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Photo: Jay Simple
Artist Maia Chao pays a guest critic $75 in cash at the end of a 4-hour visit to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

The Rhode Island School of Design and its museum are justly famed for cutting-edge art and ideas. In this Hypoallergic story, Laura Raicovich speaks with Maia Chao and Josephine Devanbu, the founders of Look at Art. Get Paid., a program that pays people who wouldn’t otherwise visit art museums to visit one as guest critics. It premiered at RISD.

“Critique is a hallmark of the art field,” writes Raicovich, “yet the vast majority of cultural critics, curators, museum leadership, and museum visitors are affluent and white. What is critique without diversity? What possibilities and truths are we missing?

“I was fortunate to meet artists Maia Chao and Josephine Devanbu, who launched the pilot of an ingenious way to approach these questions called Look at Art. Get Paid. (LAAGP), in 2016 at the RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] Museum. The initiative is a socially engaged art project that pays people who wouldn’t otherwise visit art museums to visit one as guest critics of the art and the institution, flipping the script between the institution and its public, the educator and the educated, the paying and the paid. In the next year, they will embark on an expanded campaign to launch LAAGP simultaneously across a regional cohort of three to five art museums in the US. …

“Hyperallergic: What is the origin story of LAAGP?

“LAAGP: We started LAAGP when we were both students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). We were grappling with the relevance of our chosen field to our wider communities. We believed in art making and cultural critique as vital sites of collective meaning-making and world-building, but felt frustrated by how access to the majority of resources and infrastructure to sustain ambitious projects was constrained to a (mostly white and affluent) initiated few. We asked each other, what would a critique environment look like if you didn’t need to be an insider to be in the room? We were curious to test out how we might use our institutional access and artistic license to move funds that would normally circulate within RISD out into the community. We launched our pilot in 2016 at the RISD Museum. …

“Paying people in cash to visit a museum names the elephant in the room: wealth, specifically the wealth accumulated by beneficiaries of the transatlantic slave trade, and the way this wealth continues to shape whose cultural production gets prioritized.

“As with any group of people, some enjoyed their experience and others didn’t. One critic took a picture of her favorite painting on her phone to get printed at Walgreens and hang it up in her living room. Others found the experience reaffirmed their assumptions that museums are boring.

“But beyond like and dislike of the experience, there was a general feeling amongst critics that the museum is ‘addressing a certain kind of person’ — namely white people and people with money. Throughout our conversations, the topic of belonging featured prominently, and one critic said, ‘maybe this place isn’t for me.’ Another critic articulated that they just didn’t feel like they had ‘bandwidth for another white space.’ When discussing what changes the critics would like to see, most agreed the museum would have to better represent POC [people of color] in their collection, improve language accessibility, advertise in their neighborhoods, and make the experience less intimidating.

“However, there were some critics who felt energized to help the museum. For instance, one critic, a sign-maker, said he’d love to help the museum improve their signage. Another critic — an organizer from Direct Action for Rights and Equality — suggested having cookouts at the museum. We’ve been working with these critics to commission local artists to engage these ideas. …

“Critic Samanda Martínez said, ‘Están cuidando más a las imágenes que a nosotros/They’re taking better care of the paintings than they are of us.’

“It’s one thing to know that a space isn’t welcoming to another person, but it’s another to hear directly from someone who has felt unwelcome. In general, our goal as artists is to make that experience legible and valid, in order to create more urgency and disrupt usual practices that need to change. ” More here.

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plie-project

Photos: The Plié Project
Annalisa Cianci of Teatro dell’Opera di Roma models a paper tutu for a project highlighting diversity in dance.

Did you ever see the intriguing documentary by Vanessa Gould called Between the Folds? It’s about origami masters, and my husband and I heard about it because Vanessa’s parents lived in our town.

I have never advanced in origami myself — folded fortune-tellers are about as far as I go — but I have great admiration for artists practicing the craft. And not long ago I read an astonishing story about a project involving origami ballet costumes.

