Too Serious

I realized something today about myself. One of my struggles with my involvement in the arts has been that I am a pretty serious person. I grew up in healthcare and worked a good chunk of my life in that space and IT. Details matter there, often having correlation to disease, suffering, death. Early in my life I considered the human psyche as central to health, and as art explores the mind and our cultural influences on it, I was always attracted to culture.

Too often, though, the arts are placed in the context of entertainment, a distraction, a way to pass the time. I tend to see it as a vital expression of the human condition where someone (an artist) has put forth their whole life’s work and others walk by casually, perhaps ignoring it altogether. I get upset. I’ve seen too much depression, isolation, suicide in the arts to feel otherwise.

In Cuba, for example, last year we visited artist’s studios. These arranged visits that brought wealthy Americans to buy art were heartbreaking for me. Our guide said to me, “why don’t you talk to the artist’s mother” who was standing nearby.  She shared with me how nervous they would get many hours leading up to the visits. With good reason: a work of art that casually sells for $12,000 represents 50 YEARS of the average Cuban’s annual income. Practically a lifetime. And that’s nothing as far as art goes in the international market. If the sale doesn’t happen, I know the despondent feeling that ensues. When my little Cuban cousin gave me her art, knowing I am in the art world, I thought to myself: “My child, I hope you never learn what I know.”

I feel sadness when I see things reduced to spectacle. In an effort to help people connect with the ideas being presented and to be approachable, often the arts are presented in the realm of “entertainment.” In The Denver Post, for example, the section is literally called “entertainment.”

In the important book, Whose Muse: Art Museums and the Public Trust, about the purpose of art in our lives and of art museums in society, the former long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, and fellow museum director James Cuno, discussed the trend in our society for giant blockbuster art exhibitions. Instead they encouraged us to try to connect our communities with our permanent collections and shared, long cultural histories. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Pg 55 † “I offer an alternative museum experience: the permanent collection and the opportunity it affords for sustained and repeated engagements with individual works of art, presented without the hyperbolic promotional apparatus of the temporary exhibition. In this case, the permanent collection one object at a time.” (James Cuno)

Pg 73 † “The public has entrusted in us the authority and responsibility to select, preserve, and provide its access to works of art that can enhance, even change, people’s lives. And in turn, we have agreed to dedicate all of our resources – financial, physical, and intellectual – to this purpose. Art museums are a public trust.   …we can best earn that trust simply, by remaining open as places of refuge and spiritual and cultural nourishment.” (James Cuno)

Pg 199 † “I am still uneasy with the split between the public’s and the media’s perception of the museum. It has to do, I think, with the two worlds that have been created by museums: the world of the museum as an experience in and of itself, and the world of experiencing works of art….It’s now about “the experience of the museum,” of which the art is only a small part.” (Philippe de Montebello)

I experienced this at the international art fair, Art Basel, in Switzerland a couple of years ago. The first day I wore a jacket and pants and walked alone. I didn’t speak to many people. The next day I dressed very casually, with walking sandals, and casual clothes. I met a banker from Brussels on the train into town; we spent the whole day together walking around, seeing art. Everyone must have thought we were a collector couple, he my banker husband and me, casually holding culture in my disposable paper cup, dipping from the abundant punchbowl at my heart’s content. We spoke to half the fair.

I find the arts a very beautiful expression of the human condition and capable of transforming our psychology, something that medicine cannot always do. Somehow I will have to find a way for my participation in it to reflect my empathy for all that I have (sadly) now seen. I think I’ve concluded that it boils down to DIGNITY for me, helping artists feel dignity and heard, and helping those that want to share in cultural expressions feel welcome and validated.

 

Connecting Artists with International Audiences

Artists need to be connected with international audiences and the channels that exist for that to happen today are too narrow. Toward finding new solutions, I work as an art advisor and art philanthropist. I own a contemporary art gallery in Denver as a means of promoting local artists and hosting a community space for new ideas. In order to do this work efficiently given todays online world, I am working on a magazine and web platform called digm that addresses some of the inherent systemic challenges.

Survival of the Individual

Everything in our culture drives us to institutional (group) thinking.

