Miami event generates thoughtful discussion about how the arts can create positive change
How can the arts create positive change in the world?
We explored answers to this question during our latest Images & Voices of Hope (ivoh) conversation in Miami this past weekend. For 15 years, ivoh has held local conversations around the world to help media and arts practitioners think more deeply about the work they do and the impact it has.
Our latest conversation attracted about 60 people, including guest speakers Thom Collins, director of the new Perez Art Museum in Miami; and Amy Rosenberg, founder of the Overtown Music Project, a nonprofit that celebrates the music and history of Overtown — a historically black neighborhood in Miami.
At the heart of their talks was the idea that art and music can be agents of change and world benefit.
Collins told the crowd that he was appreciated having the opportunity to talk not just about what he does, but why he does it. “I think we have all been raised with this assumption that arts institutions exist somewhere between entertainment and some vague notion of education, but no one ever really asks us why we do what we do,” he said.
As the director of a new museum, he’s been asking: “What is our theory of change and how does that theory of change relate to our vision, mission, and our service to the institution?”
A self-professed Hegelian, Collins said he believes “the world changes when individual consciousness changes. The challenge is, how does an individual consciousness that is steeped in ideology and a system of beliefs change?” … “By changing one’s consciousness, you can change many consciousnesses and bring about social change. But how do you do it? At the museum, we believe that through offering people unfamiliar ideas and novel experiences wedded together in the arts experience, we can jolt people out of their accustomed ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.”
By changing our own perspectives and awareness, we can help create a larger shift of consciousness in our families, communities and social groups. Interaction with people is a pathway toward greater change, Collins said: “People don’t bring about the activity to change when they’re out in the world alone.”
Collins and his staff try to offer context that will help people understand the artwork in the museum and the social issues surrounding it.
“We look at it and say, is it accidental that geometric abstraction is produced in North America and South America in the context of post-war development? In Brazil, is it accidental that people started making geometric work precisely at the moment that Brazil was getting its first highways?” Collins said. “We try to offer a context of which maybe even the artists aren’t even aware. … It’s through revealing the historical dimension of this work that our teaching method comes through.”
The museum, he said, has decided it wants to more effectively engage people who live in Miami. To do so, it has geared its programs and art toward the demographics of the city, specifically people from the Caribbean and the Americas.
Rosenberg, the event’s other speaker, also talked about wanting to have an impact on people in the local community.
About five years ago, she read a Miami Herald article about Overtown being the epicenter of music in Miami. It was once the “Harlem of the South” — a thriving spot where musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie played. Throughout the years, though, its nightclubs and commercial centers were demolished, making the community a shadow of its former self.
Rosenberg decided to go on a tour of the area to find out more. As she walked along the streets of Overtown, she was struck by the fact that the community’s rich musical history had been largely forgotten. She decided in that moment that something needed to change.
“I felt something – a stirring. …. I turned to my friend who was there with me and said, ‘I’m going to sell my business and start a nonprofit in Overtown.’ Six weeks later, I ended up selling my business and filing the papers for nonprofit status,” said Rosenberg, who is also director of campus and community programs at YoungArts, an organization that identifies young artists and invests in their development.
One of her first goals was to find the musicians who performed in Overtown years ago. “The journey to get there wasn’t easy. There was no roadmap to starting a nonprofit, particularly in Overtown. … I’m a little crazy, so I decided to knock on doors and go to churches” while tracking down the musicians, Rosenberg said. “People were wonderful for the most part, but there were some death threats from within the community and outside of it. It was definitely a journey.”
Since then, the Overtown Music Project has grown into a thriving nonprofit. It hosts concerts in Overtown and throughout Miami, and has partnered with The Harmony Project in Los Angeles and the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music to create an after-school music program for grade-school students.
“As much as this is an organization that celebrates the history of Overtown, it’s also a conversation about race,” Rosenberg said. “Music is what brings everyone together.”
Following Rosenberg and Collins’ talks, event attendees engaged in a series of small group discussions led by facilitator Marge Schiller, who is trained in Appreciative Inquiry. The conversations led to a deeper understanding of how art can be both a creative form of expression and an outlet for creating meaningful awareness and change. We’re grateful for everyone who came and took part in this dialogue.
Special thanks to all those who dedicated time and resources to make the local conversation a success, including Claudia Potamkin, the Brahma Kumaris, and the South Florida ivoh planning committee, led by coordinator Meredith Porte.
Interested in holding a local ivoh conversation in your own community? Please email ivoh managing director Mallary Tenore for more details.