Simon Dove, Director of CEC ArtsLink, in conversation with Rachelle Archer for The Artful Leader podcast

Rachelle Archer and Simon Dove

In this episode Simon Dove highlights the power of artists whose social practice catalyzes connections, understanding, and ultimately helps forge a more empathic world. He shares compelling examples of creative ways to address and bring attention to social and environmental issues at home and abroad and speaks to the importance of promoting public investment in culture.

Have a listen and get inspired by the work of artists who can enrich our communities with their unique perspectives and solutions:

Podcast Transcript

Simon Dove, Director of CEC ArtsLink, in conversation with Rachelle Archer for The Artful Leader podcast

Transcript is lightly edited for clarity and brevity

Rachelle Today, we’ll be going full circle on a theme we started this season with, which is how artists leave their communities better than they found them. This time we’ll be zooming out on a global scale, showcasing how critical the role of the artists can be in transnational diplomacy and building a civil and empathic global culture. I’m so honored to welcome today’s guest, Simon Dove. He is a curator and educator and currently the Executive Director of CEC ArtsLink. He co-curated the Crossing the Line festival in New York City from 2008 to 2018. He was Professor of Practice and Director of the School of Dance at Arizona State University. Welcome, Simon.

Simon Rachelle, it’s great to be here.

Rachelle Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work at CEC ArtsLink.

Simon Essentially CEC ArtsLink was set up to build links between cultures and between people in different countries, and ArtsLink emerged as a way of working with artists to bridge those connections. We have a huge network of countries that we work with and across the USA, and we seek out those transnational artists who can really engage with communities, artists and organizations. For us, it’s important there’s a real conversation that happens. It is not an art residency where the artists disappear into a studio and emerge with a painting after six weeks. We really want artists who are going to be engaged and connected and in dialogue with their peers in the region, with artists in the neighborhood, but also with the community itself. Our focus is on social practice; artists who work with people. The connection with the community is really crucial to their creative practice and creative process and involving people in the creation and the framing of a project’s idea is important.

Rachelle Yes, all of that sounds so fascinating and exciting. I’m curious, what is alive for you as an organization right now?

Simon We’re very exercised by Russia’s war in Ukraine and we are trying to find ways that we can support the creative community in Ukraine. Many artists have been displaced. Many have had their studios, their work spaces destroyed. There’s a huge level of trauma, but also displacement. We’re helping artists to start to think about working together and envisioning a future.

We’re also concerned that in the United States, since 2008 and the big economic crash when funding for international exchange began to diminish, that many foundations feel they need to address domestic issues in the U.S., and that sending artists or curators abroad is a kind of luxury that we cannot afford. So we’re really looking at how we can advocate for a greater understanding of the value of transnational exchange, to connect artists to artists in different cultural contexts, in different geopolitical contexts, and in different economic contexts.

It’s important that there is a connection that is human and personal and starts to build a genuine level of empathy and understanding. We talk a lot about transnational exchange because we’re increasingly feeling that political boundaries and borders are not so relevant to the way artists think about their work, and especially about the way people connect and communicate. It’s about who is it and what is their interest? What are their values? What can we share? What is different? What can we exchange?

Transnational dialogue is the core of what we do. It’s about an urgent global need now to help communities understand each other, to connect with each other, and to build a sense of rapport. There are so many issues that confront all of us globally. It’s not about nation states anymore. There’s a big UN conference on the issues around the water shortage being held in New York at the moment, and that’s compounded by the climate change and now increasing hostilities between countries. I think there’s so many issues that the global community needs to come together to address. It’s how do we build connections now to rebuild a real sense of understanding between people that’s critical. Artists, of course, can be a really powerful catalysts in making that happen.

Rachelle Yeah, you just jumped in to where I was going ahead with my next question, which is how are artists uniquely suited to address these kinds of issues and build those connections that can be so transformative?

Simon We focus on social practice. As I said, that’s really where artists are interested in connecting with people and in dialog, determining what the issues are that face them as individuals, perhaps them as a community, and finding ways in which creatively they can jointly approach it, tackle it, build awareness of it, bring attention to it, because often it’s a social issue that needs local government or public attention to solve. Artists can be amazing at bringing attention to things and platforming issues in communities. It’s that idea of social practice as a creative way of addressing community issues, which is what we focus on.

Whilst that term social practice is kind of used a lot in the art world and in academia, and it’s known in the West, in many countries we’re working with in Central Europe and Central Asia, it’s not a term that’s used so much. Rather many artists say, well I’m a creative artist and I’m also an activist and what they really mean is they are addressing the social issues, social concerns within their artistic practice. Often they see these practices as separate, but we see them as connected and part of the same impulse to bring a new way of looking at an issue.

I often say that artists are our last hope, but actually I think art is really critical and important in the way we think about how we navigate our lives, how we connect with our neighbors, how we work with our communities, and that creative thinking that is challenging of ideas, that offering of other perspectives that artists can often bring. Just asking us to re-imagine something can be very powerful and very transformative.

