In this era of deepening polarization and intensifying tribalization, Americans have fewer and fewer contacts and communication across partisan lines. Philippa Hughes is a Washington, D.C.-based social sculptor and creative strategist who has long attempted to bridge our divisions by bringing people together for meaningful conversations about art and our shared American identity.
But she has discovered that finding common ground among people from different backgrounds and perspectives is increasingly difficult as our cultural and political wars intensify. Art can divide us as well as emphasize our common humanity, and Philippa has experienced difficulties even in communicating with her own family — including with a cousin who headed ICE under Trump.
Join us as we discuss Philippa Hughes’ “Looking for America” project, her thoughts on social media and the epidemic of loneliness, and efforts by individuals and cultural institutions to shore up our eroding social infrastructure.
Philippa Hughes: The human interaction has to lead toward bettering society. So that is the ultimate completion of the art, when we have a better society. So that’s another piece of the pie that I’ve been thinking a lot about. I love beautiful things, I love to collect objects. But at the end of the day, what is the difference that I’m making through my art?
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m delighted to be joined today by Philippa Hughes. She is a Washington, D.C.-based social sculptor and creative strategist who puts an immense amount of time and talent into setting up what she calls “humanizing and compassionate conversations between people who might not normally meet.” Welcome, Philippa.
Philippa Hughes: Hi, thank you for having me.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thanks for being here. You and I actually have known each other for a shockingly long time now. I would say we met at least in the decade before this one, in the early days of the Pink Line Project. That was, I guess up until this year, a newsletter guide to the arts and entertainment scene in DC that you put out, and I remember it had a particular focus on pop-up galleries. And you were a real catalyst even then in bringing people together who might not otherwise have encountered each other.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. Back in those days, I didn’t know that I was a social sculptor or… I was basically just — I wanted to know people. I was curious about people. And so I selfishly just started not only organizing things so that people could see each other through arts, connect with each other through arts. But I wanted to connect with people through the arts. So anyway, the whole Pink Line Project was a whole selfish endeavor so that I could meet interesting and curious people all over the city.
Geoff Kabaservice: And it worked beautifully. But I believe that’s been suspended as of the pandemic?
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. At the beginning of the pandemic… Well, throughout the pandemic, as you know, there really were no arts events at all. And so the whole newsletter was created around the idea that there was this thriving art scene in Washington and you should know about it. But I think it was probably a good time to put it to rest and move on to the next things.
Geoff Kabaservice: So if I remember this correctly, the Pink Line Project grew out of a kind of quarter-life crisis of yours. Maybe sometime around 2007, you quit your job as a lawyer in order to devote yourself to the arts and the arts community.
Philippa Hughes: That’s right. I quit lawyering a little bit before then and was sort of flailing around organizing things and bringing people together just on a sort of impromptu basis. I fancied myself a modern-day Gertrude Stein. But the Pink Line Project grew out of that effort in the sense that I realized that the things that I selfishly wanted, other people wanted too. And so that’s what motivated me to turn it into a thing that would include others. It became less of a selfish endeavor.
Geoff Kabaservice: How scary was it to jump off into this unknown territory from a fairly secure career?
Philippa Hughes: Well, it was more emotionally scary than anything. I will say that at the time I was actually married and my ex was extremely supportive. And so I’ve got to give him a lot of credit for seeing the possibilities and for letting me explore stuff like that and not having the financial worry. I often tell the young people who often ask me, “Like, how should I do this? I want to do what you did.” I’m like, well, how much money do you have saved up? Or do you have any financial support? Because that really makes things easier.
But there’s certainly the emotional cliff that you jump off of when you do something so drastically different from what you’ve done before — especially in a town like DC where everybody judges you by what you do, because that is the first question so many people ask. And so it was really hard to not be able to say, “I’m a lawyer.” That’s an easy thing for people to understand, and that’s a thing that “can impress people.” Whereas I didn’t know… Trying to explain to somebody that I am a “social sculptor” — nobody knows what that is. And so anyway, there was an emotional adjustment that had to happen — I should call it an ego adjustment that had to happen.
Geoff Kabaservice: So the second most common question that people ask of a new acquaintance in DC is one that I’m not going to ask you, because I know you have a problematic relationship to it. But since I’m not going to ask you where you’re from, just tell me something about that places you have inhabited and the path that led you to where you jumped off in 2007 or thereabouts.
Philippa Hughes: I wish you could see how big of a smile I have on my face right now. That was excellent, Geoff, thank you. It is funny, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where I’m from, to be honest. Not just because I have this problematic relationship with that question, but because I did grow up in the American South. And I did grow up in a place that was very literally Black and White, very segregated — self-segregated obviously, in some ways, and in some ways systemically.
Geoff Kabaservice: And where was this, Philippa?
Philippa Hughes: Richmond, Virginia. And our family was the only Asian-looking family in our community for a long time. Until I went to high school, my brother and I were these biracial kids — biracial meaning half-Asian, half-white. And there was nobody that looked like us until I went to high school. And then this other brother and sister who were Korean-Americans moved into our neighborhood. And we avoided each other — I think it was because we just weren’t used to hanging out with other people that looked us. So anyway, all of that is to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about how growing in that way informed a lot of how I view the world now and made me very comfortable with discomfort, comfortable with navigating different worlds that I don’t necessarily belong in and figuring out ways how I could belong as an American that didn’t necessarily look like the people around me.
Geoff Kabaservice: Although truth be told, I was actually one of those who thought initially you looked very much like Renée Zellweger.
Philippa Hughes: Half the time I get that, which I think is hilarious.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’ve been going to Richmond over a pretty long time, and I seem to remember it back 20, 30 years ago as a very staid city, kind of falling apart, very much a study in Black and White, and still having a lot of the feel of the capital of the Old South. Did that change during the time that you lived there or was that something that’s happened since you left?
