Supporting Artists in Community Settings

Discussion Summary for GIA 2013 Session

Barbara Schaffer Bacon

As they always have, artists are working in, with, and for communities. They are working as animators, cultural organizers, and teaching artists and in a myriad of other roles. They are making work in community settings by choice. For many, this work is their central creative practice, while for others, it is a dimension or portion of their work. Interest, opportunity, and training for community-based work are growing despite the fact that such work is often underfunded and the artists are poorly paid.

Support for artists working in community settings has fallen outside discussions about individual artist support. At the 2013 GIA conference in Philadelphia, a session organized to explore the topic of support for these artists drew a good response. 1
Over two dozen program officers from private foundations, local and state arts agencies, and national service organizations joined a lively conversation. It felt like a subject whose time has come.

This article combines the information gathered at that exchange with threads from other field conversations to advance these questions:

  • What comes under the heading of “artists in community settings”? Where is this work happening? Who is doing it?
  • Who is supporting this work? What does support look like?
  • What do artists need?
  • What are roles for funders?
  • Is there interest in ongoing exchange and other action around supporting artists’ work in community settings?
  • Is this a moment to invest more and more intentionally in artists’ work in community settings?

It is useful to enumerate the range of community settings in which artists can be found:

  • artists working with organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project with veterans and their families on writing projects, music theater, and other art projects
  • teaching artists and artists working in youth arts and youth development programs; working in prisons, nursing homes, hospitals, retirement facilities, and community settings of all types
  • cultural organizers
  • artists trained to work with social service partners to devise projects with and for clients
  • culture bearers transmitting their traditions and practices while living and working in their communities
  • performing artists trained and licensed to bring their talent to the classroom as substitute teachers
  • actors trained to “play the part” of prospective renters or home buyers to test fair housing practices
  • artists working through community arts organizations
  • artists working in park and recreation programs, community centers, centers for new Americans, and so on
  • artists supported by fellowships and residency programs to engage with communities

Some Observations

Grantmakers provide support to artists in community settings for a variety of reasons. Funders are supporting artists to work in community settings because their grants are “artist-driven” and that is where the artists want to be working. Other funders are motivated by a commitment to increasing arts access, education, and opportunity for creative expression. For some, support is tied to foundation or agency strategies related to social goals such as community revitalization, youth development, public health, violence reduction, or social inclusion. Within this context place-based work is distinguished from placemaking. Generally, artists in community settings are committed to authentic work that honors the people, place, and community. There is concern that current emphasis on placemaking misses the value of community arts practices.

Funders value intermediaries that can get closer to the ground in diverse communities to identify and support artists and community partners. However, reaching artists and communities in nonurban areas, native culture bearers, and others who may not identify as artists may require broader thinking about intermediaries. It was noted that folklorists are good community connectors who can reach and connect with ethnic populations, immigrant communities, and culture bearers in sensitive ways.

When social outcomes are the goal, evidence of progress or change is expected. For example, a funder supporting arts programs for court-involved youth looks for ways to get real evidence of reduced recidivism. This means going beyond counts (how many participated) and outputs (how many sessions were held) to document and report individual and community outcomes. Scale, capacity, and resources all present challenges for meaningful evaluation. Interest is high in tools, frameworks, and extant research that would advance evaluation and improve reporting. Evidence that artists working in community settings are reducing costs or providing a better return on investment in certain areas could be vital.

Since many working artists are underemployed, opportunity to use their creative skills and talents in other settings opens new prospects. Some discover rewards in community-based work not found in the studio or on the stage. They are glad to be contributing to social justice, improved health and wellness, education, and other causes. Creating evergreen opportunities in other sectors, paired with training and job prep, can serve artists and infuse creative approaches into new settings.

Creative youth development, another arena that employs many teaching artists in community settings, got a boost recently at the National Summit on Creative Youth Development convened this past March by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in partnership with the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and the National Guild for Community Arts Education. That summit produced a national action agenda adding to the momentum for community-based work.

Training for artists doing this work deserves further exploration and attention. The Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, which supports artist entrepreneurial training, reports increased interest expressed by their grantees in providing training for community engagement. Discussion of training raises questions about competencies and ethics standards and when certification should be considered.

Established Training Models and New Approaches

St. Louis Regional Arts Council (RAC) Community Arts Training Institute (CAT) trains artists with social service partners to encourage and support artist collaborations at social service organizations. The eighteen-year-old program has trained over 270 partners and yielded an extensive network of community arts practitioners with positive results.

In Minneapolis–St. Paul both Springboard for the Arts and Intermedia Arts have developed training, and both are experimenting with delivery beyond the Twin Cities. The Springboard program is a daylong program to teach artists the basics of community organizing to prepare them to initiate short-term projects with community partners. Intermedia Arts’ Creative Community Leadership Institute is a longer, more intensive and comprehensive approach that trains artists with others in the community development arena.

