The Informal Arts

Finding Cohesion, Capacity and Other Cultural Benefits in Unexpected Places

Alaka Wali, Ph.D., principal investigator, Rebecca Severson, M.A., ethnographer, Mario Longoni, M.A., ethnographer

June 2002, 368 pages (executive summary, May 2002, 21 pages). The Chicago Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College, 600 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60605, 312-344-7985. The executive summary and full report can be downloaded here.

This well organized and thorough report documents a two-year ethnographic study of "informal arts" participation in the Chicago metropolitan region. The research involved twelve case studies using focus groups, participant observation, and open-ended and semi-structured interviews. The report also includes a survey questionnaire completed by 165 of the 310 case study participants, as well as a variety of secondary source data including newspaper articles and the U.S. census.

In the study, "informal" refers to the "process and the context of art-making, not, as a threshold matter, to the product of the activity, nor the characteristics of the artist's training." The study describes arts production as occurring on a "continuum that ranges from informal activities that occur in any ephemeral, highly spontaneous fashion in completely unstructured spaces, to the long-established, formally organized practices governed by rules for inclusion and occurring in publicly labeled 'arts' spaces." An important contribution to this report is how the authors openly wrestle with the definition and framework for understanding arts production. Indeed, a primary finding of the study focuses on how activities at the informal end of the arts continuum strengthen the entire arts sector.

The study's two other categories of findings, "Bridging Differences" and "Building Capacity," address the role of the informal arts in nurturing civic engagement and strengthening communities. Briefly summarized, researchers discovered that through informal arts participation, people come together across such boundaries as social and economic status, ethnicity, race, age, and geography and in the course of participation, develop social skills important to civic renewal. The report describes three characteristics inherent to informal art making that cultivate skills significant to civic vitality:

• Individuals'persistent striving to perfect the techniques and craftsmanship of a particular art form in a communal setting nurtures competency in giving and taking criticism and in collaborative problem-solving.
• The “metaphorical space of informality” with its low barriers to participation promotes tolerance for difference and hones personal and communal mechanisms for inclusion (i.e. humor, orchestration, mentoring, affirmation).
• Communal motivation to sustain these arts activities cultivates “consensus building skills, collaborative work habits, and the ability to imagine and foment social change.”

Each of these three characteristics is explored at length, relying upon observation from the case studies. The connections between informal art making and the cultivation of civic skills are, at times, elusive. In addition to the empirical data of the case studies, the investigation of the benefits of art making to the civic realm might also be advanced by examining the same primary data through the lens of contemporary research on arts education and the role of the arts in personal development.

The most compelling section of the report is its discussion of how and why the informal arts create a particularly conducive environment for crossing social boundaries. Four factors are described: a deep-seated passion for the process of making art (survey respondents averaged nearly seventy hours a month on activities related to their art making), the aggressive recruiting done on behalf of informal arts activities, the approachability and visibility of their physical locations, and lastly, the inclusive nature of the arts activities themselves. This section of the report in particular benefits from the ethnographic approach undertaken for this study. Filled with examples, this section can definitely provide moments of recognition for readers thinking about the nature of informal arts participation in their own communities.

Lastly, the report provides a discussion of policy recommendations that, while general in nature, will serve any community well in considering how to support the informal arts in specific environments. Interested readers should keep in mind, however, that major demographic factors such as population density, immigration flows, language barriers, education levels, and economic vitality are all bound to influence the nature of informal arts participation differently in each community.

Brendan Rawson, Cultural initiatives Silicon Valley