On Joining The Arts & Society Team of Cities for People

Hi, my name is Todd Lester and while I come from Tennessee and—somehow—live between New York City and São Paulo, I’ve been working with Canadian partners to build and strengthen multilateral projects for the last ten years. For nearly the same length of time, I have co-hosted yearly conferences dealing with pertinent issues in art and society on Wasan Island in the beautiful Muskoka Lakes of Ontario. These summer meetings are organized under the aegis of freeDimensional, an organization I founded that helps artists- and activists-in-distress by providing safe havens in the form of artist residencies. The participants of these meetings on Wasan are artists who are passionate about social issues and who focus on those concerns in their art practices. Many of the participating artists are stakeholders of freeDimensional (which means that they have accessed our distress services); these are artists who live in repressive countries under harsh conditions or who are in the process of fleeing to a new location in order to avert danger. While I no longer work daily at freeDimensional, I recently helped design a series of Culture Worker Safety Workshops, which have recently been piloted in Mexico City and Tegucigalpa. By taking part in the organization’s evolution, I am reminded that its most essential function is (and has always been) to serve as an intermediary, connecting artists to resources during critical—if not dangerous—moments of their practice.

At the same time, artists in North America and Europe grapple with the same societal issues and themes in their work yet experience different setbacks—for instance rather than fear for personal safety, they may struggle with distance, lack of professional infrastructure and financial resources, or information asymmetry. These barriers can isolate them from other artists who are working on the same issues. Such obstacles can also sap precious time and limited resources; scarce assets that once spent may mean that an artist can no longer afford to focus on a pressing issue that they care deeply about. freeDimensional has identified and fills a gap in civil society by recognizing and supporting the arts and artists as important agents of social change. However, artists—the world over—do not always see themselves as activists. Thus, they may not have immediate access to activist resources when they are confronted by emergency situations. Providing artists with such resources ensures that they have the endurance and continuity that is essential to the work that they are trying to achieve.

As I move forward in my own career, I can see that I have been preoccupied with an intermediary role in most of my work—as I built the ResSupport project of ResArtis, co-conceived the Rockwood Leadership Institute’s Fellowship for Leaders in Arts and Culture, directed the Global Arts Corps, and helped the president of the World Policy Institute to shift the organizational culture of a 50-year old think tank in order to incubate collaborations between artists and policymakers. Fast-forward to my present role in Cities for People through the Arts & Society Team: I hope to acknowledge—and demystify—the intermediary function of art workers in society.

July 11, 2014
Todd Lester