The words “artist” and “bureaucrat” can seem as opposite as the north and south poles. But poets, actors, musicians, dancers, and art-makers of all other stripes have been infiltrating our government’s ranks for years—and many are making great strides. In this story series, we’re visiting with accomplished artists who hold leadership roles in their cities about their dual callings, how their creative lives relate to their public service, and what the arts can bring to good government. The first artist we’re meeting is Natalia Macker who also happens to be a County Commissioner of Teton County, Wyoming. Natalia is the Artistic Director at Off Square Theatre Company; as well as being an actor and a film producer.
ARTPLACE: Why did you decide to get involved with local government?
MACKER: Being in a smaller place (she moved to Wyoming from Los Angeles), you understand the role of local government differently than you do in a bigger place. I saw some opportunities to contribute here and get things done. We have great access to our local officials here; you can see the difference you’re making very tangibly. I ran for state legislature in 2014 in a tough district for my political orientation. I did not win that race, but then there was a vacancy at the county level, so I applied to fill it. In my work here in theater as well as government, I can be at the table and make contributions to decisions in a way that probably would not otherwise have happened until later in my career.
ARTPLACE: Besides your role as a civic leader, you’re involved in a broad range of artistic pursuits. How do they relate to your life in government?
MACKER: As an elected official who’s also an artist, I can see how the arts are an important part of community development and planning. I’m able to bring my collaborative workstyle from theater to meetings and task forces. It’s been helpful to have practice in being uncomfortable—which is a lot of what we do in the arts! Having a greater understanding of what’s going on in the community has made it easier for us (at the theater) to talk to people about what they’re going through. As a theater, we want to produce high-quality work, but also provide a gathering place for people where they can express their experiences and concerns. I feel very blessed to have the job I have and to be part of an arts scene. I love helping to provide this professional theater to a population base that would not normally have that.
ARTPLACE: What keeps you engaged in the arts in the midst of your busy life?
MACKER: One of the other things I learned when I started working in public service—which speaks directly to why I’m interested in theater—is that I had been spending more time on my computer or just doing other things that were not directly interacting with people face-to-face. Now that I’ve been spending three years talking face-to-face with other human beings who sometimes want different things than me, I believe our only hope as a species is to meet each other face-to-face, and not shrink away into a cyber world. I really enjoy that that’s my work environment, as tense and crazy as it might sometimes be. If we can do that, I think we can chip away at some of our biggest societal and global problems.
ARTPLACE: As an artist working in government, do you think you face challenges that non-artist colleagues of yours don’t? Do you have opportunities or skills they don’t?
MACKER: I think one potential liability is at times what feels like blind optimism that we’re going to be able to get it done. That might come from the experience in the theater of pulling a disorganized show together for opening night. The concept of people from different backgrounds getting together for a common goal is the same in both worlds. I have a willingness to just leap into it—sometimes when not everyone else is. So learning how to build that collaborative capacity with a group of people, and understand where different people are coming from, has been great for me to learn in different contexts. This ties into the work ArtPlace is doing and why I was so excited to meet Jamie [Bennett]. I’ve sometimes struggled to articulate how important the arts are to communities—until you see a community without them. As government officials, we need to make sure arts aren’t the first thing on the chopping block. Seeing the value that individual artists are bringing to communities—they’re playing a vital civic role that government can learn from, frankly.
ARTPLACE: Broadly or locally speaking, how would you like to see more arts or artists involved in government?
MACKER: I’d like to encourage artists not to think, “I don’t have the skills to do that,” or “I don’t have the credentials.” A favorite acting teacher of mine said, “When we study acting, we’re studying to be professional human beings.” It’s important for artists not to think that just because they don’t have a policy degree that they can’t be influential—or even that they can’t be the person in the seat making the legislation. Our democracy desperately needs open-minded, creative thinking to solve the problems we’re facing. Starting with people who have empathy for other human beings would be a great place to start. As we see changes to what the working world looks like, I hope we’ll see that the skills artists can bring are just as valuable as, say, engineering. I hope we start to see filling these roles as a process of looking at the skills someone can bring to the table, rather than at their professional background. Working to understanding human beings is also important—allowing our elected leaders to evolve and develop and be imperfect. Allowing our leaders to grow and change their minds should be something we want, but right now we’re acting like we don’t want it. Also, artists tend to be particularly familiar with issues like affordable health care and housing, because they tend to have nontraditional jobs that don’t always allow for those things. That makes it even more important that they participate in the process of improving them. There’s interesting overlap about what security in those areas means in the gig economy and the changing nature of work in our world right now. Because they often have firsthand experience, I think artists can bring a helpful, personal perspective to those areas, and therefore could really help to solve them—even though the solutions don’t just affect artists.
ARTPLACE: Any parting shots?
MACKER: In rural places—like much of Wyoming—people are much more used to doing everything themselves. That can seem nostalgic, but it can also provide an antidote to our tech-filled world, and we should not lose that.
Meet more artists in government in the posts below, and keep an eye on the blog in the coming months as we share more in the series Why Artists Make Good Civic Leaders.
- A Love Letter to the City: Amanda Lovelee reflects on her tenure as City Artist for Public Art Saint Paul in Minnesota.
- Guerilla Artists Swing into Government: Peter Svarzbein rode a wave of public support for his El Paso Transnational Trolley art project to a city council seat.
- What Happens When Creatives Work at the Mayor’s Office?: Kara Elliott-Ortega, Director of Planning & Policy in the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture for the City of Boston, on the intersection of arts and culture with community development in her city.
- Change From the Inside-Out: Artists Elizabeth Hamby, Jules Rochielle Sievert, and Onyedika Chuke discuss how their creative practices inform their work with government in NYC.
- Check out this newsletter from the Civic Arts Project on artists in government