On March 2, 2016, Grantmakers in the Arts held the invitational Thought Leader Forum on Artists in Community Settings at the Regional Arts Commission, Saint Louis, Missouri. The gathering involved nineteen funders, seven presenters from the field, and GIA staff and board observers. Eric Booth of Everyday Arts, Inc., facilitated and presented at the forum. The discussion was framed by a question posed by GIA Executive Director Janet Brown in a background essay: “How do we best support a movement that places artists in decision-making and influencing roles where they can be part of community problem solving and community change?” This article summarizes the issues, themes, and proposed actions discussed at the forum.
The RAND Corporation’s report Gifts of the Muse notes that there are both “intrinsic” benefits of the arts and “instrumental” benefits; in other words, the arts serve both arts and non-arts goals. Thousands of artists spend time beyond their studios and traditional arts venues not only to enlarge the artistic appreciation, understanding, and voice of participants but also to facilitate personal, system, and political change to benefit a greater good. Often working without formal recognition or long-term support, these artists are part of a large, multifaceted, and highly individualized field of endeavor. At the heart of the movement is the belief that the activity of artists and the status of the arts are tied to the health of the broader social ecosystem.
Many historical examples exist of artists’ civic involvement and use of the arts as a tool to improve society. Public roots that anchor today’s work grew from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s and the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965. Early on, NEA placed poets in schools and eventually allocated funding across the nation for artists in education. Lincoln Center added credibility to the endeavor by involving Leonard Bernstein and coining the term teaching artist. In the 1980s, in the face of Reagan-era cutbacks, funding of artists in schools expanded to insure arts remained part of the curriculum.
The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) of 1973 was another influence on the work of artists in communities today. Through CETA, many artists received training and support for artistic work in and with neighborhoods. Bill Cleveland, director of the Center for the Study of Art and Community, noted, “To this day, there’s CETA-dust on many programs.” Barbara Schaffer Bacon, codirector of Animating Democracy, Americans for the Arts, expanded the list of influences on today’s field, pointing out that “many organizing efforts involving artists are initiated outside of government as grassroots or radical efforts.” The settlement house movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century is one such example from the past.
The field of artists in community settings is still in the process of defining itself and agreeing upon nomenclature and norms of practice and programming, such as desired skills, wage equity, and career pathways for artists. One issue is what to call the artists. All of these terms and more are in use: teaching artists, artists-in-residence, artist-leaders, artists as change agents, citizen artists, community organizers through the arts, artivists, social practitioners, and artist facilitators. In some circumstances, such as where artists and arts are woven throughout a culture, art and craft makers may not even identify themselves as artists.
Because artists work in many settings, the term for the artist may align with a particular project’s scope or purpose and how “community” is defined. ArtPlace America, in its endeavors to improve place-based community planning and development through the arts, has found, according to its website, “five types of stakeholders working across ten sectors that, while not comprehensive, capture a majority of work taking place in communities.” Communities may, of course, mean cities and neighborhoods, or communities within communities, such as school classrooms, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, senior living centers, businesses, departments of government, and groups defined by affiliation rather than locale, such as social and cultural networks.
The forum reviewed a framework created by Eric Booth, which posits six purposes of artists working in community settings, plus a seventh speculative one related to artistry on digital media. He suggested that one purpose is usually primary in a project, but all overlap naturally. The purposes are:
Jennifer Cole, executive director of Metro Arts in Nashville, said that “the end game of political change” overarches most of the work.
Regardless of the words they chose to describe engagement of artists with communities, forum participants saw the importance of exploring how funding might help develop and support the artists doing this work and achieve valuable outcomes. Everyone appeared to support the need Janet Brown referred to in a 2015 GIA Reader article for “strategically raising up artists as the real community asset that those of us supporting the arts have always known them to be.”
A sizable amount of work and an established infrastructure of support have traditionally been available for artists in educational sites. Maria Rosario Jackson, senior advisor to the Arts and Culture Program at The Kresge Foundation, said that “teaching artists have a clear job description, long-standing organizations that advance the work, lesson plans that can be shared, even a Teaching Artist Journal.” She went on to say that it is important to recognize the added complexity of creative placemaking specific to a location that involves many sectors.
However, some individual artists in community settings work without formal institutional affiliation other than that of the community itself. In the role of creative entrepreneur, they handle all aspects of a project, such as scheduling, managing materials, and documenting. It appears that more is now being asked of artists, such as to find ways to integrate their artistry within non-arts systems and to plan with diverse stakeholders.
Whether they work in education or are affiliated with an artist roster, artists experience job challenges. Financial issues stand out. Most work is contractual and part-time. Artists lack job security and benefits, such as paid leave and health care. Planning and preparation time is often unpaid. Support for professional development can be nonexistent or haphazard.
Another concern is the repetitiveness of some types of engagements and the difficulty of career advancement. Because of these challenges, many artists leave the field instead of being able to do what Travis Laughlin, arts education program director at the Joan Mitchell Foundation, referred to as “creatively sustaining the practice.”
Notable exceptions exist to the catch-as-catch-can professional life of a community artist. In many places across the country, intermediary or programming organizations recruit and support artists over the long term. The majority of artists employed by SAY Sí, a creative youth development program in San Antonio, Texas, are full-time staff of the organization. New Victory Theater in New York City has created a pathways tool for artists across all sectors to identify routes in their careers from beginnings to their dreams. The theater offers mentoring and other support to its fifty-five roster artists to make artist advancement possible.
Some data have been gathered about financing the field, but the big picture is not yet clear. Forum members cited the following assumptions about funding, which a comprehensive national study could eventually substantiate or refute:
Following are possible actions to support artists in community settings that I extrapolated from my notes of the discussions at the meeting and from participants’ written remarks regarding “takeaways” and follow-up.