Rewarding Sustained Attention

by Barbara Schaffer Bacon (bio), co-director, Animating Democracy, Americans for the Arts

“Great art rewards sustained attention.” This simple theory comes from philosopher Marcia Muelder Eaton, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. In my personal experience, it is true. Eaton has been considering art and writing about aesthetics for a few decades. Her early publications get to the heart of this definition but a later book, Merit, Aesthetic and Ethical (Oxford Press 2001) offers an inclusive concept of art, aesthetics, and value that is very relevant to the themes of Fusing Arts Culture and Social Change. In that book, Eaton suggests that “formalists in the world of aesthetics ignore the roles that artworks play in the life of community and conversely, ignore the ways in which communities determine the very nature of what counts as artistic or aesthetic experiences that exist within them.” I recommend her writings in general and this book specifically.

I share Eaton’s work here because my enthusiasm for the conversation raised by Fusing Arts Culture and Social Change is not to call out the major institutions and question whether they deserve support but rather to encourage sustained attention for small, mid-sized and community based arts groups that are rooted in communities, neighborhoods, ethnic and tribal traditions. Americans for the Arts has championed these groups through support for local and community arts development, advocacy for public sector arts support, and through Animating Democracy, by informing, promoting and inspiring civic engagement though the arts.

It has been our privilege to look deeply at practice and observe the development and impact over time of organizations that offer artistic excellence and innovation, astute leadership connected to community needs, and important institutional and engagement models for the field. The crucial contributions of this segment of organizations in the cultural ecosystem and toward achieving healthy communities and a healthy democracy are evident despite chronic undercapitalization.

Ron Chew’s Community-based Arts Organizations: A new Center of Gravity (.pdf, 1.5Mb) commissioned by Animating Democracy in 2009 and cited in Fusing Arts Culture and Social Change takes a close look at some exemplary groups that “have emerged at the center of this more expansive vision of the arts.” Published in 2009, the paper sparked discussion in the funding community but it is even more relevant in light of the aspirations expressed by this new report. Groups like East Bay Center for the Performing Arts (Richmond, CA), National Museum of Mexican Art (Chicago), Sojourn Theatre (Portland, OR), The Wing Luke Asian Museum (Seattle), Diaspora Vibe Gallery (Miami) Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance (Old Town, ME) are recognized for artistic achievement. They garner community support and recognition, complete impressive capital projects, and have established themselves as valued community institutions in a matter of only 30-35 years. Their portraits and Ron’s insights illustrate what an “inclusive and dynamic cultural sector” can look like and how it can achieve both excellence in art and “through the arts, a more equitable, fair and democratic world.”

There are many other such groups in communities across the country that should be noticed and nourished with sustained attention and resources. They are not without flaws and challenges but there is art, not only in their unique forms and the aesthetics of their artistic products, but in their operations and community engagement as well. The closer you look, the more you discover, the more you appreciate. Your sustained attention will be rewarded.