Art in Other Places

Artists at Work in America's Community and Social Institutions

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 11, No 2 (Fall 2000)

William Cleveland

2000 reprint edition, first published in 1992, 296 pages, paper. Arts Extension Service Press, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, ISBN 0-275-94054-3

Art in Other Places grew out of a 1986 meeting held at the University of California at Los Angeles among artists and community activists from around the United States. At that point, some of them had been working for twenty or more years as artists in social institutions — senior centers, hospitals, prisons, mental health facilities, youth centers — or in low-income communities. Author William Cleveland writes of that gathering's importance to him (then director of the ArtReach Program in Sacramento, California) in building a “...small network of like-minded artists, whose work has had a major impact on cultural policy and practice in this country.” Some of the book's entries are based on the artists and activists' presentations at the UCLA gathering, and some on interviews conducted later. Several of the artists — like choreographer Liz Lerman and muralist Judith Baca — have become famous for this work.

Art in Other Places contains twenty-nine artist or project profiles, divided by the type of community setting or constituent groups served (e.g. the elderly, prisons, hospitals), with most focusing on the mid-1960s through the late-1980s. Each section is introduced by a brief overview of the environment in which the artists worked or the condition of those served. Several repeated threads run through the artists' stories. An unwavering artistic focus is key. Many explicitly say that they are not offering art therapy, but art, and they feel their own artmaking was served and strengthened by this work. The artists' experiences with developing trust in unfamiliar environments is at the core of their stories. They have to be willing to adapt and change the shapes and content of their programs without handing over their vision or integrity. At the same time, too much acceptance can be a hindrance. Several talk about being hired as staff members by the institutions where they previously had worked as independent artists-in-residence. Often the changed role, as employee in a bureaucracy, made their work more difficult. Some have had to develop nonprofit organizations to support their efforts, others have managed to sustain the work as independent agents. Some managed temporary projects or activities that moved among different settings. The work is very, very difficult and artists have had to be resourceful. Generally they had no specific training for this work.

These essays are earnest and many are moving. They offer glimpses into the shapes and forms of “community arts,” and how that work has been supported. They contain abundant stories about the humane and/or therapeutic benefits of making or presenting art for or with impoverished, isolated, or institutionalized populations. Some stories are thoroughly explored, while others are sketchy.

This 2000 reprint edition of Art in Other Places includes a new “Foreword,” but otherwise does not appear to have been updated by Cleveland, who now is director of the Center for the Study of Art and Community. It would have been fascinating to see how later generations of artists moved into and made changes in the community arts field. Similarly, one wonders what has happened to the twenty-nine profiled artists and projects over the past decade. Nevertheless, for artists now working in such environments, this reissued volume can be instructive. There is no one right way to succeed at this work, but one can learn how others have addressed some of its persistent problems.

Review by Frances Phillips, Walter and Elise Haas Fund