Personal branding is getting viral as though not only corporations should be treated as persons but persons should be treated as corporations! Professional identity is linked to corporations/universities/governments/nonprofits as opposed to scholarship and original thought. Team sports, groups, schools identifying us with a brand. My work aims to support the survival of the individual in this increasingly complex world. I believe every human being deserves dignity and recognition without having to don the cape of a corporation, an ivy league school or brand name nonprofit. Remembering that we are human beings first— individuals— and sharing that is vital.

Storytelling: What I Want My Kids to Know

My mother is a great storyteller. She was born in 1936 and her generation seems to really understand the beautiful value of storytelling and learning throughout the lifespan. Every single time I speak to her she has a story to tell me, usually it centers around being humble and having respect for others and learning from them.

Last night as I dozed off to sleep my mind wandered and asked me, “If I wasn’t here tomorrow would my children know what I want them to know about me? Have I told them enough stories?” My mom has breast cancer and is undergoing chemo, so the realization that the time is now to do things you love has more clarity for me.

In this digital world, our artifacts are spread out all over. I have a mental listing of where my writings are, where my tax documents are, my favorite photos. However I have tens of thousands of photos just since I started using iPhoto. I easily have a terabyte of data associated with “me.” Of course my will is easily accessible and it has some pointers to info. I’m speaking more profoundly about my person: my experiences, learnings, love for the kids. I will slowly start to curate a (small) set of information I would want them to know. I believe in that process one develops a larger view of time and a deeper sense of gratitude for all we have.

Awesome Books for Kids

In an effort to expand our family vocabulary, I was looking at some of the kids book lists out there. You can put books on hold at the library with a future date. I’m compiling some kids lists in the library catalog so we can get them each week. Here are the lists.

Newbery Medal Winners
Awarded to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.

Colorado Blue Spruce Book Award
The award is unique in being entirely nominated and voted for by teens. Inclusion on the nominations list does not imply endorsement by any adult as this is a program of entirely student-selected titles. Each year teens in grades 6-12 are free to nominate their favorite titles; a list of 12-15 titles is then compiled by the Blue Spruce Award committee based on number of nominations received. Adults do not nominate or vote for books, and publishers are not allowed to submit their books for consideration.

Alex Awards
The Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. (American Library Association)

Pura Belpre Award Winners
Presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrities the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.

Coretta Scott King Winners
Given annually to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.

The descriptions above are from the Denver Public Library and ALA web sites.

Teach, Don’t Judge

This is a small pet peeve of mine, however I’d like to share it. If we are in conversation and you like an artist, just tell me about it.

I can’t tell you how many times people say to me: “I love this artist! Do you know this person?” I shudder to think of how many times curators in museums hear that. Ugh.

I usually shut down when I hear that type of question. First of all, it tells me you don’t know much about art. There are 2.5 million artists in the US alone. Yes, I will likely have heard of the famous and the regional ones. However, far more likely is that my interests don’t align with yours.

So instead of using this silent thermometer to see how much you think I know about art, just tell me what you freakin’ love.

Likely is I will love it too because I’m voraciously curious. And if I haven’t heard about it, I’ll go home and look it up. At least we don’t waste each other’s time.

Teach me. Does it really matter if I have heard of it? Only if you’re trying to judge. And let me tell you, if I think you’re an intellectual snob I’ll act like a complete moron just to disengage.

Students and Art as a Means of Revealing Self

Each year we host some events in support of art programs in local schools. Today was the the opening of a photography show for Denver Public Schools during Month of Photography. It was an open call across the region’s high schools. About 300 submissions resulted in 75 pieces selected.

I’ve never seen so much diversity at an art exhibition in my life. Every museum educator’s dream. These kids were walking their parents through the exhibition. I heard an older Mexican dad say, “Mijo, y eso?” Son what is that? His son explained. Financially, ethnically, in terms of age, wow were there many kinds of humans here today. That was very cool. The best part was that the kids were guiding their parents and grandparents through. High schoolers are asking mature enough questions that the conversation moves beyond a child’s perspective. This is why I love art: these young people expressing themselves to their own families.

Hilariously, the teens playing guitar in back told the organizing teacher they like to play classic rock, like Nirvana! She said: “Oh my, am I that old that their “classic rock” is Nirvana?!”

