Animating Democracy series

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 17, No 1 (Spring 2006)

reviewed by Frances Phillips

Civic Dialogue, Arts & Culture
Findings from Animating Democracy

Pam Korza, Barbara Schaffer Bacon, and Andrea Assaf
2005, 312 pages, $24. Americans for the Arts, Washington DC, ISBN-13: 978-1-879903-33-3 (alk. paper)
Available online from Americans for the Arts

Cultural Perspectives in Civic Dialogue
Case Studies from Animating Democracy

Pam Korza and Barbara Schaffer Bacon
2005, 106 pages, $13. Americans for the Arts, Washington DC, ISBN-13: 978-1-879903-36-4 (alk. paper)
Available online from Americans for the Arts

Critical Perspectives
Writings on Art and Civic Dialogue

Caron Atlas and Pam Korza, editors. John Fiscella and Barbara Schaffer Bacon, contributing editors
2005, 176 pages, $13. Americans for the Arts, Washington DC, ISBN-13: 978-1-879903-32-6 (alk. paper)
Available online from Americans for the Arts

With funding from the Ford Foundation, Americans for the Arts managed the Animating Democracy Lab from 2000 to 2004, awarding grants to thirty-five organizations, providing them with advisory services, and supporting critical writing about their work. This ambitious effort sought to examine the role the arts can play in advancing civic life in a democratic society.

Americans for the Arts now has published eight volumes of findings, case studies, and source materials from the Animating Democracy Lab. This review addresses three of these volumes — an overview of the initiative, one collection of case studies, and an experiment in critical writing for this arena of artistic practice. I encourage colleagues to take on the other five books — one binder of resource materials and four clusters of case studies.

The Lab supported wide-ranging projects, including commission and presentation of new music by recent immigrants, preservation and interpretation of "slave galleries" in an historic church, a theatrical exploration of the social impact of money on people's lives, and an art exhibition about human genomics. Some of the projects seemed very artist-centered while others were based in institutional goals. Some were instigated by city planning or political moments — such as the opening of a new casino, development of a midtown greenway in a major city, or introduction of a ballot issue — and some specifically targeted legislative and other policymakers. Some were short-term interventions, while others represented steps in major, ongoing activities. As a statement about what a grants program focused on this theme might encompass, the project list is fascinating.

Civic Dialogue, Arts & Culture, the overview volume for the Animating Democracy Lab, examines many dimensions of the projects' efforts at "encouraging civic dialogue on important contemporary issues." The central theme of the initiative appears to be that the arts can play a significant role in fostering civic life by convening people for focused conversation. In these projects, that conversation may shape the creation of an artwork, take place parallel to the artistic production's development, or respond to a completed piece. To be more accurate, the word used is not conversation, not debate, not rumination, not gossip, not discussion, nor argument: it's dialogue — "arts based civic dialogue" is this initiative's mantra.

Reading through the project descriptions, one stumbles over "dialogue" again and again. Some projects "engaged a dialogue specialist" or were helped by "an outside dialogue practitioner." Some "mounted a statewide dialogue," designed "dialogue opportunities," or made use of "dialogue recruitment strategies." Their efforts ranged "from large-scale public dialogues to interpersonal dialogue on civic issues." They exerted thoughtful efforts to "establish a safe and neutral space for dialogue" or provide "a catalyst for civic dialogue." And, yes, they moved "post-performance discussions from conventional Q&A sessions to issue-based dialogue," and they achieved "a rare example of injecting contemporary art into a public policy dialogue." As for lessons learned, projects revealed "the tensions between the trust needed for good dialogue and the risk-taking needed for good art," discovered that "the artists' role in relation to dialogue intent was a source of tension;" managed "to excavate...'dialogue moments';" and ultimately "tried to adopt a more dialogic way of working internally."

As someone who uses the word "collaboration" with a heavy hand, I was sobered to note the way a word can come to seem like a bludgeon even in the most interesting contexts. The project directors and editors, however, are clear and intentional about their vocabulary, addressing their nuanced use of the term in the chapter, "An Evolving Definition of Arts-based Civic Dialogue." They quote Daniel Yankelovich, author of The Magic of Dialogue, as he identifies three qualities (summarized below) that distinguish dialogue from discussion or debate:

  • Dialogue allows assumptions to be brought out into the open and encourages participants to suspend judgment in order to foster understanding.
  • Dialogue seeks to create equality among participants.
  • Dialogue aims for a greater understanding of others' viewpoints through empathy. Multiple perspectives are invited to the table and given encouragement.

Further, in its admirable effort to bring rigor to this enterprise, the Animating Democracy Lab adopted language and trainings from the civic dialogue field. Civic dialogue is intentional and purposeful. Those who organize a civic dialogue should have a sense of what difference they hope to make by doing so. The Lab assumed that, "Opportunities for dialogue are embedded in or connected to the arts experience," and it expected participating organizations to develop structured processes for dialogue that would incorporate multiple perspectives. At times representatives of the projects criticized the civic dialogue concept because of its emphasis on verbal communication (not the arts' only expressive means) and on Western cultural norms: One Hawaiian participant noted, "Just don't structure me in a particular manner that is outside of my culture."

