Begin with Art

Judi Jennings

The Animating Democracy National Exchange on Art and Civic Dialogue
Flint, Michigan, October 9-12, 2003

How can arts and culture strengthen democracy? This is a key question posed at the recent national gathering culminating the Animating Democracy Initiative (ADI), a project of Americans for the Arts, supported by the Ford Foundation's Knowledge, Creativity and Freedom Program, the Charles Stewart Mott and Ruth Mott foundations, and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. ADI was launched in fall 1999 as a four-year effort focused on fostering artistic activity encouraging civic dialogue and promoting the concept of arts-based civic dialogue. Since then, the Initiative has supported thirty-two artistic and cultural projects representing different approaches to arts-based civic dialogue and reflecting a range of cultural organizations from local arts agencies to symphony orchestras.

The purpose of ADI's National Exchange was to share lessons learned and encourage new thinking about the roles of arts and culture in demo-cracy today and in the future. The Exchange took as one text a quote from W.E.B. DuBois: "Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other."

Members of GIA will be especially interested in the "Funders Forum" focusing on "Community Development through the Arts and Humanities," which immediately preceded the National Exchange. Building on the experience of the Animating Democracy Initiative, the forum gave local, regional, and national funders the chance to explore what ADI liaison Caron Atlas described as the "gray area of philanthropy between support for community development and support for the arts." Community and cultural development specialist Tom Borrup outlined some of the positive impacts arts and culture can have on community development, such as improving the built environment, bridging differences, preserving cultural heritage, and augmenting public safety. He identified two important barriers to increased philanthropic support for community cultural development: a failure of all funders to understand the community-development contributions that arts and culture can make, and a lack of interest by arts funders in community-based arts and cultural activities such as community choirs, watercolor societies, and storytelling — a lack he noted more among private than public funders.

Funders participating in the forum went on to discuss some of the difficulties they have experienced funding this still undefined but promising new area of arts-based community development. Questions of power, quality, and effective evaluation present formidable but surely solvable challenges. As Caron Atlas concluded (and Lucy Bernholz also stressed at the 2003 GIA conference), the intergenerational transfer of wealth is changing the future of philanthropy, so it is more important than ever to make the case that arts and culture are integral to a range of philanthropic efforts. A clear message and common understandings among arts and culture funders are essential to this success, and the Funders Forum at the ADI National Exchange was a positive step forward in that direction.

Many of the themes raised in the Funders Forum continued throughout the National Exchange. A session poetically entitled “the motion of the ocean” explored the relationships between arts, culture and social change at key moments such as the Works Progress Administration, the Civil Rights Movement, and second wave feminism. Other participants in this session stressed the importance of forging effective links between arts, culture, and a robust democracy through on-going activities in every day lives not just at times of crisis and rapid change. Artists working in Flint told how they are connecting civil rights movement stories to teaching, organizing, art making, and contemporary issues today. The Urban Bush Women had a “Hair Party,” demonstrating how high quality art can be created through the dialogic process of gathering stories and relating individual experiences to larger concerns.

The National Exchange was galvanized by veteran activist and artist Grace Lee Boggs, whose work in Detroit and popular autobiography are challenging old definitions of art and activism. She called on every participant to find the courage and creativity to face current and future social problems, and she pointed out that it will take new ways of making art, creating culture, teaching and organizing to keep our democracy vibrant and strong. She and other artists and activists followed up her keynote address with a workshop session exploring the links between art, civic dialogue, and social change.

The Animating Democracy Initiative project staff are now considering how ADI will translate to the future. Meanwhile, they and other participants inspired by the National Exchange will gather again soon to discuss how arts and culture, dialogue, and education can help us all meet the challenges that democracy faces today. Stay tuned for further developments.

Judi Jennings is director, Kentucky Foundation for Women.