What are we risking?
An interview with Carlton Turner
Carlton Turner is all about creating narratives: true narratives that challenge lazy assumptions about the world and what art and artists are—narratives that confront false limitations on what art can say and how it can change the world. Since 2001, Turner has worked with Alternate ROOTS, a regional arts membership organization based in Atlanta; he is now its executive director. He brings to the job a combination of skills: fundraising, arts administration, experience as a touring artist, community activism, and fostering artists and culture-makers. He keeps an eye on history and society in order to catalyze conversations and progressive ideas. The goal: to create a new narrative about culture. Arleta Little, arts program officer for the McKnight Foundation, says: “For me, Carlton demonstrates the capacity of culture to craft character and to create community.”
Carlton, Ananya Chatterjea, artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre in the Twin Cities, has said that in addition to being deeply supportive of artists, you are “more than an artist, [you are] a platform builder.” Do you think that description fits?
When she says platform, it fits—in terms of creating platforms for changing age-old conversations. We are talking about shifting policy, equity in the arts; about understanding colonialism and looking at long-term racial disparities and how those things have an impact on arts ecosystems.
Are you a working artist now?
Part of my current role is as a touring and a working artist. Part of my work is to maintain my identity as an artist. It helps me to maintain integrity—what the work is about. The further I get away from that, the more I drift away from being an advocate for artists. That’s why I continue to engage my skills as an artist and pursue the development of things that speak to my soul.
If platform fits, what are some of those platforms? How do they fit in today’s landscape of arts and society?
In the world of yesterday, we were working from a singular narrative, and arts have been, to this point, advanced on that singular narrative. All voices were not honored with the same equity and on the same platform.
Today, the conversations have to be a little more based in analysis—analysis of how capitalism works, how patriarchy works, how government works, and how movements work. What we are dealing with today is based on a continuum of issues and challenges that have never been reconciled. That is evidenced by what happened at Standing Rock, for example—invaded and burned to the ground and people arrested.
You mention Standing Rock and talk a lot about intersectionality. Where do you see the intersections today? Where is the best leverage for change?
Intersectionality is the place where we find strength, find the challenges and interconnectedness. It is where I find that my own challenges [as a person of color] are connected to age, LGBT, gender, and other issues.
Hopefully, intersectionality helps us put an end to the competitive “oppression Olympics.” We are working to associate, understand, and connect the oppression I experience with other peoples’ oppression. This is contrary to the way that capitalism deals with communities and society and helps us realize what democracy means.
We also have to look at the role of philanthropy. Working intersectionally is difficult when the philanthropic sector has siloed issues. Often, they see their work as [finding] solutions to individual issues, working in individual communities, without solving the underlying issues. Doing this is a false promise.
Today, philanthropy is cut off from activist roots. Our work continues to be intersectional and to be a recasting of the narrative of the United States into one that is about imperialism and the occupation of indigenous land. Our work is interconnected in an ecosystem of change in which we are seeing communities that struggle as extensions of ourselves rather than “other.” This is the front line of cultural transformation.
What are you working on today to address this?
What I am most excited about is working with the Intercultural Leadership Institute, in which Alternate ROOTS has joined with the First Peoples Fund, the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, and the PA’I Foundation. It’s a collection of 30 Fellows from around the country, peer experts who are building an intercultural experience that allows us to move into spaces with a more pluralistic understanding of our existence. In our work, we realize that our identity is not complete without the others around us.
The Institute brings together arts leaders from different communities to look at and honor leadership development in ways that are not framed by the dominant culture. We travel to different locations around the country to gain community wisdom that can uplift. We pay a lot of attention to the ways in which a lot of different leadership cultures think of the land, for example.
This is a significant shift in how we see our relationship to our surroundings. If you are building policies around the land, what you get is very different from a policy that values profit over people. Now is the first time communities of color and indigenous peoples are defining leadership on their own terms. This operates from a very different premise: our cultural practices that don’t always get to lead the way.
In the context of this developing and emerging intersectional movement, what purpose do art and culture serve?
Art and culture are informing, framing, and delivering ideas. Art and culture have a transformative ability to change ideas. It is a response to a “white-washed” America that’s produced overkill, in Baltimore, Charleston, Ferguson, and Standing Rock. We have found ourselves backed into a corner like a cornered black panther—out on a limb or out of our minds.
It is about connecting historically relevant events to what is happening today. Acknowledging that history is to confront the fact that, in order for there to be an America, there had to be a resource, slave labor, to secure an economic future. Acknowledging that many of us were slaves until 1865 and didn’t get to vote until 100 years later—and that all of this was backed up with a fictitious narrative of normalcy.
We are responding to the premise of the historical “three-fifths citizenship” allowed to African Americans, [which has been] cemented in our psyche; this concept of a second-class citizenry. Our work is actively demanding that we be seen and heard; it’s saying we are human. It’s about performing in the streets as well as changing the public perception of who gets to perform on stage.
We are challenging the notion of who the arts are for. When I was asked to respond to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts at NEA in 2009, what I laid out was how the survey was flawed. It looked at opera, symphony, and dance, and how people are consuming art in those venues. In reality, it’s difficult to find a community that does not have artistic practice embedded in its culture. These practices in these broad communities are involved in how we make meaning out of this journey we are on as human beings. But the arts infrastructure only holds up a few selected works or practices as being valid, worthy of the museum show or the big concert hall.
Much of the [philanthropic and arts administration world] has promoted change, but most of it was superficial. It was never intended to change the structure. [It’s like when, in] Mississippi, we were integrating children into a school system that was still run by the white supremacist structure; it didn’t put a dent in segregation, and it affirmed the power structure.
Today’s challenge is that we don’t have enough discourse with each other to come to a collective assessment of how these systems impact our lives. It’s difficult to have conversations with our white neighbors, because they are the recipients of the faulty information created by politics as a form of theater: faux journalism that fixates the public on fear and safety. It’s performance propaganda.
How do we bring about radical change to the systems so as to create ones that are not just a reflection of the times in which they were built? We keep asking ourselves, what is the role of arts? And as Martin Luther King Jr. might ask, what are we risking?
Clarence White is a writer who is also an editor, publicist, and contributor to the Saint Paul Almanac. His publications include “Smart Enough for Ford,” in the anthology Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.