Leah Collins wrote at CBC Arts, “On paper, it’s a partnership that doesn’t immediately make sense. Pauline Loctin (a.k.a. Miss Cloudy) is an origami artist and self-described ‘folding warrior.’ Melika Dez is a photographer, one who specializes in capturing dancers in action. And around this time last year, the Montreal-based artists began collaborating on something they call the Plié Project: an ongoing series of photographs featuring dancers from internationally famed companies, all wearing original, hand-folded costumes by Loctin.

” ‘Paper is kind of fragile, but at the same time, it’s a very strong material,’ says Dez. Beauty and strength and fragility, all in one: that’s how you describe a dancer, right there. But who gets to be those things? …

” ‘In a world where the ballerina “has to look” a certain way, we decided to showcase the beauty of these unconventional but extremely talented dancers and break the boundaries of stereotypes.’

Amanda Smith, Daphne M. Lee and Yinet Fernandez Salisbury of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Dandara Amorim Veiga of Ballet Hispanico. 

plie-project

“Both artists have personal ties to the ballet, which partly explains their interest in the message. Loctin’s previous career was in classical music. The ballet, she explains, was always connected to her work. Dez is a dancer herself, and as a photographer, she shoots companies around the world, including the Black Iris Project in New York City.

” ‘In my work, I’m used to working with diverse people,’ says Dez. ‘There’s a wave of change that is happening in the dance world and it was important to me to push it forward because I myself, I’m a mix.’ …

” ‘There is a paper colour for every girl. … It was just an important message for me to put out there. For little girls to know that anything is possible no matter if they’re Black, white, Asian, Latina — anything is possible. They can do whatever they want as long as they put their heart into it.’ ”

More at CBC, here. There’s a terrific array of photos at the site.

Mai Kono of Les Grands Ballets. 

mai-kono-of-les-grands-ballets

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Photo: Richard Anderson
After running Center Stage in Baltimore for seven years, Kwame Kwei-Armah returns to England to serve as the new artistic director of the Young Vic.

The London theater world learned recently that the Young Vic‘s new artistic director would be the man behind seven strong years at Baltimore’s Center Stage. He is not native to Baltimore but England, where he has been an actor, a director, and a playwright — a versatility that is expected to serve him well at the Young Vic.

In September, Georgia Snow wrote at The Stage, “Kwame Kwei-Armah is set to be announced as the new artistic director of the Young Vic. …

“Kwei-Armah is understood to have been linked to other artistic director jobs in the UK recently. His recent productions as a director have included One Night in Miami… at the Donmar Warehouse, and a musical about the life of Bob Marley, which he also wrote and which ran at Birmingham Repertory Theatre earlier this year.

“He is currently in rehearsals for an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, also at the Donmar Warehouse, which he directs. …

“His plays have included Bitter Herb, and Elmina’s Kitchen, which ran at the National Theatre in 2003 and was nominated for an Olivier Award. …

“In an interview with The Stage last year, Kwei-Armah also said he thought black representation in the UK has not come as far as the US, and that Brexit has resulted in Britain taking ‘a step backwards into a world of xenophobia.’ ”

Michael Billington at The Guardian adds, “It is significant that Kwei-Armah, born Ian Roberts in London, changed his name when he was 19 after tracing his family history through the slave trade back to its ancestral origins in Ghana. He became interested in the past through watching the TV series Roots and much of his work has been about the search for identity. It was certainly a theme in his first big hit as a playwright, Elmina’s Kitchen, which was seen at the National in 2003 and later became one of the first plays by a black British playwright to make it to the West End.”

More at The Stage, here, and at The Guardian, here.

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Photo: Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership
Hmong dance festival in southwest Minnesota. A Community Development Investments grant from ArtsPlace aims to give newcomers a voice.

Never underestimate the power of art and cultural events to improve lives.

As Amy Evans reports in the magazine Shelterforce (published by the National Housing Institute), the community development field has come to recognize that the arts are key to integrating diverse populations.

