Leah Rankin | Staff Writer
In a political world of black and white, Joan Abrahamson lives in the gray.
As the founder of the Jefferson Institute and former assistant chief of staff to President George H. W. Bush, Abrahamson looks not to elected officials to transform public policy but to creative thinkers who live and breathe the issues at hand.
Abrahamson will give the morning lecture at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater as the fourth speaker for this week’s theme, “Sparking a Culture of Creativity and Innovation.”
“A creative approach,” Abrahamson said, “is using methods of creative fields such as art or architecture or science in terms of analyzing a problem (to figure) out the conditions and the circumstances that are needed to make a breakthrough and actually make progress.”
This is not to say that all the issues that come across Abrahamson’s desk have to do with the arts. Abrahamson deals with everything from city planning to creating jobs to foreclosures. One of her current projects is to find a creative solution to the crisis with the housing market.
By seeking out experts in financial, banking and municipal sectors, for example, Abrahamson tries to pinpoint a solution that is beneficial for everyone — a solution that often is found in that gray area, untouched by hidden agendas.
“What we feel is that this is not about Republicans and Democrats,” Abrahamson said. “This is about families who are in and out of their homes.”
The job requires Abrahamson to be a jack-of-all-trades, but she prefers to compare it to a lawyer’s mode of operation. As lawyers take on cases, she said, they must educate themselves about the subject, whether it be aircraft manufacturing or artists finding jobs. Anything is fair game.
Abrahamson is passionate about the arts in part because she has spent the majority of her life as a fine artist and songwriter. She studied fine art, philosophy and psychology at Yale University before pursuing a master’s degree in educational planning from Stanford University. She then earned a doctorate in learning environments at Harvard University and a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley.
She was named a MacArthur Prize Fellow in 1985.
“It’s kind of like being a cook with all these burners going,” Abrahamson said.
As an artist, Abrahamson works to support other creative people. In the 1970s in her native San Francisco, she initiated the “School Community Art Program,” which hired artists to work part time in schools and in neighborhoods creating and teaching art. Then the artists could return to their studios and not only be paid but receive health insurance as they concentrated on producing new works of art.
“America pays less for the arts than any country in the world, and we are known for our arts,” Abrahamson said. “I think that the creativity of American artists is what everyone in the world is looking to today. Nobody really wants an artist to suffer in a circumstance where they can’t create, yet there’s nothing really being done to facilitate emerging artists or to sustain mature artists.”
At the time, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act had been passed to produce new jobs. Abrahamson pored over the law and found there was nothing to keep artists from being counted as laborers. She had 150 artists hired around the city and thus launched herself into public policy.
Now Abrahamson is a kind of liaison between creative thinkers and policymakers. Government is full of reactive thinking, she said. Elected officials are pressured by the public, the media and other legislators into second-guessing issues that on the surface have only a right or wrong solution.
Abrahamson much prefers to work with specialists who approach an issue by considering not what is right and wrong but what solutions work for everyone involved.
“In an ideal world,” Abrahamson said, “I think we would have a group of people that included lots of different backgrounds and points of view, who weren’t locked into one approach or another but who could suggest breakthrough ways for America to move toward solutions for the problems we face together.”
It’s thinking outside the box. It’s nonconformist and it’s innovation. As Abrahamson continues to devise creative solutions to current issues, she remains positive about America’s entrepreneurial opportunities.
“If you go in not with a half-baked idea or a selfish idea but something that’s really good for the city and good for the country,” she said, “oftentimes you will find people really ready to listen and help.”