Rebuilding the Front Porch of America

Essays on the Art of Community Making

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 9, No 2 (Fall 1998)

Patrick Overton

1997, 175 pages, Columbia College, 1001 Rogers Road, Columbia, Missouri 65216, Review by Gita Gulati, The Cleveland Foundation.

Rebuilding the Front Porch of America is a collection of previously presented essays by Patrick Overton, an arts administrator and community organizer in Missouri. In this short but substantive book, Overton defines community arts as “the new front porch of America,” a place where family, friends, and neighbors gather to share their stories.

Through all of his essays, Overton explores the meaning of “community”—a “state of mind” characterized by our relationships rather than simply a “place of residence”—and the role of the arts in “community making,” particularly in small, rural settings. The essays are divided into three sections. The first, “The Changing Inscape of Communities in America,” focuses on the inner workings of a community. Essays lament the loss of the community “front porch,” an increasing sense of isolation and alienation, and the death of metaphor. In one of the book's most provocative points, Overton explains the difference between “sign” (an object or product) and “symbol” (a metaphor or process). Art is a metaphor or symbol of human experience, and increasingly, we are confusing symbol with sign. The loss of our “front porch” is causing a crisis in our communities, and Overton offers community arts as a remedy. He suggests a significant shift—from “art as product, citizen as patron” to “art as process, citizen as participant.” He believes that hope, in the post-information age, lies in our yearning to be “makers” again, a search for simplicity, and a striving to reconnect with our stories and each other.

The almost exhaustive list of community ailments made me fear that the book would be merely descriptive. But in the second section, entitled simply “Community Arts Development,” Overton is more optimistic and prescriptive. He asserts that many of us are faced with an “internal values collision”—we are unclear about the values that guide our work. Our critics have taken advantage of our lack of clarity by assigning values to us. To reclaim our voice in the community dialogue about the value of the arts, we must identify and articulate our values and motivations. The first step in understanding our values is to read the “community maps” left by our predecessors. We must then communicate our values and create maps for future generations.

Overton takes an initial with a compelling tribute to the “heroes” of community arts development. He traces the movement back to the American Lyceum Association founded in 1831 as an association of adults interested in self-education and cultural exploration. In 1874, the Chautauqua, a “total cultural environment,” was instituted in rural western New York. This gave birth to the roving Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circles and the Independent Chautauquas, both of which used art as a tool for teaching and learning. Overton cites 1917 as the first record of the term “community theater” in which people were participants in the art form rather than simply spectators or supporters. And, from the 1920's, Alfred Arvold is credited as the father of what has become known as “community arts development”—a process of bringing arts into the community while also nurturing art within the community.

In the final essay of the second section, Overton offers advice on strengthening community arts agencies. He provides an appropriate list of organizational activities: clarify values, vision, and mission; replace structures with flexible systems; develop functional rather than positional leaders; invest in professional development; strengthen conflict resolution; and focus on cultural diversity. Unfortunately, his prescription only points us in the right direction without providing specific strategies. Perhaps the resources in the extensive bibliography can provide further guidance.

In the third and final section, Overton explores “The Relationship Between Arts and Values.” I found these to be his most inspiring essays. Here, he looks at the arts through a spiritual lens and uncovers their healing, transcendent power. His personal storytelling is moving and evocative, a perfect metaphor for “community arts development” and an invitation to re-build and re-join the front porch of America.

Gita Gulati, The Cleveland Foundation