Philippa Hughes: I think that’s happened more since I left, but there actually has… When I was a kid there, there was a growing South Asian community, which I thought was really interesting. But other than that, no, nothing changed while I was there. But now when I go back and there’s, like, Vietnamese restaurants and… It just feels different. And I don’t know what to make of it, to be honest, because it’s not the city that I knew. I’m happy to see that it’s so different, but it’s certainly not the city that I gained a certain level of comfort growing up in. I’ve been really thinking about the fact that I was essentially raised as a working-class white Southerner in a lot of ways. That was the culture that I grew up in. And so I actually feel a whole great comfort in that when I go back and experience that. But the city has changed. And so even I feel weird about the changes in some ways.
Geoff Kabaservice: Some of the change has been driven by immigration, as you suggest.
Philippa Hughes: Oh my gosh, yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hipsterization is definitely a factor in Richmond, which is the East Cast beer capital according to some reckonings. But also it’s one of many cities that have sort of reinvented themselves through the arts.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. The VCU Arts School basically took over many blocks of the city and just went on a building craze. The VCU Arts School is amazing. But there is a thriving art scene in VCU. A lot of it is driven by indie music and the Indie music scene, that’s pretty incredible. It’s a really interesting city, but it still… I don’t know, there’s some parts of it, there’s still just so many pockets of it that are still the Old South in so many ways. And I’m fascinated that those parts of the city just cling, they’re just not going to let go.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was curious to know if you had any inclination to go to VCU before you decided on going to the University of Virginia?
Philippa Hughes: No, not at all, mainly because I did not want to go to school in the same place I grew up. I definitely wanted to leave Richmond. And honestly, if I could have, I would’ve gone further afield than UVA. But I loved it. I loved going to that school.
Geoff Kabaservice: What did you major in there?
Philippa Hughes: Political science.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay. And from there to law school?
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. I took a little break and then went to law school. Again, when I was growing up, I did have a very typical Asian mother who said, “You can be a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer.” And so I felt like being a lawyer was the easiest of those three things. But it took me a minute to get to it.
Geoff Kabaservice: So how did your interest in art develop?
Philippa Hughes: Well, I’ve always been interested in art in some way. I feel like every time our family took a family vacation, I would always want to go to the art museum. So I’ve always had this interest in the arts. I’ve always loved to write — that’s sort of been my personal art form most of my life. So I think in a lot of ways I squashed my interest in art because I thought I had to pursue certain life paths, practical life paths. I often wonder if I had grown up in a different family, if I would have ended up pursuing a life as a writer or an art person.
Geoff Kabaservice: So more specifically, how did your interest in modern art develop?
Philippa Hughes: I like all art though. I guess you’re right, I have been more focused on contemporary and modern visual art, that is true. I don’t know. That’s a hard question, Geoff. That’s like asking artists, “Why are you an artist?” It just is in me. I don’t know.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, I can tell you from my own experience that the first artists that I was interested in were the Surrealists and Hieronymus Bosch, because I think that when you are a young teenage boy that kind of very imaginative, very bizarre, somewhat macabre art does appeal to you. And I certainly retained my affection for all those artists. But when I got to college, the art on my walls was actually Thomas Cole’s “The Voyage of Life,” which is now hanging up in the National Gallery of Art. Those four stages of life seemed to correspond exactly to the four stages of, the four years of college. And so that was sort of part of my education, I guess.
Philippa Hughes: Well, I’m going to make a little confession, but when I was in college I had the Monet posters that every other college girl probably had on her walls. I’ve always been attracted to beautiful things. But I think as an adult, I’ve become more attracted to — well, two things — to things that require some sort of human interaction. I think that’s why I’m particularly interested in this idea of relational aesthetic that the artist Rikrit Terevanija practices that require human interaction in order to complete the work. So I think that’s where the idea of social sculpture comes from. It is that the sculpture is the space in which human interactions can occur and that art cannot be completed until the humans complete it.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was just in St. Petersburg, Russia a few weeks ago and I went to the Erarta Museum, which is a relatively new museum of modern art as well as some sorts of underground/dissident art from the Soviet period. And there was this really defensive poster right by the entrance — sort of, why should this museum exists? Clearly they’re used to getting a lot of skepticism from visitors in Russia who don’t think that much of modern art. And there was one quote that I wrote down from this poster:
“Our collection features a sizeable number of valuable artworks. However, our principal value is you, our visitor. This is neither empty talk nor a marketing gimmick – it’s the truth. We believe that art in its essence is a product of joint creative effort. A work of art is truly ‘born’ not when it’s physically made by the artist but once it accrues the multiple perceptions of itself from an audience of viewers. In this respect, Joseph Beuys’ famous claim that ‘Everyone is an artist’ should be taken literally; you personally contribute to the creation of an artwork when a connection forms between the two of you.”
Philippa Hughes: That’s it! And in fact I stole the term “social sculpture” from Joseph Beuys. He was the original social sculptor, really. Yes, that’s it. The other piece that I like about it that Joseph Beuys said is that it’s not enough, though, for the human interaction to occur. The human interaction has to lead toward bettering society. So that is the ultimate completion of the art, when we have a better society. So that’s another piece of the pie that I’ve been thinking a lot about. I love beautiful things, I love to collect objects. But at the end of the day, what is the difference that I’m making through my art?
