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What The Pandemic Changed
Episode 104

What The Pandemic Changed

Live Conversation from Boot Camp 2021

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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In This Episode

How might the transformative events of the last two years impact the arts sector going forward? In this conversation, Erik interviews cultural leaders Indira Etwaroo and Alex Sarian for their perspectives on how the personal evolutions we’ve each undergone are impacting our institutions, our communities, and the arts sector. They also discuss how organizations are addressing historical inequities, what it means for an institution to embrace relationship-building, and how cultural organizations can be community anchors.

Erik Gensler: Welcome, everybody. Welcome, Alex and Indira, two remarkable leaders. I’d like you to each introduce yourselves, including your pronouns, land acknowledgement, and visual description, starting with you, Indira, and then Alex.

Indira Etwaroo: Yes, good morning everyone. Lovely to be here with all of you. I am Indira Etwaroo. I’m a woman who shares both African-American and East Indian heritage. I have long, dark brown hair, brown eyes, and brown skin. My pronouns are she and hers. I’m coming to you this morning from Lower Manhattan and I want to acknowledge that we gather, albeit digitally, on the traditional land of the Lenape people past and present and honor them with gratitude and the land itself, the people who have been stewards of it throughout the generations. And I also wish to acknowledge the thousands of souls whose bodies were discovered in the African burial grounds in lower Manhattan. Memorials really are a part of what it means to be human and during slavery, the burial of the dead was very important for Africans and African Americans whose very humanity was contested. So, this acknowledgement celebrates the sanctity of Black life and the importance of our shared history.

Alex Sarian: Hi everybody. Hi friends. My name is Alex Sarian, president and CEO of Arts Commons. I’m a white man with short brown hair, a brown-grey beard, blue eyes. I’m sitting at my desk with my office behind me, wearing a blue blazer jacket and a white shirt. I come to you from western Canada, Mohkinstsis, otherwise known as Calgary. We are on Treaty 7 land, the original home of the Blackfoot Confederacy, comprised of the Siksika, Piikani, and Kainai First Nations, the Stoney Nakoda, comprised of the Chiniki, Wesley, and Bearspaw First Nation and the Tsuut’ina First Nation. This area, Calgary, is also home to the Métis nation of Alberta Region 3. It is a privilege to be here and I’m looking forward to this conversation.

Erik Gensler: Thank you both so much. So, I’m gonna provide a little bit of framing for this discussion and then we’re going to talk for about 40 minutes and then open to audience questions. But if you’re in the audience and have a question, please feel free to add your questions to the chat anytime. So, our conference theme is “metamorphosis,” and we are gathered to reboot, reimagine, and re-examine the arts. And as you may have seen in our opening video, the definition of metamorphosis is, “The change of physical form, structure, or substance; the process of transformation.” And in this opening session, we’re here to talk about just that: how we have changed, how our work has changed, how our society has changed, and how our organizations have changed. So, it’s now October 2021. We’ve all lived with so much change and challenge, both personally and professionally and globally. We’re still living with so much uncertainty. And now, at least, we have some sense of perspective, 19 months after our venues were shut down in March of 2020. But of course, there will be even more perspective as time goes on. But as we return and open our venues more broadly in most places, it’s a really interesting moment to reflect on some of the big ideas and questions that we’ve all been discussing and struggling with over this time as citizens, humans, and arts administrators. So, both of you, Indira and Alex, have built long careers in the arts across multiple organizations and in various roles, which is one of the reasons we wanted to have you join us today for this opening session. You’re also both educators, and from these backgrounds and experiences, you have the gift of perspective to share and I think that is so valuable. And now, I’m certainly not one for reading long bios on a panel. I personally get really uncomfortable when I’m in the situation that someone is reading my bio word-for-word. But if you’ll allow me before asking the first question just to give some brief context of each of your careers so our audience has a sense of your work backgrounds that help inform your perspectives. So, Indira, you built your career at Brooklyn Academy of Music, National Public Radio, where your focus on multi-platform content innovation, and the Billie Holiday Theater in Brooklyn, where you launched the first national strategic plan for Black theaters called the Black Seed. You’ve worked as a producer, director, scholar, in addition to, of course, a non-profit arts leader. You have a PhD in cultural studies, and are an educator currently teaching the course “Leading Performing Arts institutions in the 21st Century” at NYU, and now you serve as the Director of the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California, which is an incredible, incredible building space. Alex, you’ve built your career in education roles. Your early career was in education at MCC Theater and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey and then spent many years at Lincoln Center focused on re-granting, global consulting, community engagement, arts education, and artistic programming for young audiences and families. You’re also an educator and have served on boards and advisory committees for arts institutions, including The New Group, South by Southwest, and Museo de Arte Moderno in Buenos Aires. And you now are the president and CEO of Arts, Commons in Calgary. So, the first question—and I’d like, to start with the personal—and I ask, looking back at the events of the last 18 or 19 months, how do you think that you have changed or evolved personally? And how has that change impacted how you relate to your work in the arts? And I’d like to start, Indira, with you.

