Imagining New Ways to Support Arts and Culture

Judi Jennings

Culture is more powerful than politics and surprisingly capable of withstanding change wrought disproportionately by force of arms.
— Jim Leach, chair, National Endowment for the Humanities

I reviewed Economies of Life: Patterns of Health and Wealth by Bill Sharpe, a little book with big ideas, in the fall 2010 issue of the Reader, and that got me thinking about the unique powers of art and culture to sustain and transform lives and communities. Sharpe says art and culture are so powerful because they have an “unreasonable effectiveness [beyond the power of reasonable explanation] to relate us to each other in our experience of the world.” Once I started thinking about art and culture as dynamic and transformative forces for sharing human experience, I started seeing new opportunities and inspirations for creative thinking about supporting arts and culture. Here, I am sharing two very different kinds of resources that can help us understand how arts and culture enrich human lives, individually and collectively:

  1. One new resource is a tool, Capturing the Audience Experience: A Handbook for the Theatre.
  2. The other resource is a national network, the publicly engaged artists and scholars and their colleges and universities, who make up the Imagining America Consortium.

A New Tool for Measuring the Power of Performing Arts to Communicate Experience

The capacity of theatre to deliver meaning, entertainment and a shared experience gives it the potential to deliver a deeper impact on society that goes far beyond the economic or the instrumental.
— Capturing the Audience Experience

At a 2005 conference of British theater managers, economists from the new economic foundation (nef) posed the question, what would politics look like if promoting people's well-being was government's main aim? From that followed the related question, what would become the role and value of the performing arts in that scenario?

To answer these questions, nef and three British theater groups (the Independent Theatre Council, the Society of London Theatre, and the Theatrical Management Association) combined to research and develop the handbook titled Capturing the Audience Experience. Placing individual and collective experience at the heart of its assessment of well-being, the handbook identifies five dimensions of audience experience: engagement and concentration; learning and challenge; energy and tension; shared experience and atmosphere; and personal resonance and emotional connection. The goal of assessing these experiences is to understand why people of all ages and backgrounds value attending particular plays.

Taken together, the five dimensions make up the Audience Experience Framework, which can assess “the success” of a play. Even more important, the framework can glean new insights into the quality of each individual audience member's experience of the performance. Survey questions ask participants if they felt time passed slowly or quickly during the performance and whether they felt in their comfort zone or challenged and provoked. Did they feel reluctant to discuss the performance with others, or would they be talking about the experience for some time to come?

The five dimensions identified as core components of the Audience Experience Framework offer a deep but pragmatic way for individuals to describe and assess the transformative power of art and culture. By considering their own experiences deeply, audience members can feel connected to each other and to the author and actors in a performance. Individuals can recognize new points of view, which they may or may not embrace. Each participant can assess the value gained from the performance and decide whether or not she or he benefited from attending. The quality of this shared experience, according to nef, indicates the impact of seeing a play on the well-being of the audience, individually and collectively.

The handbook, including the Audience Experience Framework, is available free on the web (at It contains survey tools that can even be simplified for use with children. Because the surveys ask for ranges of responses rather than yes or no answers, plotting the responses on dynamic flowcharts is more complicated. I do not mean here to recommend that philanthropists or theater staffs adopt this particular framework and set of surveys; rather I see the handbook as an exciting example of how arts and culture supporters and practitioners can work together to imagine new ways to think about, talk about, and demonstrate the unique abilities of arts and culture to share and enrich human experience.

Imagining America Consortium and Conferences

In a time of diminishing resources, the benefits that artists, higher education faculty and staff, workers in cultural organizations and arts and cultural philanthropists might provide one another need to be more fully explored.
— Jan Cohen-Cruz, executive director, IA Consortium

Supporters of the dynamic power of arts and culture to move individual understanding, civic engagement, community development, and social justice forward can find allies, experts, information, and innovative collaborative strategies in the Imagining America Consortium. This network is an important resource to all of us who want to see arts and culture making a difference in people's lives. IA provides a valuable forum and year-round opportunities for educators, funders, service providers, cultural workers, and allies to learn and share ideas about inclusivity, partnership building, integrated assessments, and lessons learned about the social impact of arts and culture.

