Arts activist Marc Bamuthi Joseph takes the stage at SOCAP and spits a verse of poetry. The last lines are halting: “Is it so savage to dream, at last free? At last free.”
Originally from NYC, Bamuthi is a National Poetry Slam champion, a veteran of Broadway, and has been named one of America’s Top Young lnnovators in the Arts and Sciences by the Smithsonian Magazine. He is the Chief of Program and Pedagogy at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, (YBCA), one of the nation’s most innovative contemporary art centers.
“I make poems,” he says. “Sometimes small ones for my two kids, sometimes evening-length epic ones for the Kennedy Center or Lincoln Center or the Chautauqua Symphony or the Philadelphia Opera.”
But it’s not so much the act of being on stage that Marc thinks about. He’s interested in that moment in the audience, when everyone feels completely inspired by what they’ve just seen, and then the lights go up.
“And then what?” he asks. “What, then?”
The mission of YBCA is to generate culture that moves people. In Marc’s case, it’s about activating inspired communities–moving from inspiration to participation. His gig, he says, is to make creative communities for social change.
“How do we not just harbor culture, but how do we deploy it? How do we do more than just present artists that have brilliant ideas but use those artists to catalyze action in our communities?”
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is examining those questions and changing the model for arts institutions. Instead of simply inviting audiences to see a show and be inspired by an artist presentation of an idea, they bring people together at the root of the idea itself–at the point of artist inquiry.
“The only thing more powerful than private funds is the public imagination.” -Marc Bamuthi Joseph
In community think tanks, they gather “demographically and psychographically diverse” people to come together around the essential question that one of their curated artists is asking of themselves.
He shows a slide from a recent think tank at YBCA. “A farmer, a software developer, a Sophomore at Stanford who is going to be a neurologist, the dude that wrote the book on the history of funk, a midwife and a doula–these are the kinds of folks that we bring together in one space,” he says.
The first think tank was organized around the future of soul and examined the question posed by choreographer David Dorfman, in thinking about his piece, Prophets of Funk: If soul encompasses a striving toward a more egalitarian, beautiful expressive culture: What is the future of soul?
“We’ve continued to organize folks around these big ideas, so they’re not just addressing issues of soul but climate, economy, place, and the design of the urban future.”
“Instead of this vertical hierarchical exchange of ideas that most cultural institutions truck in, we are seeking to harbor a more horizontal, rhizomatic approach to how culture is made and how the cultural imagination leads itself to the public imagination and the public will,” he says.
In effect, Marc and others at YBCA are reimagining the public square; the public space, and holding audiences accountable for making culture.
“The only thing more powerful than private funds is the public imagination,” he says.
For more on Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, their community-based think tanks, and what Marc calls “the accountability matrix” that he believes all cultural institutions should subscribe to, watch his SOCAPtv talk.