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Pam Korza, Americans for the Arts
Democracy is a work in progress - on the world stage and, yes, in the United States of America. Ten years ago, Americans for the Arts launched a program called Animating Democracy.1) We were responding at the time to a decline in citizen participation and in the quality of public dialogue. There were also persistent barriers excluding from the public realm people who have been disenfranchised in our society.
At that time, Americans for the Arts acknowledged a long history of art created in support of democratic ideals - art that made social commentary art that united people in civil rights and other movements, and art that heightened awareness of issues and inspired people to act. We noted that the community arts movement in the U.S. had contributed significantly to this history.
Acknowledging issues of public participation and the inherent power of art in and of itself, Animating Democracy set out to nurture artistic work that is intentional in how it engages ordinary people around issues that affect their daily lives. We were equally interested in what happens to the art; that is, how this intent to foster civic participation affects artistic choices.
To investigate these interests, and with support from the Ford Foundation, we gave grants to 37 organizations across the country. The money supported arts projects with focus and intention, would apply the power of the arts to improve public dialogue and engagement. The projects explored issues of immigration, urban development, youth violence, and the rights of same sex couples, among others and they employed every conceivable art form. Community arts was central to many of these projects.
I’d like to being by telling you about two of these projects and to highlight four values that we, alongside our grantees, have come to learn are core to the most potent and effective community arts work - authenticity, authority, intentionality, and quality. With these projects, I will also explore the question, “How do we understand the impact of art that has social intention?”
Authenticity and Authority -
The King Kamehameha Statue Conservation Project, Kohala, Hawai’i
The first story is about a seemingly simple statue restoration project in the rural region of Kohala on the island of Hawai’i.(Plate 1,2) It underscores the importance in community arts practice of understanding and following what is authentic to a culture and a people. It is also a project in which the full authority rested with the people of this place.2)
The problem was how best to restore a deteriorating statue of King Kamehameha I, the ruler who, in 1795, united the Hawai’ian islands. Should the statue be restored to the originally intended gold gild and bronze finish, reflecting the professional conservation ethic to adhere to the artist’s original intent? Or should the conservation plan continue the community’s tradition of painting the statue in life-like colors a tradition upheld for more than 100 years and allowing the people of Kohala to feel closer to the spirit of the king whom they was revered as a native son.
On face value, the project was about how best to care for the statue. To paint or to gild? A simple question! But, local community leaders realized that bringing people together to decide the statue’s fate, provided an opportunity to discuss issues on the horizon. The encroaching tourism industry was threatening the destruction of remote heritage sites surrounded by private properties that could be readily sold to developers. The statue restoration came to symbolize larger interests about heritage preservation, quality of life in this rural place, and a much needed boost to the economic base in the region.
Despite the importance of these issues, a key challenge was how to get Native Hawai’ians to participate in public meetings about the statue’s fate. First, western-style meetings, with their desire for quick decisions and action were counter to the slow-paced Hawai’ian way of decision-making. Second, there was a general mistrust of hierarchical systems based on the historical subjugation of the Hawai’ian people. This history made Native Hawai’ians skeptical of outsiders from the mainland, and this meant the professional art conservator who would actually conserve the statue.
So, community leaders focused on creating a welcoming environment for elders and Native Hawai’ians. They spent time with the art conservator, teaching him about Hawai’ian
Plate 1) King Kamehameha Statue Conservation Project, Hawai’i
Plate 2) King Kamehameha Statue Conservation
protocols of connecting authentically with all community members, including Native Hawai’ians. Tapping the unique culture of place, they organized hula ki’i or "image dance" workshops and performances led by traditional artists. Kohala residents created puppets and a performance that documented the history of the statue while they also discussed how best to restore it. Over two years, through public hula ki’i workshops, private conversations, and various school-based projects, the community came to consensus. It decided to continue its own tradition of painting the statue and, with the conservator’s help, they learned skills to care for it and monitor its condition.
