Perhaps the Glass is Half Empty
The arts will always exist. As long as human beings live in community and individuals consider their own relationship with each other and with the world that supports them, our species will express itself through the arts. It is far less clear that the not-for-profit organizations serving as the principal arts infrastructure today will survive through the next several generations.
Established arts organizations have, as a result of their evolution, support structures, and programming assumptions, been cut off from the lifeblood that is the evolving culture of the United States. There is a real danger that they stand upon gradually melting icebergs drifting further and further from solid ground. The fundamental cause of this drifting is a lack of direct, meaningful connection between those organizations and the communities in which they exist. This lack is for the most part not the result of conscious choices but of the history of the evolution of art in Western culture and of the arts delivery systems that support it.
The economic, social, and political environments out of which the infrastructure for Western “high arts” grew have changed. Today’s major arts institutions, products of that legacy, no longer benefit from relatively inexpensive labor, a nominally homogeneous culture, or a polity openly managed by an elite class. The changes that have created stress on arts organizations to this point will only accelerate in the next fifty years.
Expenses are rising precipitously and competition for major donors is increasing; as a result, the survival of established arts organizations hinges on their ability to engage effectively with a far broader segment of the population than has been true to date. Most communities in Western society have made (relatively speaking) huge investments in support systems (e.g., facilities, organizational structures, and artist training) for these organizations; a sense of justice demands greater attention be paid to developing relationships with subsets of the population that are largely uninvolved in their work.
The means for addressing these issues is to connect more substantively with the communities in which arts organizations do their work, a process referred to here as community engagement. Meaningful engagement is rooted in mutually beneficial relationships. In established arts organizations, the task of fostering community engagement is made difficult by the fact that there is, among their principal constituencies, little awareness of the issue or of means to address it. For the most part and with notable (and noteworthy) exceptions, artists have not been trained in this area; current audiences/patrons/board members participate because they are pleased with the status quo; arts administration professionals have been trained to manage the established order; and the unengaged (both individual citizens and public officials) consider these institutions to be irrelevant. There is little opportunity to gain purchase to alter the system.
But the Glass is Also Half Full
In spite of the intimations of danger (if not doom) presented above (and in more detail later), there is also a way of viewing this need for transformation, in the words of a colleague, as a “Happy, happy; joy, joy” option. Most people involved in the arts want to reach people with their art. They want a better world for all and they want everyone to experience the inspiration and uplift that, as they see it, the arts can best provide. The process of community engagement outlined in this book is a path if not to that utopian future then at least to one in which their contributions to society are far more fully recognized, utilized, and valued.
Community engagement demands honest commitment; unengaged groups are quick to spot insincere or limited overtures. It demands unfamiliar skill sets; practitioners need training in dealing with and organizing diverse communities as well as in awareness and appreciation of non-Western or non-traditional art forms. And it demands time; relationship building is a long, on-going process. This is especially true in circumstances where subsets of the population, based on historic slights or institutional ignorance, have come to mistrust established arts organizations.
The purposes of this book are 1) to identify those factors that serve to isolate established arts organizations; 2) to point out the trends that loom as imminent threats to the long-term viability of the artistic status quo; 3) to present principles and mechanisms whereby arts organizations can significantly extend their reach into the community, supporting enhanced sustainability; and 4) to stimulate debate on these issues in an effort to encourage changes that will enable arts organizations to be vital cultural resources for their communities far into the future.
Every field has its peculiar (practitioners would often prefer to say “specialized”) terminology. The field under discussion here is particularly iconoclastic in terminology. Since this is not primarily an academic treatise on the field but an introduction to its concepts to those “on the outside,” there will not be a full airing of the arguments about terminology. At the same time, since this book uses terms that could have a variety of meanings, the definitions of those terms as intended here are given below.
Arts-Centered Project: Community arts activity in which a work of art is utilized to address a community need (e.g., a production of West Side Story through which issues of immigration are examined). Arts-based projects are often developed by established arts organizations taking an existing work and using it as the centerpiece of a community arts project. Alternatively, the organization can commission (or an individual artist can create) a work that in itself may not be primarily “about” an issue but in the context of its presentation can address it.
Community Arts: Arts-based projects/programming intentionally designed to address community issues
Community-Based Arts: Arts-based projects undertaken on a grassroots level, whether by artists or community members, that grow out of concerns or issues identified from within the community
Community-Focused Arts: Arts-based projects undertaken, often by established arts organizations, that address issues or meet needs of the community or of some identified subset of the community
Community Engagement: A process whereby institutions enter into mutually beneficial relationships with other organizations, informal community groups, or individuals. In the context of this book, this normally implies arts organizations developing relationships outside of the arts community.
Issue-Driven Project: Community arts activity in which a community issue is addressed through an arts experience (e.g., issues of crime highlighted by art placed at crime scenes). The art in issue-based projects grows out of an issue, either in newly created work or in the re-production/presentation of existing issue-based work.