Indira Etwaroo: Sure, well, you know, I think we have, just as you’ve mentioned, we’ve all been finding ways to—I’ll start with the word “survive”—what is the most probably consequential moment for us in global history at least in the last 100 years. And so, for me, you know, I believe that structural change that emanates out does start from within. I think that this has been a time for me, personally, that I have, you know, really stopped to move through space and time and projects with greater intention. It’s been a time to really understand the reckoning that has happened, I think, within… I’ll speak specifically to American arts and culture because that’s what I’ve been more focused on. But a real reckoning on how we can reset and reimagine and change, a real understanding of privilege, a real understanding of how thriving for some meant extraordinary suffering for others. And what is our part in that continuum? And so, for me, I have felt a deepened sense of responsibility, of accountability, of using whatever space I have in the world on behalf of those who have not always been in the position of privilege or thrivability and figuring out real ways to create allies, advocates, and alliances to move those efforts forward.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and personally, like, how did that, how did that evolution, you know, feel and impact you and your close world?

Indira Etwaroo: Well, you know, I am a survivor of COVID. I had COVID early on, March 2020. And I was quarantined in my home for 16 days. It’s interesting because I always struggled with meditation, prior to those 16 days of quarantine. I could never get my mind still enough. In fact, for me, meditation was creating the very long to-do list to get done. Whenever that bell or the music stop, “Okay, great. Got my to do list in order and I’m ready to go.” Something about slowing down, really slowing down, for those 16 days allowed my mind to move into meditation now, I’m completely hooked, and I have to do it at least once if not twice a day. I love this feeling of being in the present, this feeling of really focusing on everything inward. I will say that I think the best version of myself has emerged out of that.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. There’s something about time that really changed and for the slowing down of really having a different relationship with time. I think that really resonates. Thank you for sharing them. Yeah, Alex, how about you, the same question? How you change your ball personally and how that’s changed impacted your how you relate to your work in the Arts.

Alex Sarian: Absolutely. Well Indira, I’m glad to hear you’re doing better. I am very grateful and blessed to have been healthy and my friends and family and those close to us have been, have been, well. Of course, so I moved from New York to Calgary in May 2020, so in the middle of the pandemic. And so, I would say that that journey, both physical and emotional and professional, was very interesting and has informed a lot of my work. So, for example, the idea of relationships—and I think we are in the business collectively of building community—and what does that do when we are ourselves cannot be a part of a community the way that we have traditionally known to do that in person, physically breaking bread, sharing meals, sharing a performance together? So, the idea of, “How do I remain connected to my loved ones when I have moved?” really helped inform how an arts organization can continue building community. The other thing I was very blessed with and I’m happy to talk more about this later is how my process of getting to know Calgary and getting to know my new hometown has helped Arts Commons redefine its relationship to Calgary. Because when you go from thinking about an arts organization as purely having an artistic responsibility to, all of a sudden, having a civic responsibility, getting to know the city in real time as it’s suffering and challenging and redefining opportunity, it allows both myself as a newcomer here, as well as the institution I’m now privileged to run respond to a lot of that, as opposed to just saying, “Well, I’m gonna sit back and wait for this thing to pass and then we’ll talk about it two years from now.” When I think my process of getting to know my new surroundings, the opportunities, the challenges, that has weaved its way into running the institution and I’m blessed to say that we’ve been able to remain responsive, to remain relevant. And I think a lot of that has to do with my actively wanting to get to know where I’ve landed.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and what’s an example of something that you personally experienced that affected your… you know, that you brought with you to your professional role.