Evans discusses the issue with the McKnight Foundation’s Vickie Benson.

“More and more, it seems that arts and culture are being perceived as essential to the core fabric of what builds and nourishes communities — and that gives Benson enormous hope. ArtPlace America, a decade-old collaboration of foundations, federal agencies, and financial institutions, has been one of the driving forces for that shift, Benson says, by insisting that the arts must be in conversation with other sectors, whether community development, housing, or health.

“In Minnesota, the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SWMHP) has joined that conversation. With the support of a community development investment [CDI] grant from ArtPlace America, which will provide $3 million in funding over three years, SWMHP is exploring ways of building arts and culture into its operations.

“It’s a bold step for the organization, and one that Benson wholeheartedly applauds.

” ‘Music, dance, or visual art are forms of expression within many cultures. And just the weaving together of these many, many varied cultural traditions is a natural path for people to communicate with each other,’ says Benson. ‘That is what I hope to see, that communities will understand the importance of arts and culture not as an add-on but as a core piece of community development.’ …

“A couple of decades ago, [the future of the southwest Minnesota town of Worthington] future looked bleak. The farm crisis had taken its toll; the town’s population dropped from 10,243 in 1980 to 9,980 in 1990 as people left the area in search of better opportunities.

“The expansion of the meat processing industry in Worthington turned this trend around. JBS Swift and Co., a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Inc., established what would become its principal plant in Worthington. The impact was far-reaching in the area, propping up small businesses like Smith Trucking Inc. and local hog producers.

“In 1989, increases in productivity led to an additional shift at the plant, attracting workers from literally around the world. … The so-called foreign-born population of Worthington jumped in parallel from 3.7 percent of the total population in 1990 to more than 15 percent in 2000.

“Mike Woll remembers when that shift took place. ‘Worthington’s history of immigration dates back to when I was in high school, when we had some early Lao immigrants,’ Woll recalls. ‘The community became incredibly diverse.’

“Walk into Woll’s high school today and some 50 dialects can be heard, from Central American to Southeast Asian to East African. Downtown on 10th Street, Woll says, ‘you’ll see people from all over the world. Myanmar, Ethiopia, Laos, all sorts of Latin American influence. It’s a remarkable place.’ …

“Woll hopes that one outcome of Worthington’s participation in the CDI Initiative will be preservation of one of the community’s strongest assets.

“ ‘Diversity brings challenges, but it’s put Worthington ahead of the curve. It gives us a broader scope of the world,’ Woll says. He is proud to know that his college-aged son, who grew up in Worthington, can take living in a multicultural environment for granted, even more so than his peers from places like Minneapolis and Chicago. But making space for multiculturalism to truly thrive means giving voice to communities that often haven’t had a seat at the table. Woll hopes that the CDI Initiative will help expand leadership roles to segments of the population who have so much to say, but haven’t had the platform to say it.

“ ‘If not for a program like [ArtPlace], those cultures do get lost,’ Woll says. ‘Having a bit of institutional strength and a financial boost from ArtPlace can help take what are challenges and turn them into positives.’ ”

More at Shelterforce, here.

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It’s amazing what you can learn from DNA. Recently, scientists have been collecting insights from camel DNA about how camel ancestors were used on ancient trade routes.

Victoria Gill writes at the BBC, “Scientists examined DNA samples from more than 1,000 one-humped camels. Despite populations being hundreds of miles apart, they were genetically very similar. Scientists explained that centuries of cross-continental trade had led to this ‘blurring’ of genetics.

“The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“One of the team, Prof Olivier Hanotte, from Nottingham University, explained that what made the dromedary so biologically fascinating was its close link to human history.

” ‘They have moved with people, through trading,’ he told BBC News. ‘So by analysing dromedaries, we can find a signature of our own past. … Our international collaboration meant we were able to get samples from West Africa, Pakistan, Oman and even Syria.’ …

” ‘People would travel hundreds of miles with their camels carrying all their precious goods. And when they reached the Mediterranean, the animals would be exhausted.