The Imagining America Consortium represents eighty-one colleges and universities united to animate and strengthen the public and civic purposes of humanities, arts, and design through mutually beneficial campus-community partnerships that advance democratic scholarship and practice. While the IA Consortium is rooted in higher education, its organizational values and many of its activities intersect with those of the GIA community. The newly revised IA vision, mission, values, and goals statement, for example, lists four values many arts and culture supporters would endorse: reciprocity, transparency, innovation, and cultural diversity and equity.

I participated in the 2010 Imagining America conference, which took place in Seattle, September 23–25. Attending the conference got me thinking again about how we as supporters of arts and culture imagine new ways to understand and explain the unique effectiveness of the arts in transmitting human experience and contributing to individual well-being and public good. Viewing the conference through this lens, I discerned three key areas, all of which I believe represent potential areas of overlap and synergy for IA members and GIA members and allies to work together to understand and strengthen the unique value of arts and culture in enabling us to relate to each other in our experience of the world.

1. The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion
Nearly every demographer in the country will tell you that in this century the population of the United States will be dramatically altered by continued immigration and differential birthrates…. In other words, the very “public” in the United States we will seek to interact with in community partnerships will shift dramatically.
— George Sánchez, Crossing Figueroa: The Tangled Web of Diversity and Democracy

The 2010 IA conference included leading scholars and public intellectuals such as George Sánchez and Barbara Ransby, who have much wisdom to offer philanthropists and others about understanding cultural identity, the relationship between human rights and civic engagement, and the complexities, challenges, and joys of engaging a wide range of communities in teaching and learning through the arts and humanities. Professor Sánchez is a pioneering scholar in Chicano studies (Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945) and an internationally recognized leader in creating campus diversity at all levels of higher education; he currently serves as vice dean for college diversity and strategic initiatives at the University of Southern California and is chair of IA's national advisory board. Sánchez's scholarship also focuses on understanding and promoting civic engagement (he is coeditor, with Amy Koritz, of Civic Engagement in the Wake of Katrina). Barbara Ransby, associate professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, an important tribute to the life story of this extraordinary woman and a reminder of the power of ordinary people and their cultural expressions to enact profound social change.

The theme of the 2010 IA conference, “Convergence Zones: Public Cultures and Translocal Practices,” promised — and delivered — welcoming spaces for participants from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and geographic locations. The translocal concept, bridging local and global, is rooted in the premise that place-based art and cultural practices can have universal significance. Diana Taylor, University Professor of performance studies and Spanish at New York University, provided fascinating examples of translocalism in her presentation on the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics ( Taylor founded the institute to identify, preserve, share, and analyze changemaking local arts throughout the Americas.

2. The Importance of Collaborations and Partnerships
My soul is so heavy it makes my feet hurt.
— Youth participant in “I Am Only Me” (neighborhood-based video project in Philadelphia)

Like many arts and culture supporters, IA members readily work with arts educators to engage students of all ages. Several sessions of the 2010 IA conference demonstrated the power of combining arts and education at the neighborhood level. For example, the “I Am Only Me” youth project led by Laura Deutch, director of Temple University's Messages in Motion program, uses digital media to promote youth engagement and expression in Philadelphia neighborhoods. Young people are encouraged to create one- to three-minute video postcards about themselves and their feelings. The postcards, uploaded to a website for further discussion and as topics and content for future creative projects, include such gems of authentic communication as “My soul is so heavy it makes my feet hurt” and “My heart is strong, but I am lazy.” These seemingly simple productions include learning skills in storyboarding, shooting, editing, and uploading as well as the value of self-reflection, soulful communication, and the links between personal and social transformation.

At the other end of the collaborations spectrum, David Maurrasse of Columbia University and the consulting firm Marga Incorporated urged participants to think big about partnerships. Maurrasse stressed the importance of philanthropists engaging with educators and civic organizations in innovative cross-sector partnerships to address the most pressing public issues today. He outlined the importance of careful research and assessment as the basis for creating equitable and effective partnerships that are sustainable and effective and that can contribute to the greater public good.

