Make Art or Make It Happen: The Rise of the Artist Administrator – an interview with Kendal Henry

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Kendal Henry

Have you ever found yourself waiting on line to get a book signed by an author you love and wondering to yourself, “How did she create her book, her career and make a life doing all of that?”

I think about that all the time.

When I talk to artists about what their biggest dream is and what their biggest challenges are, this is what I hear:

“I want to make a life that I love around making art.”

“I don’t know how.”

This is not good. For the artist or for all of us in the world who need artists.

TWO PATHS

The path I followed, which I do not recommend to anyone without a trust fund, led me through a master’s program in piano performance from which I emerged with a framed diploma and 32 Beethoven Sonatas committed to memory.

As an artist, I struggled to make a life as a musician.

As a grantmaker, grant reviewer and employer, I cannot remember a single time when a person’s education degrees influenced my decision.

The other path I followed I do recommend:

Unleash your inner artist administrator – Tweet that!

I am the Executive Director of the Queens Council on the Arts. It dawned on me that I was more than that a few years ago when I was unexpectedly asked by Marion Godfrey, from the Pew Charitable Trust to play a Willie Nelson song. “Could you play ‘Crazy’? Bob isn’t around and I need a pianist.”

Her request may sound like not such a big deal, especially for someone who has been playing the piano all her life, but it was. And it made me mad that I had let my practice lapse to the point where I really wasn’t confident at all about saying, “Sure, I’d love to!” Especially in a room where everyone was an arts administrator looking forward to relaxing after a full day of conference sessions. Everyone except Bob, the Executive Director of Americans for the Arts who, I discovered later, plays in a garage band. Yet, they were playing, singing and letting their musician flag fly. And afterwards, many of them told me that they considered themselves artists first. The path they chose as administrators in arts organizations was intentional: a way to support their art making and as a way to make art happen.

I had an opportunity to talk about being an artist administrator with Kendal Henry, an artist and curator who is currently the Director of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program and adjunct professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

As an artist, he has worked public art for over 25 years, creating art as a tool for social engagement, civic pride and economic development.

1. HOW DO YOU SELF IDENTIFY?
“I am an artist.”
“My discipline is collaboration and my intent is to show people how to work together.”

For Kendal, the art he makes is an experience. “The art itself is an artifact, the result of the experience.”

Kendal believes that the most successful public artworks start with the question, “What is the artwork to achieve?” and takes into account the audience and surrounding environment in the creation of that artwork.

He begins his process with a conversation among everyone who is a partner or collaborator. This includes the artists, people from the community, the municipality or council, other organizations. The question that he poses is “What do you want to do?”

Wearing both his artist and administrator hats, his process is to go into new communities to get a sense of how they define themselves, what are people thinking, what is the energy on the street like.

In a temporary art project he completed in Vladivostok, Russia, he gathered people to have conversations about what was important to them.  There was great frustration around the development and construction going on in the city and the people said, “Give back our sky.”

Working with the community and materials that were easily accessible and plentiful, Kendal created hammocks for people to relax in and look up at the sky.

“Community building is the art.”

His approach is always that of a visitor, or an invited guest. As an artist or as a facilitator, his ability to listen and to understand what people are saying is crucial. “To listen for what is not being said is also very important.” These skills are what create true impact whether you are in the role as an artist or an administrator. “I apply my artist skills in my work as an administrator.”

“I like to create art festivals.” Festivals give Kendal a chance to collaborate with artists. For example, he was invited to be an artist-in-residence in in a town near Melbourne, Australia where he created a festival. The role of the festival was to introduce a community to public art and launch a public art program. 17 artists participated, each receiving a $1,000 fee and materials. True to his process, the festival began with conversations where the collaborators talked about their desire for a public art program, their frustration in reaching local artists, problems plaguing their community such as drugs, police brutality, homelessness. The festival became a platform where many of these conversation points could become visible.

“The act of organizing the festival was the art.”

At one point in the process, some of the artists wanted to create pieces around these issues that were potentially offensive. Moving seamlessly from artist to administrator, Kendal suggested ways to engage people who were not happy with the art and address their concerns with short and long term solutions. A better way to describe his role is “catalyst”. As a catalyst, his art is to get people to talk to each other.

2. WHAT SKILLS DO YOU NEED TO BE AN ARTIST ADMINISTRATOR?
“Coming from St. Lucia to New York at the age of 14 gave me the perspective of an outsider. Knowing other cultures make you a better person. I work in many third world countries and industrial places and the work always comes back to the most important things – what is is to be alive, being safe, being loved. I am humbled every time I am in a place where things we take for granted here do not exist. This becomes part of my approach – to build collective knowledge that allows people to do something about this with an art practice, using what you already have.”

“I don’t separate my artist skills from my administrator skills. It was a ‘Eureka!’ moment for me when I realized that I didn’t have to.”

“At my day job at DCLA, I work with artist/finalists who are about halfway through a 6 week process to create a proposal. I like to learn about the artist. To encourage them to create a proposal that relates to their body of work. Very often, once an artist is told they are getting $100,000 to create something, they go into shock and try to make something to please other people. I am there to tell them what we want is the ‘authentic you’. Here my role changes: I am acting in the role of an administrator with the sensibility of an artist.”

This, in a nutshell, is how I summed up the artist administrator ratio for Kendal:

Administrative skills is knowledge to get art stuff done – Tweet that!

As an artist, 80% is art, 20% is administrative.
As an administrator, 80% is administrative, 20% is art

3. WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?

“My next project is the the Art Prospect Public Art Festival in St. Petersburg. I was invited as an administrator and became an artist. Contemporary public art is new in Russia. The idea of 50 artists taking over a community is unheard of. This year’s theme is “Dialogue”. We will connect with other groups such as consulates to bring artists from all over the world. There is a 10 day artmaking process and the festival itself takes place over a weekend.”

4. WHERE CAN PEOPLE SEE MORE OF YOUR WORK?

“It was becoming all about me. The guy who just got here, the guy from New York. I’m more of a behind the scenes person. I wanted everybody to stop promoting me.”

For those of you who are curious, here are 2 examples of Kendal’s recent work:

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Global Art Lab Workshop

 

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The Papua New Guinea Arts Incubator

5. WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE TO EMERGING ARTIST ADMINISTRATORS?

“I have a young person working for me who has interests in lots of different areas. I told him that if he can’t find a job that he likes, make it up. There is a lot of theory out there. I get impatient with all that speculation and what ifs. Just do it and see what happens.

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image by Hugh McLeod

Write your own name tag, your own story, your own narrative before someone else does it for you.

I am working on creating new names for myself with one of my artist friends. What I came up with is, ‘cultural engineer’.
What do you think?”

For me, the name I like for myself is “keyboard strategist”. That covers everything I do from playing late night jam sessions to writing. Stay tuned.

Can you see yourself as a cultural engineer or another new name that best describes you?

Think about all facets of what you do to make your art happen. When you look at yourself as an artist, what you may see is an administrator.

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Hoong Yee

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About the Author: Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer helps artists & creative people grow their careers with great grant writing strategies & mindsets she has developed over 15 years as an veteran grant panelist, grant maker & grant writer. Get her FREE Master Grant Strategy Worksheet and a weekly dose of insights from a grant reviewer’s point of view.