Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Democracy and the Arts

Democracy and the Arts

Interviews by Mary Zajac
Illustration by John W. Tomac

With Johns Hopkins launching a new presence in our nation’s capital, Peabody talks with artists and cultural leaders about the roles of artists and their art in society.

Illustration of the Washington Monument in DC and the reflecting pool with a piano keyboard in the foreground

When George Peabody founded the Peabody Institute and Library in 1857, he envisioned a space where art and ideas could flourish. This future institute, he wrote in a letter, “shall be so conducted, throughout its whole career, as to teach political and religious charity, toleration, and beneficence, and prove itself to be, in all contingencies and conditions, the true friend of our inestimable Union, of the salutary institutions of free Government, and of liberty regulated by law.”

This month, Johns Hopkins University opens its new home at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, in the heart of the nation’s capital. The Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Center is envisioned as a place to engage students, scholars, civic leaders, policy leaders and makers, and the public in the national and global issues we face. On the occasion of the opening and in the spirit of Peabody’s founder, we asked artists, cultural leaders, and historians to discuss the relationship between the arts and democracy, the role the arts and artists play, and how the arts support community.

Creating a Common Ground

Jonathon Heyward is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and holder of the Harvey M. and Lyn P. Meyerhoff Chair. At 31 years old, he is the BSO’s youngest music director and the first person of color to lead the orchestra.

“I think it’s a powerful responsibility as artists to respond to the sort of current events that are going on in the world.

“I feel like a musical ambassador for Baltimore. It’s so important to focus on what the community needs from us as an arts organization, because I feel like a symphony hall can be this convener, this exchange of ideas and expressionism, a place of common ground. In the past it may have been perceived as more of a museum to look at live music from afar. But I think what is more interesting is to have a live response to what we’re doing, making a congress, if you will, of our constituents and artistic leaders and community members.

“My biggest goal as an artistic leader is how we present concerts in a way that is incredibly inclusive, but also incredibly relatable. And one way to show relatability is through programming, through the artists that we put on stage, through guest conductors—to see composers of color, women composers, side by side with the war horses that we’re all used to and we love, of course. Being able to present that as a well-balanced artistic package within a concert, I think, is a great responsibility, but also a real great pleasure.”

Making Sense of the World

Maria Rosario Jackson, PhD, became the 13th chair of the National Endowment for the Arts in January 2022. With this historic appointment, Jackson is the first African American and Mexican American woman to serve in this position.

“I strongly believe that none of the things that we say we aspire to as a nation of opportunity and justice are possible without the intentional integration of arts, culture, and design into all facets of our lives and the systems we rely on to care for each other.

“The ability for people to be expressive and tell their own stories on their own terms is a critical dimension of justice, equity, and a healthy existence. The arts help us make sense of the world and offer us different ways of thinking, feeling, and being. They are a source of inspiration and innovation. The arts help us recognize our commonalities and our meaningful differences. They help us protect and advance our humanity and that of our neighbors.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is committed to supporting opportunities for everyone in our country to live an artful life where the arts are part of our daily lives and also animate work at the intersections of other sectors, such as education, community development, climate, and more—including, very importantly at the intersection of health and well-being. In this way, I believe the arts can support our well-being as individuals, as communities, and as a country.”

Fostering an Exchange of Ideas

Grammy-nominated guitarist Manuel Barrueco has been a member of the Peabody faculty since 1990. Internationally recognized as one of the most import- ant guitarists of our time, Barrueco began playing the guitar at the age of 8. As a political refugee, he immi- grated with his family to the United States from Cuba in 1967 and later completed his advanced studies at the Peabody Conservatory.

“I come from Cuba originally. Between the ages of 7 until I was almost 15, I lived under a com- munist government, and in a system like that, there is no freedom of expression. The arts are controlled, and you cannot express yourself any way you want. You must go along the lines of the government. Also, the government uses the arts— all the arts—to indoctrinate, manipulate, and ultimately control the people.

“I think one of the beauties of democracy is that it is just the opposite of that. Democracy cannot exist without the exchange of ideas. And that’s reflected in the arts. The art that came out of the communist countries, though at times great, it was constrained by those very narrow ideological lines forced upon the artists by the government. Whereas in a democratic place like the U.S., it’s just the opposite; it’s very vibrant.

“There’s an extreme range of emotions and social forces in which the arts exist—vastly different economic situations, racial and religious backgrounds, etc. Freedom of expres- sion makes it possible for the artists to express themselves and for the arts to thrive, such as they do in a democracy.”