Geoff Kabaservice: Your mention of political art causes me to recall that I have a very hazy memory of meeting Shepard Fairey at one of your events. I guess he is probably most famous for having created Obama’s 2008 “Hope” campaign poster.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: I knew him from earlier on because he had created the Andre the Giant “Obey” stickers, but he’s also done an awful lot of other kinds of visual arts. But your gatherings were always places where you could be pretty sure that you were going to meet a fair number of people who were involved in the art scene, and also a fair number of people who identified as progressive.
Philippa Hughes: That’s a good observation, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay, so I guess there is the question: Does art gain more than it loses in becoming more political, do you think?
Philippa Hughes: Oh, that’s a good question. I’m sure we’ll get to this part of the conversation at some point, but I’m just going to have to throw this in right now. After the 2016 election, after I started organizing these trans-partisan conversations which led to the conversations going from my dinner table to national conversations going around the country and organizing conversations over dinner, we always had an art exhibit that accompanied the dinner. And I would curate art shows with artists from the local place. So we went to Sioux City, Iowa and El Paso, Texas. And every place I went, I would try to have artists from across the political spectrum. And it’s actually really hard. Because I wasn’t trying to have a political art show, necessarily.
I asked the artists to answer the question: “What does it mean to be American?” But in almost every exhibit, most of the artists were pretty liberally, progressive-y artists and so the shows always had a particular viewpoint that was expressed. And it always bothered me. Anyway, I don’t know, it just reminded me that I’ve been thinking a lot about how I really have tried and made an effort to have people from across the political spectrum have conversations with each other. I think the art should have multiple perspectives as well. And that’s been a little bit more of a challenge.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m not sure how I feel about this question, to be honest. I’m so old that I attended the 2003 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York back when it was in its old Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue. And I don’t know if you remember, but the 2003 Biennial was the one that became known as “the bad biennial” or “the political biennial.” I had been to several biennials before that, but this was the first of its kind and really one of the first major American art exhibits that was explicitly grounded in identity politics and the culture war. And I even remember getting, right when I entered, the admissions button by Daniel Martinez which said on it, “I can’t ever imagine wanting to be white,” and thinking, “Whoa, what’s up with that?” And Robert Hughes, who was I guess the art critic for Time at that point — he was by far my favorite art critic — he blasted that biennial as a “saturnalia of political correctness” and a “fiesta of whining.”
But what I found interesting was that I was actually less put off by the fact that, obviously, this was reacting against white, Western, straight-male domination of the arts. I was more interested that it seemed to be anti-painting as much as anything else. There were maybe two paintings out of the hundreds of works on display. And in the kind of hectoring descriptions of what was there, there were a lot of exhibits that went out of their way to blast the whole genre of painting as a reprehensible manifestation of “mastery.”
So I think when we talk about “the politics of art,” there’s the politics, which is putting your progressive politics on your shoulder. And then this also the fact that so much of art nowadays does not correspond to what so many people still think of as “art,” which is a museum full of beautiful paintings. So I wonder how you react to this question of politics in art.
Philippa Hughes: That’s an interesting… I hadn’t thought about that as a question of being political. But you’re right, social sculpture is certainly not paintings and photographs, beautiful paintings on the wall. And I’ve often railed against paintings and sculptures because I do find a certain inaccessibility to that stuff sometimes, as much as I personally love it. Maybe this is too much of a condescending viewpoint — in a way, I’m not giving people enough credit. But sometimes I just find it really inaccessible. I look at a lot of art, and sometimes I just look at it and I’m like, what the hell is that painting? It’s like painting for painting’s sake. It’s being painted for people in the art world and not for real people. And so that bothers me sometimes.
And in fact, I was going to mention earlier that that’s part of the reason why I got really interested in street art and graffiti art, because this is for the people. This is out on the street and you don’t have to go anywhere special to see it. It’s meant for us. And it’s probably not going to last — I love the ephemeral nature of it. Sometimes it’s ugly itself, or it’s in ugly places.
I like the idea that art doesn’t have to be beautiful and it doesn’t have to be an object. But I like the objects and I like the beauty as well. So I don’t know, maybe I’m kind of talking myself in circles to say I don’t think we have to say that art is this thing or that thing. It’s all the things! And it should be available to all the people. And so if we only say that it’s the stuff that’s hanging in the museums then it’s not available to all the people.
Geoff Kabaservice: Again, I’m thinking of something that I saw in the Erarta Museum in St. Petersburg. They pointed out that when it came to the Old Masters, it was really considered to be bad taste not to like them, right? Whereas when you’re talking about contemporary art, it’s not just okay, it’s actually desirable to critique and even dislike a lot of it. And the viewers are really expected to express their own opinions about contemporary artworks before they’ve heard the received word from the art critics and let the course of history shape the consensus of their interpretation.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. I’m just of two lines of it, again. Because so much of the art world is kept by gatekeepers. There are these handful of people in museums, et cetera, who get to say, “Well, this is the art that you should value.” And it just happens that that artist was friends with some rich person in New York who got him a show or bought their piece and elevated it. You know what I mean? It just bugs me that there are the gatekeepers that get to decide who the best artists are. And I don’t believe that they’re necessarily the best artists — they just happen to be in the right place at the right time and have the right friends.
Geoff Kabaservice: But when it comes to politics… Part of what drove the Trump phenomenon was a lot of Americans feeling very alienated from large aspects of their culture, broadly speaking, but also culture meaning the arts as well. And I’m thinking about people in my own family who complain that there is not a single movie or television show out there that is not going to be either too dark or too violent or too snarky, or the dialogue will be too fast, or there will be too many New York in-jokes, or you name it. And that is a political question about art as well, I think.
