Daniel José Custódio, a poet who founded the Slam Nahuatl local slam poetry group in 2008, said he thought anytime an artist depends on an institution, he or she is compromising the art.
“The artists really have to go beyond the channels of institutions, beyond the university, beyond getting the grant money or the pat on the back [to create change],” he said.
Two years ago, Custódio created the End Hunger slam poetry series in which Slam Nahuatl troupe took the proceeds from their shows and provided a single mother and her two children with funding for an entire year’s worth of groceries.
Custódio was one of six artists who discussed the role of art in creating social change at a panel discussion Sept. 3 at UR Downtown on East Broad Street. The panel, titled “The Citizen Artist,” focused in on the debate of whether a large institution or foundation can play a role in the concept of art creating social change.
Two of the six panelists included Patricia Herrera of the Richmond theatre department, and Tanja Softic, a member of the Richmond art faculty. The remaining panelists included Noah Scalin, a member of the Virginia Commonwealth University art faculty, Adria Hoffman, a member of the University of Southern Mississippi music faculty, and William Ashanti Hobbs III, a member of the Virginia State University English and creative writing faculty.
Herrera, co-founder and co-director of the Rubí Theater Company in New York City, uses her theater to target the Latino community.
“I feel like my medium is theater, but my medium is also, of course, the classroom,” she said. “There comes a point where I’m not thinking about the box office. That’s not my problem. To me, it’s the students. What’s important to them? But the institution’s always going to be there, so I think rather than seeing the institution as bad, we should instead say, ‘The institution is here. Let’s use it as a resource.’”
Custódio, who is the son of a Portuguese father and a Brazilian mother, said he was playing the devil’s advocate.
“I often find that in this capitalistic society, art is synonymous with privilege,” Custódio said. “So I thought to myself, how can it do something for someone who doesn’t have the privilege to sit down and enjoy it? What can the art do for somebody like that?”
Scalin founded Another Limited Rebellion: Socially Conscious Design and Consulting, an independent graphic design company.
“I’m sort of interested in making a living doing art and doing good,” Scalin said. “I’ll never be super rich, because I’ve limited myself by saying, ‘I can’t take these clients because I don’t believe in that.’ There’s the path of ‘do this and do the art.’ And then with me, I say I’m going to do it both ways.”
Tonja Softic, chairwoman of the departments of art and art history at UR, agreed with Herrera on the idea of working with rather than against the institution.
“Institution is such a bad word in this conversation, but let’s look at how ‘institution’ has changed,” Softic said. “Look at what University of Richmond used to be: very parochial, lily white, Southern school. Look at what University of Richmond is now. Students come from all kinds of backgrounds.
There is a point when people stop realizing that maybe they’ve gotten compromised a little too much to be useful at all, and I think one has to be vigilant about that, but also recognize that working with an institution, we can advance change and actually use institutions for good.”
Adria Hoffman, who is also a former K-12 music teacher in Henrico County, emphasized her own compromise.
“Do you need to get the right credentials or the right funding in order to bring the resources to your home community?” she asked.
“I think my own compromise has been, ‘If I get a grant, I can bring more resources to kids,’ and that in turn helps to make a more systemic impact with more children in a way that I wouldn’t have before.”
William Ashanti Hobbs III wrote the novel “Worthy,” which tells the story of a third-grade teacher whose status as a first-generation college graduate threatens the balance between her new ideas and her rough, dysfunctional past.
“Navigating and fostering that relationship [with the institution], that’s an art form of itself,” Hobbs said. “All my life I’ve been working on the boundary between the underprivileged community and middle class educated society. More than anything it’s about dialogue. People are just waiting for that opening.”
Liz Sheehan, the panel discussion director, said, “the citizen artist is a new generation and Richmond’s future.” Liz Sheehan is the director of Partners in the Arts, the University of Richmond School of Continuing Studies program that put on the discussion.
“In some respects, being broke gives you a certain amount of freedom,” she said. “In many cases, foundations have agendas, usually they’re wonderful agendas, but if you receive funding from them you also have to conform to their agendas. We’re looking for where you can change the status quo and still bring people along with you.”
Sheehan closed the conversation by asking the panelists what immediate goals they might have for using their art to bring social change to Richmond. Herrera said she’d like to create a production raising the issues faced by Richmonders affected by the Arizona Immigration law.
Custódio said he’d like to get the chance to work with the University of Richmond to expand his End Hunger series to feed not just one family but tens or hundreds of families.
“That’s the thing, I challenge everybody,” he said, “but I here I am trying to work with the institution.”
Gabrielle Misiewicz, Westhampton College ’11, attended the discussion.
“As a college student, you wonder what can I do really, and how can I make a change,” Misiewicz said. “Even in their small ways, these individuals here have been able to make a difference in their community.”
Partners in the Arts and the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at UR Downtown sponsored the panel, coordinated by Liz Sheehan of Parners in the Arts as well as Judy Mejia and Liz Riggs of the CCE. The event was also co-sponsored by the Modlin Center for the Arts, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Theatre and Dance, Rhetoric and Communication Studies and Richmond College.