Alex Sarian: Well, one of the things that… You know, so I moved here in May and then over the summer, we quickly, I mean the world… in addition to having COVID, this global conversation, the murder of George Floyd was also something that happened soon after my arrival to… added an international conversation and even here in Canada, we were grappling with a lot of the systemic inequalities and racial injustices. And moving from the U.S. to Canada, I very quickly realized that if I wanted to lean into that part and educate myself, in terms of what it means to have that conversation locally, as a newcomer to Calgary, I needed to learn about our relationship and the Canadian government’s relationship to the Indigenous communities of western Canada. So, that’s shaped—and I continue to learn—that’s shaped me in terms of who I am is a relatively new Canadian. But also, how as an institution, we leaned into what it means to be an organization that is having conversations about social injustices, systemic inequalities, through the arts as an arts and civic institution. So, that’s one example of my own education is informing, how we have those conversations both internally as an institution and externally as a community hub.

Erik Gensler: Something they don’t teach you before you decide to become a leader is that all leadership is about your own personal growth and any limitation, I think, that is holding you back personally is going to impact how you’re able to lead in. Its, I hear from both of you, you know, Indira, you slowing down and taking time to listen to yourself, Alex, you listening to the people around you, and then both of you talking about the responsibility, so slowing down to listen, pay attention, and then how that is manifesting in a responsibility to the community and those around you. So, I’d like to turn the conversation a little bit to think about the loss of live arts and in-person gathering. And not… you know, how that impacted individuals and the broader culture. And in this time, I think it gave us all a lot of time to think about what the arts and arts organizations means to people and means the communities. And I’d love for each of you talk about what you learned about what the arts and arts organizations means to people and communities. Indira, do you wanna…?

Indira Etwaroo: Sure, I’ll jump in. It’s interesting because I experienced most of the dueling pandemics—and I do have to acknowledge that there were two pandemics happening; not only COVID-19, but the sort of the global acknowledgement of the ongoing racial injustices happening as it pertains to Black people across the globe, via the murder of George Floyd. And those dueling pandemics ushered us into what was a really necessary time. The world was on pause and we watched a Black man murdered in front of our eyes and protest, of course, broke out across the street- across the world. But in Bedford-Stuyvesant where I was living, institutions, like the Billie Holiday Theater, like Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation that had been in place for almost 50 years and coming out of the Civil Rights and the Black Arts movements and the Black Nationalist movements, they were being called to do what they had always been doing. Institutions across the country were doing what they had been doing. They were on the front lines for communities. There was no moment of pause. We took up the mantle of creating the first “Black Lives Matter” mural in New York state. We were pushing out content to our communities virtually. We were one of the first theaters in the United States to make that pivot. And so, for us, this notion of protest and revolution is in the very DNA of who we are. Fighting for social justice is in the very DNA of who we are as institutions of the global majority. And so, for us this was a moment to ask a new question, I think. And that was to ask predominantly white-led institutions and models that came out of those predominantly white-led institutions, “What is your place in all of this? The silence for the last 50 or more years has been deafening. What is your statement going to be? What is your voice going to be? What is your place in this moment?” We know where we’ve been, we know that we’ve been on the front lines and so, it really wasn’t a moment of pause. I often think about how exhausted institutions of color and leaders of color must be in this moment because we did have to address not only a plan around COVID-19, but a readdress of the ongoing racial inequities that exist in systems across the worlds that we navigate.

Erik Gensler: As well as Black people working at primarily white institutions.

Indira Etwaroo: That’s right.

Erik Gensler: And I know in your career, you’ve had that experience, as well.

Indira Etwaroo: That’s right, Erik, and that’s a unique negotiation unto itself, being in an institution that it hasn’t been able to figure out the models or the paradigms for true racial equity and true racial…and true representation. It’s not just racial representation, but the representation of women, the representation of the LGBTQIA+ community, the representation of all levels of accessibility and nationality, etc., but all ways in which we live in this world intersectionally and live in this world in very complex and rich ways, that there are a lot of institutions where, you know, that really is what we should be charged with as arts and culture institutions, figuring out how to create space in which all people can flourish, in which all people can see themselves, in which all people can have their own humanity affirmed time and time again.

