monument to the ego. However, the work that needs to happen in community is driven by need and necessity and the spirit of the people.

Looking at Alternate ROOTS as an example, it’s an organization that came out of a very specific space, time, and need. The space being the south in general and the Highlander Research and Education Center specifically, the time being post Civil Rights and anti-war movements, and the need was to understand how the performing arts are implicated in supporting the struggle for human dignity. ROOTS’ founders were asking a question about how to continue, as artists, as citizens, to be engaged in a process of transforming the society around them. If we look back 40 years to the organization’s founding, or if we look back 3-4 years in the recent history, we see the attempts to answer those questions forming the legacy of the organization.

Alternate Roots 33

In the beginning, ROOTS created an aspirational mission: to strive for the elimination of all forms of oppression. As a collective, they were trying to embody those words they articulated at the beginning of their existence together. They didn’t quite live those words when they first uttered them to each other. But they, through time, and years of being together began to actually live and be those principals that they put out as the foundation of their relationship to one another. In the words of Linda Parris-Bailey, one of ROOTS’ founding members, “We hung in there because people had that vision. What we did was agree to struggle together.” Those original members chose to make that journey together and to walk with one another throughout that process and to hold each other accountable over time.

Reciprocity > Ministry

In addition to challenging a focus on audience development, I also want to push back against the idea of art as ministry and arts institutions as ministering to communities. Like many southerners, I also come from a religious community. The church was literally in the front yard of my grandmother’s house. So, growing up, I spent a lot of time in church and dealing with ministers and I saw many of them as disconnected from the people. Even though they were supposed to be the connective tissue between the people and a higher power, that often they came across like pretentious gatekeepers.

This idea of ministry doesn’t feel like an authentic practice for what the work in performing arts actually is. It’s not necessarily ministering to anyone because people know, they come into the world knowing, and ministering to me indicates that someone is providing a more spiritual path or a more right path or a more righteous way of doing or being and they need to share that or spread that to other people. And to think that’s what the theater is considering itself is a really dangerous idea.

I do feel there is an aspect of ministry that is relevant to this conversation: that people are coming because they feel they are being fed. And that the space you are creating — again, whether it be a virtual, ephemeral space of the ritual you’re creating through theater or the physical space of the bricks and mortar building — is one that people feel comfortable to come, to share, to be fed, and to be of service to others. There’s a reciprocal process where they’re coming to be fed and to feed others. The best work that I’ve experienced has been in that vein where there’s an exchange whether that’s an exchange of energies or an exchange of support or an exchange of vision or creativity or even laughter — that there is an exchange that happens. And the audience comes to participate in that exchange. You go to the sacred space knowing that you’re going to get something from it and you’re going to give something. And that’s part of this balance that we should be creating with any type of cultural or artistic engagement.

Holistic Spaces > Art Centers

The concept of arts institutions as holistic community centers sits better with me. I think that’s what they should be striving for all together — any place that is a public facility should be dedicated to holistic community wellness. The arts is just one place that we can model that in a way that is very rooted and connected to our traditions and our spirit.

We also need to recognize that in order to truly create holistic spaces, you may have to drop the arts from the center. Holistic means the whole being and art is merely an identifier. It is not the source, it is not the center. Art is a representation of the wholeness that you’re creating, that you’re fostering, a visual illustration of the culture that you come from and/or are trying to create. A performing arts space is is not considered holistic just because the offering is art.

The best example of an organization operating in this spirit would be Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. During Hurricane Katrina their space did not flood and so after the storm, when people came to Ashé, the space was filled with cleaning materials. Mops and buckets and bleach and Lysol and ammonia — whatever you needed. And people came in and were like, “When are you gonna get back to producing art?” And Carol Bebelle, Ashe’s executive director, was like, “Baby, this is the art.” This is what the people need at this moment and that’s what we are going to provide.”

There’s something about that approach, that their space is open to multiple forms of engagement that are in support of the community. They’re not trying to create something that the community might one day learn to love or understand. Everything they create is in response to the community. This week it may be cleaning supplies, next week it may be HIV testing, the following week it may be a performance around the seven Kwanza principles. It can be whatever it needs to be based on the needs of the community. That doesn’t lessen the artistic practice, but it does strengthen the rigor of being in service to the community.

Reimaging Power > Shifting Power

Ultimately, the question I would ask is: to what end? At the end of the day, when you get a new audience, a different audience into your space to see your work — what do you hope to shift as a result of that audience witnessing what you’re providing? What do you hope to shift in the world as a result of that work, both short term impact and long term legacy building? Are we waiting on a revolution in our sector, in our society, a shift in who has the power? Or are we looking to model the evolution of practice and reimagine the entire designation of power?

15537879052_98cf535d90_oCarlton Turner is the Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS, a regional non-profit arts organization based in the south supporting artists working at the intersection of arts and social justice and co-founder and co-artistic director, along with his brother Maurice Turner, of the group M.U.G.A.B.E.E. (Men Under Guidance Acting Before Early Extinction), a Mississippi-based performing arts group that blends of jazz, hip-hop, spoken word poetry and soul music together with non-traditional storytelling.

1st image: Progress Theatre’s The Burnin’ 
2nd image: ROOTS founding members John O’Neal, front, and Dudley Cocke, back.
Credit: Melisa Cardona


Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.

  • http://www.pangeaworldtheater.org Dipankar Mukherjee

    true brother carlton! i very true and specific article. “true” because it is breath of people of color and “specific” because it is heartbeat of people of color. have seldom understood the “confusion” between..genuine living and “creating task force to create community”..many artists declaim that they “create art for their community”..but they are not only not in commune with the person sitting next to them…the distinction between relationally and transaction..is not a complicated idea..unless one doesn’t desire to get clarity! so either we evolve in further realization of ourselves , like what you echo, or we keep “revolving” around and around and around …till all bullets leave the “revolv”er drum and blood is splattered on the streets ….our blood..yours and mine..

  • Carlton

    Thank you for your words Dipankar. There is much work to do and many in our field will dodge the real questions. They always have, and always will. But the work continues.

  • http://arlenegoldbard.com Arlene Goldbard

    Thank you, Carlton, for your clarity and wisdom. Long may it continue!