Artist Meetup Blog Entry 2

February 2024


When I began thinking up this blog, it seemed it would make the most sense to share my thoughts quarterly, after the conclusion of each cycle of the curriculum. I think it’s that I was bargaining with myself, that I both wanted to share my thoughts and feared being overbearing. I have had trouble in recent years feeling that I am allowed the opportunity to take up space. Some of you may find this to be a familiar feeling. For me, it was borne out of reaction, a pendulum swing in the other direction after realizing—this was many years ago now—that the way I led spaces was through glamor and charisma, and that a community could not be sustained solely by its organizer’s persona. When it became evident to me just how damaging to a community that mode of leadership could be, I reeled. I turned inward. Now, as so often happens, my challenge has become to allow myself to find balance, the sweet spot between stepping out of the way (foregrounding the experiences and decisions of community-members) and leading as a fellow community member myself.

As I wrote the first blog entry, I could feel this nagging voice in the back of my head saying no one cares. How powerful, how complicated, that our minds can produce such magic. We’ve been doing these meetups together now for eight months—many of you attending regularly, which is to say owning/possessing/becoming the community itself—and this voice whispers to me that I should shut up? That isn’t fair to any of us.

After finishing our most recent meetup on February 11, I took a moment to collect my thoughts, reviewed the copious notes I had taken—notes, of course, that are reflective of your thoughts!—and it dawned on me that the only way forward with this blog is to write monthly. There is simply too much beautiful exchange in our short meetings, and it must be shared!

It is critical to meet ourselves where we are. If an aspect of where I am is a fearful voice that my writing will be too much, too daunting, too overwhelming to actually be useful, then perhaps the solution is to write more and more regularly, to share deeper thoughts more frequently to assuage lengthy walls-of-text—and to assuage the questioning voice.

If that’s going to be the case, the solution is clear: this blog entry will help to bring forward the notes I take each month during our meetups, reflect on the sessions, and preview the direction I expect we will go in upcoming meetups. More frequency allows for this to become a regular letter of sorts, too, so that the outward transmission of my expectations for future meetups can be met with suggestions and critiques immediately. That’s community, baby!

Those who attend each month will receive a draft of the blog post in advance, which they will be able to comment on. After that, I will incorporate the comments, the SOAC team will help me edit, and then we’ll publish! It is weird and it is scary, but it is us, together.

February was the first month we held our meetup virtually. This screenshot unfortunately missed a few of the earlier members present, yet it still reveals something wonderful: some members only listened, some members spoke but left their cameras off, and all engaged with the new medium comfortably and exactly how they wanted. What a beautiful thing.

Those of you who have attended our meetups know that there is an exercise I like to open with, “a timed intro.” For this exercise, I pose an ice-breaker-esque question that asks members to share some aspect of themselves. We all take a few minutes to write bullet points to organize our thoughts prior to sharing, and then we each take our turn. The catch is that we are all aware that we will each only have 30 seconds to share our answer to the prompt. The first time we did this activity, last summer, it sparked a huge conversation on abundance versus scarcity mindsets. Our members have had the instinctual reaction, very reasonably, that this might be the only moment they have to share themselves. Of course, that feeling is never true—this exercise takes place in the first ten minutes of a 3 hour event!—but the fear is real nonetheless.

Forty thousand people live in this city. Just because we don’t know who the artists are doesn’t mean they aren’t here.

During February’s meetup, the prompt for the timed intro asked our members to share “a part of your practice you’re thinking about right now.” The secret to a good question for this exercise is any question that feels too big to answer in 30 seconds, which is most of them. What this does is gets the often-rusty gears of self-reflection turning, and it helps those important first thoughts to move out of the way, à la the morning pages from Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” If a participant feels that they have not shared enough, or that their peer has left them wanting more information, their newfound vested interest will fuel their desire to continue the conversation. I find it’s a helpful way to jettison a group right past the icebreaker jitters.

While icebreaking, one of our members—a standup comedian—said they have been thinking about the performer/audience relationship and code-switching between types of audiences. They told us that there is a voice in the back of their head when performing sometimes that whispers they paid for a comedy show, not a civics lesson. This comment framed much of the rest of our conversation—so much so that we decided it will be something to return to during future meeting conversations.

