Arts Engaged
Engage Now

Chapter 4

Community Building and The Arts

Chapter 4 - Part 1C

Community building is an area of arts activity that is not widely recognized either by artists or by community leaders. However, the potential for creating better cities is probably greater in this area than in economic development or in educational reform, and it is certainly the area most closely related to the task of making the arts directly relevant to the lives of a community’s citizens. [Author’s Note: Some overviews of the arts’ community potential use terms like social change, social justice, and advocacy along with healing and nurturing as headings for this category. However, for some people, the first three terms have negative connotations. In an effort to be more inclusive (and to cast the theoretical net somewhat more widely), I use the term “community building.”]

Cities in the United States can be described as vast collections of strangers. On an individual level, alienation, isolation, fear, mistrust, and misunderstanding separate people; these have profound negative impacts. These factors are, of course, roots of crime; but on a neighborhood or community level they also serve as hindrances to people working together, to finding broad-based solutions to community problems. Community-focused arts projects can serve as rallying points for neighborhood revitalization and civic engagement. The arts can provide safe distance for considering conflicting views and comparatively non-threatening points of entry for gaining appreciation of unfamiliar cultures. By providing clear mechanisms for articulating community needs and identifying cultural assets, they can also provide for more responsive services and for more effective delivery of them. Artists trained in these possibilities can create and enhance “community,” bring reconciliation to conflicts, raise public awareness of unmet human needs that damage the social fabric, and facilitate projects that improve the “on the street” quality of life in neighborhoods and communities.


In September of 2010, the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Robert E. Gard-Wisconsin Idea Foundation convened a gathering of community arts workers and experts in a variety of disciplines related to community well-being to discuss what “healthy community” means. The title of the conference was “Altering the Face and Heart of America: The Gard Symposium.” The discussions of community health that took place there were designed as a springboard for consideration of how the arts might support that health. While this is far from the only framework in which to consider the question of community building, it is fairly comprehensive. (The essence of each presenter’s ideas can be found at the Gard Foundation’s website:

Economic Health (Sustainability)

Symposium presenter Dr. Jerry Hembd (Director, Northern Center for Community & Economic Development, Department of Business & Economic Development, University of Wisconsin-Superior) pointed out that the meaning of economic health has been transformed over time from jobs growth to industrial recruitment to regional competitiveness. Today the focus is on sustainability. Awareness of the limits of growth have tempered earlier assumptions about endless expansion. Dr. Hembd identified sustainable scale, equitable distribution of resources, and efficient allocation of those resources as the paths to economic health. In outlining the keys to achieving these ends, he focused on:

 -  Leveraging local assets
-  Meeting human needs, and
 -  Fostering relationships (individual and inter-institutional).

The inter-connectedness of economic health is evident in those keys. Leveraging local assets is a means of employing the results of asset (or cultural) mapping, discussed later in this book. HandMade in America (cited above) is just one example of utilizing local assets for sustainable economic development. Meeting human needs is, of course, another way of describing a concern for all forms of community health, the subject of this section; and relationship-building is the function of fostering social capital about which more is said below. As has been (and will be) demonstrated, the arts have a significant role to play in all of these aspects of economic health.

Physical Health

Dr. Stephanie Robert, (Neighborhood Health Specialist, School of Social Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison), defined health as “not just the absence of disease, but the presence of social, physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being.” She identified “a healthy community [as] one that provides an economic, social, and physical environment that allows individuals and families the opportunity to achieve their optimal physical health and well-being.” The tasks for communities seeking to promote health in their citizens, according to Dr. Robert, are “1) identifying aspects of neighborhoods that are barriers to optimal health and finding ways to remove those barriers–either through policy or community action, and 2) identifying aspects of community that can promote health, even in the face of adversity.” Specifically with respect to the role of the arts in these efforts, she said that the arts can help people: Recognize and name barriers to community health

-  Effectively communicate those barriers to the community and to policy makers
-  Support collective action to improve community health
-  Celebrate and strengthen what works

Political Health

Barbara Lawton, Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin at the time, defined a politically healthy community as one where “[a]ll citizens have the possibility of thriving–the ability to feed, clothe, house, educate, and nurture [their] family, and have that extra personal or social capital that allows [them] to make a contribution to [their] community as well.” In such a community, “[l]eaders

-  Champion a diverse culture
-  Develop the security of mutual respect by focusing the public agenda on a clear vision for the common good; and
-  Encourage inquisitiveness, creativity, and self-reliance among community members.”

