Artists Changing the World (Janet's Blog)

(11-30-10) Pam Korza and Barbara Schaffer Bacon have collaborated once again to produce a resource for funders, artists and arts groups concerned about how the arts intersect and influence social change. The report entitled Trend or Tipping Point: Arts and Social Change Grantmaking is published by Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, for which Barbara and Pam have labored for the past decade. The funders who sponsored the work have long been active in leading Grantmakers in the Arts social justice group. As an old “community arts developer” who used to run programs in rural areas, schools, juvenile correction facilities and hospitals, this work is pretty near and dear to my heart.

One of the goals of this initiative was “to synthesize a typology and a vocabulary that helps describe and distinguish the full spectrum of creative strategies, different streams of practice, and intended civic and social outcomes as well as advance unifying language for the field.” Pam and Barbara surveyed funders for whom “arts for change” encompassed civic engagement, community organizing, social change, social justice, participatory democracy, community building and community development. The report defines each of these terms but ultimately embraces all of them as activities in which a creative process can and has been used to exact change.

One of the most interesting aspects of the report is the section that deals with the barriers preventing support of arts for change work. Of those surveyed, barriers sited were lack of funding (44.4%), unclear definitions or context for this work (35.6%), lack of mission fit (28.9%) and lack of understanding of the role of arts and culture as a strategy for social change (22.2%). Many public agencies support this work and the economic downturn has had an enormous effect on programs throughout the social justice and human resource system. Artists working in vulnerable communities from disadvantaged youth to incarcerated populations will find less support for their programs from public agencies.

The good news in these statistics is there are barriers that we can fix. Unclear definitions can be made clear through a greater effort from artists, intermediaries and funders. We can be more articulate about how the arts are a tool for greater communication, respect for others and ourselves and a champion of democracy and human understanding. I believe all artists are about social change; some of them are more obvious than others. Some have an extraordinary gift that allows them to reach segments of our society that go way beyond ticket buyers and museumgoers. If their work is better supported, the general understanding of the value of artists and the arts in our society will increase, raising all ships (as we like to say here in Seattle.) I encourage you to read the report. And I challenge us all to develop language that speaks to the non-arts world about how and why artists and their art can change our communities and our lives.