In the quiet before the exhibition, I was glad to see some students get an award ribbon. I thought of their surprise and how much these kinds of events really serve as tiny stepping stones on a creative mind’s path. Later I saw some of the other students walk in and not get a ribbon. I wondered if the ribbon was worth it? Was this the beginning of the quiet silencing? Someone else saw your work and decided whether it should have a ribbon. I decided that’s the reality of most things in life. It’s definitely worth it for the ones who get that tiny bit of affirmation. I heard one mother say to a teen: “it’s an honor just to be in the show.” A valuable life lesson.

I was also impressed by how many kids took books off the shelf. Kurt’s dad would have been very happy. Usually adults walk in, admire the bookshelf and walk on. These kids were curiously pulling them off and looking. I tried not to stare in disbelief.

A community needs spaces like this, spaces to experiment, to be seen and to see, to walk through safely and learn. Thanks, Alexa, for having the show at the Gallery and Mark Sink for connecting us.

What Would You Do If Money Was No Object?

In my journey with digm, the most important question anyone has asked me was:

“What would you do if money was no object?”

Laura Merage, the founder of the art space RedLine, asked me this question on October 13, 2014, when I met her for coffee to show her my prototype of a new magazine for Colorado’s art community. Her husband owned Hot Pockets and so likely money is not an object for them, but for me with two kids in private school, a mortgage, a small business, money is very much an object.

Still it doesn’t matter who you are, that is the most fundamental question to ask yourself.

For the first 24 hours, I felt like a hammer fell on my head. I’d been working on this on the side with the Gallery for a year.

Yet, I knew my answer in my gut immediately! It was: “I certainly wouldn’t be doing this!”

I thought to myself. “Well, what would you do?”

My answer? “I would start a new tech startup to make aggregating cultural content efficient and I would make it so that you could see communities from around the world. A print piece might be one output of that, but the fundamental core technology would enable many outputs.”

I’m going to keep note of that day. For it was really on October 15th that digm was truly born. Until then, I was just pregnant.

 

Where I End, He Begins

Kurt and I have been married 15 years. We have worked together that entire time. Here is an analogy of how Kurt and I work together.

Let’s say we were going to do a documentary on migrating birds of North America. First of all, I would be the one who suggests we do a documentary on migrating birds of North America. Kurt would say “OK” because that’s why he loves me.

I would say: this flock goes from Canada down to Mexico. We want to document them at Point X, point Y and point Z.

Based on that Kurt would figure out (a) the most efficient and least expensive route, (b) the best possible equipment we could use (and if we can’t afford it how to make it himself and (c) the itinerary. I would agree and be duly impressed as always by how quickly he can research the best way to do something, *anything* really!

We would get in the car together on the appointed day and start our drive to Point X. On the way, twenty hours into the drive, despite all our plans and risking his getting mad at me, while he is driving en route to Vancouver, Canada, I say: “Keep north, we need to go to Toronto.”

At this point he will get frustrated with me. We have an elaborate plan based on sound research. I however have been voraciously reading and researching the entire time we were driving. I realize that due to global warming, the migration path has changed. If we go to our first destination, there will be no birds.

It takes me a few hours to even be able to explain the new pattern I have seen in the research because I lack the new vocabulary. I show it to him. His powerful intelligence understands what the data mean despite the very many hours he put into the existing plan, he trusts me and drives towards Toronto.

We get there, there are birds, we finish our documentary, and somewhere along the way over a beer and probably next to a campfire I met people who (a) would edit it for us (b) would help us promote it (c) would monetize it (d) would help us figure out the next documentary.

Sometimes this takes months, sometimes years.

The End.

Opportunity + Preparation = Justice

TechStars represents the most social justice I’ve seen in my lifetime on the question of whether the U.S. is a meritocracy. Granted it’s extremely competitive and the bulk of the startup funds are debt terms. However, hear me out.

TechStars is a startup accelerator in Boulder, Colorado (and now other cities around the world). If you’re accepted they give you up to $120,000 in seed capital ($100k of that is convertible debt) to start your business, coach you on how to pitch to other investors by the end, and most importantly rigorously try to prepare you to be successful in your business. They connect you with mentors and an ecosystem of entrepreneurs trying/failing/succeeding just like you.

