The Arts Alliance's Convergence 2010 conference draws area artists and asks, 'Can art be a catalyst for change?'
A breakout session called "The Price is Right! Pricing and Selling Art"? A short talk titled "Don't Be Afraid to Make a Fool of Yourself"? A request to respond to local artists' displayed works by jotting down reactions and impressions, for the purposes of contributing to a community project poem?
Ashong, whose family hails from Ghana, grew up in Brooklyn, New York, Voorhees, New Jersey, and Saudi Arabia. With a show on Oprah Winfrey's satellite radio network, Harvard-educated Ashong works to engage young people with positive messages for social change.
And after a praiseful introduction at Convergence, Ashong noted he felt pressure to live up to it. "Sometimes it’s easier to overcome a deficit than to sustain success."
When Ashong left for college, his father told him that his hope for his son was that he learn how to learn.
"It shifted my concept of what was success," Ashong said. "Being good at any one thing was not enough. It was being good at the process of being, of learning, or growing, of whatever I was doing - that was the challenge. And that was something where, you could never plateau."
Ashong discussed the difficulty he had in defining his own identity while growing up, and sang a song his mother often sang in the family's multi-language home. The last line of the song was, "Whether this land will succeed, whether this land will fail, the life of the people will show."
With this in mind, Ashong launched into his perspectives about the angry nature of contemporary political campaigns. Specifically, he cited an ad that vilifies the Chinese.
"This is how we get people elected in America today?" asked Ashong. " Nobody there is coming to try to get us. We need to be responsible for what we’re doing here today."
100 years ago, Ashong argued, America's primary business was agriculture, and that obviously changed radically over the course of the last century. Making a comparison to manufacturing jobs that are vanishing, Ashong said of that time, "We started making new things. We’ve always been evolving our skills, and the skills of our populace, to do new things. Rather than demonize other people because it’s easy, and ignore the hard thing, we’ve got to remember that our country has always done the hard thing. It is what has made this country great. It is the hard things that separate you from everyone else."
According to Ashong, "the new hard thing is, how do you raise up a generation of young Americans who can compete in a global marketplace with the rest of the world that is also coming out of poverty? How can you stay relevant in a world where other people are wanting to live well, too? And I would argue that the way you do that is not by hoping the sewing jobs come back, but it is by generating the new opportunities and businesses of our future. And the deepest thing you would need and require in order to do that, I would argue, is not a sense of outrage at the way things are. It is by looking at how we foment and create and cultivate a culture of innovation in our country."
Ashong pointed to a Newsweek article called "The Creativity Crisis" - which indicated a drop in the level of creativity in American students - and stated his belief that this was the biggest challenge facing our country. Regardless of the career path a student takes, Ashong argued, engagement with the arts in some form will nurture their creativity and benefit us all.
To make that happen, Ashong urged artists to find new ways to explain the relevance of what they do to the larger society.
"The question is, whether or not you’re going to be helping to fuel (young people's) creativity, or whether you’re going to force it to grow like a weed in the desert," said Ashong. " I’ll say that an education in the arts will help you to cultivate better people, and that if we fuel that creativity, we will benefit from it rather than just hoping and praying that it will do what creativity will do, which is survive. It will always survive. The question is, will it thrive."
After Ashong concluded his talk, he answered a question from the crowd about what happens to a country when its population is aging more than it's renewing itself. Ashong argued that America didn't fall into that category yet, and credited immigration for this.
After the conference, Arts Alliance president Tamara Real estimated that attendance at this year's Convergence was up approximately 30 percent from last year, and noted that Convergence partly arose as a means for local artists to find, and learn from, each other.
"One of the discoveries that I made when we were going through the cultural plan was how disconnected the cultural community is," said Real. "Visual artists know visual artists, poets know poets, theater people know theater people. So part of it is for people to start building up those connections with each other and start to be able to collaborate together or share resources."
Approximately 150 people attended Ashong's keynote presentation, and for some, this was Convergence 2010's main draw. But Real's fine with that.
"Our goals are pretty modest for this," said Real. "If someone has one good idea, or makes one good connection, we feel like we’ve accomplished our goal."