Testimony for the Illinois Arts Council Public Hearing
I was invited to give testimony at the IAC public hearing, and the below is what I read in my allotted five minutes. It was apparently rather moving—not just for me, although I did tear up a little, because that is how much I love being involved in policy decisions—but for the panel and AIC employees, who came up to me afterwards and thanked me for giving it. The follow-up questions were telling, too: I was asked in a couple different ways if the kind of work I describe couldn’t be accomplished online: if travel funds were really necessary, what sort of social media outlet was best to create this kind of effect, etc. This was frustrating. Face-to-face work with people is important. In transnational art projects and in state-facilitated discussions of the future of public art.
I post this here for the record, then, and for those of you who missed it. And not because it’s the same as having attended this important hearing.
My name is Anne Elizabeth Moore. In 2007 I was offered the chance to bring a little-known form of art called “social practices” to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Social practices are art forms in which people place more value on the interaction between people than on the objects created. This is important in Cambodia, where crackdowns on freedom of expression are still common. 35 years ago the Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of the population in a brutal attempt to create an agrarian utopia. The young women I was working with were 17, 18. They are the smartest young women in the country. But due largely to government oppression, most of them had never heard of the Khmer Rouge, and didn’t know what the regime had done. Together, through small books and comics we made ourselves, their memories of lost family members, giant bowls of rice, and my own recollection of the movie The Killing Fields, we figured it out. Not because I wanted them to know, but because, if they were going to take over the Cambodian government someday—which they will—they needed to know. Together, we created close to 60 comics and books, among the first created by women, that documented their lives, their histories, and their hopes for the future. That project was funded by an Illinois Arts Council National Governor’s Exchange Program Grant.
I have since returned to Cambodia, as a journalist and an artist, to build upon this original work and strengthen the potential for young women all over the country to create their own kinds of art and media. I received a Fulbright to teach media literacy at the college level in 2010, and a prestigious Arts Network Asia grant the following year to create a program, based in Phnom Penh, for young women to take comics-making classes for free. Here in Illinois—which houses only the 11th largest Cambodian population in the country, but is site to the first Killing Fields Memorial in the US—I began establishing lines of communication between young Cambodian-American women their counterparts in Cambodia. In the last five years, I have worked directly with close to three hundred young women in Southeast Asia and North America on media justice in developing countries, and indirectly with several thousand more, through books, comics, lectures, and workshops. Next month, my second book on my work in Cambodia will be released, a book of photographs, also supported by the Illinois Arts Council.
It is not an exaggeration to say that I have seen the direct, positive affect of Illinois Arts Council funding on thousands of young women in need around the world.
I am a part of a long-standing tradition of Chicago-based cultural producers. Some work in social practices, some in art, and some in pure organizing. The Chicago Torture Justice Memorial, Tamms Year Ten, AREA newspaper, InCUBATE, and my own local project, Ladydrawers, are each attempts to investigate, and improve, the lives of other people—almost none of whom identify as artists. This work has forged a safety net for community members in need—oftentimes filling gaps left by budget cuts elsewhere. Thus, the economic value of what we do is immeasurable. I know you want me to mention tourism. Tourism brings with it a hope for other funding streams. In truth, giving people voice and joy when they have been neglected by all other systems does not necessarily attract the international art connoisseur to Illinois. But it does create and maintain an international standard for compassion known, the world over, to exist here. We could put a price on that: $5. $5 Billion. But I believe that setting the standard for excellence is worth more than that. More than money.
But money is a reality, and given the economic climate and the increasingly limited resources available, I urge a radical step: That the IAC bring all budget questions directly to a wide swath of Illinois artists. Known for devising creative workarounds to limited resources, and with the local cultural production community’s long-standing focus on social justice, cultural producers are the only functioning body I know of capable of crafting a budget proposal to support each other. No wasteful consultants, no fact-finding reports: simply a participatory resource allocation program in which the affected parties have a stake in the outcome.
We pretend, in this room, that “the arts” are separable from innovation, joy, problem-solving, or social justice. The truth is that none of those are possible in a society without some form of support for creative exploration and expression. I experienced life in a place with limited access to innovation, joy, problem solving, and social justice, and with the support of the Illinois Arts Council, I helped change how people think about and respond to their world. It is important that the Illinois Arts Council continue funding public art programs—in fact, it is vital.