RE/New England

Investigating Community Building through Culture

Klare Shaw and Claude L. Elliott, a two-part report

On May 15 and 16, 2002, more than 100 funders, artists, academicians, arts administrators, and community arts practitioners gathered in New Haven, Connecticut. We were there to participate in a convening organized by New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) entitled, "RE/New England: Investigating Community Building through Culture." The Open Society Institute and the Pitney Bowes Foundation provided funding for the conference. Participants came from thirteen states and the District of Columbia. Claude Elliott and Klare Shaw agreed to summarize the conference from varied perspectives for the GIA Reader. Mr. Elliott is fairly new to the foundation world, while Ms. Shaw has spent more than two decades in arts funding.

Part I

RE/New England continued an ongoing investigation of using organic culture to promote community transformation. The pathways to achieve this are myriad — some old and some newer. For example, in the 1990s the Ford Foundation and others seeded the ground with support for collaborations between arts organizations and community development corporations. However, individual artists with a neighborhood orientation have been initiating successful community arts projects for decades. We came together to explore the successes, challenges, and more importantly the potential of this work nationally and in the New England region.

One of the pre-conference sessions was an update on the “Creative Economy Initiative” in which NEFA, the New England Council, and many collaborators examined the financial impact of cultural institutions and artists on the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Then filmmaker Nancy Kelly showed her extraordinary movie, “Downside UP” that chronicles how a community art museum, Mass MOCA, spearheaded the revitalization and economic development of North Adams, Massachusetts.

The sessions were thoughtful, and it was invigorating to be among so many practitioners who were excited about their work. We note, however, that racial and ethnic diversity at conferences continues to be a challenge.

A refreshing session was “Community Revitalization through Participatory Design.” Diana Balmori of Balmori and Associates and Colleen Murphy-Dunning of the Urban Resource Initiative (URI) introduced their “high-engagement” process for designing Lenzi Park. URI, Balmori Associates, and the Yale School of Forestry have brought together neighborhood residents, architects, designers, and community green space members to beautify and reinvigorate vacant lots, yards, and public parks in New Haven. This effort forestalled deterioration of several blocks and made the community much safer as the landscaped areas invited neighbors to congregate. While similar projects have been a staple of community-based environmental groups, the involvement of university partners and the emphasis on the visual aesthetics of the sites made this very compelling. Colorful gardens brought beauty and serenity to many corners of the community.

Klare Shaw, Barr Foundation

Part II

Among the many challenges of planning a conference is the ability to maintain a delicate balance, to keep everyone stimulated over a two-day period. Sam Miller (NEFA), Frances Clark (Arts Council of Greater New Haven), and Mindy Duitz (Open Society Institute) set the tone for the two-day convening. The meeting provided grantmakers an opportunity to connect with artists and arts organizations, to learn about exemplary models from the Northeast region, and to discuss how they can be sustained and replicated. Especially intriguing conference themes included research possibilities, community-building models, funding partnerships, art as a tool of transformation and community empowerment, and the role of artists in building community.

Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard explored how gentrification has pushed artists out of communities they helped to develop, the downside of building cultural districts, and the “disconnect” between arts and core working class communities. The more successful community development projects integrate commercial arts venues, small businesses, and nonprofit arts and human service organizations.

A recurring theme is the need for funders to take a long view of economic and community development. The reality that incubation of a new community arts program takes two to three years challenges the practice of annual grantmaking cycles. The need to provide grants to support collaborations and partnerships and to develop community leadership was also cited.

Among the many examples of art as a tool for community building, two in particular stand out. Angkor Dance Troupe utilizes art to address gang problems among Cambodian youth as well as to preserve culture. Intergenerational discussion was a valuable technique in engaging the Franco-American community in arts projects in Waterville, Maine.

When asked, “Is there something that only arts and culture can do?” conference participants concluded that “art empowers people to change.” Two multi-cultural and youth-managed organizations do just this by empowering youth to take control of their lives. CityKids@SafeSpace (New Haven) uses theater to develop decision-making skills, enhance leadership development, and build positive relationships with the wider community. AS220 Broad Street Studio (Providence, Rhode Island) provides opportunities for high-risk youth to develop artistic proficiency and critical thinking skills.

Patryc Wiggings stated that another challenge is to support the leadership of individual artists engaged in economic and community development. Center City Art and Brick Company (Birmingham, Alabama) and Economic Corporation of Newport, New Hampshire demonstrate two ways to put economic tools in people's hands. Both projects initiated by artists use art and design to interpret history, highlight community pride, and serve as agents of transformation.

A plenary session led by Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz (New Bedford), Mayor Dannell Malloy (Stamford), and former Mayor John Rohman (Bangor) shared their experience including arts in economic and community development projects funded by city, county, state, and federal agencies. A variety of arts and cultural projects were funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Health, and Department of Transportation. A common challenge was how to encourage free-standing arts institutions to develop partnerships with human service organizations, community health clinics, community development corporations, libraries, schools, faith-based organizations, and senior centers to make art more accessible to the community. It was particularly enjoyable to hear from elected officials who were powerful arts advocates, especially because they gave specific examples of how arts had enlivened and enriched their communities.

The two-day meeting provided opportunities to share “lessons learned.” In building community a key question is, who in your Rolodex, on your staff, or on your board has access to the target community? Partnerships take time and require relationships with leaders identified by the community itself. Someone from the community has to function as a cultural development officer/organizer. Funders should consider multi-year capacity-building grants that include support for technical assistance. Grantees said that they are often funded only long enough to begin stabilizing, and then they are deserted.

The frequent conflict between what community groups want and what funding guidelines offer suggests the need for more flexibility with our guidelines and opportunities to test new ideas and partnerships. Program evaluation should include mutual discussions about best practices and about what doesn't work and why.

At the conclusion of the two-days we were challenged in three ways: to consider how best to share the programs and best practices presented, to document examples not included in this meeting, and to identify the next steps. This charge is certain to spill over to the fall GIA conference, Creative Connections.

Claude L. Elliott, Rhode Island Foundation