Academic programs focusing on community arts and social practice are proliferating. As well, many artists and artist-led organizations provide training in their methods through institutes, internships, and apprenticeships. Examples are Urban Bush Women, Dance Exchange, Cornerstone Theater Company, Sojourn Theatre and the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, SPARC, and Alternate Roots. Often this training is experientially based. It can be an income stream for the artists.

The Actors Fund Work Program (AWP) is a comprehensive workforce development program providing career counseling, job training, and job placement to help clients find work that can be done while continuing in the entertainment industry or while developing a new professional direction. They operate the STARRRS Program as a collaborative effort with participating New York City public schools. AWP members, after receiving training and obtaining their OPD (Occasional Per Diem) license, work in elementary, middle, or high schools throughout New York City as substitute teachers. They come from all of the performing arts — drama, music, dance, and so on — to teach a variety of subjects. During the training, participants are given a wealth of instructional materials to use, and they develop a portfolio of their own lesson plans for single lessons and multiple-lesson units.

The National Center for Creative Aging has been making progress in recruiting and preparing artists for work with seniors. They have developed the NCCA Online Artist Training in Arts and Aging, a free online course for teaching artists interested in learning how to lead lifelong learning programs in the arts that engage older people as creators.

The Association of Teaching Artists (ATA) is a nonprofit professional organization whose mission is to advocate for, support, strengthen, and serve artists who teach in schools and in the community from all disciplines in New York State and beyond.

National Guild for Community Arts Education and its members develop and deliver training for teaching artists, primarily at the local level. From the guild’s perspective, “The success of community arts education organizations — of our field — depends upon maintaining positive long-term relationships with teaching artists, preparing them well, nurturing their development, and helping them build sustainable careers.”

In November 2013, a group of ninety community arts educators assembled at the National Guild for Community Arts Education’s conference in Chicago to participate in the Teaching Artist Development Track. A small group from that gathering drafted a manifesto that brings some perspective from artists to the fore. (Note: this draft has not yet been circulated or endorsed.)

Strategies for Building Support for Artists in Community Settings

Increasing available resources is an obvious strategy, but many questions are raised. Where is the money coming from? Can arts funders be motivated to increase resources for community-based work? When does support for artists in community settings come in the form of a paycheck for employment? Can we increase these kinds of jobs for artists and ensure fair wages? What is coming from other sectors? Can more be leveraged?

Arts funders may find opportunities to build demand and promote professional pay for artists through education and partnerships internally and in the community. They might work across departments to form funding partnerships with internal colleagues whose program goals intersect with and could be advanced with community arts strategies. Similarly, arts funders may be able to stimulate interest from community leaders and funders from other sectors in support of artists working in community settings. Language is always an issue when working across sectors.

The model provided by the National Center for Creative Aging suggests addressing specific populations and settings with full focus can enable comprehensive development, including national partnerships, large-scale training programs, and the creation of local communities of practice connected nationally through central infrastructure. Of note is NCCA’s work with Grantmakers for Aging, Grantmakers in Health, and Grantmakers in the Arts. A full mapping of this arena of creative community-based work, training, settings, and partners could lead to more connections and collaborations related to funding, training, and evaluation.

Regarding evaluation, a first and practical step would be to collect, share, and analyze extant research and evaluation reports about artists’ community-based work. Not only could funders and artists benefit from access to reports and documentation, but there may be ways to aggregate data and findings for analysis. Given the importance of data and evaluation, funders should consider carrying the responsibility and costs for supporting evaluations on impact across a cohort or portfolio of grants. As an alternative, they should try to provide funds to support evaluation planning, evidence collecting, and data gathering. Funders need to scale expectations with scope.

As they always have, artists are working in, with, and for communities. The conversation among funders in Philadelphia, reported and expanded here, marks a milestone in the growing recognition of this work. What are the ways to improve our collective practice, share information and learning, and establish an accessible body of knowledge around this work? Who will take the next step?


  1. Session Description: How is philanthropy supporting artists working outside traditional art settings? Some artists are instinctively drawn to using their art forms as tools to improve learning, attitudes and physical wellness, and to capture the imaginations of individuals, young and old, whose lives are changed by artistic encounters. These artists often find the process of making art in the community more important than the art they are making. Are arts philanthropists supporting these artists in their work in jails, hospitals, schools, YMCAs, parks and recreations programs, and other community settings? What role could arts funders play, peer-to-peer and in partnership with funders in other sectors, to increase resources and opportunities? Are arts funders supporting intermediary groups who prioritize this work? Join us to discuss these questions and consider how we can increase our investment in these working artists.