Erik Gensler: And, you know, the way in first question, where you talked about how that that started with you, I think in many ways, that starts with the staff of your organization, how you’re treating the people around you, and then that branches out to your community and your audiences. And I know, Alex, you’ve talked about some of the lessons you’ve learned, when, you know, during the temporary loss of live arts, and I know that headline for you is about the meaning of the arts to its communities

Alex Sarian: Yeah, and to me the irony throughout all of this is that artists are meant to be responsive. Artists are meant to be political. Artists are meant to respond to our time and place. And I think what 2020 and the pandemic have revealed for us is that the institutions that are meant to be supporting artists don’t follow that same value proposition. And, in fact, it’s the organizations that suffered at the expense of the artists, at the expense of community, because we were trying, you know… For anybody working in an arts organization, the word of 2020 has been “pivot” and what’s interesting is that artists have been doing that for, I mean, that’s what an artist does. And so, how do we learn? And I think you know, we talked about being responsive. We talk about, you know… to me… We always talk about the relationship between perception and intent, right? What’s more important? The option of the community or the intent of an organization, and what’s that dance? And at the end of the day, if you are not serving the community, then what are you doing? So, this idea of, “How do you build an organization that can scale up, that can be big, that can be impactful and helpful, but that also can take the lead from artists and communities?” When something like COVID happened or when something like, you know, in western Canada, they discovered graveyard of buried Indigenous children just a few months ago. How do you, as a community, as an institution, you know, pivot quickly enough to help artists lean into that and help and use the arts as a vehicle for conversation? And so, when I think about the past 18 months, we have had to invest in ourselves differently, think about ourselves differently in order to better serve our communities. And I think about, to me, the past 18 months has been investing in our staff. So,e we retaidn 95% of our staff and we had an opportunity to say, “If your job description has been impacted because we don’t have programming as usual, then we have a checklist. So, if your job has been impacted and you don’t have a full day, then check in with somebody else in another department. Can you be of service to them? If the answer is no, check in with a resident company within our larger community. Can you be of service to them? If the answer is no, find a community organization in your neighborhood, and can you volunteer for them on behalf of Arts Commons? Can you be of service to your community?” And so, we tried to find ways for even our staff to be connected to the here and now, and then the other thing we did is we invested in local artist communities. The last thing we wanted to do is for us to re-emerge from COVID and all of a sudden realize that the artist community in Calgary had disappeared had been undernourished or not taken care of. So, there are so many things that we did internally to redefine the DNA of who we are in order to be far more connected to Calgary. And the last thing I’ll say on this is, you know, I’ve always looked at libraries as organisms that have evolved in a much more civically-minded way over the course of the past 20, 30 years. And so, I’ve taken many cues from the Calgary Library, the public library here in Calgary, which is one of the best library systems in the world, and seeing how a library can redefine its role in society and its value proposition has certainly been a cue for me. And I think if the arts community can pay attention to libraries or other civic-minded, community-based institutions as we look to redefine who we are, then I think that’s a great conversation to be having.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, like universities and hospitals. There are, on the CI to Eye podcast, a number of leaders, including Karen Brooks Hopkins and John Schreiber, have talked about the idea of adopting an anchor, of thinking of your arts organization as an anchor institution to your community, which is, Alex, what you’re saying. And then, Indira, what you’re saying about being a place for, you know, serving the community, for example, in Bedford-Stuyvesant and being an activist, you know, place to support artists when there are very important events to respond to. And recent Culture Track research showed that the majority of Americans believe that arts and cultural organizations should be addressing, at least, the study said, at least one social issue. In the research, it said that more than a third of people who responded believe that arts and culture organizations should tackle systemic racial injustices. So, to say the one more time, so, the majority of Americans believe arts and cultural organizations that it should address at least one social issue. And then, more than a third believe that social issue specifically should be include systemic racial injustice. So, you’ve been talking about the role of arts organizations and social justice. And so, I just wanted to open any space for you to share any personal examples in your work of how you’ve seen that evolve or manifest over the past 18, 19 months or planning for into the future.