The arts are a means of first resort in supporting the understanding and appreciation of cultures. They can serve as good modes to support the development of a community’s agenda for improvement (highlighting positive options and illuminating circumstances in need of change). And they clearly support the ends of inquisitiveness, creativity, and self-reliance.

Spiritual Health

For Rabbi Jonathan Biatch (Temple Beth El, Madison, Wisconsin) “creating a communal sense of accountability to a higher cause–the notion that each member of society is accountable to an entity greater than him or herself” is the core of a spiritually healthy community. He presented the following four elements as the indicators of such health:

-  There must be a belief that one is responsible–through one’s actions–to others
-  There must be an acceptance of the reality that one’s actions will have an effect on others, both in positive and negative ways.
 -  There must be a common presumption that there will be a negative consequence if one does not bear in mind, and act in accordance with, the first two understandings.
 -  Individuals must feel a true sense of remorse if they commit a misstep and a true dedication toward the reconciling or repair of any relationship that breaks down.

According to Rabbi Biatch, the indicators of a spiritually healthy community are:

-  A sense of positive intention (assumption of good will
-  Respect for all people
-  Encouragement for each individual citizen to search for his or her individual spiritual path
-  A continuous search for discovering the best ways of educating one community group about another
 -  Promotion of acceptance across all lines of difference
-  Local media present issues objectively
-  Community-wide dialogue about important (even controversial) issues is the norm, searching for, talking about, and promoting solutions to the problems examined
-  Training of future leaders with the same vision of a spiritually healthy community

Several of these are directly related to the formation of trusting relationships, the core of social capital. Self-reflection on spiritual matters is often facilitated via the arts–poetry, visual arts, even participation in music and dance. The role of the arts in being able to provide a safe frame for discussion of difficult issues is an important element of their applicability to community building.

As observed above, this framework is not the only way to understand either healthy communities or community building. It does provide, however, a good beginning that has the advantage of being fairly comprehensive. It is the intent of the Gard Foundation, over time, to facilitate ever stronger connections between the arts and other segments of the community in an effort to support healthier lives for all. [Disclosure: After the Symposium discussed here, I was asked, and agreed, to serve on the Gard Foundation Board of Directors.]

Social Health

While not a product of the Gard Symposium, the following are other elements (or differently articulated elements) that are also important to a community’s health, loosely organized here under the category of social health.



Community improvement

Advocacy (Awareness, Knowledge, Dialogue, Action)

In any community, there are needs for change, issues that should be addressed to make a more livable environment. The fact that disagreement may exist about what constitutes “improvement” does not negate this fact. Whatever the cause, the arts can provide a means for addressing it.

The presentation of issues in art raises the visibility of those issues. It is hard to outdo street theater, for instance, as a way to get people’s attention. In addition, the arts excel at gathering people together. To be viewed, performing arts events must have audiences at a particular place for a specified length of time. Such “captive audiences” can then participate in dialogue and discussion. Works of visual art can serve as means of “marking” particular locations, making them gathering points for addressing an issue or simply place-based continual reminders of it.

Rendering an issue in a work of art provides a frame so it can be seen from the perspective of someone deeply affected by it. Misunderstanding or the lack of understanding of an issue is often the result of the fact that outsiders cannot see things the way those directly impacted do. The artistic frame can highlight an issue in ways that make it memorable, raising awareness and understanding; it also provides emotional distance that can provide the possibility of more reasoned dialogue than is sometimes the case when difficult issues are being addressed.