Philippa Hughes: I think that’s right. Yeah. It’s just, I don’t want to be hyper-critical because the truth is that’s the stuff I like. I like that stuff, but I’m also really aware that that puts me in a certain category, a very narrow category of people. And I want to… Does this sound condescending when I say this? I want to acknowledge that there’s value to all of it. It just happens that I like this particular thing, but I want to be able to value the whole spectrum of art.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think that’s a very individualistic part of art appreciation and encouraging people to think for themselves and make their own judgments. But that isn’t necessarily always what people want out of art or anything else in this life.
Philippa Hughes: Well, what people want or what some people want?
Geoff Kabaservice: What some people want.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. Some people want that value judgment.
Geoff Kabaservice: So let’s move from the arts into politics, because I was very struck by your role in bringing together people from differing political perspectives. And that was a project that you got going really just a few days after the 2016 election, as I remember.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. I actually went back into my Facebook posts and found that it was actually a week after the election in which I posted an invitation to anybody who voted for Donald Trump to come over to my house for dinner. And I’d make dinner and, just let me ask you some questions. Nobody responded! Nobody said yes. And eventually when I did connect with somebody, and asked her why she didn’t… Anyway, I had to really convince her to come over. And I asked her why. And she was afraid that us liberals would yell at her and call her stupid and racist. And she probably wouldn’t have been wrong with some people on that point. So I had to really assure her that that wouldn’t happen.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s a problem if you set out to have equal numbers of liberals and conservatives at your dining table, because this is a town where only 4 percent of residents voted for Trump in 2016.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. So she actually lives in Virginia, that woman, and because I was having such trouble evening out the table — because I wanted it to be even — I just asked her, “Well, do you know anybody that you could invite?” And of course she did, because we all hang out with people just like ourselves. So of course she was like, “Oh, sure, I’ll ask my neighbor across the street and her partner.” Then I immediately had an evened-out team at the table.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay. So tell me about that first dinner back in, was that early… Let’s see, that would’ve been late 2016, right?
Philippa Hughes: Yeah, it was in December of 2016 when we finally met up. It was awesome. There were three of them and three of us. And the second everybody came through the door, we just started arguing about politics. It was hilarious. It was all very good-natured. It really was very civil. It was wonderful. But we did argue the entire time. We didn’t even talk about what movies we liked.
But at the end of the evening, we took a picture together. And I’ve stayed in touch with them. In fact, the one couple have been over for drinks a couple of times since then, they’ve been to other of my trans-partisan conversations since then. It really was an awesome experience. And it was good enough that I kept doing it. So every month or two, I would just keep inviting people over for dinner until eventually I got some funding to take it on the road.
Geoff Kabaservice: And what did you learn from these experiences?
Philippa Hughes: This is going to sound so hokey, but I learned that people aren’t… They’re not as polarized as we are led to believe. Even though we argued right from the beginning, we also immediately found intersections of belief. And as hokey as it sounds, we all want the same things. That original woman, her grandmother was from Syria, and at that time there was more chatter about Syrian refugees being accepted into the U.S. At that point, I think we were only going to take 10,000 in the entire country. And so we had this amazing conversation about immigration policy and how we all believe that we are a country of immigrants, and that this is the land of opportunity, and that this is a better country when we have immigrants. We just disagreed on how we were going to accept immigrants into the country. And yeah, I don’t know… We believed in the same values and principles. It was just literally how we’re going to apply those values and principles into policy.
Geoff Kabaservice: How did you keep these dinners from getting out of hand? Because Americans’ disagreements around politics can be quite intense.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah, no kidding. I remember at the second dinner, we were having a very lively conversation and then this one guy… I don’t remember why we were talking about Japanese internment — it was in some context around immigration again. And he said, “Oh, well, the Japanese, when they were interned, it wasn’t so bad. They had a place to live and they had food and all that.” And I was like, “Oh, hold on.”
Wow. So of course we all corrected him, his thoughts on that.
But I think because everybody who comes to these kinds of dinners has been sort of… They’re self-selecting kinds of people, so they’re all probably going to be pretty open to at least hearing other ideas. So the kind of person who comes is not the belligerent type of person at all.
And as I started doing the dinners more, I started realizing, like, “We do need to have ground rules and we need to have more structure around the dinners.” That first one had no structure. That’s why we just went from topic to topic, arguing over every little thing. But once I instituted more structure, the conversations were amazing. We really never… We never had fisticuffs… That’s a low bar.
Geoff Kabaservice: A true low bar. What kind of structure did you put in place?
Philippa Hughes: So one basic thing at that second dinner was that I wouldn’t let people talk about politics for the first 30 minutes. We could talk about anything else. But that was awkward because it’s hard to talk to strangers: “Oh, what movie did you see?” So at the third dinner, I said that you couldn’t talk about politics, but then I had people pairing off and gave them question prompts. So that was helpful, because I think even though people are self-selecting and wanting to participate in a dinner like this, it’s still hard to just jump into difficult conversations. And so the more direction I gave them, the easier it became. Guidelines, particular rules like: “We’re not here to persuade, we’re here to understand. You should listen with the amount respect that you wish to be listened to.” Those kinds of guidelines really helped get people into the right frame of mind. It’s nothing groundbreaking, it’s just stuff that is about reminding people of things that they kind of already know.
Geoff Kabaservice: I remember that one of your dinners that I attended, we literally broke bread with each other.
Philippa Hughes: Oh, you were at that one? Remember how the bread was actually kind of soft? So I had this funny idea… Because everybody got a different-sized piece of bread I thought, “Aha, what a good metaphor! Like we don’t all get the same size piece of bread in life now, do we? That’s why some of us have more privilege.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, I’m sure the conservatives were very pleased by that.
Philippa Hughes:That’s right. I forgot you were at that one. That was fun.
