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AADM alumnus Amy Scheidegger was a guest speaker in my Overview of the Arts course last fall. She spoke about her work as an artist, an arts administrator, and an activist. I caught up with Amy in February to further discuss her Artistic Rebuttal Project. Read on to learn more!
Sarah Braverman: You started the Artistic Rebuttal Project in January of 2011. What inspired it?
Amy Scheidegger: I had earned my Master’s in Arts Administration just one month prior, when I overheard a bunch of Poli-Sci undergrads on the subway say that "art was the most useless degree anyone could get...it's like getting a degree in making sh*t out of popsicle sticks." You can imagine how enraged a painter/arts administrator would become at such an inaccurate and demeaning statement. I was on the subway, riding to one of my freelance gigs (painting skulls and bones for a production at a local theater), and for the rest of the day I cooked up this response as opposed to just being angry and chalking it up to youthful ignorance.
SB: Did you have experience in arts advocacy before this project?
AS: I did - I had gone to Arts Advocacy Day in D.C. twice by that time: the first time as a newbie and the second time after organizing a group of Drexel students as the Arts Advocacy Director of the AAGA board.
SB: When you started the Artistic Rebuttal Project, did you think you'd still be involved with it six years later?
AS: Definitely not! I thought it'd be a good thing to focus my energy for the rest of the year and to focus on my own form of arts advocacy, which tends to be very visual instead of the talk-talk-talk-talk of legislative meetings in D.C. during Arts Advocacy Day. I thought it'd be a thing I did for a month of out of the year, in the Spring when Americans for the Arts scheduled Arts Advocacy Day.
SB: You've begun compiling rebuttals for 2017 - how is this year different from previous years?
AS: This year is different because there's a REAL threat of the NEA, NEH and PBS being completely defunded without a second thought. I mean, the NEA always comes up against (most) Republicans who don't see the benefits and use it as a moral compass to show their constituents how conservative they are. This year I think we're all terrified that despite all the good, all the numbers, all the benefits of federal arts funding, it'll all get cut or privatized. It's also different on a personal level because I'm moving abroad the weekend after Arts Advocacy Day, so I'm guilt ridden to do this massive arts advocacy initiative and revamp the project. But I’m still a human being that has a personal life to pay attention to, an apartment to empty and a new culture to study before I get there. For my sanity, I'm focusing on the move more than arts advocacy and hopefully passing on the torch to fellow art advocates.
SB: Why is arts advocacy important?
AS: Advocacy is "arguing in favor of something." So arts administrators and artists do this every day. Every day we have to fight for an audience, fair compensation, value in our community, value to our economy, value to youth and education, to justify ticket prices, the list goes on and on. On a national scale, arts advocacy is important because what the federal government allocates money to shows every citizen where its priorities are. If we spend nothing on the arts, then we’re saying that artists and culture makers, archivists of that culture, don't matter to the country and its leadership - which is terrifying.
SB: Do you participate in other advocacy efforts? Do you feel your work in arts advocacy informs them?
AS: Well, clearly since November, we've all started to research more causes that need our attention. I've decided to dedicate my graphic design company to exclusively create work for organizations that are run by or serve women, youth, people of color, LGBTQ communities and other underserved persons. That's becoming my way of contributing to other advocacy efforts.
SB: What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved in arts advocacy?
AS: Get creative. National Arts Advocacy Day gets really mundane and you end up rattling off numbers (that yes, politicians respond to), but we're artists. We can and must advocate for our field/disciplines in the most unforgettable, positive, heart-warming ways we can think of.
SB: You're moving to Ecuador soon (exciting!). How will this impact your advocacy work?
AS:As I stated before, I'm going to give myself time to assimilate and get used to living in a new culture before concretely deciding what to do with Artistic Rebuttal or think about what direction it's going to move. I do want to learn the culture of art in Ecuador, learn the copyright/trademark laws that helped me navigate art advocacy in the U.S. (I have a future-mother-in-law who is a retired Ecuadorian copyright lawyer) and get a feel for how artists and the arts are (or aren't) revered in a South American country. I want those experiences to help dictate how best to position the Rebuttal project as one that always keeps artists at its core.
Thanks for chatting with me, Amy! Wishing you safe travels to Ecuador!
To learn more about Amy and the Artistic Rebuttal Project, visit her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Be sure to visit the “Save the NEA 2017 Rebuttal Gallery.”
Sarah Braverman: Before we begin, can you tell me some background information about PCF and the panel?
Mary Stegura: PCF assigns panelists one or two organizations to perform a site visit for, and this must be done before the actual panel date for that organization to be considered for a grant. You are then paired with a number of other panelists that visited similar organizations, i.e. organizations with budgets under $50,000. On the panel day, all of the panelists with the PCF staff and facilitators meet and take time to listen to each other’s experiences with their site visits. Prior to the panel day, you have access to the grant applications for each of the organizations that you will be discussing. The grant application includes a lot of different information including their DataArts profile. You are tasked with scoring each organization prior to the panel day, but your numbers can change after the discussion happens. PCF then take the averages of everyone's scores.
All are invited to apply to be on the panel; PCF encourages artists, arts administrators, and art enthusiasts alike.
SB: How were you selected to serve as a panelist?
MS: There was an application process: a simple cover letter and questionnaire. These applications went live in the fall and are likely to do the same again this year.
SB: What was the panel discussion centered around?
MS: A lot of the discussion was centered around who each organization articulated as their community and if their programs supported this articulation. There was also a fair amount of discussion around operating budgets and financial strength - it was a positive note to see surpluses in numerous previous budgets.
SB: Overall, what was this experience like?