The project succeeded in getting nearly every one of its 1,800 residents to participate in some way or another - from pre-schoolers making puppets with parents, to high schoolers debating the pros and cons of painting or gilding, to civic organizations. Most significantly, the elders, and Native Hawai’ans who previously would not have come forward did participate.(Plate 3)
What factors contributed to this success? First, the statue itself had not only historical but spiritual significance. Caring for the statue was an act of honoring family, as many local people on the island can actually trace their ancestry to Kamehameha. Second, Native Hawai’ians felt welcomed by the traditional cultural form of hula ki’i and the easy and natural conversation about the issues that this creative context provided. Third, Hawai’ian forms of decision-making were honored, including: consensus consultation and approval of the elders and an indigenous kind of conversation called “talk story” (a recalling personal events, and including joking, verbal play, and nonverbal cues).
The conservator, Glenn Wharton, came to deeply understand and respect these cultural norms and forms of communication. He sensitively interacted with the people of Kohala along side community leaders. Glenn became a sort of hero in Kohala. They even made a puppet resembling him for the dedication ceremony!
Today, the statue of King Kamehameha stands brightly colored; its spirit or "mana" in tact.(Plate 4) With a greater sense of personal and collective responsibility toward the statue, a wide range of community members now see their role in preserving other endangered heritage sites. (Plate 5) Most importantly for the region, perhaps, the project has given the people of Kohala greater confidence to participate in high stakes development issues to come.
Plate 3) Elder Native Hawai’ians participated in puppet dance workshops which created opportunity for dialogue about heritage preservation and development issues.
Plate 4) A community member paints the statue to restore it according to the community’s wishes.
Plate 5) Community members prepare for the dedication ceremony of the newly restored statue.
Intentionality – The Common Threads Theater Project, Lima Ohio
Sojourn Theatre is one of our country’s most respected community-based theater companies. Often working through long-term residencies, Sojourn creates what it calls, “poetic documentary,” in which real people’s stories and experiences are “lifted” into the realm of poetry on the theater stage.(Plate 6) Sojourn’s plays are usually site-specific productions.
I’d like to talk about Sojourn’s Common Threads Theater Project in Allen County, Ohi o.3) This story demonstrates how critical it is to be clear on intention to know what issue is really at the heart of a community arts endeavor, and to frame that issue so that those most affected by it see their truths reflected.
Plate 6) Scene from Passing Glances: Windows and Mirrors on Allen County, the play created by Sojourn Theatre from community-based process.
Plate 7) A community conference held in conjunction with Sojourn Theatre’s play at which action teams were formed to work on issues.
When the Common Threads project was conceived, officials and residents of Allen County had been divided for years by control over water resources and mistrust between city and county leaders. Lima, the county’s largest city, suffered from the loss of industrial jobs, a declining tax base, shrinking population, and downtown decay. With Lima’s decline, middle class white residents moved from the city to the suburbs leaving mostly a poor African-American population in Lima. In the suburbs and rural farmlands, county residents had come to mistrust city officials who, not only exercised control overwater resources, but proposed to take political control of the county in order to revitalize the city.
Based on some of its past arts projects, the Arts Council saw the potential for art to help the community discuss these issues more openly and honestly. It set out to develop the Common Threads Project. The arts council secured commitment from Sojourn Theatre for a community arts residency to unfold over 14 months and culminate in a new play. The project’s stated goal was󰡒to engage a large cross-section of city and county residents and leaders in dialogue about issues of ‘trust among leaders’ and ‘respecting differences.’ The arts council formed a partnership with a local college and got the buy-in of the city and the county governments. The partners conscientiously recruited 20 sector leaders who invited and encouraged people in their sectors to participate - rural farmers, suburban residents, African-American city dwellers, civic officials, and others.(Plate 7)
Over several months, Sojourn company members interviewed 400 residents. Their respectful and deep listening drew out people’s deep concerns and quickly built trust. African Americans especially appreciated the opportunity to be heard and the prospect that their voices might gain a public presence in Sojourn’s final theater production.