Geoff Kabaservice: But I also couldn’t help but think that, in the Game of Thrones world, the tradition of sharing bread and salt before a meal didn’t prevent the Freys from massacring the Starks at the Red Wedding. But I don’t think that would have occurred to a whole lot of people. So you took this on the road eventually through the “Looking For America” project, is that right?
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. So then we started traveling around the country, and that’s when the dinners started happening in museums and libraries, big central libraries. So they were these magnificent, beautiful spaces that signaled: “We are having an important conversation.” People often ask me, “Did you change anybody’s mind?” And I’m like, that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to say that we had the conversation at all. Having a conversation felt like a victory in this world of people saying, “I could never talk to that crazy person who thinks differently from me.” You hear that a lot nowadays.
Geoff Kabaservice: You actually had one of your dinners in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, is that right?
Philippa Hughes: That was amazing.
Geoff Kabaservice: That must have been.
Philippa Hughes: It was so beautiful. And that museum… The real name of that museum is the Museum of American Art — it has a whole long name. And so it really is about thinking about American identity. They’ve actually set it up and they have curated it in the most amazing way. They take pre-modern contemporary works and place them side-by-side with contemporary works and have them sort of in dialogue with each other. It’s such a beautifully and smartly curated museum.
Geoff Kabaservice: And this, of course, is the museum founded by the members of the Walton family of Walmart fame.
Philippa Hughes: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: I have never been to the museum. It’s definitely on my list. But the Art Bridges program of that museum sends a lot of their works to visit other museums around the country, and I have seen many of those works exhibited in other museums.
Philippa Hughes: It’s not an obvious place… It’s not on the way to anything.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s really not!
Philippa Hughes: It’s definitely a destination, but well worth going out of your way. It’s extraordinary, an extraordinary space.
Geoff Kabaservice: I can imagine that you might’ve had the unusual experience of trying hard to find liberals in that place.
Philippa Hughes: Oh, funny you should say that… Actually Fayetteville, which is a college town, is right up the road. Plenty of liberals are in a pretty thriving art scene in Fayetteville — a really great art school there. And then of course, with the museum — and the Walton family has invested a lot in the arts in that region of Arkansas — there is a lot of art happening there. So I was pleasantly surprised. But can I tell you about one really interesting man I’ve met there?
Geoff Kabaservice: Please.
Philippa Hughes: He’s one of my favorite characters I’ve met in all of my travels around the country. He’s this really awesome guy named Joe, who, when I first met him… We’d gotten connected and so we said we were going to meet at this coffee shop. And when he drives up, he’s driving a truck with a gun rack in the back window, and he’s wearing a — what do you call it? — a “Levi’s tuxedo,” jeans and a jean jacket and cowboy hat. So I’m like, “Oh boy.” Of course I had all my stereotypes going in my mind about him. And of course he must have thought I was “one of those liberal East Coast elites coming to our town to try to teach us something.” Anyway, he’s my new best… He’s now one of my pals that I call — we call each other.
Geoff Kabaservice: Oh, wow.
Philippa Hughes: He really, still, politically… his ideology could not be more different from mine. But we agree that we must talk to each other, we are more alike than we are different, and that if we’d just talk to each other we’d solve a lot of the problems. He says these things. And so he’s amazing. I just think he’s an awesome person. I don’t want to hold him up as this sort of unicorn that I found in the middle of the country — there’s a lot of people like him. But he’s actively thinking about this stuff and working on projects around this idea of bringing people together as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: So when you say “this stuff,” I guess you’re mostly talking about a shared American identity, right?
Philippa Hughes: Well, when I said “this stuff” just now I meant bridge-building, creating opportunities for people to even just be in each other’s spaces. We know that we’ve all self-sorted ourselves, so now liberals all live in these urban places and conservatives all live out in rural spaces. And we’re just not even geographically near each other. We’re not bumping into each other as much anymore. We don’t live side-by-side. And I think that’s part of the problem. There’s that social contact theory that says that just being present in the space of somebody can help reduce discrimination against somebody who’s different from you. And we’re not even present for people anymore. And so that’s what I meant by “the stuff”: how do we create more opportunities for people just to be present in each other’s spaces physically?
Geoff Kabaservice: Have you been interested in the findings that have come out this year, in the past few years, about the so-called epidemic of loneliness in American life?
Philippa Hughes: Oh my gosh, Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote a whole book about that, and it’s really something I’ve thought about so much.
Geoff Kabaservice: I definitely remember the stats that jumped out just earlier this month from the Survey Center on American Life. It was particularly focused on the problems that men are having forming friends. The number of men or percentage of men, I guess, with at least six close friends fell by half since 1990. Over that same period of time, the percentage of men without any close friends went up from 3% to 15%, a fivefold increase. And this is particularly hitting single guys. One in five American men who are unmarried and not in a romantic relationship report not having any close friends at all. So what’s been happening, do you think, in these last three decades that has produced this?
Philippa Hughes: I think there’s a lot of things. I hate to go back to the old standby, but it’s funny that social media is actually, I feel, making us lonelier. We’re disconnecting, in a way. We think it’s giving us the illusion of connecting, because we’re commenting or liking people’s things or seeing their things. But we’re not actually forming relationships. And for me, that’s the basis for social sculpture. It is the relationships, and the building and the strengthening of those relationships through conversations and shared activities. And that’s where art comes into play. It’s not the art itself — it doesn’t have a magical power. The piece, the art object, doesn’t do anything. It’s how we experience it together that brings us together.
Geoff Kabaservice: Have you talked with museum and gallery curators about this question?
Philippa Hughes: Yeah, totally. In fact, there are a couple of museums that are really thinking about this question in terms of empathy building. That museum in Minnesota, the Walker.
