Funding from the ARAD Microgrant helped Sarah Lamade attend CULTURE/SHIFT, a conference for activists hosted by the U.S. Department of Art and Culture. Sarah shares the lessons learned and key takeaways from her experience.
Written by Sarah Lamade, ARAD ’20
The U.S. Department of Art and Culture is a grassroots organization built on a network of people-powered arts activism. The USDAC’s conference CULTURE/SHIFT gathered in Albuquerque, November 1-3, as a conference for activists. I joined the conversation with interests in community-driven/community-owned museums and in museums as spaces for conversations around issues of social justice.
CULTURE/SHIFT was moving and inspiring in so many ways, beginning with the program tote bag, which read CULTURE IS A HUMAN RIGHT. The whole experience was created to be immensely reflective, and I walked away with many more questions than answers. I don’t doubt that this was the intention of workshop hosts, in the sense of providing new ways of thinking about issues that affect our communities in order to find solutions for our own local contexts.
As much as I believe in the causes that were presented during conference, I have not yet found my voice or my entry point into those movements. I am not an activist. I am a scholar. And with my background in Anthropology, I found myself doing participant-observation throughout most of the conference. The themes of the convening broadly related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, through the lens of participatory community action in the arts. What the organizers did so well, however, was execute the conference to embody those ideals in as many practical ways as possible. Here’s what I learned about planning a community arts conference:
Lesson 1: Sliding scale registration fees. This option promoted affordability of participation for students and others who might not be affiliated with institutions. Payment levels increased from $95 to $600, the latter of which would cover full registration costs for two people.
Lesson 2: Choose a host city that supports the arts and can provide financial partnership. The mayor of Albuquerque has a degree in Art History, and the city’s Deputy Director of Cultural Services is a local Poet Laureate; both spoke at the opening ceremony.
Lesson 3: Choose a host city that engages with and supports diversity in the arts. Albuquerque is hub for indigenous culture, as well as Mexican migrant and Mexican-American culture.
Lesson 4: Partner with community organizations to host conference attendees coming from outside the city. USDAC arranged hospitality stays, which meant that I was able to stay with a host for three nights, free of charge. I was fortunate to be placed with the Trinity Catholic Workers House, an intermediate residence for individuals without homes. One other conference attendee was staying there, a Navajo artist from Tucson, and we met and shared daily meals with two of Trinity’s current residents.
Lesson 5: Give conference attendees the opportunity to explore community sites beyond the convention center. Our lunches were served by local food trucks at the gratified space of Warehouse 508, an after-school art center for Albuquerque youth. The Friday plenary and other casual after-hours events (a sing-along, small group dinners with artist hosts, FRED Talks, and a dance party) allowed us to explore additional local venues. The organizers also encouraged attendees to stay in Albuquerque through Sunday to participate in other local events – Indigenous Comic Con and the Muertos y Marigolds Day of the Dead Parade.
Lesson 6: If you’re hosting a conference on community art activism, make space and opportunity for your community to create art. This happened a few times throughout the conference, starting from the opening ceremonies. The organizers asked us to bring a small stone which we were invited to add to a community alter piece at the center of the main workshop room. The lobby of the convention center was also a hub for creative activities, including banner painting for the Muertos y Marigolds parade; a Wall of Love, where individuals could paint or draw their vision of love and pin it to a collective collage; and dress up portraits, where an artist was adorning participants with flowers and multi-colored tulle, standing them within a large wooden frame and taking their photos. During Saturday morning’s plenary, we were also asked to imagine and draw a future for our work and practice. We taped all of our imagined futures on the wall, opposite the alter of stones we had brought with us.
Lesson 7: With an emphasis on community arts, be sure to celebrate the host community’s artists. At CULTURE/SHIFT, several workshop sessions, small group dinners, and FRED talks were led by local artists. The opening ceremony incorporated a poetry performance by a local group composed of Indigenous- and Mexican-heritage women, and the closing ceremony featured performances by a Navajo dancer and a local group of Chinese dragon dancers.
Lesson 8: This should go for all conferences, but for those that are dialoguing about DIEA issues it is especially important to make potential barriers to accessibility known and offer solutions. Shuttle services were offered during CULTURE/SHIFT for all off-site events and for those requesting transportation to/from downtown hotels. An option was also available during registration to request interpretation services. Moreover, the restrooms at the conference site were gender neutral, and we were invited at check-in to create our own name tags with our gender pronouns.
Lesson 9: This one seems huge for the activist community, and it was a factor that truly defined the entire conference experience. Make space for listening and for individuals to have their voices heard. This was facilitated through constant reflect-with-your-neighbor activities from the opening ceremonies, through the plenary sessions, and into nearly every workshop. Organizers and workshop leaders created space for intensive listening and story circles, where each attendee was invited, one the one hand, to contribute to the larger collective discussion, and on the other, to be heard and recognized.
I’ve never before been part of a gathering quite like CULTURE/SHIFT. A lot of us felt emotionally exhausted by the end of it, with the sheer energy that was required to maintain ongoing critical reflections. Despite that, it was invigorating to connect with so many like-minded people and to be inspired by community arts practices from around the country. I am grateful to the ARAD program for supporting my participation in this program, and I am eager to get more involved with the USDAC outpost here in New York City.
 Fresh, Radical, Educational, Dynamic Talks, presented in the Ted Talk format