In my previous post, The Ink People, I highlighted a fascinating local arts agency that is facilitating community engagement work by acting as an incubator for arts-focused engagement work. This time, I want to follow up, as promised, with some ideas put forward by Roberto Bedoya (Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council) in another ARTSblog post, Stewardship: Culture Wars 2.0 and Placemaking. He has a very particular view of the role of local arts agencies. This is the quotation that I pasted into my “to be blogged about” file: “I believe strongly that the LAA’s [Local Arts Agency's] charge is to build and defend civil society through the tools we have at our disposal.” For myself, I wholeheartedly agree that that is one responsibility, though not the only one. (And, to be clear, I don’t see Mr. Bedoya saying it is the only one.) For many in the arts establishment, the statement may seem jarring. One reason for that is the view that the arts are separate from (and above) everyday life. While that view is often unconscious, it’s out there nonetheless.
As I have both said and intimated before, while my personal conviction is that we all have moral responsibilities here–and this is especially true for 501c3 organizations–my most frequent clarion call is the practical one. If the arts establishment is to remain viable into the demographically-transformed future, it must be seen as a vital participant in things important to the community as a whole. As the scales tip from sustainability via relatively small sources of great wealth to large numbers of smaller gifts (that, in total, can yield more), the necessity of being seen as relevant in the community (and as an advocate for justice) becomes clearer. (See Arts 2.0: 40k x $25=$1M.) I’ve had interesting arguments with those who believe the latter (the small gifts approach) is utterly impossible. However, if the former model becomes ineffective, what is the alternative? We may disagree about the inevitability of that transition, but the labor-intensive economics of the arts and the potential for widening gaps between the arts establishment (without reorientation of organizational focus) and evolving communities seem pretty strong arguments that the future necessitates change.
Mr. Bedoya includes in his post an example of what he means:
Our community of artists, arts organizations, and audiences provide visions and evidence about what’s right about our plurality — how we imagine and live our lives together. TPAC’s P.L.A.C.E. (People, Land, Arts, Culture and Engagement) Initiative is a platform that we established to support the work of creating shared visions of our relationships to each other.
The P.L.A.C.E. Initiative supports arts-based civic engagement projects that address contested and complex social issues in Southern Arizona. It supports placemaking arts activities that shape the physical and social character of the region through projects that create a sense of belonging.
To date, P.L.A.C.E. has supported 27 arts-based civic engagement projects that address community concerns. TPAC is fortunate to have the Kresge Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the Open Society Institute as partners in this initiative.
A few examples of projects supported:
- A play about the issues of women who cross the U.S./Mexico border illegally
- A community-based dance performance, about water scarcity, riparian ecosystems and Sonoran Desert ecology
- A writing and photography project by refugee and immigrant students that address community issues
- A participatory public art project designed to facilitate discussion about the issues of land use, transportation and the environment
- A community asset mapping and digital photographic documentation project in partnership with San Ignacio Yaqui Council of the Pascua-Yaqui Tribe
Our P.L.A.C.E. projects create a sense of civic belonging key to cultural vitality and exemplify the ethos of stewardship — of taking care of both the aesthetic and ethical experiences of being in community.
TPAC believes that being in community is what we work to empower and support, that it reflects the core value of stewardship that we embrace and animate.
As I have observed before, excellent arts and community engagement work grows out of a deep belief that the arts can and should be connected with the community. Projects not based on that core belief are seldom successful either on their own or as bridges to the community for the organization. Indeed, projects not well-motivated are often counter-productive with respect to fostering community goodwill.
Local arts agencies are uniquely positioned (I’ll say it again) to foster, facilitate, and/or incubate projects that make the arts come alive as vital players for individuals and communities. They can and should have a vision that is broader than that of an individual arts organization. My hat is off to the many, many, many LAA’s that see themselves in that role. I’d encourage all of them to move in this direction.