” ‘So they would leave those animals to recover and take new animals for their return journey.’

“This caused centuries of genetic ‘shuffling’, making dromedaries that are separated by entire continents remarkably similar.

“Crucially, this has also ensured that the animals maintained their genetic diversity — constantly mixing up the population. This means that dromedaries are likely to be much more adaptable in the face of a changing environment. …

” ‘The dromedary will be our better option for livestock production of meat and milk. It could replace cattle and even sheep and goats that are less well-adapted.’ ”

More at the BBC website, here.

Photo: Mark Payne/Gill/NPL
Ships of the desert: camels provide transport, milk and food in arid, hostile environments

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Last month, Steve Curwood of the radio show Living on Earth covered a special conference on climate change.

“Curwood: A coalition of 80 leading Islamic clerics, scholars and officials meeting in Istanbul has issued a declaration on climate change, ‘calling on all nations and peoples to phase out greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.’ …

“Islamic nations, including wealthy oil-producing states, are taking action on global warming, says Wael Hmaidan. He’s director of Climate Action Network International, one of the conference organizers and joins us now from Istanbul. …

“Hmaidan: I was really happily surprised by how rigorous the Koran and the Islamic teachings on the environment and the care for the planet. It’s a core function of Islam to care for the planet. It’s a responsibility. … It talks about the delicate balance that all the creatures have on Earth and it’s the responsibility of humans to protect this balance.

“It also talks actually about how humankind should not think that they are more important than other creatures. It talks about the role of all creatures and the need of respect, this diversity in the planet. So all of these kinds of proverbs from the Koran and the Islamic teachings, as well as stories about Prophet Mohammed’s life and his care for the environment clearly [makes] environmental care and climate change key issue for an Islamic teaching. And hearing strong statements saying that it is forbidden not to phase out greenhouse gas emissions coming from Islamic scholars is something very inspiring, even for climate activists. …

“There’s an agreement to establish an informal group … that will follow up on all the ideas that came out from the conference. And the ideas are varied, some of them are high-level, like I mentioned going to the UN agencies, to governments, but also the representatives of the organizations that attended want to create action plans in their communities of influence, to bring the declaration. … We need to transform all mosques to renewable energy, and so on. So a lot of ideas, and they’ve created this platform Muslims for Climate to continue the dialogue.”

More here.

Photo: Islamic Relief
Mohamed Ashmawey, CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide and one of the Climate Change Symposium organizers addresses attendees.

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I had dinner with friends at Harvard Square’s Casablanca last night.

Hadn’t seen them in ages. Their older son is moving to New York City with his family this summer. A key attraction is an experimental “international” school opening in Chelsea in the fall. My friends’ granddaughter will start in the new middle school and their grandson in the new elementary school.

Avenues School is the brainchild of publishing whiz Chris Whittle, best known for his not-so-successful Edison Schools. He puts that experiment in a positive light on the Avenues website, saying that it helped to spark the charter school movement. My friends say that experienced and inventive educators from all over have rushed in to help with Whittle’s new global approach to education.

“Begin by thinking Avenues Beijing, Avenues London, Avenues São Paulo, Avenues Mumbai,” says the website. “Think of Avenues as one international school with 20 or more campuses. It will not be a collection of 20 different schools all pursuing different educational strategies, but rather one highly-integrated ‘learning community,’ connected and supported by a common vision, a shared curriculum, collective professional development of its faculty, the wonders of modern technology and a highly-talented headquarters team located here in New York City.”

Erik went to an international school in Wales, a United World College, and made lifelong friends from many nations. As Avenues plans to do, United World Colleges has campuses in different countries. The one in Wales is for high school, but other UWC schools are, like Avenues, preschool to 12th grade, even beyond. Kim Jong-Il’s grandson attends the one in Bosnia!

 

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