Civic Dialogue, Arts & Culture is rich with examples of effective practices, illustrations of the need to understand the context in which one is working, and demonstrations of ways organizations incorporated multiple voices and perspectives in their work. Individually and in sum, the Animating Democracy projects achieved a great deal. Of course, not all succeeded. At least one organization dropped out of the initiative because, facing a fiscal crisis, it did not have the resources to sustain needed infrastructure; and at least one other organization decided not to sustain a focus on civic dialogue in its future work. Some projects achieved great depth of experience through civic dialogue; some projects developed or presented extraordinary artwork; some developed the capacity to sustain this kind of work; and some were strong on all fronts. Projects also achieved such unexpected outcomes as two dialogue participants deciding to run for public office and one of them being elected to a city council.

The volume presents all the lessons learned along the way in a uniform, professional, homogenized voice — so unruffled at times that one wonders if problems are being glossed over. Of course, the authors and editors must feel the responsibility to represent the grantees in a positive, professional light. In spite of an exhaustive level of detail, the overall affect of most chapters is a respectful, somewhat distanced representation of this complex work. For this reason, I was particularly thankful to the editors for including a few pieces in other voices. Suzanne Lacy's chapter, "Seeking an American Identity," is a true highlight and Michael Mariscano's, "It's the Art Stupid!" (reprinted from the Grantmakers in the Arts' Reader), is slightly off topic but refreshing. Any book that so honors the idea of "dialogue" has done the right thing to invite in other perspectives.

This leads me to the curious point that in all of the hundreds of pages of material, the voices represented are those of the editors, some invited professional writers, and the project principals. The idea of civic dialogue is based on inclusion of multiple points of view, yet the voices of the non-artist participants in these projects are rarely heard. By all accounts, many civic dialogues took place. We read about their varied structures and ways they inform the art, but we don't actually hear much from the dialogue events. For example, several projects involved working with young people and a chapter is devoted to "Youth, Art, and Civic Dialogue," but what a lost opportunity that it is not written by a young person and does not include transcripts of youth opinions.

It is easy to pick on someone who has tried to do something extremely difficult. Civic Dialogue, Arts & Culture could be more research-based, could seem to be more candid in tone, be less redundant, and could include more voices. However, it is deeply interesting and is presented in ways that will serve grantmakers well. The design is handsome and the material well-organized. After the introductory chapters, one can pick through it for the parts most relevant to one's work, finding tips, guidelines, and criteria along the way. I've already recommended it to two grantees, and it is affecting the way I review proposals from arts organizations wanting to undertake this kind of work.

If you are hungry for greater candor, if you want to grapple with the complexity of these projects, and if you are interested in projects based in culturally-specific communities, I highly recommend Cultural Perspectives in Civic Dialogue. This digestible volume takes an in-depth look at three projects: community involvement in decisions about the conservation of the King Kamehameha I Statue in Hawai'i; programs designed by three refugee communities with a cultural center in Portland, Maine; and an ongoing effort by a grassroots organization in Texas to seek equal recognition of Mexicano and Chicano sites in San Antonio's historic preservation plans.

For the most part these case studies are based in the voices of the projects' directors. Their clarity about challenges that arose and their thoughtful analysis of the contexts in which they were working suggest not only that these artists and organizations were producing extraordinary work but that Animating Democracy created a respectful rapport with them. The Hawaiian case study illustrates varied, authentic, culturally-appropriate ways of engaging participants in an historic preservation effort. "African in Maine" reveals the challenge of working across the deep rifts within groups of refugees and the rigors of the imperfect art of true representation and inclusion. The Arte Es Vida project speaks to the importance of working with constituent groups on multiple fronts at all times, gradually building the capacity to affect change.

One problem cited by participants in the Animating Democracy Lab was the lack of critical writing about their work. Conventional art critics may not take the work seriously or, when they do write about it, miss important dimensions by skipping over the civic dialogue and only writing about the finished product. The Lab experimented with redressing this need by inviting several projects to recommend clusters of writers with different specialties to write about their work. All of the writers met as a group at least once. They exchanged drafts and ideas with one another and with the directors of the projects they critiqued. Critical Perspectives, Writings on Art and Civic Dialogue presents the results from this experiment.

The book explores three projects: Dell'Arte International's The Dentalium Project, an original, live radio play looking at the effects of opening a casino in Blue Lake, California; The Slave Galleries, an historic preservation project at St. Augustine's Church on the Lower East Side of New York City; and Ties that Bind, an art exhibit built upon anthropological research into inter-marriage between Asian and Latino residents of San Jose, California. Lucy Lippard provides an insightful, edgy introduction to the whole enterprise, placing Animating Democracy in the context of related efforts on behalf of "cultural democracy."

The experiment feels very controlled — perhaps to the point of the writers' being restricted by the design — and the effort was flawed by the writers' not starting their work until the projects were well underway (and after many of the civic dialogues had taken place), which undermined the stated goal of representing the full scope of the work. Nevertheless, the range of the writers' voices, the depth of historic and other contextual content they contribute, and the project directors' passionate defenses of their artistic choices make the book genuinely interesting. Caron Atlas and Pam Korza have edited it to a high degree of polish, but the complexities, rough edges, unrealized ideas, and thoughtful critiques shine through. Perhaps it is an imperfect effort, but it is a great idea and has been pursued with high purpose and seriousness.

Animating Democracy's aggressive use of the word "dialogue" is based on the premise that the path to greater truth lies not in individual vision but in an exchange among people. Among these three admirable books, Critical Perspectives comes closest to illustrating such dialogue's potential.

Frances Phillips, senior program officer, Walter and Elise Haas Fund