Rachelle Yeah and I’m just so touched hearing your story because I played a role as an expressive arts therapist at a school for unhoused youth here in San Diego for 17 years or something. My role was to do just that, was to connect with that community and find ways to elevate their voices and bring awareness to the community to tell a different story about that population. The idea of doing this on an international scale is just mind blowing and so exciting. I’m wondering if you could maybe take us down on the ground and give us some stories or an example of a project or something where this came to life.

Simon We have a program called ArtsLink International Fellows. In a nutshell, this is an open call to all the countries we work with for people who are interested, who have a background in working creatively within a community context, and who are interested in connecting with a community or organization in the U.S. and we offer a three phase process because we’re interested not just in a one off moment, but in really building a more long term sustainable relationship.

We choose the artists first and then based on their research and their practice we invite a host organization in the U.S. First we ask them to spend time over six weeks together online. It’s chatting about practice, getting to know each other, but it’s also about saying you should meet this person or that person. They then travel to the U.S. for six weeks and they hit the ground running because they have all these connections already, they know who they want to talk to and who else they want to meet. It’s not about making a thing, it’s about building a kind of conversation, it’s to build a strong relationship. Then we resource them to develop a project back home with an artist or colleague from that U.S. residency. We are trying to build a sustainable creative relationship that we hope has a life beyond our intervention. A great example of this happened just two years ago, an artist called Bermet Borubaeva, who’s based in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, came to Chicago to Hyde Park Arts Center in the south of Chicago. Her concern was about the environment, but also about the way in which we generate waste and the community impacts of that waste. In Bishkek, there’s a city dump two miles outside the city, which, you know, it’s far enough away. No one in the city and certainly in the city government thinks about it at all. But there’s a community of 3000 people living around the dump and living off the dump, effectively picking out things they can recycle or they can resell. But of course, the dump is constantly on fire, so it’s producing toxic fumes that are impacting the community. The kids living there have asthma and of course, no one was interested because it is two miles away from the city. So Bermet in Bishkek created a festival called TRASH Festival, and she brought artists to the dump and she brought press and journalists to the dump. She created an attention on the environmental disaster this dump was and the massive impact it was having on the community that were living around it. They took over a store, they got books that they found in the dump and others donated and they created a community library. It was about giving attention to this community, but also helping the community to see there was a different way of living in this context. She came to Chicago, it was Halloween, and she was horrified that all the people were carving pumpkins and then leaving them to rot on their doorsteps, saying this is a huge waste of food. And she created a feast with carved pumpkins to which she invited the community. They all had pumpkin jam and pies and she made some curries and other savory and sweet things. She brought attention to pumpkins as food. She asked people to rethink their actions and question their assumptions.

Rachelle Yeah, and I love creating opportunities for artists from other countries to come and reflect back to us. You know, some of the things that we’re doing, there could be other ways of doing it, you know, with waste.

Simon An artist from California, Farrah Karapetian, went to Tashkent in Uzbekistan as part of our Art Prospect Network residency program. She was very interested in the cotton industry because Uzbekistan is a huge cotton growing country. She read that almost one in eight people were in some way involved in the cotton industry and was interested in these relationships between cotton and its exploitative history, both in the south of the U.S. and in Uzbekistan. She worked with the people in the cotton industry curating songs and getting stories from people, and building this knowledge of the cotton industry, which she then took back and presented back in the U.S. the way people in Uzbekistan had built survival strategies for themselves and their community. It was a way of thinking about community building, about shared community practices. A very powerful project.

Rachelle Yeah, that’s so cool and so fascinating. I’m curious, how do you think that artists working here in the United States could be better supported? Are there other models?

Simon It’s a massive conversation. I was brought up in England and I worked in Europe where there is a completely different civic relationship to culture. There’s a public investment in culture and the arts that comes from the taxes everyone pays. There’s an investment in the military, too, of course. If you took a small slice of the U.S. military budget and put it into culture, it could have a huge impact. Also in European governments there’s a culture minister, it’s often a portmanteau position, culture and sports or culture and communication, but at least there’s a voice in governmental decisions and thinking about culture and what that signals to everyone – who is either happy or not to pay their taxes – that culture is an important part of civil society. Just as much as you have an education minister, a transport minister, a ministry for buildings or economics, there’s also one for culture. I think that’s a critical message that is about positioning culture as an important component, an integral part of civil society.

Rachelle That it has a place

Simon In the U.S., we don’t have that. I would say in the U.S. there’s no public investment in the arts and then everyone says no we have a National Endowment for the Arts, but actually the NEA has a budget of less than 200 million. I think for 2023, it’s going to go up to $203 million for the entire nation. And that, just to put it in perspective, that $200 million is the annual budget for the Paris Opera House on its own. They get 100 million from the government and they raise 100 million from box office and donations. So what funds ballet and opera in Paris is the same budget as the entire public investment in the arts in the United States of America. It’s really kind of pitiful.

