Rocco Landesman, Chairman
National Endowment for the Arts
I met with Doug Borwick almost a year ago now to talk about his Engaging Matters blog, as well as this book. In our conversation, I was particularly struck by Doug’s formulation of the arts as “campfire”: the sites, objects, and activities that gather and connect us communally around a shared experience.
At the National Endowment for the Arts, I talk a lot about “creative placemaking” – the ways in which communities are using the arts to help shape their social, physical, and economic characters. As Doug would agree, there are two chief prerequisites for creative placemaking to succeed: a strong and deep commitment to the art itself; and cultural organizations with porous walls. Cultural organizations should be like living cells with permeable membranes that exist to organize and protect the art, but that let the art out into the community, and let the community into the art.
Over the past three years, I have spoken about the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics, Elizabeth Streb’s artistic home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Elizabeth talks about arts organizations that still use the traditional model of churches to organize themselves as places to come at proscribed times of the week to observe and receive a set text and set of experiences. The best arts organizations – and the best churches, I should add – have eschewed that model entirely. Elizabeth, in fact, now talks about borrowing the model of a 7-Eleven: a place that is always open and that can meet a huge array of your needs.
Whether you want to think of them as cells, campfires, or 7-Elevens, I have seen arts organizations all across this country that have inextricably woven themselves into the fabric of their societies: the Trey McIntyre Project is using its NEA Our Town grant to be on the road less and become even more part of their community in Boise, Idaho. In Louisiana, the Shreveport Regional Arts Council is using NEA support to re-conceive and reopen an abandoned fire station as an arts building that will anchor a new town commons. And, inspired by the NEA’s Blue Star Museums initiative, the Mississippi Museum of Art is offering free admission to all military families in and around Jackson all year long to help integrate the military and civilian communities that often exist side-by-side with little or no interaction.
One of my favorite images for this notion of art and community in constant exchange is a production that The Foundry Theatre did in 2009 called “The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue.” This piece was a performed on a bus that traveled through the South Bronx, literally (and figuratively) bringing some audience members to parts of the community they had never before visited, while simultaneously showing other audience members the blocks of the city they call home through the eyes of a poet.
I think the days of the arts in ivory towers are behind us; the very best arts organizations are like this bus: navigating and connecting communities with artists as tourguides. Not only can the arts build communities, I think we must.
Robert L. Lynch, President and CEO
Americans for the Arts
“… We are engaged in a serious search for a formula that balances the surging
democratization of the arts with the inescapable autocracy of the arts.”
– Dr. Joseph Golden, Olympus on Main Street
In this seminal 1980 text, Joe Golden who was an early mentor of mine details a successful community-based process he led to envision and build a performing art center in Syracuse, NY that would stand, not as a temple for the worship of art, but as a center for community and for arts participation. As executive director of the Cultural Resources Council of Syracuse and Onondaga County, NY and throughout his career, Joe called the question about art and community. It is one that Doug Borwick and the many voices he has assembled renew in Building Communities, Not Audiences. Then as now, it is an important conversation.
It is important because art is important. Art conveys important messages, contains important information, and offers ways to think differently. Art has value to people and to communities. As stewards of a community’s cultural assets, we have a responsibility to put that value to maximum use.
“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die
miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
– William Carlos Williams “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”
Art is important to humans and to community survival as William Carlos Williams so eloquently illustrated in his 1955 poem. When elected officials, business and community leaders call for solutions to issues of public safety, transportation, jobs, and education, they are calling for poems. They are inviting arts and culture to the table with other sectors to define and address civic problems; to inspire, challenge, imagine, and build new civic futures; to boost image and identity; to drive revitalization, social bonding, and economic growth.
When audiences seek more forms of arts participation, they are calling for poems. They are seeking arts experiences that enrich, connect, expand, reflect, and engage them. They desire to tap the creativity within themselves. They are creators and curators of their own arts experiences and they are calling to be co-creators of the experiences that we offer.
Today, every boundary around arts and culture in America is morphing and expanding. For community–based organizations and those in rural communities, community and civic engagement is a core value, engrained in their operations. More recently, cultural institutions in every discipline, led by their national service organizations, are experimenting with and establishing civic practices that align mission and public value. Not all will be successful. New skills and knowledge are required.
But, deep engagement with community is among the five key characteristics described in the 2012 report, Bright Spots, a study of cultural groups in the Pacific Northwest that are successfully adapting to their changing circumstances without exceptional resources. Commissioned by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the study defined deep engagement as “operating in and of their communities, and they possess a deep understanding of their interconnectedness with others and their role as civic leaders.”
In Building Communities, Not Audiences: The Future of the Arts in the United States, Doug Borwick calls for substantive rather than superficial efforts, authentic and systemic changes. The writings of theorists, historians, and practitioners he has drawn together offer seasoned insights and fresh perspectives, tested strategies and new technologies that explore many dimensions of community engagement.
“The public demand [for cultural services] is likely to increase
– not only for the services, but also to be heard, taught, and involved i
n determining the cultural destiny of our communities.”
-- Dr. Joseph Golden, Olympus on Main Street
Dr. Golden was correct. This book advances an important conversation that is as timely as it is evergreen. The challenge is not whether to build communities or audiences but how to build communities and audiences together.