Another member shared in response that they have felt in their practice a “pressure to perform a certain way,” and wish they could be “unburdened by identity.” This was echoed by yet another member saying they want to “insert honesty into [their] work.”

This pressure to perform in various ways, we agreed, comes from the need to survive as makers—the majority of us do not have altruistic patrons who allow us to simply express. Community-building is a necessary insulation against the coldness of our world, protection against the brutality of competition, safety in the violence of transaction.

Open dialogue invites vulnerability and authenticity.

Again, most of us cannot—at this moment, in this space—exist in self-sustaining communes where all members protect one another at all times. Of course we must venture out into the cold, brutal, violent world. But the questions become:
How can we make community wherever we go?
How can we bring community wherever we go?
Do we need to engage transactionally?

At the center of all of this is fear. Fear of incompatibility. Fear of losing oneself. Fear of losing one’s livelihood.

For example, “they paid for a comedy show, not a civics lesson” showcases the transactionality of much of our work. Later on during the meetup, another member spoke up and voiced their frustration at audience members “being offended and lashing out” about content that should make them pause and think, or question, or provoke discomfort. In a transactional understanding of comedy, the comedian delivers fodder for laughs and the audience becomes sated and complacent. This sort of transaction could be applied to any medium or presentation: an audience attends a museum believing a painting should make them cry, pays for a movie ticket expecting spectacle, or goes to a concert waiting for that one filmable moment to post on social media.

Of course, these transactionalities are not all that art is about, right? You may notice I didn’t include some mediums. Why isn’t attending a poetry reading or meandering a sculpture garden or going to a jazz performance or seeing a modern dance company’s debut evening-length performance in my list of transactions? Some mediums are harder to commodify, harder to turn into capital, and thus harder to view in one particular transaction. In more-easily-transactional mediums, though, the frustration becomes resistance to community-making: a comedy performance has provoked a complex feeling? That isn’t a bad thing! As the above member noted, “you’re mad about it? Good! Tell me WHY!”

There is a shared responsibility between artist and audience to engage vulnerably. This reciprocity creates a solid foundation, an open dialogue inviting vulnerability and authenticity.

So how does that work begin? How do we start to catalyze our spaces or alter our “brand” to invite genuine expression and genuine reaction?

One of our members shared that they believe the answer lies in elevating hyperlocal community needs and artists as protectors and guides—those who can call in. They said that, in the work they do, they seek to “fulfill the needs of [their] community while protecting them from those who would seek to take advantage of them.”  Their elegant question to vet the sincerity of potential collaborators is this:

Who are you speaking for and why are you speaking for them?

That question has not stopped rattling around in my head. Its straightforwardness belies its complexity. It calls in by asking genuinely, by providing the space, trust, and patience for an honest response. And yet, more often than not, those in charge of the landscape may not have a comprehensive or kind answer to such a powerful question. That lack of an answer is, in and of itself, a powerful thing because it shines a light on who is considering the community as a whole, holistically.

This conversation has just begun. In fact, I’m not sure it will ever be complete. And that’s okay! We will keep asking the big questions, together. And we will continue practicing community-building so that we may each take what we learn to our respective corners of the world.


At the moment, the ever-growing system of celestial bodies that orbits my artist-meetup-related thoughts are survival, vulnerability/fear, transactionality, and impermanence/improvisation.

When I look at this list, I see a throughline: placing ourselves in our bodies and in the now.

For the next few meetups, we will spend some of our time together creating various “maps” that allow us the chance to explore how our thoughts and emotions rest in our bodies. A crucial aspect of this work is the knowledge that our bodies are our trusted historians. As we play in ways that “map” ourselves, as we create artifacts that translate and ambiguate our relationships to those bodies, those tools are not precious but rather a means to deeper understanding. The tools can be impermanent.

We are the universe experiencing itself.

Our Artist Meetup series is supported by New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a nonprofit that funds initiatives to benefit the State’s civic life and meet the evolving information needs of New Jersey’s communities. A first-in-the-nation project, the Consortium reimagines how public funding can be used to address the growing problem of news deserts, misinformation, and support more informed communities.