What Kind of Art Are We Funding? And Why?

Focus On Community Arts South, a Gathering and Conference

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 13, No 2 (Summer 2002)

Judi Jennings

April 17-21, 2002, Lexington, Kentucky

• A bilingual play brings together migrant workers and immigrant rights activists in a pointed comedy portraying communications and miscommunications among Anglos and Spanish-speaking peoples living in and working in one community today.

• An African American theater company performs a rollicking — but serious — romp through the cultural changes from Motown to hip-hop, from soul food to vegan, from post-60s to post-modern America.

• Teenagers from a high school diversity club dance, read poetry, and create performance art about the pain and pleasures of being black, white, bi-racial, Latina, Asian, straight, gay, male, female, smart, athletic, proud, and scared.

Where did these intersections of art and activism take place? The Bronx? Oakland? Without knowing the title of this story, your first guess might not have been Lexington, Kentucky. Yet, recently, the city that calls itself “the heart of the Bluegrass” was the site of the Focus On Community Arts South (FOCAS) conference and arts festival organized by GIA member Alternate ROOTS. Other GIA members participated along with an overflow crowd of artists, activists, teachers, students, community organizers, and just plain folks from throughout the south and beyond, as far beyond as Japan.

The festival celebrated Alternate ROOTS and its twenty-five year history of striving for social justice through creating, presenting, performing, and funding community-based art. By combining panel discussions, case studies, and nearly nonstop performances, the conference/festival challenged, suggested, demanded, and provoked new ways of thinking about both community-based arts and arts-based activism.

How can community arts be defined? Or is the question CAN community arts be defined? The Alternate ROOTS definition is: “original art which is rooted in a particular community of place, tradition, or spirit.” The mission of ROOTS also suggests that community-based art is committed to achieving social and economic justice, protecting the natural world, and striving to eliminate all forms of oppression.

That is the community part of the definition but what about the arts part? That is even harder to define, but after five days of immersion in FOCAS, distinctive characteristics began to emerge. For example, the context of community-based art making is often as important as the content, and partnerships and community involvement are essential elements. It is community engagement that links art to activism by building relationships and connecting people across differences of ethnicity, class, language, sexuality, and age. These relationships make social change possible when diverse people work together to achieve social justice and sustain a new vision of cultural equity.

The FOCAS gathering itself was a model of community-based arts. Planned and developed by a four-person producing team which included Lisa Mount, Suella McMillan, Crystal Wilkinson, and Kentucky Foundation for Women board member Laverne Zabielski, FOCAS embodied multiple voices and visions from conception to conclusion. The quality of the art and the breadth and depth of participation provided resounding answers to two central questions posed by the organizers: 1) community-based arts ARE significant nationally and internationally as well as locally, and 2) having a social change agenda does NOT limit the quality of visionary art making.

The participants in FOCAS discussed how important it is to create a new vocabulary and develop new standards for defining and assessing community-based arts. This new community arts discourse should recognize the importance of quality in terms of both the process and the product of artistic creation while honoring multiple voices and visions in today's polychromic society. These new artistic standards could include cohesion, energy, commitment, integrity, action, authenticity, and new concepts of cultural citizenship that include social justice.

GIA members attending FOCAS were engaged both as participants and as funders. As part of a panel discussion on the national context of community-based art, GIA board veteran Claudine Brown discussed four organizational questions connected with funding developed by the Nathan Cummings Foundation: 1) does the board and staff represent the population being served, 2) how does the organization respond to the community, 3) what kind of cultural citizen is the organization as demonstrated by partnerships and collaborations, and 4) what is the organization's track record in community change?

As representatives of foundations funding individual artists, Sara Becker (Leeway Foundation) and I were challenged to reflect on appropriate standards and expectations for individuals who work at the intersection of arts and activism. Mindy Duitz (Arts Initiative, Open Society Institute) shared her interest in identifying what is unique about this movement and what role it plays in helping to achieve cultural equity and fostering creativity.

Is there a community-based arts movement in the U.S. today? What happened in Lexington shows that there is — not only in the Shallow (as opposed to the Deep) South or the Southern Fringe but in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and, yes, in New York and California. What does that mean to those of us funding the arts in the U.S. today? We need to rethink our standards and reexamine our own engagement in the field. We need to think about creativity in new ways and look at documentation and evaluation in ways that take complex conceptions of quality and indications of social change into account. We need to participate, think about what makes good art, and have more fun with our grantees. We need to give more careful consideration to what kind of art we are funding and why.

Judi Jennings is executive director, Kentucky Foundation for Women.