Headshot of Manuel Barrueco

Strengthening Democracy One Conversation at a Time

Philippa Pham Hughes, a visiting fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University for 2023– 24, is a social sculptor, cultural strategist, and curator who focuses on democracy building and civic engagement. Her Blueberries + Cherries project invites politically diverse guests to break bread and talk to each other face-to-face over a home-cooked meal in order to understand the things that influence our votes and to find ways to bridge the vast ideological gap that plagues our country.

“At the end of the day, if we can’t be in relationship with each other, if we can’t care about each other, we undermine our democracy. At the core of my art is an art practice called relational aesthetic. The idea is to create space for relationships to thrive and occur, and the art piece becomes complete when those relationship-building conversations start happening. I’m creating those spaces, but none of it works unless we actually have a more meaningful conversation with each other. For me, it’s expanding what the idea of art and artists mean.

“As we know, our social fabric has been torn apart. My art practice is very much geared towards repairing the social fabric and re-establishing these human connections with one another. That is where I start intersecting with democracy building. We cannot repair our democracy until we repair our connections first. Democracy demands an engaged citizenry. We must participate.”

Philippa Pham Hughes kneeling in front of a painting on a wall
Headshot of Anna Celenza

Facilitating Access

Musicologist Anna Celenza holds joint appointments in the Writing Seminars in the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Peabody Conservatory. She is also co-founder of Music Policy Forum, a nonprofit organization that advises local governments about how to create sustainable music ecosystems. Celenza’s current book project, Music that Changed America, is under contract with W. W. Norton.

“Music has the power to change the way people think about the world around them. In my forth- coming book, I write about a range of works that have influenced legislation, from environmental and anti-lynching laws to immigration and foreign policy. One chapter, however, shows how politics has changed music. Radio is one example. Before 1996, a company could not own more than one or two radio stations. Then Congress changed the law so that anyone could own as many stations as they wanted. Now local radio and local TV are largely owned by single companies. That change effectively killed regional radio. 

“Net neutrality is another example. It raises questions like: Who has access to the internet? Who’s able to upload and download? Should internet access be treated as a utility (like we do electricity) or as a service (like cable television)? Right now, net neutrality ensures that we treat it like a utility, which is good. But there are some areas of the country that don’t have reliable inter- net service. This must change. We can’t maintain a sustainable music industry if it is completely dependent on private companies to implement.” 

“There are also laws around how people can monetize music, for example, sampling and copyright. These laws impact greatly the ways people make and access music.”

Four members of the Peabody Dance Company perform Jay Carlon's work TETHERED [in progress] in the George Peabody Library
From Jay Carlon's work TETHERED [in progress] performed by the Peabody Dance Company in the George Peabody Library this spring.

Working Toward Liberation

Filipino dance artist Jay Carlon was a 2022–23 artist-in-residence at Peabody. He recently staged a new work called Vectors, which draws on the Filipino principle of kapwa, the shared inner self, at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

“I think dance is one of those art forms that privileges the obedient and the disciplined, which is all great stuff, but I’m really working toward figuring out how we can acknowledge those systems of oppression and see the harms of capital- ism and settler colonialism and work together towards liberation. I’m looking to dance, the body, and the human form as a way to access that. I feel democracy is often talked about in terms of rights, but we never talk about what it feels like. We never talk about the emotions and the energies that swirl around the body and the body in space. And that’s what I kind of wanted my work at Peabody to be. How can we choreograph and facilitate and direct the energy that we don’t see? How can we work towards liberation?”

Nourishing Expression

Writer Anne Midgette spent 11 years as the chief classical music critic of The Washington Post before leaving the job to focus on finishing a long-planned book. She continues to weigh in on various music-related topics on social media as @classicalbeat.

“A democratic society should support the arts, and the principles of free speech and equity that enable the arts to thrive. Though ironically, some- times repressive regimes have inspired great art, like the grain of sand that creates the pearl.

“Too often, the idea of democracy in art becomes confused with the notion that art should make some kind of political statement. But this is wrong. An artist’s role is to express the things they want to express; art is sometimes most important when it illuminates something mundane. A Cézanne still life is no less significant than Picasso’s Guernica—though one is an explicit gesture of protest and the other is not. (Or is it? For the Cézanne is quietly subverting years of pictorial convention: a kind of revolution in itself.)

“For the performing arts, a truly democratic model would be one that nourishes smaller organizations and less-known performers, rather than the current oligarchy in which large hide- bound institutions suck the air and funding out of the ecosystem. Democracy should also mean accessibility, in its truest sense: that is, a range of different kinds of performances that can truly appeal to a wide range of people. In the performing arts, this means we must go deeper than simply exposing younger people to traditional art forms: We need to widen our focus so that our art is as multifaceted and vital as our society, and truly involves our audiences, rather than simply planting them in velvet seats and demanding that they listen in reverent silence.”