Geoff Kabaservice: Walker.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. There are a couple of museums out there like that, that actually have programming around and specifically directed toward empathy. And I bring that up in that creating a greater sense of empathy between people is the building blocks to relationship building. I think we’re losing our sense of empathy for one another. I think that that is sort of the disintegration of our shared humanity.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s funny you mentioned the Walker… I went to high school in Florida and a woman a few classes behind me was named Olga Viso. And she became an arts professional and she actually was, I think, executive director of the Walker Art Gallery, and then ran into a huge public controversy when she exhibited the piece “Scaffold” by Sam Durant, which is meant to invoke the execution of the Indians in Mankato, Minnesota in the nineteenth century. So this is a case where art divides rather than brings together.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah, that’s right. I forgot about that. And we should shout out: she was at the Hirshhorn. She was the head curator at the Hirshhorn and then the director.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, she was.
Philippa Hughes: She’s amazing. That exhibit totally backfired, didn’t it? It divided us. Okay, I’m about to say something controversial.
Geoff Kabaservice: Wouldn’t be the first time.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah, I don’t know… I was thinking about how her intention for that exhibit was literally the exact opposite of what the furor was, right? She was actually trying to draw attention to the fact that the native people were being persecuted.
Geoff Kabaservice: It seems to me that the art spaces have a real tightrope to walk, just in the narrow sense between getting people engaged but then also running into political controversy and people’s disagreements, versus on the other hand having people come into the art gallery and just silently, in groups or singly, look at the art, wander around, and leave.
Philippa Hughes: Well, I… I’m sorry…
Geoff Kabaservice: Go ahead.
Philippa Hughes: I guess I was backing off from the thing that I was going to say, because I was afraid to say it. But I was just thinking about how this is sort of the problem with the woke left: it’s that nobody can say anything anymore. Because I thought that was a really interesting art piece and it got weaponized, in a way. And it just really bothered me that she ended up having to take it down, and she had to leave as a result of this piece, when it was a really important piece that garnered a lot of conversation — the necessary conversation.
Geoff Kabaservice: Earlier this year, I went to see the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. This is what’s better known as the Lynching Memorial or the Lynching Monument. Have you been? Do you know about it?
Philippa Hughes: I have not been, but I know about it.
Geoff Kabaservice: So it essentially is these columns of weathered steel, each of which has engraved on it the name of a Southern county and the individual or multiple individuals who were lynched — African Americans — in these counties with the dates. And you walk through this installation, I guess, and initially you’re on the level with these columns until eventually you go around some bends and you are then under them and they stretch on seemingly to infinity. And there’s this huge presence of tombstones, bodies hanging above you. And it’s really very intense and emotionally disturbing.
But at the same time, this is not something that is… You have to go there to seek it out, I guess. You wouldn’t go there in the course of going to show Junior the van Gogh paintings, let’s put it that way. So I think it’s the question of when really intensely political and upsetting and emotionally disturbing art coexists with some of what people more conventionally think of as the art experience.
Philippa Hughes: I guess that’s right. There’s a lot of conversation about what role does a museum have in creating these kinds of conversations? Aren’t they just supposed to collect art and show the beautiful pieces? Like they’re repositories — they’re not supposed to be making statements.
Geoff Kabaservice: Here’s a question for you… Your work of bringing people together at these dinners seems to parallel in some ways the work of an organization like Braver Angels. And I know you’ve been in touch with the people who run that organization and have been on their podcast. Do you see parallels between your work?
Philippa Hughes: Oh, absolutely. I love, obviously, what Braver Angels does. And one of the things that they do so well is the workshop and the very structured conversation. Because people do want to have structure. And, as I mentioned earlier, in these kinds of interactions it’s very helpful to them, and they believe that they don’t know how. And so these workshops kind of lead them through this exercise of how to have the conversations, which I think is really great.
Where I diverge is… It goes back to my almost sort of populist thinking that I mentioned earlier. I do think that sometimes when you set up a model of workshop or follow the script or whatever, it feels like a little bit of a barrier to entry to me. My sort of gut belief is that we are all capable of having these conversations and that we shouldn’t have to go to a workshop to have them. And not all of us have the ability to take a weekend off and go to a workshop or something like that. Anyway, much like street art or graffiti art in my life, I’ve been trying to think of how do we make these kinds of conversations available and accessible to all people — to make people believe that anybody literally can have this kind of conversation?
Geoff Kabaservice: Have your feelings about trans-partisan dialogue and shared understanding around our American identity changed at all since the January 6th assault on the Capitol and everything that has followed since with claims of a stolen election on the Republican side?
Philippa Hughes: Oh man, that’s tough because… I had gone down to Atlanta to help with the special Senate election earlier in January. And I was flying back from Atlanta that day and I landed on January 6, just after all that stuff was starting. And everybody’s phone went off when we landed. It was really scary to not know… And as you know, we live right within spitting distance.
And so actually, for me personally, yes, that really put a damper on me going forward with these kinds of conversations. For a few weeks I thought, “There’s no point in continuing with this work anymore. If that’s the kind of thing that can happen, why bother at this point?”
But I worked my way through all of that. After I got over my initial shock of it all, I reached out to many conservative friends — much more conservative than you, Geoff — and talked through it with them. And I realized, no, it’s sort of the way some people think that everybody who marched during the George Floyd protests belonged to Antifa. But I had marched in those protests every time I could, and I’m not in an Antifa, black-clothes-wearing, violent person.
Anyway, my point is that after I got over my initial shock, I realized, no, that was a small segment of our country. And most people would not do that and do not support that. Most people want to have a country where we can all coexist together and live together.
