The trick: public vs. private
When I first joined the Guild Literary Complex—a community-based literary organization that presents and supports diverse, divergent, and emerging voices through innovative programming—its experienced, outgoing director shared a piece of wisdom. Here’s the gist: “The trick will be to keep a balance between your public art and your private art. Your work with the Guild is your public art and it’s important, but don’t neglect your private art.” She was encouraging me to always keep one hand on my own poetry and theater projects, even as I led the Guild’s administrative and programming activities. Her advice intrigued me. It sounded deceptively simple, yet fundamentally true. And where there’s fundamental truth, there’s depth; and where there’s depth, I can swim around in it, thinking, for ages. I’ve had a few thoughts so far.…
First, my mentor was dead right. Taking the Guild job meant I had to “come out” as an arts administrator and programmer as well as an artist. It would be different from my previous non-arts jobs, where I’d treated my audience development and arts marketing side projects as "moonlighting"—separate from the day job but an essential mental supplement keeping me from going into psychic debt. (Not to be too dramatic.) During those years only a few friends and family knew of my regular attendance at writing retreats and theater conferences, performances in theater projects, even the development of my first poetry manuscript. But joining the Guild meant owning up to the work that had prepared me for the position and to the lifelong passions that excited me about the opportunity. I needed to integrate a public component into my arts life. Sometimes there are awkward moments, when I’m operating in “Guild mode,” only to encounter a conversation or opportunity that I want to address as an individual artist, or vice versa. I find myself thinking, Is this the right time? Will it distract people from my goals for the Guild/my own work? But usually there’s a way to shift, even if the gears grind a bit.
Playing on many levels
I’ve also realized that this public/private phenomenon plays out on multiple levels, spreading from its two main branches like a family tree. On the public side, The Guild Literary Complex is committed to making the traditionally isolated art of literature more accessible to audiences. We accomplish this by giving live readings and performances around the Chicago area and providing showcases for overlooked and emerging writers. Our emphasis on making isolated literature accessible creates public/private dynamics in our individual programs that we have to negotiate. For example, the Guild recently presented the 17th edition of our annual Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award (GBOMA), where poets perform their work to a live audience that votes for the ultimate winner. A literary experience can’t be more public than that. Yet we recognize the irony that an event designed to bring literature out into the world has two very private components: 1) brave poets first submitting their work for consideration in written form, and 2) the performing semi-finalists being chosen through an anonymous review of those pages. We’re now asking ourselves whether the GBOMA experience has the right public-to-private ratio. The Guild is also contemplating how to make its programs shareable beyond the time of the event itself. We’re exploring how to balance the relative privacy of programming that brings writers and audience together in a room for a few hours, with recordings and other documentation that can spread the experience to a wider public for months and years into the future.
In my individual work, my poetry and playwriting also oscillate between public and private as well. For example, I’m very much a page poet, and a relative bystander to the established practices of slam and performance poetry. Yet my theater background means I often write poems with distinct characters, and I think carefully about how my poems sound aloud as well as how they look. My concern for the audience experience also means I tend to enact, not just deliver, my work in readings. And like the Guild, I’m regularly assessing the balance between public and private, e.g. what I lose by being a page poet, what I compromise by being so aware of audience, and I tweak the mix regularly.
Gift, not curse: Public/Private as marketing opportunity
Which brings up a third reflection in this public/private house of mirrors, a challenge I suspect all artist-administrators and artist-programmers recognize: There must be a balance between creating art and marketing a product. In case anyone starts to dry heave, let me say that neither “marketing” nor “product” needs to be a dirty word. In ots purest form, “marketing” is about showing an audience why your “product”—the experience or artifact—is worth their time, money, and attention. So we all have to do the hard work of producing the best arts we can according to our mission, but we must also convince an audience to participate in it with us. There’s privacy to developing the work, but going public is the only way to share it. Fortunately, I believe such sharing is why most arts organizations, and artists, exist.
Anyone have a headache yet? If so, take heart: even with branches splitting off in different directions all around us, the only limb we’re responsible for is our own. Even more importantly, we don’t have to choose between public and private. There’s a lot of potential produced by such intersection and innovation; put another way, there are no wrong answers and nothing is written in stone. Besides, speaking as someone who has experienced life where public and private art never connected, it’s a privilege to take on the challenges of balancing the two. If nothing else, it keeps us thinking.
Kimberly Dixon is Managing Director of the Guild Literary Complex as well as a poet, playwright, and performer. A Cave Canem fellow, her poetry has appeared in journals including The Drunken Boat, Torch, Versal, Reverie, and the anthology Just Like a Girl: A Manifesta! from GirlChild Press. Her comic play “The Gizzard of Brownsville” was a finalist for the Theodore Ward Prize for African-American Playwrights, and she recently released her first poetry collection, SenseMemory, with Blue Pantry Publishers. Kimberly has studied arts, expression and audience through degrees in theater, psychology, and race/gender studies, as well as during several years as a market researcher and brand planner. A Chicago transplant, she has always admired the city’s “working arts” spirit.
Written in Summer 2010.