Indira Etwaroo: Alex, if it’s fine. I’ll jump right in. You know, I think… I’m thinking about, you know, this metaphor of trees in a forest. And in some ways, COVID, the tree started to fall. and I’ve seen so much effort in sort of leaning into those trees and trying to keep them standing upright and there is this resonant, resounding statement that I keep hearing in my own head, which is to just let them fall, because only then can new trees be planted and grow. And I would provide that metaphor to the arts and culture world because I think we are still, even in the midst of this extraordinary moment, trying to hold fast to the models that we’ve held dear over a for over a hundred-plus years, depending on the institution. And I think we need to just let some of those trees fall so that we can make space to build anew because I think only in building anew are we going to see what Alex talked about, which is moving equity into the DNA of our institutions. Because what that would look like is, that would look like our board represents the vibrant diversity of our world. That means the philanthropic world represents the vibrant diversity of our world, that our staff, that our audiences, that our marketing, that are peers, et cetera, that our media coverage, all of it is representative of the exquisite diversity of the world that we exist in. And that really is, I think, where our power as a field resides. But it is not lost on me, I just went to a Broadway opening and the story was by a Black person, there was, you know, a Black person on stage and I left the theater and I literally wept in the in the taxi ride home because it was a sea of white faces and silver hair. And I said, “Holy whatever.” I didn’t expect that coming back to Broadway reopening because that’s not what the media is telling me. They’re telling me there are seven Black playwrights on the Broadway, on the Great White Way. They’re telling me that, you know, everyone’s focused on making this pivot. We’re hearing so much… it feels like lip service after that, attending that show. It’s not what I expected. It kind of broke my heart, if I’m to be really, really honest, because I thought, if not a time like this when? When will institutions understand that diversity and inclusion and issues around race, it’s not the challenge and problem of institutions of the global majority to solve, Black, Asian, Latinx, Native American etc. institutions to solve. It is the challenge of predominantly white institutions to reckon with the lack of equity in the past and just putting a story that centers the Black experience on the stage is not enough. It’s not nearly enough. And so, I thought we had sort of figured that out or that this time of pause gave us greater insight into that. It doesn’t seem like that’s where we are. And so, I think that, you know, this moment to even talk about real change is really profound for me. It’s really powerful. I’m grateful and grateful for it and appreciate it and very much appreciate it with… Alex and I, we have sat in rooms where we’ve had these conversations with institutions, so I appreciate being able to have this conversation with Alex, but this was 3, 4, 5 years ago, and Alex, it feels like we’re having the same conversation, right?

Alex Sarian: Right, yeah.

Indira Etwaroo: So, I am in my world, trying to figure out, you know, how, you know, there was a revolution that took hold of our globe and that wasn’t enough. We were all on pause and that wasn’t enough. So, I’m going to come back to what I started with, which is, let the trees fall and let’s start planting anew.

Erik Gensler: And what you saw at that opening is, those trees have very deep roots and the winds need to keep blowing, but particularly on commercial Broadway-and I don’t know what show that was. It was attached to, you don’t have to say, but commercial Broadway is, I think, having their own set of conversations and yeah, there’s continuing lots of work to do but I really appreciate you sharing this story.

Indira Etwaroo: And to your point, Erik, that’s really where the work is. The trees will fall but we only with intention does one come behind a storm and actually have to dig the roots out. Right? Love that, because, that’s exactly where we are. The storm has come, trees are swaying. Some have, some are half-leaning, some are on the ground, but the roots are still there, occupying space, and so it is only with intention that those roots excavated.

Erik Gensler: And it’s really, like, the traditional, deeply rooted structures in America that we ultimately just you keep bumping up against and you make this change in the space around you and you… just, every time you push something you come up against another factor or challenge that is so deeply rooted in systems that are just overwhelmingly stagnant and you have to have that, you know, keep keep pushing. You know, Alex is there…

