The Art of Social Imagination

A Discussion of New Creative Community

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 18, No 1 (Spring 2007)

with Nick Rabkin, Jennifer Williams, Jamie Haft, and Arlene Goldbard; facilitated and edited by Dudley Cocke

New Year's Day, 1980, found Arlene Goldbard living in Washington, D.C. monitoring and reporting on our nation's de facto cultural policy. The fact that Arlene was doing this says a lot about the leadership role that many of us were counting on the federal government to play in leveling the field so that our many U.S. cultures would have an equal chance to express themselves, to develop, and, inevitably, to cross-pollinate. It was a substantial and beautiful vision then, and remains so today.

Why, then, has an ideal seemingly so simple, sensible, and democratic remained so elusive? As the U.S. began its hard turn to the right with the election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980, folks like Arlene and I began experiencing a kind of whiplash reminiscent of the carnival ride, The Whip. Strapped into the saucer, one's ideas and values were spun out from the center to the mar-gins with cranium-jangling centrifugal force.

For those relatively few who decided to hold on in the ensuing decades, the trick became to maintain an honest line of inquiry — one that was not reactionary, that resisted responding in-kind with a countervail-ing, single-minded ideological agenda, rigid like that of the right-wing political operators of the ride.

In New Creative Community, Arlene offers 260 pages of new hope and possibility about how communities do and can express and develop themselves through the arts, insights gained from just such an honest holding on to democratic cultural principles. For us, as grantmakers immersed in the nitty-gritty of evaluating proposals and grants, New Creative Community provides an historical, theoretical, and practical context from which to view, measure, and feel good about our efforts.

Read now as two long-engaged culture activists, Chicago's Nick Rabkin and London's Jennifer Williams, discuss the book's importance to their work and for arts funders. Sidebars provide an undergraduate art student's — Jamie Haft's — response to the book and the author's responses to questions posed by the other participants.

Dudley Cocke
Trustee, the Bush Foundation

Nick Rabkin

One of Arlene's most insistent points is that community cultural development places a higher value on “process” than on conventional artistic practice, which seems to be all about the final product. “Cultural expression is a means of emancipation, not the primary end in itself; the process is as important as the product.” (p.43) The process she refers to, of course, is the production and creation of art work. It is important because, “direct, hands-on participation moves people more than anything else, enlarging their vision of possibility much more immediately than might be achieved through mere observation.” (p. 54) Sometimes, she acknowledges, there is a tension between process and product, and that tension is generally framed as “community versus quality.” (p. 54)

From the perspective of arts funders, this can be a serious problem. I have never seen funder guidelines that support “emancipation through cultural expression.” Most express interest in supporting artistic “vibrance,” “excellence,” “innovation,” “creativity,” or some close relative. Some add that they support broadening audience access to that excellent and vibrant work. But the bottom line is that funders, with few exceptions, tilt toward product, not process. The product of community process rarely have the polish of work produced by professional artists alone, and that leaves community cultural development on the margins of arts funding, often far from the work and the institutions that draw the lion's share of support.

Jennifer Williams

We have just completed a study of funders in London who are not traditional arts funders, but for whom the arts have played an incidental or accidental role in their work on societal problems. For funders who do not have the arts as their traditional focus, it can be difficult to know what will deliver the results they want. One interviewee said that no matter what new social problem they set out to tackle, he could be sure that by 8 o'clock the next morning there would be a mountain of proposals from arts organizations saying in a most articulate way, “We do that.” One corporate foundation officer was very clear about arts applications: If a company comes to us and says, “We'd really like to work on young offenders to break the cycle of re-offending,” we say, “Fantastic, we do that. How are you going to do it?” If they say, “Well it's an arts project,” we'll be fine with that. If on the other hand, they come to us saying, “We want to do an arts in prisons project,” then we will struggle a bit asking, “Why would we fund that?”

A number of the non-arts funders emphasized the importance of the rigor needed by arts organizations entering this type of work. One funder reported having had eighty-five proposals from arts groups for a new social program, but finding that the quality of the social part of the work was so low that only two or three were short-listed and only one chosen.