3. The Importance of Meaningful Assessment
Integrated assessment is a transformational element, not a tool.
— Participant in IA's Assessing the Practices of Public Scholarship initiative

The IA Consortium has assembled a working group of arts and culture practitioners, scholars, and service providers to develop the case and create the tools for integrated assessment of IA's public engagement work. Through the Assessing Practices of Public Scholarship initiative (APPS), IA defines integrated assessment as emphasizing community impact in relation to defined civic, social, and academic goals and involving community stakeholders in collaborative and meaningful ways. At the same time, integrated assessment invites evaluation of the institution's own practices, position, contributions, and benefits in relation to the goals of civic engagement, knowledge building, and effective campus-community partnership. Collaboration, grounded in a shared understanding of interrelated goals among all stakeholders, is one of the five core values guiding the work of the group. One of its other four goals is to build knowledge and advance practice in documenting, measuring, and evaluating the community impacts of institutional engagement. APPS members expected to begin by collecting and analyzing models that have merit for integrated assessment and identifying and developing case studies. Respectful and integrated assessment based on collaborations with diverse stakeholders is an area of inquiry that many arts and culture supporters share with IA members. Scholars, teachers, philanthropists, and practitioners all have a lot to offer each other in the shared enterprise of imagining new ways that arts and culture can strengthen individuals, communities, cities, and regions.

News Ways of Imagining Support for Arts and Culture Are Already Under Way

Looking in new places for ways to think about the power of arts and culture to share human experience reveals bustling intersections that already exist between members of the GIA Reader community and allies in other fields and locations. These intersections, such as the 2010 IA conference and the projects highlighted there, are sites of healthy exchanges of information, perspectives, and expertise. Intersectional places and people also provide opportunities for new ways of thinking about mutually important topics, such as the role of art and culture in individual and community well-being.

The Imagining America Consortium and Grantmakers in the Arts already share many constituents, sites, partners, and leaders. Pam Korza, through Animating Democracy, which she codirects, is doing important work in disseminating practices of documenting and assessing arts for social change. She serves on the National Advisory Board of IA, as does Dudley Cocke, artistic director of Appalshop's Roadside Theater, former board member of GIA, and current board member of the Bush Foundation in Minnesota. Both led informative sessions at the 2010 IA conference, focusing on integrated assessment and translocalism. Bill Cleveland, director of the Center for the Study of Art and Community, is a frequent contributor and valuable resource for both IA and GIA. Intersectional leaders such as these can serve as excellent resources for blogging, keynoting, and commenting to inspire cross-pollination and share new ways of thinking at regional, national, and cyber meetings of arts and culture supporters.

Both the IA and GIA conferences in 2010 also highlighted an exciting project coming up in June: ROOTS Fest 2011, Many Communities, One Voice, a national arts festival celebrating local art and culture, which will take place in West Baltimore, Maryland. Alternate ROOTS, based in Atlanta, is joining with Culture Works, Baltimore Heritage, Morgan State University, and other organizations to present five full days and evenings of local, regional, and national performances, workshops, case studies, and dialogues about the role of arts and culture in building resilient communities that can withstand natural and unnatural disasters. The festival will demonstrate how arts and culture can unite a divided community by transforming fifty-two acres of green space atop a failed construction site, locally known as the “Highway to Nowhere,” into a venue for performances and open-air art exhibitions.

New Ways to Imagine and Enact Support for Arts and Culture in 2011

If you want to stretch your imaginations and think about and even participate in new forms of support for arts and culture, there are plenty of possibilities to do that this year. Here are just a few that I know about:

  • Participate in ROOTS Fest 2011, June 22–26 in Baltimore, Maryland.
  • Attend the 2011 Imagining America conference, “What Sustains Us?” September 22–24 in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
  • Imagine how to sustain the promising possibilities for future collaborations discussed at the 2010 GIA conference between arts and cultural supporters and those serving specific populations and places. Arts and cultural supporters who want to advance shared values of inclusivity, for example, could partner with Grantmakers Concerned about Immigrants and Refugees. Those who share a commitment to the importance of translocal work could partner with members of the Neighborhood Funders Group.
  • Read and discuss the important work being done by IA scholars, such as George Sánchez, Barbara Ransby, and Diana Taylor. Their insights offer new understandings about the scope and diversity of arts and culture in our country and across the world today. Invite informed experts like them to speak at regional and national meetings and comment on how their fields of expertise can strengthen support for arts and culture.
  • All of us who want to see arts and culture making a difference in people's lives can imagine new ways to tell educators, public officials, and concerned community members about the power of arts and culture to share and shape human experience and contribute to individual and public well-being.

I would love to hear from you about new possibilities and ways of supporting the power of arts and culture in 2011 and in the future! Please e-mail me your ideas and inspirations at