MS: I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was very helpful to see PCF's commitment to the landscape of arts in the City of Philadelphia, noting that it is every single arts organization that contributes and not just the giant organizations we see everyday. They spoke about their role to aid in the development of these organizations, but not dictate their programming or organizational structures. It really made me appreciate foundations and funders of the creative and cultural sector and also made me curious about the role of a funder.
I cannot speak for all panels, I was just one of the 14 or so, but my panel was pretty agreeable for the most part. I think that our panel was very open to the mission of PCF, which is designed to support and recognize the numerous arts organizations in the Philadelphia area. There were many instances where we were amazed at the way organizations were set up and functioned and also the opposite, but still kept in mind that it is all arts organizations that shape the arts and culture sector of Philadelphia.
We did have lengthy discussions about missions and if the organization’s actions were representative of their missions. This was not an actual issue we faced, but for example, if an organization's focus was to bring art to the Center City area, but their performances were all in the suburbs, then that was looked at, discussed, and scored accordingly.
SB: What advice do you have for people who may serve on panels in the future?
MS: I would recommend that anyone who is remotely interested try it out! It was a really inspiring experience. Some advice I would give to new panelists would be to be authentic to your instinct in the scoring process. Even if you tend to score low, if you do so for every organization the averages will be an honest representation. I would also say that the applications are very lengthy and the other panelists will find details that you may have overlooked or deemed unimportant, and that is part of the process. I think it is what makes a panel setting so successful.
Thanks for sharing your experience with me, Mary!
Visit The Philadelphia Cultural Fund’s website for more information on becoming a volunteer panelist. Click here to learn more about PCF’s grant programs. You can also follow PCF on Facebook and Twitter.
Shortly after inauguration day in January, I saw Jordanian musician Farah Siraj perform at Longwood Gardens. This was my first time hearing any of her music, and I was so moved by her performance and strong messages of unity, peace, and community. There was a reception after the show where I met Farah and her bandmates, which includes recent Grammy winner Marcelo Woloski. Farah graciously agreed to meet me for coffee in February to discuss her music, activism, and desire to do good in the world.
Creating a sense of community in a room full of strangers was Farah Siraj’s intention. At any given concert, Farah says there are at least 20 different nationalities represented in the audience. Many of her songs talk about being away from home, and she says that resonates in the crowd with people who aren’t from the country she’s performing in. She says she feels a beautiful connection with people. For Farah, it’s not just the music, it’s about reminding audiences that we’re all from somewhere and we’re all family.
“For me, it’s a medium. It’s my way for also trying to promote cultural understanding, and to bring light to humanitarian causes through music,” Farah explained.
Farah describes her music as a blend of her influences and music from places that she’s lived. As an Arab, Farah notes that there’s an Arabian part to her music, but having lived in Spain and the United States, she has also blended flamenco, jazz, and Latin music into her sound. She says her artistic process is very random and spontaneous, and songs will call to her to be sung specifically in either Arabic, Spanish or English.
She says that her life experiences become part of her identity; If she’s inspired by something, that will come out through her music. Even though music is very personal, it’s not just Farah’s stories that you’ll hear her singing about. She says she’s a very empathetic person, and sometimes the stories that other people share with her affect her so deeply that she’ll write about their experiences too. Her music, passion, and activism are intertwined, and when talking about causes she cares about, human rights (particularly refugee rights, women’s rights, and rights of people living under occupation) are a top priority.
Jordan has historically hosted many refugees, and Farah explained that refugees from Syria, Palestine, Libya and other countries were her neighbors while growing up. She said that Jordan is a peaceful country, but conflict was always right around the corner. Many of her friends were Palestinian and displaced due to conflict. She said they’ve experienced unimaginable situations, and are not able to return to their homes and the lands of their families. There’s a big difference between refugees and migrant people.
“Just because those stories aren’t your reality doesn’t mean you can escape,” she said. “Just because it isn’t happening to you doesn't mean you can turn a blind eye.”
Recently, Farah has also become very vocal about animal rights, focusing on the treatment of animals, their health, and the environmental impact of factory farming. She tries to live her life by her personal motto and practice “do no harm; do good,” and not cause harm to any living thing. Musically, she plans to write more about animal rights in the future.
When talking about the current political climate, Farah said that she feels we’re at a dark point in American history. But she was quick to note that she also feels a lot of hope because there are so many people coming together and standing up for each other in a way that she doesn't think would have been possible without the spark of the presidential election. She said it’s heartwarming to hear so many people speaking up for others, and that the protests are great, but a lot of action needs to come with it too.
“When you think about all of the negative that’s happening, you also realize that there’s some really good people doing amazing work, and that exists too,” she said. “The ultimate goal is to be one of those people.”
Farah believes that everybody’s voice matters, and that the first thing people can do when looking to be politically or socially engaged is to speak up. It wasn’t until recently that Farah felt she needed to purposefully identify herself as an Arab Muslim woman. She says that she’s able to break dangerous stereotypes about Arab and Muslim women, and I noted that at the show I went to Farah specifically labeled herself in this way when addressing the audience. Growing up in a matriarchal family, all Farah saw was empowered women, and she speaks up to break the stereotype that Arab women are submissive.
In 2017, Farah plans to engage more with education and conducting lectures about Arab women in the arts. She’ll also continue to perform and have pre- and post-talk discussions about humanitarianism and activism.
“People have their hearts open and they’re ready to listen,” Farah said.
Farah Siraj’s upcoming concerts include the Kennedy Center on May 1st and the Penn Museum on September 6th, and more dates will be announced shortly. She has a new album coming out soon too. To learn more about Farah and her music, visit her website, Facebook page, and YouTube channel.