Six takeaways from IdeaLab

Need a little inspiration? There was plenty of it at IdeaLab 2017, which brought together creative minds from across the U.S. Here are a half-dozen useful pieces of advice that came out of the day’s conversations.

The 200 people who showed up for IdeaLab 2017 at Denver’s McNichols Building came from across the country and across the creative spectrum. Artists, activists and social entrepreneurs joined with patrons, funders, nonprofit organizers and government officials.

What they had in common was a desire to share their stores and learn new ways to be effective in their work.The event lived up to its name. Panelists started conversations and the audience moved them forward. There were agreements and disagreements and plenty of challenges to business as usual.

And, of course, there were ideas, born collectively from both experience and opinion. Here are six that stood out at the April 14 event.

Steven Renderos of the Center for Media Justice delivers the keynote. Photo by Kara Pearson Photography. Watch the Facebook Live video here.

1. New Technology Is Crucial, But Old-School Messaging Is Helpful, Too.
When the Center for Media Justice wanted to spread the word about the outrageous and unfair rates prisons were charging inmates to make phone calls, it quickly realized new technologies were on its side. ”There were a million Tweets about Ferguson before CNN ever paid attention to it,”  the center’s organizing director Steven Renderos said during his IdeaLab keynote speech. Social media became central to talking about a problem the mainstream press was ignoring. But the center didn’t depend only on the latest mobile trends. It also issued traditional press releases, published facts on the web and made videos. It reached back even further, using voicemail messages from inmates to demonstrate their plight. The lesson: these days, you can make a lot of noise by mixing high-tech with pre-tech. Another example: panelist Musa Bailey, the co-owner of Denver’s socially-conscious nightclub Cold Crush, who talked about using public murals as a messenger in the same way advertisers have employed billboards for a century. Cold Crush has changed the artistically and politically charged murals on its exterior wall 13 times in four years.

2. Be Curious About Other People, and Not Just Other Artists and Creatives, and Take Your Time Getting to Know Them.
“Each of us is a historical landscape of the histories that run together in our own bodies,” said Kirsten Wilson, executive director of Boulder’s Motus Theater and an IdeaLab panelist. Wilson, who trains leaders to dramatize and share their personal stories through a lens of race and class, advocates a genuine and patient approach to building connections between people, which is the first step towards creating meaningful change. “It takes time to invest in a community, to be skillful,” she said, adding that doing so is the only way to build trust and the kind of social capital that can open doors — not just for performances and exhibitions, but transformative experiences. An example of a time Wilson spent some of her hard-earned social capital? She recently convinced a group of law enforcement leaders to publicly read aloud original stories written by undocumented people in Boulder. To get to that point, Wilson had spent time listening to and getting to know people on both sides. Artists benefit plenty from doing so and, maybe, so does the community.

Moderator Suzi Q. Smith, Diego Florez of Free Music for Free People, and Musa Bailey of Cold Crush on the Artists Shaping the World morning panel. Photo by Kara Pearson Photography. Watch the Facebook Live video here.

3. Recognize the Moment and Take Action, But Don’t Get Stuck.
There was a prevailing recognition at IdeaLab that these are dark times for progressive action. It was delivered in code by so many speakers, like Renderos, whose reference to the  “current political climate” was greeted by knowing groans, and like Bonfils-Stanton Foundation President Gary Steuer, who described a current political period that “weighs heavy on most, if not all of us.” Of course, they meant that conservatives are in charge of the country now, and they used it as a call for a communal awareness and response “We are not separate, we are all in this together,” Steuer said. But how far to go in turning artistic and social expression toward political action? Cold Crush’s Musa Bailey, said duty calls in 2017: “As an artist, making art in itself is enough now. As a father, it’s not enough.” Others suggested that creatives need to make their political points, but not give up on providing psychic space for people to reflect on other important aspects of contemporary life. “A world of art that’s all political, all the time, would be lacking depth,” argued panelist Maria Cheng, of Theater Esprit Asia. “You need to create and you need to make change.”

4. Understand How ‘Equity’ Differs from Diversity — Then Build Towards It.
In the arts, as in every realm, diversity has outlived its usefulness as a concept. It’s no longer enough to simply count the ways in which your art, writing, comedy, business, organization, etc, is reaching a diverse audience. No one cares if seven percent of your tickets were sold to “non-traditional” — read: non-white — audiences unless you’re making meaningful moves to understand why that number isn’t higher. If you really want to build a city where the culture reflects everyone who lives, works, consumes and creates, you’ve got to get serious about getting to know people of other ethnicities, races, gender identities and points of view. Then invite them to get involved with you, and not just as an observer. Who do you know? Who comes to your openings, your shows? Do all of your fans, buyers, customers, and patrons look like one another? Do they all look like you? If so, challenge yourself to get better in this area. Read, watch and show up to work by people who are different. Make something with someone people might be surprised you know. Insist that the cultural organizations you patronize, no matter how tiny or huge, take an inclusive approach to decision-making, policy, and programming. Support those that intentionally employ, engage and, yes, pay the marginalized.

Louise Martorano of RedLine, Esther Robinson of ArtBuilt, Nita Mosby Tyler of The Equity Project, Tony Garcia of Su Teatro and Kirsten Wilson of Motus Theater on the Creative Community Organizing afternoon panel. Photo by Kara Pearson Photography. Watch the Facebook Live video here.

5. Be Idealistic, But Realistic.
Any gathering of creatives in Denver in 2017 is full of griping, and nearly all of warranted. Real estate prices in the urban core have skyrocketed beyond middle-class reach and artists and social entrepreneurs can hardly afford to do their work within the city limits. The complaints were real — How come economic studies brag about hundreds of millions of dollars in the arts sector and I can’t pay my rent? And panelist offered lacking bits of hope: Move in with roommates? Form artist unions? Not helpful. Cheng’s advice: Figure out creative ways to earn a living that don’t depend on handouts or patrons. Act like business people — network, invest and plan — and the ability to make and do good works will follow. “If you care enough to have the freedom to do all those things, you have to do that work,” she said.

6. Be Yourself. Have Fun.
It was hard not to be inspired by the brief presentation Adam Horowitz gave on his organization, called the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. IdeaLab was largely a serious affair and Horowitz was the one guy who seemed to be having fun. The “Department” is not a real government agency, it just positions itself like one and makes its points about social change by parodying political institutions. It’s “Super PAC” is short for its Super Participatory Arts Coalition, which encourages action meant to inspire social change. The organization also has an annual “People’s State of the Union,” where groups gather around the time of the U.S. president’s annual speech to give their own report on current conditions. It’s creative and effective work that’s as much fun to carry out as it is to dream up. His latest idea: Why not make developers prepare “cultural impact studies” the same way they have to do “environmental impact studies” for major projects. Displacing people, he claims, is as bad as displacing plants. Hard to argue with that.

Photo by Kara Pearson Photography.

IdeaLab was organized by Confluence-Denver and Creative Exchange, with support from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and the Denver Arts & Venues Cultural Partner Program.

See this story over at Confluence-Denver.

Laura Bond contributed reporting and writing to this story.