Celebrations and Rituals

Celebrations and rituals help foster collective identity, a commodity that is important to the social health of a community. When strangers see each other as part of a single “team,” they are more likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt in moments of conflict and work together more productively when opportunities arise. Similarly, in times of grief or despair, rituals serve to bind people together, promoting collective healing. It could very nearly go without saying that the arts–visual and performing–serve as the essential framework for virtually any celebration or ritual.

Social Capital: Creating/Enhancing Community

A community that takes pride in any enterprise with which it identifies is a community that has a contagious energy about it. This is, of course, one of the reasons for fierce competition for professional sports franchises. However, pro teams are not the only means of accomplishing this. Arts and cultural events and institutions that affect the lives of a whole community can do so as well.

More generally, much has been written about the lack of cohesion in U.S. cities today, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone being a widely known example. Many problems that exist in contemporary society can be attributed to how little people know each other, how little opportunity they have for conversation. Garrison Keilor has said that no one does anything really wrong in a small town because too many people are watching. While it is a funny thing to say, there is much that is true in the observation.

The habit of neighborliness, insofar as it ever existed, has been lost. The very architecture of our dwellings in cities, towns, and suburbs reflects this. Where homes in the first half of the Twentieth Century had front porches where people could greet their neighbors walking by, today’s homes have back decks, fenced off from the community. These homes have in a real sense “turned their backs on the neighbors.”

Some in the South blame air conditioning; others blame busy, over-scheduled lives. But the end result is that people do not know people the way they once did. People who know one another look out for each other; people who don’t do not. That is what is meant by the African expression, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The value of social capital goes even deeper than mutual support. Studies have shown economic benefit, both to individuals and communities, in increased concentrations of social capital. The more people anyone knows, the more access they have to employment, housing, health care, and retail purchase possibilities (to name but a handful). This understanding of social capital is the theoretical basis for the truism, “It’s all in who you know.” The arts can provide opportunity for opening up conversation, for getting to know people one might not otherwise.

In addition, the social capital that can be generated by arts activities can be invaluable in opening dialogue between segments of a community separated by cultural barriers. Ethnic cultural festivals are but one example. However, the potential for enhancing understanding can be even greater than “cultural exposure” when activities that promote working together are supported.




Where divisions exist, sometimes the only way to initiate healing is through arts activities. As mentioned above, the emotional distance provided by art can facilitate those on different sides of an issue for the first time recognizing the pain of “the other.”

In 2004, the Sawtooth Center for Visual Design in Winston-Salem, NC mounted an exhibition, “A Thousand Words: Photographs by Vietnam Veterans,” of photography by Vietnam veterans documenting their experience. After the opening reception, one veteran said it was the first time he had ever been thanked for what he did. This exhibition subsequently went on tour across the United States.

Empowerment: Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Having one’s own life experiences lent value through inclusion in works of art– visual, performing, or literary–can be a tool in breaking the cycle of despair that prevents individuals from improving their lot. In addition, community awareness of social problems through raised visibility is the first step in solving situations that tear away at the social fabric. In California, the Los Angeles Poverty Department mentioned earlier is a theater project that helps the larger city better understand and respond to the reality of homelessness. In Washington, DC, a group of renters worked with El Barrio Street Theater to give voice to their demands for adequate housing after repeated unsuccessful attempts to get absentee landlords to address substandard conditions in their units.

The role of the arts in community building is little understood inside or outside the world of the arts. Certainly, to be participants, artists and arts institutions need to broaden their role in the community and, in some cases, their understanding of their role. However, such efforts are costly in both time and money. Expansion of this sort requires considerable investment. Much of the community-building potential of the arts lies in work with segments of the population without any previous connection to the arts. In addition, many of those who could be most powerfully affected are without financial resources. There is therefore no natural constituency of backers for this work. For our nation to take advantage of this potential of the arts, significant support from new as well as long-time arts supporters would be necessary.