Community Arts: An Old Idea Bringing Hope for a New Beginning

My heart soared when I heard there would be a meeting of arts “activists” at the White House. This meeting, led by GIA past president Claudine Brown, Nathan Cummings Foundation, brought together over 70 individuals who have been working, writing and living the practice of connecting artists and communities for decades. Most have been community organizers, like our new President, using the arts as a tool to bring people together, to deal with issues of isolation and poverty, celebration and human expression. Community arts….a term often thrown around and often misunderstood.

I spent years in this arena working in rural America. In that situation, community arts means the only arts in town. Sometimes professional visiting artists were involved but mostly local residents organized and led artistic experiences for their children and fellow residents. My organization provided technical assistance for community theatres, visual art festivals, film festivals, community choirs, galleries that took the place of empty storefronts and local arts councils that could coordinate and fill the voids. We worked in juvenile correction facilities and hospitals where artists offered hope in hopeless situations. This work is extremely rewarding as people participated in the arts in ways they never imaged they would. Often times, artists whose life choices brought them or kept them in a small community, became catalysts for projects, classes and events that brought an entire community together.

I recently learned of a community arts project supported by the Skillman and Kresge Foundations in underserved neighborhoods in Detroit. A project that invites local citizens to select an artist and a project for their “community.” The results, no surprise to me, are exciting and inspiring…common people experiencing uncommon communal activity. Whew! In these situations, the artist becomes leader, motivator, inspiration, creator, counselor, guide and… well, an artist doing his or her work. In these situations, the product is not as critically important as the process of making that product. This is community arts at its finest.

This is not new work. It is not a new trendy project designed by private funders or the government. It has been going on for decades, before major institutions in America were grown up enough to compete with the professionalism of their counterparts in Europe. It has been going on for centuries. It is as old as stories being told around a campfire or pictures drawn on a cave wall or … you get the idea. The potential of the White House meeting is that artists, who are the creators, coaches and directors of community arts activities, are hopefully elevated to a role of “organizer” in our quest for economic and spiritual recovery in this country. The downturn in the economy has done more for us than create pain and loss. It has reminded us that core values are important. That things and money do not replace love, family, trust and self-respect. If we are observant, we are reminded that the playfulness we experienced as a child, dancing, singing, drawing, coloring, role-playing is food for our souls. And the artists who lead those glorious activities are the catalysts for change and preservers of our self-worth.

There are lots of great resources for this work. The is a terrific site and resource thanks to Steve Durland and Linda Frye Burnham. Americans for the Arts has supported “Animating Democracy” run by Barbara Shaffer Bacon and Pam Korza for more than ten years. (They are working on the Detroit project.) State and local arts agencies are prominent leaders in this work with missions that require access and involvement by the general public. People like Maryo Gard, Bill Cleveland, Arlene Goldbard,, Craig Dreeszen, David O’Fallon are some of my heroes in this work. But the real heroes are the artists and the real beneficiaries are all those community members who come in contact with them.

The Obama White House can give a stronger voice to this work. We have an opportunity for policy makers to acknowledge artists as community builders and resources. To open doors and, yes, funding for artists to be equal to other workers whose vocations have been deemed important to recovery. Indeed, if this happens, America will have taken a giant leap forward on its road to maturity.