INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN J. TEPPER

When it comes to the subject of arts advocacy and democracy in general, Steven J. Tepper believes in posing provocative and challenging questions. Tepper is the Associate Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy and professor in the Department of Sociology at Vanderbilt University. In his recent book Not Here, Not Now, Not That: Protesting Art and Media in America, Tepper challenges his readers to analyze their opinions on censorship, the First Amendment, the culture wars, and arts policy.

Arts for Colorado recently caught up with Tepper and asked him about The Curb Center, the importance of creativity in the workplace, and the impact he hopes to achieve with his work.

AFC is proud to present a talk by Steven J. Tepper on Thursday, August 16th entitled Creative Work and the Work of Creativity at the Dikeou Collection, located in Downtown Denver.

In his presentation, Tepper will examine the role of creativity in the new economy as well as the challenges faced by universities in the preparation of graduates to be flexible, imaginative, empathetic, and entrepreneurial. He will also report on new findings from a survey of more than 50,000 former art students in America.

Tell us about your role as the Associate Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University.

The Curb Center was founded 10 years ago by Bill Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. As a national policy center, we examine support for the arts and creativity more generally in the US. Our center was founded with the mission to raise provocative questions and challenge assumptions about traditional modes of support. Ultimately, we think arts leaders and policy makers need to take greater account of the “public interest” when considering how to nurture and support creativity and artistry in America. Under the Curb Center’s new director, English Professor Jay Clayton, we will continue to conduct high profile national research as well as develop curricula and grant programs on the Vanderbilt campus around creative inquiry, public policy, and leadership. As Associate Director, I am involved with all academic programing and direct most of the Center’s national research projects.

Please briefly explain the relationship between creativity and the changing economy.

Many scholars and pundits have argued that success in the 21st century requires creative workers and citizens who can imagine new products, new services, and new ways to tell stories, produce compelling designs, and discover non-routine solutions to vexing public problems. Creativity has always been important to the US economy, but over the past few decades it has become a growing slice of our economic pie. Moreover, more young people aspire to creative careers and seek to live in vibrant cities that can support their creative hobbies and lifestyles. Many are choosing to study the arts as a foundation for creative careers, with the number of performing and visual arts graduates growing from around 80,000 per year in 1998 to more than 120,000 per year in 1997.

Finally, graduates need to be creative in constructing careers in the 21st century. Gone are the days when most graduates could pursue a linear career working within one or two organizations. In fact, in 2010, 18- to 44-year-olds held, on average, 11 jobs in their lifetimes and 25 percent held 15 or more jobs. In a contingent economy with a growing rate of contract and self-employment, graduates need to be flexible and adaptable and see opportunities to draw creatively on various relationships and talents to “make interesting things” happen in their communities and for the larger society.

How are artistic practice and training relevant to creative skills in the 21st century?

There is increasing evidence from cognitive scientists, psychologists, and education researchers that artistic practice can help prepare people’s brains to think in creative ways, including analogical reasoning, making remote associations between dissimilar ideas, empathetic reasoning, idea generation, dealing with ambiguity and complexity, improvisation, and learning to work collaboratively on open-ended puzzles.

Recently, Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) conducted a survey of more than 50,000 former art students. What were the most informative or useful findings from that survey?

The SNAAP findings are critically important for dispelling many myths about an arts degree. Most people assume these degrees are for privileged kids who don’t need a real job. Moreover, people assume arts graduates are unemployable and are bitter and resentful that they spent money and time on a worthless degree. It turns out arts graduates are gainfully employed and the vast majority of them are glad they went to art school and would do it again. Moreover, even those who went on to careers outside the arts say their training is relevant to their work – especially creativity skills.

What can we do to leverage arts education as a means of producing a skilled and capable workforce for the new creative economy?

First, we need to get outside of our gilded ghetto. Arts education must be seen as more than specialized training for the arts. We must identify the practices – what Keith Sawyer calls “studio practices” – that are relevant for education more generally. In this respect, the arts can provide a much more radical reformulation of education more generally. We are not just talking about more people playing music and making art, we are talking about more people using artistic approaches to understanding and diagnosing problems in a variety of domains and seeking non-routine solutions. But, we must also realize that not all arts education is about creativity. Much training in the arts is about repetition and mastery – both are important for creativity but are not geared toward producing creative skills or dispositions. Second, we must think about ways to integrate arts and creativity across the curriculum. About 20 years ago, colleges and universities realized that writing skills should be taught and applied not just in English classes but in all subjects. This spawned a movement called Writing Across the Curriculum. Today, many classes outside of English include “writing” as a core part of the curriculum. We should aspire to the same thing for the arts.

What are some strategies that universities and colleges can employ to better prepare graduates for the business realities of creative jobs?

I think the most important thing we can do is give students opportunities for project-based learning – where individual students or teams work on some “design” challenge – inventing a new way to serve the homeless, coming up with a new delivery system for insulin, creating an innovative theater piece, designing a new urban technology core, etc.. Ball State’s Center for Creative Inquiry creates these intense full-semester courses where students have to see a project from start to finish – creating a solution and then translating that solution into a tangible program, presentation, performance, or set of policies. I also think every student should complete a senior honors thesis – an intense, creative exercise that forces students to draw on diverse skill sets in order to offer a new idea to the world.

What areas of arts and cultural policy would you like to see impacted by your work?

I would love to see education leaders recognize the “creativity imperative” and reform education to meet the needs of 21st century learners, workers and citizens. I want colleges and universities to embrace the messiness and authenticity that comes from creative work – work that does not fit into the neat “right angles” of the traditional classroom learning environment.
I also want cultural leaders to recognize that they have to be bold and radical if they want to be truly relevant in their communities. Too many of us are entrenched in old routines and old views about the arts and their benefit to our communities. The arts field is, ironically, filled with people who don’t want to take chances. I don’t think anyone should go into the arts who is risk-adverse and worries often about job security. The arts should be relevant and robust and challenge conventions and be willing to provoke debate and protest. We need to offer extraordinary work, defend its importance to our communities, and then live with the consequences. Ultimately, I don’t care what type of art forms we support; rather, I seek an arts system that is relevant and that people care enough about to fight over. We need to support “cultural churn” and allow old forms and old ideas to die while encouraging and promoting new forms and new ideas. I want us to stop talking about expanding and growing audiences and instead talk about expanding minds, expanding debate, and expanding opportunities for connection and creative learning. We have to move beyond a narrative of institutional survival and focus on creative vitality, wherever that vitality resides.