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Q&A with Jane Saks, President and Artistic Director at Project&

As president and artistic director at Project&, local artist and social activist Jane Saks uses her talents and platform to create important conversations and inspire social change.  Developed out of her work at Columbia College at the Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media, she and small group of supporters and colleagues launched Project& in 2014 with the specific mission to “create cultural experiences with social impact.”

The exhibit from her latest project, “Working in America” just finished an extended run at the Harold Washington Library.   Inspired by Studs Terkel’s book “Working,” the project is described as an “innovative, multimedia initiative exploring what work means, looks and feels like.”    For Saks, “work is the thread that runs through all of us … All of us have a relationship to work.”  Based upon her interviews with individuals about their working lives, the project includes a radio series broadcast by NPR as well as an online archive.  The multimedia exhibit designed by Studio Gang is set to tour libraries around the country later this year. 

Beyond Project&, Saks serves as a member of the City of Chicago Cultural Advisory Council.  She is also on the Advisory Board at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

The Daily Whale sat down with Saks to discuss her work and the importance of art with in our civic community as well as what she sees looking forward given our current political climate.  The following is an edited transcription of that conversation.

DW:  Tell us a little about your background.

JS:  I’m from Chicago.  I grew up in the city and also in Evanston.  My mom and dad were very politically and civically engaged parents.  My mother was deeply committed to the arts – she was an arts teacher and ran a gallery.  

My great grandmother started a paint and hardware business first selling paint on Roosevelt Road.  My grandma and grandfather and my father and my sister built it up into a chain of stores through the Midwest.  They were really committed to communities. … That was one of the things that was extremely important in my growing up – was that you are always part of something greater than yourself.

DW:  Describe Project&.

JS:  Project& is a new arts entity that’s about 4 years old. In collaboration with artists, we build new models of cultural participation that have social impact. I’m a big believer that democracy promises one thing, and that is equitable participation.  Art and culture have a unique ability to deliver on that promise because everyone starts with an even playing field.  You come with your experience and your knowledge, whatever it is you bring to it.

DW:  What was the inspiration for “Working in America”?

JS: I had been thinking a lot about economic inequality in America.  I believe it to be one of the major conflicts of our times. … From that I decided I wanted to do something about working and how we feel about our work.  So the natural thing was to start with Studs Terkel and his book “Working.”

My dad and Studs were close friends and I used to travel around the city with the two of them. … I decided I didn’t want to pay homage to Studs but actually continue the brilliant work that he did.  I asked Lynsey Addario, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer and I have worked with a lot, to crisscross the country with me to photograph Americans talking about how they feel about their work.  It was exactly the 40th anniversary of Studs’ work.

DW:  Describe the “Working in America” project.

JS:  I wanted to develop it on multiple levels and ways to engage.  Art is obviously one way to engage all the senses.  I found out working with the Studs Terkel Archive that nobody had ever heard the interviews he had done for the book and that the people that he interviewed had never heard them.  So I thought, “What if I go back to some of those people who are still alive and have them reflect on 40 years of their work life?” …  I identified twenty-four people that we profiled in seventeen or eighteen states.  I also went to a close colleague and friend, Joe Richman of Radio Diaries, and asked him to produce the series.  We engaged NPR and they agreed to air it, so we did a twelve-part series.

We also created a museum quality exhibition for public spaces, specifically libraries.  We designed the exhibit so that it can be packed up and shipped very easily, and I am partnering with libraries across America to take it across the country.  It will also be show at Chicago branch libraries.

DW:  Who were your partners on the “Working in America” project?

JS: We partnered with people in advocacy and policy organizations who could use it as a tool.  People telling their own story is what actually effects policy and advocacy.  Our partners included the U.S. Department of Labor and former Secretary Tom Perez, Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Marca Bristo of Access Living. We are also partnering with SHIFT, a Bloomberg initiative looking at the massive transformations in work and the lives of workers. 

DW:  How do you hope the project influences the discussion about our work lives?

JS: It’s about human dignity.  The idea is to think about how we all participate in the workforce by being workers. We all spend a lot of our lives working. I want people to be able to tell their own story.  Work is one of the most influential ways we define ourselves and our families, in our communities, to ourselves. … I want people to understand that there is a full, multidimensional narrative about work in America that we haven’t been engaging.

DW:  Is there a way for people to participate in the project?

JS: There is.  It’s called “Your Working Story,” an online living archive. … You can go to working.org., take a picture of yourself and actually answer some of Studs Terkel’s questions.  People from across the country as well as internationally are doing it. … It is the thing that we all have in common – all of us have a relationship to work.

DW:  What other projects have you been engaged in recently? 

JS:  In collaboration with EXPO Chicago, we brought the Truth Booth here.  Hank Willis Thomas, an artist from New York, with Cause Collected created the Truth Booth. The idea is that you enter into this big bubble and you finish the statement:  “The truth is_______.” …  We invited 150 individuals from organizations across the city to line for the booth up through a schedule.  The responses were incredible.  We also created a film, [“In Search of the Truth (The Truth Booth)”].

It also traveled the country before the election and created a conversation about what is the truth of democracy.  It’s crazy that one of the things that comes out of this election is the concern about the of lack of truth, and here we were going to the 50 states asking what that is.

DW:  As you look down the road, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the direction of things for art and artists given our current national political dynamic?

JS: I wonder if this going to be a moment where people are afraid and self-censor, or do we get bolder and take more risks.  My grandmother used to say when you get lost your instinct is to go slower, but why isn’t your instinct to go faster, because whatever you were doing didn’t work.  You got lost, why slow it down?  Why not be bolder, take more risks? … For me, this is a time for us to bolder and take more risks.  

DW:  What do you have coming up next?

JS: I am doing a large one-hundred-flute project with Clarie Chase.  There are only two professional flutists and the rest of us are just the rest of us.  It’s about creating music together.  We are taking it to Brazil, Rumala, Chicago and L.A.  It’s about oral history and what it means to engage in the creative process together.  There have been many studies that our brains change and become more rigorous if we collaborate.  

DW:  What is your take on the support for the arts in Chicago?

JS: Chicago has incredible leadership and also really great grassroots creative and cultural support.  We are one of the most vibrant cultural cities.  There a real commitment to civic life here that is extraordinary and unusual. 

DW:  What do you do when you’re not working?

JS: I love being with family and friends.  I have a ten and a half month-old.  To me she is like the greatest science experiment in the world. She’s like fly paper at this age – things just stick to her.

I love jazz, I love parties, I love dancing.  I love the city.  I travel a lot.  I’m lucky to be engaged the way I am.