Alex Sarian: Oh, my goodness. There’s so much. And, Indira, right? Yeah. You’re right. We like, 5 years ago, we were sitting in a room talking about this. And I think part of the reason as I reflect is, and somebody told me the other day, they said, “We need to stop looking at racial injustice as a Black history and it needs to be embraced as actually white history ,both in Canada and the U.S. And I recognized that my role as a white male in this conversation, that we have been the ones that have been holding on to it because we have privileged and we have benefited from a system. But to Indira’s point, we are now the cause of the storm if we don’t let go and to Indira’s point, one of the things that was very noticeable to me across North America last summer was, in the in the wake of all these truly global conversations, a lot of it was just superficial acknowledgement and there were so many arts organizations that said, “Well, how can we, how can we put more artists of color on stage? How can we…” Which are, and don’t get me wrong, those are important. But at the end of the day, if that’s not seeping its way into the DNA of an institution, then, like Indira says, are we going to look back on this time and say that nothing changed? And so for us, one of the things that, you know, there are two things that we did last year and only time will tell if they work, but the first one is, as I mentioned earlier, we started the development of an Indigenous strategy with indigenous elders that are used to working in complex, western, white-led institutions, and not necessarily so that they would appear different to community, but that the governance structures are re-imagined, so that the way of doing business is reimagined. And, you know, and one of the things that was so interesting to me as I under as I try to figure out my role in changing things—if I do have one, and I’d like to think that I do—is an indigenous elder said to me, you know, there is, you know, this idea of radical love is very present in the Indigenous community because, and he said to me, “The word racism doesn’t translate into a lot of First Nation languages because all living beings are respected equally.” And so, as we try to start finding parallels, which is the process for us of the Indigenous strategy, we’re trying to find parallels between Indigenous ways of living and Western ways of doing business. And there are three areas that to me as a white leader, I can lean into and say, “We’re going to create change internally because we’re leaning into…” and those three areas for me, really quickly are, you know, when an elder likes a smudge, they talk about sanctified kindness and building a space where we can have sanctified kindness as the baseline of every conversation. And I think to myself, “Well, when we bring people together in a performance space or an arts venue, if we’re not prioritizing sanctified kindness, then we’re doing something terribly wrong.” The second thing they talk about is this idea of building relatives and that being an ally or partner is lovely, but sometimes is not enough. And what does it mean to build relatives? And what is your role, sometimes, is leaning in and leaning out. And then, the third one is this idea of, because the indigenous ways of living are oral traditions and western’s are written, they talk about social businesses. And when I think about us in the arts, artists are social beings, right? And the irony to me, going back to one of my earlier statements, is we have a social product that is not being supported by a way of business that is social. And so, what does it mean as an institution to embrace relationship- building, building relatives, sanctified kindness as a way of building community and storytelling? And so, those are three areas in which we’re leaning. And so that’s one area. The other thing we did programmatically is we started-and this, I feel like anybody can do it—we created an incubator program where we selected two artists to curate and to come in and truly lead and to pick a community of artists that represent communities that have been historically underrepresented or, let’s call it what it is, marginalized from the downtown arts community in Calgary, and we are now supporting them, giving them a home, giving them resources, but we’re also telling them that it’s, we are going to change because of them. Institutions in the community is going to change because they have been given the resources that have that have always been…they’ve never been given, as representatives of these communities. And so, over time, it’s not… and you know, there…I’d like to think there is advocacy and that really tries to, as Indira’s saying, you know, some trees will fall. But if a forest were to stay standing, like, hopefully Arts Commons, how does that forest, if I’m going to take that analogy, get completely reimagined so that a place like Arts Commons, the infrastructure, the resources, the privilege that we’ve benefited from for so long, starts benefiting others or more people. And that’s something that I… we have to we have to do now. And the last thing I’ll say on this, because you mentioned my background in education, there are so many people within all of our institutions that have been struggling for so long to be that connective tissue between our mission and the communities that surround us. Historically, they tend to be in our education departments, our community engagement departments. So, that struggle is there, but that has never bubbled up into the DNA of our institutions. So, sometimes, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes, we need to find that part of our institution that is already doing the work and elevate that conversation so that it can influence everything we do and everything that we are, including our board, including our governance, so that we can change from the inside out and not just pay lip service like Indira’s talking about, putting artists of color on stage and calling it a day.

Erik Gensler: Thank you so much for that. I love what you’re saying about kindness and, you know, and the sense of being kind to others and including others, even when we may not understand or agree with them, but having that spirit of being… You know something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is, like, we are all humans first and all of these… like first and foremost. That we want to separate ourselves based on this belief or that belief for this background or that background or this skin color or… and at the end of the day, we are, we’re all humans. And Indira, I saw your brain spinning as Alex was talking, so I want to make space for that.