Many funders felt that collaborators from different disciplines in social-change-and-arts projects simply lacked training to work well together. This points to a need to consider where the responsibility for paying for the development of cross-sector practice lies. Should non-arts funders also contribute to the professional development of artists so that they can become full collaborative partners? My suspicion is, that if this is mainly taken on by arts funders, the result will lack the impact or credibility it needs. Collaboration with other funding fields is a stronger choice. Arlene's book provides vital language that can be helpful in thinking about this work.

The job of developing what is essentially cross-sector work will continue to fall between the stools of most funders' current, often departmentalized, aims and objectives. Cross-sector funding is a risk that funders must take if, as most futurists contend, innovative solutions to social and economic problems exist between “stools.” There is a large need to define and observe the nature of blended outcomes from cross pollinating ideas and best practices.

Nick Rabkin

In a sense, the difficulty that Jennifer's research exposed is the utterly natural human tendency to create fixed categories for comprehending the world and insisting that everything in it must fit into one or another of them. Funders construct their worlds by first naming their programs categorically. This has two benefits. It helps funders stay focused so their money can be most effective. And it enables potential grantees to decide whether a funder is a good prospect, so they don't waste their time with the wrong ones. (In another sense, program categories are moats that limit the number of proposals funders must review thoroughly.)

As Jennifer says, the problem is that program categories, by design, are not well suited to recognize innovation and creativity. This is a fundamental concern for the arts in spheres orbiting around poverty and inequality. The spheres encompassed by these categories are typically understood by philanthropy in economic terms, so it should come as no surprise that funders find it difficult to grasp the role of the arts in them. Arts advocates may have actually added to the muddle by accepting the economic definition of the problem and arguing that the arts are a powerful economic strategy. (I've often wondered why there are so many poor artists if the arts are so powerful economically.) We'd do better to argue for a different understanding of the problem of poverty, one that is as informed by culture as it is by economics.

The arts confront a similar definitional challenge in the realm of education. The arts' place in schools has been in question since the dawn of public education, and advocates have crafted a succession of tactical arguments designed to appeal to conventional notions of what schooling is for: that is, its principal job is to prepare young people to enter the world of work. The earliest justification for a visual arts curriculum was based largely on the growing need for draftsmen and clerks with legible handwriting to serve burgeoning industry in the nineteenth century. With respect to funding, arts educators, like community cultural development workers, find themselves falling into the gap between arts programs designed primarily to sustain nonprofit arts institutions and education pro-grams to improve the academic performance (read: not the arts achievement) of students, particularly low-income and minority students.

Indeed, the parallels between the best community cultural development and the best school-based arts education are quite profound. At the root of both is a deep commitment to the principle of “active participation in culture,” in Arlene's words. This is the differ-ence between community cultural development and ordinary public art. Likewise the best arts education engages students in making art, not just in its appreciation. And the art that such students make is grounded in their own lived experiences and perspectives, just as the art of community cultural development is. I find myself thinking that the two practices are fundamentally the same thing in different venues, and that “teaching artists” and “community artists” are,
for most intents and purposes, interchangeable terms.

Jennifer Williams

Picking up on Nick's point, the Centre for Creative Communities is working with Urban Learning Space, an organization based in Scotland, on “New Designs for Learning.” The project's target group comprised people who were judged to be lacking in skills and by definition “unemployable.” On page 24 of New Creative Community, Arlene states, “The advent of new media has softened the distinction between consumption and participation.” Urban Learning Space is combining new technology and creative practice to attract learners missed by the system for whatever reason. It does not use teachers. Musicians, filmmakers, and photographers are among those who serve as mentors to create an aura of respect and belief in the learner's self-identified talent. Along the way, the students gain skills in computer use, interaction with others, and the confidence of knowing how a world, like the music world, works. The projects have been highly successful with high attendance and many participants gaining jobs. Although the projects could show in quantitative terms that they were exceeding achievement targets, the Centre got involved in the first place for a differ-ent reason. Something else, something hard to grasp, was going on. Arlene pinpoints it with her question, “How do we judge the success of an innovative, transformative process?” (p. 77) The transformative connection with meaning is stressed in Arlene's book and reinforces the approach Urban Learning Space is using. She is eloquent on this subject (section 7, p. 58): “Artists have roles as agents of transformation that are more socially valuable than mainstream art world roles — and certainly equal in legitimacy.”