I feel you cannot get enough lift bootstrapping it alone. My friend who was the largest chocolate distributor in North America until he sold his company said to me once: “When I was a young man I wanted 100% ownership. Now I’d much rather be sitting at the table with very bright minds and own a smaller piece of a bigger pie.”

So last year I explored the Small Business Administration. They offer loans for small businesses. On the surface this seems like great access to capital, except that you have to personally guarantee the loan. That means if your business fails you lose your house. And while they give some lip service to preparation and training, mostly it’s business plan writing courses. It is 1/1000th of the fierce reality TechStars is putting on the table. Mentoring requires so much more than learning to write a business plan: networking, hiring, fiercely guarding cash, working quickly, grooming yourself to be a leader.

The whole point of separating corporate entities from private individuals in the US is that if a corporate entity fails one can close it down. If you then also get wiped out personally you can suffer irreparable harm depending on your age. That’s why the IRS watches closely any commingling of business and personal funds; you pierce the veil of corporate protection by doing so. Given the SBA themselves tells you something like 80% of restaurants fail, for example, one has to question how personally-guaranteed-loans by the middle and lower classes is good for society. It just seems like a transferring of wealth to me, in the wrong direction, from the weak to the strong. It’s an unintended consequence of the harsh reality.

In the Venture Capital world, on the other hand, you sign Term Sheets, that yes, repay the investors first upon a sale of the business. And yes, there are some predatory VCs. However if you choose carefully the investors have some real skin in the game too. If you fail, they fail with you. You close the corporate entity, they lose money. That portion of the portfolio was non-producing and the Fund Managers get paid to make money. Since they don’t want you to fail, a mentor is put on your board. You get mentoring. They beat the heck out of you to consider your shortcomings and risks. They pick carefully and they pick few, sharing the risk with those who can afford some risk. To me this is more just than handing out loans to small businesses that are likely to fail, much like the housing mortgage bubble.

In March of 2014 I went to Cuba with a group from the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. On the plane there I was reading a German book and was moved by this one line:

“In the US the focus is on equality of opportunities while in Cuba the focus is on equality of outcomes.”

I reflected on that so much. Indeed my observation was that the Cuban Revolution has achieved equality of outcomes. The tour guide and the brain surgeon make the same amount of money. However that’s also created a situation that one senior historian there kept calling “absurdo” (absurd) because no one wants to study the difficult careers if they will make the same or less than others. Today, in reality, our tour guide operator was making $2,000 a month compared to my cousin’s friend who is a retired engineer making $12/month. The fact is society needs surgeons and we compensate differently because it’s damn hard work.

As I was there I thought about my high school years. I was in the top few in my class of about 450. I had nearly perfect SAT scores (1560/1600). I had a 4.4 GPA on a scale of 4. I volunteered hundreds of hours around town at a homeless shelter, in a facility for developmentally disabled adults, a single parent childcare facility. I busted my butt. And I remember one of my peers said to me: “you’re so lucky, you’ll definitely get a scholarship because you’re a minority.”

I felt so mad at that statement. If I got a scholarship I wanted it to be based on merit. Indeed I did get merit-based scholarships.

What I understood more profoundly, though, was that OPPORTUNITY without PREPARATION is no opportunity at all. In fact it’s a formula for failure and feeling like a loser the rest of your life. If you get accepted because you’re a minority but aren’t prepared for the situation into which you’re thrust (emotionally, mentally, academically) you will suffer greatly. Perhaps you’ll even suffer twice as much as the person who didn’t have the chance because you feel the burden of being one of the few. I was preparing myself.

TechStars is the first model I’ve seen that actively tries to form you, to PREPARE YOU, for the difficult road ahead. I’ve been going to their “8 Weeks of Awesome” series and it’s been very formative even without applying to the program. It’s the most profoundly “right” model I’ve seen in my lifetime.

In the end, if I had to say what I concluded on my Cuban visit, I would say that neither Equality of Outcomes (Cuba) nor Equality of Opportunity (US) is the right answer.

OPPORTUNITY + PREPARATION is the answer.