Geoff Kabaservice: But one of your guests on the liberal side came out of your very first “Blueberries and Cherries” dinner pointing out that there was an unbridgeable problem, where he said: “You are not entitled to choose what are facts.” I’m all for political debate where it comes to what’s the best policy. Initially, after the 2016 election, I really wanted to hear what was on the minds of people who voted for Trump. And I feel like I learned a lot about how they felt neglected by elites from both parties, about how they felt the culture was hostile to so much of what they considered dear, about really how bad things were in the middle parts of the country that had been left behind by the economic growth that’s mostly gone to the coasts. But I don’t actually feel like there’s much value to be gained in trying to have a dialogue with somebody who doesn’t accept facts or evidence, and who clings to this belief that Democrats stole the election because Democrats are the kind of people who steal elections.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah, I think that’s right. I know what the polling says. But anecdotally, I just don’t meet many people who believe that. I just keep going back to the fact that most people just aren’t on board with “Democrats stole the election.”
Geoff Kabaservice: At this point, it appears that 70% of Republicans are on board with that belief.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah, I know. That’s what I’m saying. I know what the polling says, but I’m also like… I just have these anecdotal conversations where that’s not what… This is my gut instinct, is that most people are not in that space.
Geoff Kabaservice: You do wonder how deep that professed belief goes.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah, exactly. I think that it’s the sort of surface thing that you say. But I don’t know… I just was talking to another friend earlier today about how mad we are that all the anti-vaxxers are making it impossible for us to move past the pandemic because of the Delta variant, et cetera, et cetera. And then I was thinking, “What if I were hearing this message over and over that you should be skeptical of the vaccines? And what if I heard these messages over and over?” I might believe it too. I don’t know. So this is where I dig down for my compassion. We are all susceptible to messaging, and we are all susceptible to our tribal leanings and the things that we’re hearing from the people in our tribe. We’d like to think that we’re not, but we all are.
Geoff Kabaservice: Several of your family members voted for Trump, I believe. Is that correct?
Philippa Hughes: Oh, yeah. Many. My mom is a diehard Trump supporter. She loves him. She thinks he’s a great businessman, he’s a strong leader. Some of that is because she is Vietnamese and so she hates China, like many Vietnamese people, because China has basically overrun the country. And so she believes Trump is very strong on China and he’s the answer to keeping China at bay. So anyway, yes, I have a lot of Trump-supporting family members. And it’s funny, because they’re not just conservative, they love Trump.
Geoff Kabaservice: Do you think there’s anything that’s going to change their minds on the Trump issue, on the election issue?
Philippa Hughes: Not if he doesn’t come out and say it himself. I’ve tried. It is different with family. It’s harder to talk to family about politics.
Geoff Kabaservice: If I’m remembering this correctly, you actually have a cousin who was appointed to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement for Trump.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. My cousin was appointed… He was acting director, I guess, of ICE last year. And it was so interesting… That was a shocking thing to me because at the time, there… Okay, so there’s this 1995-1996 agreement that says that Vietnamese people who came over to this country before that date could not be deported, essentially — to oversimplify. And under my cousin’s reign, some of those people were under threat of being deported because they’d committed a crime or whatever. And I thought, “Well, that is interesting.” And when questioned, when I asked my mom… Oh, I tried to talk to my cousin and he never responded to any of my emails. And so when I asked my mom about it, she’s like, “Well, if they committed a crime, they should definitely be sent back.” I’m like, “But, but, but they came here when they were two years old. They don’t even speak the language.” Anyway, it was so interesting.
Geoff Kabaservice: I feel like there are severe political disagreements within my own family, but that I would be a fool to let those disagreements break our family bonds.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah, I think that’s right. But you know what? This one really got me. One weird thing, though, is that this cousin and his part of the family are not tight with the rest of the family. So I haven’t actually even seen him in well over a decade, maybe more. But something about that made me really wonder: Could I actually break with a family member because of politics? That was actually a moment when I thought it was possible to break with family. But I can’t answer that question because we haven’t actually even talked in a long time anyway. So I don’t know… I don’t know if I’m a better person than that.
Geoff Kabaservice: On the far more cheery subject of forming connections as opposed to breaking connections, I’ve been a longtime fan of the sociologist Eric Klinenberg and his work.
Philippa Hughes: Oh yeah, I love him.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I was first attracted to him by his book about the 1995 Chicago heat wave, where, as you know, he explored why some people from very similar neighborhoods — even violent and segregated neighborhoods — survived that heat wave while others did not. And there were more than 700 people who died in that heat wave, so it was actually one of America’s greatest natural disasters. And we’re seeing it play out again as climate change increases and places like Portland that simply were not set up for temperatures of that kind are now seeing, again, excessive mortality from the triple-digit temperatures they’ve been experiencing lately.
But what interests me about his work — and seems to connect to what you do — is his most recent book, which is called Palaces for the People. And it’s about social infrastructure, which is not just roads and transportation and the kind of thing that’s being talked about in Congress right now, but the places where people come together to participate in public life. And that can be public institutions like libraries or schools or playgrounds (although usually not museums), or green spaces or community organizations or the commercial establishments that have been called “third spaces.” And I wonder if what you’ve done in both the arts and in bringing people together over politics gives you any insight into how to improve our degrading social infrastructure
Philippa Hughes: Palaces for the People, that was actually a very influential book in my work. And in fact, for many years I was doing a lot of creative placemaking projects in DC. And that’s essentially what we were trying to create. It was these third spaces — but in this case fueled by art — in which people would be able to form deeper relationships. So that book was very influential. And so a lot of the programs that we did across the country were held in public libraries. Those are like… You know what? I just love that title, too. It’s what Andrew Carnegie called them, why he built those fantastic library buildings. It was a signal to say, “Books and learning are important, and look at this palace I’ve built to learning and knowledge.”