Nick Rabkin

A couple of years ago the RAND Corporation released a study, commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, called Gifts of the Muse. Gifts noted that much public advocacy for the arts was constructed to parry the political assaults of social and political conservatives who framed the arts as elitist, sometimes contemptible, and generally without significant public value. Advocates seized on the “instrumental” values of the arts — the contributions the arts make to learning, cross-cultural understanding, economic development, or social capital, for example — to build their case. The idea that the arts can contribute to community development — that is, to the organized efforts of low-income community residents to improve conditions and shape their futures — is fundamentally instrumental. RAND argued that the strategy has dubious merit. First, the report asserted that research on which the claims were based was, at best, inconclusive. And second, RAND argued that the arts would rise or fall, ultimately, not on their instrumental benefits but on their “intrinsic” value. On its face, the RAND position would appear to oppose Arlene's perspective on the value of process in community settings.

But, I think there is an interesting alignment of Gifts of the Muse and New Creative Community. RAND did not find the intrinsic value of the arts in the art work itself, but in the “experience of the art.” It reasoned that if people do not have deeply meaningful personal “experiences” with the arts, they are not likely to become active supporters. Unequivocal proof that the arts drive economic development or higher SAT scores would not be enough to mobilize much political support for the arts if the arts experience itself is not valued. Gifts implied that too few people actually were having these deeply meaningful experiences, in spite of the “quality” of the available offerings. (As a result, Gifts was not, shall we say, warmly received everywhere in the arts community.)

RAND's study never quite gets to the next logical question — what makes an arts experience deep and meaningful? But it does offer some preliminary thoughts, and they have a great deal to do with what Arlene would call “process.” Rather than alienating audiences by packaging and presenting the arts as high ticket consumer items produced by the exquisitely talented for the highly educated, Gifts argues that audiences need to be brought into (or at least closer to) the creative process. At the bottom of meaningful artistic experiences is a heightened awareness of the possibility of human creativity, including one's own. That can happen in a Broadway theater, but it is not the intention of Broadway producers. They can produce magic, wonder, and even awe, but only rarely do they invite the audience to join the artists' creative community, not even metaphorically. This it seems to me, is the great power of community cultural development. It makes the invitation. And in this sense, it represents an answer to the problem posed by Gifts of the Muse. Community cultural development invites people to become cultural producers, not just consumers, and artistic production is the most powerful and moving of artistic experiences.

Jennifer Williams

Building on Nick's point, Arlene consistently draws attention to the underlying values that drive the practice: “The values of community cultural development are humane, fluid, and relational. They are grounded in the conviction...that pluralism makes more sense as a positive value than as a problem statement....” It is understanding this aspect of community cultural development that must be deepened. We have to increase our collective awareness of what people trained in the arts actually bring to people in community, social, and educational settings.

If in the last decade or so of the twentieth century we were realizing that problems in society are interconnected, giving birth as a result to “The New Hybridity,” as Arlene suggests in her chapter of that name (p.172), I believe now we are entering what Dutch futurist, Bert Mulder calls a “period of transformation.” Society is transforming into an information society, which at its heart has meaning as a basic requirement. Artists create meaning. Indeed, artists are often at the forefront of new thinking: “The projects by younger artists ... are intrinsically cross-bred, conceived as fusions of conventional art and educational or physical community development, or of independent media and activist organizing.” (p.179)

There is a particular urgency to get good at understanding the ways that the creative process contributes to human and community development. The need is not to allow artists and arts organizations to be “used” better, but allow them to become central to what society needs next: the incorporation of creativity and innovation at every stage of shaping a world defined much more than it is today by equality of opportunity and respect for diverse points of view.