Indira Etwaroo: No, that’s really fundamentally the question, Erik. What does it mean to be human? And I often will try to distill all of this noise and all of these conversations down to that simple question. And I think that, ultimately, I don’t think we’re trying to build an arts and culture field or even artistic institutions. We’re building a civilization, whether we acknowledge that or not, and we’re leaving behind us oral histories. We’re leaving behind us primary source materials, our fliers, our posters, our playbills. They all will someday be looked at, and people will clearly see who we were as a civilization. Katherine Anne Porter has just a tremendous quote. She was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and she talks about the arts living continuously by faith and she talks about, they will be unchanged and all that matters through times of interruption, diminishment, and neglect. And she says, “They are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away.” So, when we look back at ancient civilizations, it is the architecture, it is the art that stands the test of time. And so, we are leaving markers for civilizations that will come centuries beyond us. I’m fascinated at… they will probably read us with much greater clarity than we are reading ourselves right now. And so, I often think about what we’re doing from that vantage point. I often try to think hundreds of years forward and ask myself, “What will the next generations and generations after look back and they’re studying this moment—because this moment in history will be studied—and what will they say about us?” And, again, I want to not just encourage… and I’ve talked about this and Alex has talked about this, but for those who are listening and those who are joining us today, I want to encourage us not to in this myopic sense, keep addressing the infrastructure, so much as the ethos that built the infrastructure and some of those inherent ideals and ideas and values were that race should be fought by Black people for Black people. We really know that that this racial justice continuum that were all on—and MLK assures us, that it bends towards justice, even though it’s long—that it really is something, it is something, a revolution that must be taken up by all people, and it must be taken up and led primarily by those who have held power and who have been centered and who have had the privilege. That is who historically, those are the social spaces that have not taken up arms in a way that would have led to the kind of ethos and value-shifting that is necessary for institutions to shift. You know, simplistically as it may sound, there is so much work we all have to do inside of ourselves in order for the work to then emanate into our institutions and from our institutions and to our community so that we are leaving a civilization that speaks of justice, that speaks of equity, that shines forth that we were, in fact, a highly thoughtful and intelligent people, that we were highly kind people, that we considered each other with great humanity. Our story will be told. I hope that we are about the work of not shifting models, but shifting all of those values and the ethos that allows models to ultimately shift.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, we want to jump to tactics, but it’s so deeply about culture. It’s about humanity and it goes back to what you’re both starting with, who you are, how you want to treat people, how you treat yourself, and the kindness that I’ve heard from both of you refer back to, and that’s ultimately with what this is about, how we treat each other. And I’m starting to see some of the chats come in and actually one of the questions… That is so funny. It’s like, someone named George asked the question that was essentially one of the questions that I was have right here. It’s almost written word-for-word. So, thinking about a lot of these ideas and how you’re manifesting those values and culture, thinking about your organization’s approach or your approach, as a leader, to leading people, managing these organizational cultures, how have you employed that sensibility within your staff? How have you kept them motivated? How have you cared for them? And how have you kept yourself resilient in this time?

Indira Etwaroo: I want to talk about two things. I want to talk about the Black Seed, the national strategic initiative that launch in 2017 out of the questions were talking about now, and it was a moment for the Black theater field to step into space it had not necessarily stepped into before, which is to figure out how to create a strategic plan for our own thrivability. And with great intention, we did not say sustainability; we said thrivability, that we wanted to move from surviving to really thriving in the world. And so, it comes down to some really simple tenants, that we may work with individual donors in the philanthropic world and marketing firms, etc., but that we needed a multi-prong strategy that was run by us, for us, about us, and near our communities. And so, it is the first of its kind and we have been able to raise over 10 million dollars and fund over 100 Black theaters just in the last year, over a multi-year project. In the 1990s, 87 percent of Black theaters across the nation closed their doors. We did not want to see a repeat of that. So, that was a very logistical kind of addressing what you’re talking about, Erik, and allowing leadership and leadership to have the resources to take care of staff, to be able to say, you know, “We’re not going to just be on the front lines of protesting. We’re going to figure out how to protest in a new and unique way.” Now, with my staff, there’s a lot of time spent on self-care and self-love and putting your face mask on first. To love oneself, I believe, is a revolutionary and radical act and one that I am learning anew every single day. Coming into the world of nonprofit, the nonprofit arts world, we are people who are service-oriented, that’s sort of in our hearts. We are in service to a greater good, in service to artists. Seldom do you meet people who are who are about power. It’s really more about purpose. But within that purpose, sometimes, we spend so much of our lives in service to everything but ourselves that we forget to make space even for ourselves. And so, that’s what I’ve been sharing with staff is that, even as we make space for artists, we make space for community-building, we make space for others, let’s remember to make space in our in our days and our weeks and our, you know, it adds up to years and before we know it it’s a life. In the lifetime. Let’s make space for ourselves again.

Erik Gensler: Again, time. It goes back to time. You know, the analogy, I think it’s like you have to put your own seatbelt on first. Caring for yourself is an act of setting yourself up to care for others. Alex?