Rachelle Yeah.

Simon I think that the idea of shifting culture into something that is an important part of civil society is reinforced if there is public investment in culture. Then you start to change the perception of culture not as entertainment or a distraction or some kind of elitist treat.

Working in the arts in Europe, I really felt a public responsibility. At Springdance, which is a big festival in the Netherlands, we had four year funding agreements, a concept unheard of in the U.S.. It was a joint agreement between the national government, the region and the city where we were based. They collectively agreed on a four year funding package. You raise other money too of course, but we knew what our basic budget was and what we could plan to do. It meant we could do long term projects, we could work with communities over time. We could plan commissions of artists two or three years in advance. And you can be a part of the conversation about what that work is and how you can play a role in it. Things like that, which are almost unheard of in the U.S.A.

What was great too was we felt we needed to provide opportunities for everyone, which meant we did a lot of things for free in public spaces. We did a lot of things that involved the community in performances, bringing the community in dialogue with international artists and all the things that you feel you need to do in order to engage the city and the population of the country. I think that also changes your idea of what culture is.

I feel artists should be embedded in communities and we should find a way, even in the U.S. model, to find ways in which artists could be really given housing or they’re offered some supportive systems, not all together. They often build artists’ housing and there’s 20 artists in one building. But, you know, imagine having an artist’s apartment in each public housing development across the U.S., where artists had free accommodation. And in return they do so many hours work with communities: running after school things, working with elderly groups. You imagine what could happen. Both of those communities, but also those artists have a sustainable way of living and a roof over their head. And there’s a way of, I think, working with culture and with artists that really needs a serious reexamination in the U.S..

Rachelle I could not agree with you more, and that’s such a powerful vision because of everything you’ve described. Just the way that artists can interact with communities, can build relationships, can create these really valuable places of reflecting on our practices, how we live, how we could live differently, how we can live in ways that are more peaceful and more inclusive and more mindful of the impacts and how they reverberate through our country and around the globe. I love that vision of CEC ArtsLink really, to create this global culture, because we have to work together. We’re all on this planet and we’re all impacted by what’s going on globally. I love that sort of transborder, transnational vision of creating something much bigger to solve the issues that we’re up against.

Simon I think our role as the mediator is to make those things happen. By offering these connections to U.S. organizations, it means they can start to build a relationship with artists that, again, they would not otherwise have a relationship with, with cities, with communities, with countries, with cultural practices they would not otherwise have access to. What we’re doing in the sense is small, but we’re changing the world one artist at a time. We’ve had so many testimonies from artists who continue to be in touch with organizations or with artists they met or community members they’ve met, even traveling afterwards to each other’s countries. There’s a connection that I feel is clearly a value and meets a need. I just wish we could do it on a scale that had a greater level of impact and could create more of a momentum. But we’re doing what we can within the resources and the capacities we have. It’s a constant issue of how do we resource this work and how do we expand the possibilities. We feel the need is growing. It’s not diminishing. So we’re also trying to find ways in which we can enable more communities to connect with more artists, especially transnationally. This is really crucial.

Rachelle I grew up in Europe as well. I lived in Holland, in Belgium for many years, and I studied expressive arts in Switzerland. I’m very passionate about the impact that being part of a global community can have on how we approach problems, how we approach communities, how we look at our role in the world, so I’m right there with you. As we wrap up our conversation I’m wondering if you have something that you would like to leave our listener with. You know, we have so many folks who listen, who are arts educators and leaders of arts organizations and teachers and, you know, folks who are engaging in the arts in all kinds of different ways. Is there something you would like to leave them with today?

Simon Artists are such a critical part of the way society evolves and they are able to think about and address issues that confront us individually, within communities and across nations. We should always find ways to center artists in the work we do. You imagine if every corporation across the US had resident artists who were there in order to really get the corporations to reimagine themselves and to question and to confront ideas and assumptions. I feel artists would have a much more powerful and important role, and I feel society would recognize that power. I think it would mean artists had better ways of living and probably could get health insurance, which is often the thing that they lack the most. It’s just this idea of centering artists, recognizing their value, and finding ways in which they can play a role in everything we do, I think is an important formula, if you like, for the way we might evolve as a human race.

Rachelle Well, thank you, Simon so much for bringing this whole transnational perspective to the Artful Leader and sharing a little bit about your organization. If folks want to engage with you or support you or follow on social media, where should they go?

Simon I think the best place is on Instagram, which you can find us @CEC_ArtsLink, but our website, has links to all the things I’m talking about programs and you can see details of our fabulous team also.

Rachelle Fabulous, yeah, so listeners, go and check them out and support and think about how you can engage artists in your community. Thanks again, Simon, have a wonderful day.

Simon Rachelle, thank you so much for the invitation, great to chat.

Published May 19, 2023
Podcast Social Practice