Creative Community

The Art of Cultural Development

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 12, No 3 (Fall 2001)

Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard

2001, 120 pages. The Rockefeller Foundation.

Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, the latest publication from the Rockefeller Foundation, is destined to be on the top of everyone's "must read" pile this fall. Based on a report commissioned by the Foundation's Creativity & Culture Division to look into its support of arts-based social change efforts, the volume dissects history and practice, and proposes a theory for a field without a broadly accepted name. "Community cultural development," the authors' preferred term for what has also been called "participatory arts projects," "community animation," "cultural work," and "artist/community collaborations," is a field with a long history and many practitioners working worldwide. It is also a discipline that has never really reached critical mass, perhaps because it has, until now, been without a unifying and validating rationale.

By giving a history, name, and theory to this work, authors Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard have likely succeeded in bringing more discussion and, perhaps, funding to the subject. They have certainly succeeded in reminding us of the international history that grounds such community-based work as Liz Lerman's Halleluiah Project or Lily Yeh's garden sculptures and harvest festivals at the Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia.

Both of the authors began their careers as artist/practitioners. Since 1978, they have worked as partners in Adams & Goldbard, consultants in cultural policy, artistic production and distribution, and cultural development planning and evaluation. Their immersion in their subject is evident, but their often-dense language and references to cultural influences as broad as the settlement house movement, globalization, Franz Fanon, and Bertolt Brecht are clearly aimed at readers having a familiarity with the field nearly equal to their own.

For my use, this volume gives too little consideration to the details of the work itself — perhaps Rockefeller will commission a companion piece. There is a useful analysis of program models, mixing themes, methods, and media into a matrix of practice. But the brief, one or two sentence project descriptions of, for example, an oral history and archival program or improvised street-theater don't go far enough in helping the inquiring grantmaker recognize and understand genuine community-based artistic practice. Thank goodness for the pictures! For the initiated, the photographs from work such as Elders Share the Arts' Living History Theater Festival and Judy Baca's Great Wall mural project are a drink of cool water; without them, I suspect that many of the uninitiated will be hard pressed to know just how the theory is manifested. It's important to be reminded, in the midst of so much abstract analysis, of the real face of this work.

Not that Adams and Goldbard aren't concrete — their recommendations for grantmaking initiatives to promote and develop this field are grounded and very specific. They plea for the recognition of community cultural development as a distinct field, not a part of the nonprofit arts participation continuum. And, like the mainstream arts institutions or any social service agency, they ask for multi-year grants and general operating support.

As long as the reader's sense of irony is sufficiently intact to take in both the authors' analysis of cultural oppression and their disappointment at the ongoing lack of federal funding, this book should come off the “must read” pile and be read.

Ann McQueen, Program Officer, Arts Fund, The Boston Foundation