Stories » Yo-Yo Ma asks Kennedy Center Theater Lab, What is a Citizen artist? / The Washington Post

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Yo-Yo Ma asks Kennedy Center Theater Lab, What is a Citizen artist? / The Washington Post

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Citizen artist. It's a concept dear to Yo-Yo Ma's heart. On Monday morning, he stood in the Kennedy Center Theater Lab, surrounded by hundreds of people, and asked them to talk to each other and figure out what it meant. After a few minutes of conversation between strangers, he praised everyone for interacting. Communication, it seems, is the point of the exercise.

Ma was a leader in the Kennedy Center's third annual Arts Summit, presented with the Aspen Institute Arts Program and Citizen University, which on Monday offered 350 participants an intense parade of panels and breakout sessions about art and culture. This year's summit was held under a double banner: "Citizen Artists" on the one hand, and the artistic ideals and goals of President John F. Kennedy on the other.

At a luncheon in the middle of the proceedings, the center introduced eight citizen artist fellows, singers and choreographers and visual artists who work intensively with their communities - from Aquil Charlton, a musician who is developing a range of programs in the Chicago public schools, to Yoko K. Sen, an electronic musician who is working to "reimagine the soundscapes in hospitals" (according to the program book).

Ma has been working with the "citizen artist" concept for some time. In Chicago, his Citizen Musician initiative with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra aims to create musicians who look beyond the art. The Aspen Institute, which has developed the "citizen artist" concept with Ma, defines them as "Individuals who reimagine the traditional notions of art-making, and contribute to society" through their art or through community-building around it. The whole thing, in short, is very much in keeping with current trends in the performing arts, particularly at large institutions like orchestras, or the Kennedy Center, which are seeking to reaffirm their importance to their communities.