Chapter 2: The Gift of the Partnership Path
At one time I had the privilege of running one the largest arts colonies in the world. Actually it was a franchise. We started small but ultimately we had 38 sites operating under the auspices of California Department of Corrections.
Here’s the story: In the late 70’s, I worked with a woman named Eloise Smith, from Santa Cruz. Eloise was a battler and inveterate seeker of truth and justice. One of her great quests was to insinuate the arts into community life as a force for healing and self expression. After a lot of research and musing she came to the conslusion that that the best way to make the case for the doing this was go through societies back door-- with the prisons.
When we made our first prison visit, to the California Medical Facility, in Vacaville, the first prisoner she talked to was a guy named Verne McKee. Verne was president of the both the visual arts and musicians guilds. He told Eloise straight out that a small investment in the Vacaville prison arts community would save lives. Verne was a con with the gift of gab and Eloise was a hard sell, but, after a lot of back and forth, she decided he had it right. As a result of their work together, a lot of other folks came to that same conclusion.
A few years later, after we started the Arts in Corrections Program the bean counters at the Department came and told us that when prisoners made art, their incident rates went down inside, and they committed fewer crimes when they got out. By 1986, there were art programs in all of California’s prisons. And, as the system grew, so did our franchise.
The AIC program eventually grew so that there was a civil service artist/coordinator in every prison, an arts faculty in the hundreds, and a student body of over 15,000. Despite being drastically cut a some years ago, this program, that many said was an impossibility, had an incredible impact on thousands of prisoners and correctional staff members. Beyond the impressive numbers though, the program’s real staying power, its true resiliency came from the patient creation of a delicate web of hundreds of long term, trust-based partnerships---partnerships between community activists and legislators, partnerships between funders and administrators, partnerships between arts organizations and prisons, partnerships between artists and corrections officers, partnerships between arts mentors and prisoners, the list goes on and on and on.
The principal driving force of all arts these partnerships were the long-term, trust-based relationships necessary to make them happen. If you ask around, I’m guessing that most people would concur with that simple truth. In the rough and tumble of the community arts world, I know they would. When all is said and done, the planning, fundraising, art making, evaluations, and marketing are done--- the most important, lasting and valuable resource to emerge from all the bone-breaking, sweat-producing, headache-making, patience-testing struggle is the network of colleagues you build---who you know, who they know, who trusts you, who will go the extra mile, and put their good name on the line for you and vice versa.
Both Eloise Smith and Verne Mckee knew that. Even thought she was a world-class artist Eloise, at the core, was a politician. So was Verne, albeit with a different constituency and a very different rendering of “advise and consent" to navigate. Despite the differences of their circumstances, though, their paths had a common base. In both prison and politics you have nothing but your relationships--- which, in the extreme, can mean the difference between life and death for you and/or your collaborators. Both Eloise and Verne were the best of partners. They were true partners, who pushed hard for what they felt was right, but never exaggerated the stakes or promised more than they could deliver.
Eloise and Verne have passed on, but their spirits keep on giving by reminding me to stay true to both the path and the people who help us walk it.