Yesterday I began my reporting from The Robert E. Gard Foundation’s Our Communities: A Symposium on the Arts at The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread’s conference center. Today was a full day presenting the history and current status of community/arts relationships and an introduction to thoughts about future directions.
As you may well imagine, there is virtually no way to do justice to the presentations and discussion in a blog post or even a series of them. What follows are some highlights and even these are superficial and dangerously out of context. My apologies in advance to presenters whom I have shortchanged and/or misrepresented in what follows. It is our hope to have the text of as many of the presentations as possible available (eventually) on the Gard Foundation website.
Where We’ve Been
1900s Community Arts – Maryo Ewell
The Rise of the Institutions – Diane Mataraza
Growth of Community Arts – E’vonne Coleman
The morning began with a review of some aspects of the history of arts/community connections in the U.S. Maryo Gard Ewell presented an overview of community arts work from the beginning of the 20th Century up to the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts. She cited W.E.B. Du Bois’ observation that intercultural communication can be facilitated by art as an expression of those cultures, the Settlement House movement’s use of arts as a tool for expressing self- and community-identity, and early 20th-Century community pageants as examples of art serving as a tool for community improvement. She also highlighted the tension over divergent meanings of the sentence “The arts are for everyone.” As used by John D. Rockefeller, 3rd in “The Performing Arts: Problems and Practice” (1965) it placed an emphasis on elite arts for the masses. Robert Gard, on the other hand, used the concept to mean of, by, and about the people.
Diane Mataraza examined the origins of the National Endowment for the Arts. She discussed the inherent tension between support of large budget arts institutions (which in the 1960’s were suffering from significant debt) and the political realities that necessitated a broad-based distribution of funds. One result was the mandate that a significant portion of NEA funds be redistributed to the states (which spawned the creation of many state arts councils) and which in turn, due to state-level politics, further decentralized funding by redistributing budgets to the local/community level.
E’Vonne Coleman presented the history of the NEA’s Expansion Arts program, a vitally important 24-year program designed to support the cultural expression of artists and communities of color. EA was implemented as another response to the need to build political support for the Endowment. Staffers worked from a belief that agency funds “were their money [the communities that received it] and the NEA’s job was to give it back to them.” The closure of the program in 1996, while some elements were spun off to other efforts, resulted in the closure of a number of grassroots arts organizations serving communities of color.
Where We Are
Democracy for art forms and artists – Carlton Turner
Support for and from Artists in Community Settings – Barbara Shaffer Bacon
Authentic Voices – David O’Fallon
The second half of the morning focused on the current situation, especially the role of artists in community work. Carlton Turner noted that we are shaped by the cultures around us and that art is not the same thing as culture but that it is always a reflection of the cultures out of which it arises. (In this regard, he noted that art for art’s sake is impossible because of the art cannot be separated from its underlying culture(s).) Mr. Turner also noted that artists were (and are) left out of the development of the nonprofit arts infrastructure, a particularly troubling reality since it is artists who are the visionaries who could address community needs and interests.
Barbara Shaffer Bacon talked about the work of artists in community settings (as opposed to isolated studio work) and noted the need for training for these artists in how to work with communities. She pointed out that locally-focused projects can be difficult to scale due to the work being tailored to the unique interests of communities and the unique abilities of the participating artists.
David O’Fallon presented some principles on which to base successful community arts work.
- Never create a program without being connected with the people and organizations on the ground. The relationships come first, then the programs.
- Evaluate programs based on the strength of the relationships created. This can be measured by the participants’ commitment to the program and continuation in it over time.
- Community based programs should be led by the people they are for.
A particularly important observation [NB: which cannot be adequately represented in this blog post] is that community work necessitates a biological (or ecosystem) approach to structure (in which every element is essential to the success of the whole) as opposed to the dominant mechanical/industrial structures that characterize most nonprofit arts organizations.
Envisioning the Future
Systems that Need to Continue and Be Supported; Systems that Need to Change or Be Redefined; New Systems that Need to Arise – David O’Fallon, facilitator
Provocateurs: Bill Cleveland, Maria de Leon, Michael Rohd, Roberto Bedoya, Rosy Simas
The afternoon was a free form discussion of “what ifs” that was designed to address the changes that would be necessary to support more effective arts/community partnerships. It emphasized the role of artists in arts/community connections.
One fascinating metaphor that organized discussions early in the afternoon was of artists as plankton. While that may initially sound demeaning, the point was that, as plankton are essential to the well-being of whales, artists are essential to the functioning of a healthy arts ecosystems and threats to them are a threat to the industry as a whole.
Other topics raised were the central issue of white supremacy in discussions of cultural equity and the need to promote ethical behavior and listening/learning to and about other cultures as key to successfully working with communities.
The afternoon concluded with William Cleveland presenting a powerful essay on stories–stories of people’s lives and experiences–as power and the suppression of stories as a principal indicator of oppression.