Building a Field - Artists and Arts Professionals in Youth and Community Development

Carmen James Lane and Laura Smyth

Sitting around tables at a conference center last May, we each joined five other participants in imagining and illustrating possibilities for artists who work in community arts programs for youth. We were part of a group of around thirty people convened as a working group first in San Jose, California in May 2000 and again in October in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Our aim was to explore how to build understanding and action toward the sustainable involvement of artists and arts professionals in youth and community development. Participants included artists, activists, community development professionals, educators, and grantmakers. At the second meeting, we were joined by a team of six diverse, talented young people from arts organizations around the country.

The meetings were hosted by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and is based on the recent work of researcher Shirley Brice Heath. Heath's research provides evidence for the first time of the positive learning that results when young people have the opportunity to participate intensively in high-quality artmaking during their nonschool hours. Heath's marvelous documentary video — “ArtShow: Youth and Community Development” — and the accompanying resource guide provide four cases of such youth-based arts organizations.

In an effort to understand the current circumstances of artists who work with youth in communities, we recognized that reality contrasts with an ideal vision, and then we created wish lists for artists working in arts-based youth organizations. As we weighed positive and negative forces, the core concerns that emerged included:

• the need for adequate and consistent training for artists (how do artists learn and transmit philosophy and process?);
• the need for strong national and international networks of resources (both technical and informational) for arts-based youth organizations;
• the need for collaboration with non-traditional partners who can inform the public about youth arts and leverage new financial resources for artists and organizations; and
• the need to learn from and exchange with other research initiatives related to arts and culture in community both in the U.S. and abroad.

With a focus on these concerns, four action steps emerged as priorities:

• Identify and gain access to existing learning and training opportunities for professional artists who want careers in youth arts organizations.
• Find innovative ways to communicate and develop networks with non-traditional arts partners — such as community development corporations — both nationally and internationally.
• Identify new and existing intermediaries and motivate them to establish strategic linkages between teaching in the arts, youth development, and community building.
• Develop new kinds of research that focus on arts-based youth organizations and the ecosystems most likely to foster learning in the arts.

From the large group, four smaller working groups were created around each of the action steps, and each group communicated via conference call several times between May and October. As the groups refined their ideas, two major topics emerged as themes for the October meeting: creating networks and further learning opportunities. These topics seemed to synthesize all four action steps. To help the group understand existing structures and resources and to articulate the possibilities, Bob Lynch (Americans for the Arts) spoke about building networks, and Julie Simpson (Columbia College Chicago's Office of Community Arts Partnerships) spoke about new opportunities for further learning. Guest speakers Adelma Roach (ALIANZA: The Arts Learning Network of Santa Fe) and Julia Calver (Yorkshire Arts in the U.K.) talked about building effective networks and an infrastructure for the support, development, and training of arts workers and arts organizations working with youth in the U.S. and abroad. Throughout the meeting, the six youth artists served as observers and facilitators of discussion about effective ways to affect, sustain, and develop their future in the field.

On the second day of the October meeting, small groups convened to set goals for networks and further learning. A revised set of goals/action steps resulted:

• to build a field defined as “Artists and community-based partners working reciprocally with youth to support the development of capable, creative, resilient, and caring citizens;”
• to support the field through stronger networks of information, advocacy, and resources; and
• to provide further learning opportunities for artists and arts workers in the field, in different stages of their careers.

Thus far, the process is both promising and stimulating. New initiatives are incubating around the country in response to goals set at the meetings, including Web-based networking projects, identifying community arts resources for youth, possible international arts learning exchanges, and the pilot development of a youth-advised, community-centered master's degree- and certificate-based curriculum in the arts in youth and community development. We look forward to future exchanges in the effort to define and sustain the field of artists working with youth in their communities.

Carmen James Lane is program officer, Eugene & Agnes E. Meyer Foundation.

Laura Smyth is a researcher in the arts in youth and community development, Stanford University.