Perspectives on Safety and Sustainability for Venues and Cultural Spaces


Ben Johnson: As we emerge out of lockdown there is a lot of discussion around what safety means and that’s an ever-changing definition. One committee I sit on is the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) where we try to figure out how to get emergency funding for a safe reopening. Looking at how fragile our ecosystems are, I’ve realized the production of creativity rests on the backs of arts producers and their artists. Unless there is some sort of tactical tool with data and funding to support the infrastructure and ecosystem, there is no safety net. I was never taught in school how to work with city municipalities to determine the future of the culture in my city and state. In the geographically large and diverse county that is Los Angeles, I get to witness a lot of interesting high-level conversations around what the future of cities looks like: greening the city, progressive social justice, density of new developments, etc. But we never talk about cultural infrastructure and preserving spaces for cultural community centers.

For me, the future of sustainability is coming up with plans that align with other major initiatives within cities and municipalities. We need to start preserving actual space. Otherwise, it’s all just prone to gentrification with no support network. One example of high-level policy having an impact on the long-term sustainability of an ecosystem is the state of Minnesota. They created the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment which aligned support of the environment with support for the arts. Citizens were taxed at 0.375 percent sales tax increase to preserve the environment—lakes, streams, rivers, the wetlands, cleaning the state parks and trails, and preserving the prairies—while also maintaining an increase of funding for the arts for twenty-five years. It was an artist-centric initiative spread throughout the state.

Sophie Blumberg: I define safety and sustainability from multiple perspectives. It has to be baked in at every level of the conversation. It’s not just about physical safety onstage; it’s about emotional safety for performers in the creation processes and performances. How do we support the arts and make safe environments to operate in? How do we build an infrastructure for safety into our budgets and relationships, and make it sustainable at every level of the work? How are we using land, interfacing with the community, and talking about the work in the community? I’m a big fan of adrienne maree brown, who writes in Emergent Strategy: “What is easy, is sustainable.”

Jonathan Secor: Safety and sustainability are two very different things. When we get too safe and too sustainable, are we losing the art? In the early 2000s, the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) worked to identify the creative and cultural communities’ monetary contribution to the overall economy, stating that it was a “sector” unto itself.

Taking the Berkshires of western Massachusetts as an example, they captured the money coming into the communities from local arts and cultural organizations. This justified funding for the arts because the arts sector created jobs and income—not because the arts changed lives or held intrinsic value. MCC monetized it so much that we began to lose art for art’s sake; it just became an income generator. Safety nets are necessary, but when do they become an impediment to risk-taking and innovation? How do we create safety that allows for risk across the board?

Sophie: Distinctions need to be made between safety in space for the artists (what it means to be safe for an organization) and what it means to be financially safe and secure. That is what you’re talking about, the appeal to a sort of financial safety, but the core of the art gets lost. It’s peeling apart those definitions of safety and how to balance them. Risk in art is the point. How does one create a space that is safe for risk?

Ben: When does safety become oppressive?

Jonathan: People and organizations getting the unrestricted Bezos grants of $10 million are suddenly “safe” but how does that change their ecosystem? Does it create an environment that is sustainable? Because there’s not always going to be white guilt.

Financial security has always been a big piece of the artistry puzzle. We sacrificed our own safety in the name of creating and producing work and keeping a roof over our heads.

Ben: Safety is about perspective. I’ve been in conversation with two amazing, young Black female producers: Genet Yitbarek and Addis Daniels. They founded an organization called Black Hour LA, which produces late-night parties and cultural events primarily for the Black community. In Los Angeles, there’s a massive amount of creativity, innovation, experimentation, and community-centered festivals happening. In many ways, this is a way to keep people mentally healthy and to make it known that community is still there, alive and persevering, during this trying time. The community found wellness by being together.

In our conversation, Genet and Addis talked about the city’s oppressive permitting system and how it doesn’t allow for long-term sustainability and resilience. They talked about the constant surveillance and constant policing around any kind of creative event that they do and the difference between security and policing. Why is the first response always punitive, especially in Black cultural spaces? Genet and Addis suggested that perhaps producers need to provide their own culturally literate teams that are appropriate for the event. Could there be a policy for certain districts in Los Angeles that allow for police-free zones?

Sophie: Safety looks different depending on who a person is and where they are making work. So, the real question is, who is safe in this moment? What might make me feel safe might not make my colleague, or the Black artists I’m working with, feel safe. What are our assumptions about safety? This is about being intentional in how one builds safety and security for the people they’re working with and the communities they’re working in.

Ben: If it was possible to change everything tomorrow, what would it look like? What are the policies? What are the practices? That’s how fast it needs to happen. Liberation needs to happen now. If someone owns their own facility, does that increase feelings of safety? Is it access to capital? Maybe that’s how to provide sustainability; maybe the answer is to own something. If there is no easily-accessible system to help support that, then people are constantly at the mercy of whatever the system is.

Sophie: Financial security has always been a big piece of the artistry puzzle. We sacrificed our own safety in the name of creating and producing work and keeping a roof over our heads. I think part of the urgency is that we’ve all realized this past year that we just can’t work that way anymore. It is unsustainable.

Ben: So much of safety is about cultural capacity building; it’s safety and sensitivity.

Jonathan: These are the same questions we were asking thirty-five years ago. The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) sixteenth annual DanceAfrica Festival began with a motorcycle procession by a Black motorcycle club. They were carrying the flags of all the African nations from 125th street to the front of the BAM Opera House. We built a stage in front of BAM for a blessing ceremony. Around the stage, we wrapped the police barricades in kente cloth and stationed members of the Nation of Islam for security. We asked the police officers to be in their formal uniforms and to be in the back of the audience, not the front.

What’s interesting now is the urgency in the dialogue. People are not going to wait. My generation was like, “Things will get better gradually.” What I’m witnessing from those who are younger is that there is a sense of: “We’re not going to wait. It needs to be changed now!” If I can support that, get behind that, and then get out of the way, it’s doing the right thing.

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