Alex Sarian: Yeah, I mean that was beautiful. I mean, and I’m smiling because so much of it is similar. I’ve been, I’ve been saying this for years and Indira, you probably heard me say this and my staff has certainly heard me say this, but they’re… In social service work, there’s a phrase that says, “You cannot give what you do not have.” And if we are in the business of giving, then we need to take care of that first. And so what a lot of the things that we’ve done, both—and when I reflect, its both tactical and truly philosophical-but you know, we invested in.. and really trying to ask the question, you know, “Why is there an urgency to who we are today?” And can we answer that question? And so, we’ve, you know, when I look back on the past year, we are asking those hard questions. We’ve invested in digital infrastructure. We’ve invested in, I mean, I could talk for days about how our HVAC system is hospital-grade air filtration and we’re one of the you know, only buildings in downtown Calgary where air comes out cleaner than how it goes in. I can talk about how we are redefining our relationship with communities that surround us. Calgary—and I know that there’s some Calgarians on the event today—Calgary is going through a giant identity crisis, and let’s be frank, a lot of cities are or should be going through an identity crisis. And we need to, we need to let go. We can’t hold on to these structures. We need to let go and say “Not only are we going to respond to the culture that tries to redefine itself, but we’re going to try and drive that conversation, not because we have an opinion, but because we are conveners of communities. And if communities are going to define our future, then we need to play a role in bringing that conversation together.” And one of the things that we’ve started in the past year is, we’re embarking on this 450 million dollar capital expansion program, one of the largest cultural infrastructure projects in Canada. And to be able to have the conversation with Calgary, to say, “What is the future of Calgary look like? And as a result, what is our institution going to look like?” It’s one thing for me to say, you know, that, you know, once we’re done with construction, we’re going to have more square footage than the Louvre museum in Paris. That’s one thing. It’s another thing to say, “Our growth is going to is not going to look like any other performing arts center in the world. It needs to look like Calgary and it needs to look like the future of Calgary,” and to be able to engage communities and to be able to engage Calgary in a conversation, not just about how do we let go—because that it that is important—but how do we rebuild and who needs to be at the table? And who and what stories have we had a history of amplifying? What stories have we had a history in ignoring? And how can we correct that as we make such really impactful decisions over the next five years? And I think that’s true for any institution, at any level. We’re going to, we’re making massive decisions about our future and decisions were making today are going to play out over the next 10, 20 years. Now is the time to be asking those difficult questions and to be making decisions that are slightly or massively different than they used to be.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. And this went so fast. We didn’t even turn to so many of the areas of I wanted to cover but I think what we covered was very meaningful and I think we’re just about out of time. And so, Alex, you ended with asking a number of questions. And so, I think I want to close the conversation by offering Indira the chance to do the same. What are the questions that you’re asking yourself that you think are helpful for the people watching to ask of themselves and of their organizations?

Indira Etwaroo: Sure, and thank you, Erik, thank you, Alex, for this time together. So, how important our bricks and mortar to really serving communities? How important are they? How important are capital investments, as we’re really thinking about being community-centric? I learned that all we needed was a city block to be a force for change in the world during COVID. So, that’s one, how important are bricks and mortar? And investing important dollars in that, that could be going to other spaces. I also think, you know, how, how much are we managing towards the expectations of change and knowing that it took—if we are to look at race in America, it took 402 years for us to get here even longer if you’re, you know, predating, 1619, so it’s going to take decades, even centuries, for us to undo. So, the quick fixes… Are we looking to fix things too quickly or are we, in fact, you know, unrooting and planting seeds that will grow into something that will serve the generations ahead of us and that we may never have the opportunity to see? Are we thinking about growth and change in that way?

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. Well, I feel like we’re just getting started. But, unfortunately, we’re out of time. So, Indira, Alex, thank you so, so much on behalf of everybody watching. I think this was a wonderful way to kick off 2020 and I’m very grateful for your thoughtfulness and your time and, yeah, very excited for both of you to enact that change in your community and the broader arts world, so thank you so, so much.

About Our Guests
Alex Sarian
Alex Sarian
President & CEO, Arts Commons

Alex Sarian is the President and CEO of , the largest arts center in western Canada. Appointed in January 2020, Alex became one of the youngest CEOs to oversee a major performing arts center in North America, including its response to the pandemic and the announcement of a major capital campaign.

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Dr. Indira Etwaroo
Dr. Indira Etwaroo
Producer, Director, Scholar, Non-Profit Arts Leader

Dr. Indira Etwaroo is an award-winning producer, director, scholar, and non-profit arts leader, and currently serves as the Director of the Steve Jobs Theater at Apple. Previously, she led RestorationART and The Billie Holiday Theatre through radical growth, including the launch of the first national strategic plan for Black theaters, The Black Seed.

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