Geoff Kabaservice: I have very mixed feelings about the fact that the Washington, D.C. “palace for the people” that Andrew Carnegie built is now an Apple store.
Philippa Hughes: An Apple store, I know, it’s sort of tragic. It really bums me out, to be honest, really bums me out. But what I was trying to say earlier, which as I was very inartfully saying about museums, is that you’re right that those are sort of palaces for elite — except so many of them are trying to reprogram themselves into more community spaces. I know, for example, the Brooklyn Museum has incredible programming around… I don’t know, they’ve had yoga in the lobby and things like that, making it more (for lack of a better word) accessible. So museums are trying to become more like “palaces for the people” and less like rarefied spaces.
Anyway, all of that is to say that that is literally what social sculpture is about. It’s like, what are the infrastructures we can build that signal that this is a space where you are meant to connect with one another? But it doesn’t necessarily have to be physical, like a built environment. The signals can come from many different ways. That’s what conceptual art is: how do we signal the ideas that we want through other means?
And in fact, there’s another very influential book called The Art of Gathering that Priya Parker wrote a couple of years ago. And she talks a lot about, like, you can’t just throw people into a room and tell them to turn off their cell phones and expect them to connect with one another. You’ve got to structure the environment so that it tells people, “This is what you’re supposed to do here.” And then they have to know how to do it and what to do. And it has to be very simple, very simple instructions, but also… I say “simple,” but it still creates a sense of meaning between one another.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think that was part of the message of another one of your Zoom meeting guests, Susan McPherson, who wrote The Lost Art of Connecting.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah, that’s right. She was thinking about it more in terms of business connecting, in some senses. But yeah, you’ve got to — again, to use another oft-used word, but it’s about what are your intentions? How do you set the intentions? But I bristle when we do breathing exercises and things like that. But there’s a lot of value in it. And how can we do those things but still feel like we’re doing it in a natural way? And in a way that we recognize from things that maybe our parents taught us, like “Look people in the eye.” These are all things we already know, right? So I want to give people the credit for, like, “We know these things. So here’s just a gentle reminder.”
Geoff Kabaservice: We don’t need to do trust falls before dinner.
Philippa Hughes: We don’t need to do trust falls. We don’t need to have agendas. And we all… Let’s just treat each other like human beings.
Geoff Kabaservice: Maybe as a final question, Philippa… I’m going to throw back on you a question you put to the last gathering at your place that I attended, which was: What kind of a change did you make in your life during the pandemic? Or what kind of change have you been inspired to make since the pandemic?
Philippa Hughes: Well, I am probably too… Okay, I’m too social. I have been known to do three and four things a night, night after night, for weeks on end. And then I exhaust myself. And so what ends up happening is I have a lot of superficial relationships. And there’s a very important place for having these light contacts or these weak ties to people — it’s really important to have those kinds of relationships. But what I really worked on a lot during the pandemic — because we couldn’t see people, but when I did see people it was under very limited circumstances, and so I had to be very choosy about who I saw. And so I probably only saw three people on a regular basis during the pandemic.
And that was amazing to be able to deepen what I thought were already really strong friendships, and to realize, “Oh, wow, it could even go deeper.” So anyway, all of that to say, I was really trying to be more balanced about my deep relationships. I’m very good at the weak ties, so being more balanced in the kinds of relationships I have.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. I think I would probably answer that similarly. And I remember what I thought about at that gathering, which is that I spent most of last year and a big chunk of this year stuck in Florida with my mom — which was a good thing. I really appreciated the chance to spend that time with my mother. They actually say that after age 30, you’ve spent about 98% of the time you were going to spend with your parents at that point in your life. So it was actually great to get more time, in that way. And I always really regret that I’ve had to work so far away from my family. It’s a long way between Washington and Florida.
But as long as I was there, I thought I might as well see more of Florida itself, and particularly its art. And this actually was a pretty good time because there’s a real rich tradition of Florida art. It kind of was the exotic place for a lot of American painters to go during the nineteenth century when they couldn’t necessarily get to Europe. And there were two big collections that just got set up in the last year. One of them went to the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art, which is a freestanding art museum that’s part of the Daytona Museum of Arts and Sciences. And the other was the Samuel and Roberta Vickers collection that just a few months ago was given to the Harn Museum at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
But although I actually went around and saw a lot of art at these very Florida-focused art museums, I was particularly taken by the Highwaymen — I have become an evangelist for this group. This was a group of 26 African-American men (and one woman, Mary Ann Carroll), who were largely self-taught. A few of them did have instruction from A. E. Backus, who was one of the great Florida landscapists, who happened to live in their hometown of Fort Pierce. But a lot of these people, who otherwise would have ended up as laborers in the citrus groves, became artists and made a living at that and produced these paintings, which I think are really quite wonderful. They are kind of imagined Florida landscapes — maybe a little more brightly colored than the kind of landscapes that you would have seen in the past, but very inventive — and yet also having a connection to an older tradition of painters like Thomas Moran, let’s say, or Henry Ossawa Tanner, who had also painted a lot in Florida. Anyway, it just struck me as a wonderful piece of regional art, something that was very accessible, and I was glad to have the chance to discover it.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah, that’s so cool. You probably would have never explored that otherwise.
Geoff Kabaservice: Probably not. Well, Philippa, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a wonderful conversation. Please keep doing what you do, and I look forward to talking to you again soon in person.
Philippa Hughes: Yeah. Thank you, Geoff. I really appreciate it. You ask great questions.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you. And thank you all for listening to The Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, DC.