Based on the earliest interviews, Sojourn began developing the script for the play. Typical of its community practice, the theater company presented the script to community members for feedback. When people were offered this chance to respond, they heard their words and voices and became invested in the telling of Lima’s story.
In this process, it became clear to Sojourn that racial tensions between white and black residents was a fundamental underlying issue. The artists worried that framing the issues as respecting differences and trust among leaders was disguising the core issues of race and annexation. Project leaders were concerned that white rural residents would never participate in the project if it was explicitly about race. Blacks insisted that race must be named and addressed directly if progress was going to be made. Further, while white leaders were content with the goal of fostering meaningful dialogue, the black community was tired of more talk. They wanted real change in the form of more jobs and representation in leadership.
Could the project be considered a success if understanding increased but nothing really changed? What should be the project goals? After much intense discussion between Sojourn and the project leaders, most finally agreed that respecting differences and trust among leaders would remain the publicly stated goals. However, it was also understood that artists would continue to explore issues of race, power, and annexation as they came up in their process with community members. In addition, leaders determined they would work on making real change through a new component - the formation of action teams to carry out important work after the project concluded.
A related issue arose around the question of whether or not the play would be neutral. In the beginning, project leaders hoped for a play that would balance all viewpoints.
Plate 8. Script readings of the play as it was developed enabled the public
to hear each others’ perspectives through the actors
Sojourn expressed its concern that it could not be neutral. While the company certainly would not take a position on any issue, their approach would be to voice that which is usually unvoiced. Project leaders worried that the issue of race might dominate the play, but they had come to trust Sojourn’s and instincts and skills and decided to back off.
The final play was performed three times.(Plate 8) Although audience members often expressed surprise as they experienced a reality for blacks or for farmers that was unknown to them, only a few were disturbed or insulted. Most said they came away enlightened. The play was performed as part of a day-long community conference. There, 200 people saw the play, discussed the issues in it, and then formed 16 action teams to begin working on those issues.
The Common Threads Project was really about steps to change the civic culture in this community - that is, how people talk about and act on longstanding issues. How did the project do? Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Common Threads project was that civic participation and dialogue have become a part of the culture of Lima. A large cross-section of the community did participate, an amazing 7,000 people in fact! Nine (9) action committees continued to work on housing, school closings, and other issues long after the project ended. City and county officials established informal monthly breakfasts simply for the purpose of understanding each other.
Based on a survey, many participants said that they gained a deeper understanding of the racial issues that lie beneath the surface of other political issues, but on the whole, the project had minimal impact on issues of race relations. African-American participation in this project was stronger than previous civic projects, but the depth and retention of that involvement was not always satisfactory. Two African Americans were invited to serve on key city committees as a result of their leadership in Common Threads. But increased job opportunities did not happen.
Quality – Evolving New Standards
Both of these projects raise intriguing questions about artistic integrity and quality when art enters the community realm. In Hawai’i, as the conservator respected the community’s authority to restore the statue the way they wanted, he boldly defied the standards and ethics of his own profession. In Lima, the request by project leaders for Sojourn Theatre to make the work neutral forced difficult conversations about artistic control, truth in the work, and whether a point of view in the final play might help or jeopardize productive dialogue about contentious issues.
In the U.S., over the past decade, artists and others have begun to articulate meaningful criteria for quality in community art that considers both aesthetic and social dimensions. Such criteria consider qualities of excellent process as well as product, and the value of the overall project within its social context. Criteria consider integrity of intent and the degree to which the creative work and project are valued by the people for whom they are intended. Such criteria encourage accountability and help to prevent inauthentic, exploitative, or even well intentioned but naïve efforts that may do more harm than good.
Key Considerations in Community Arts
In addition to the challenges portrayed in the stories here, there are many other challenges that make community arts a sometime complex proposition. I will summarize briefly a few more of the most significant challenges we have encountered.
Considering when insider or outsider artists may be most effective - It is important to weigh the pros and cons of this with community members early in the planning of a project. The most obvious advantage of artists or organizers from within the community is that they possess knowledge of the community and may already be known and trusted by the community. However they may also be perceived as having an agenda. As was true in the Common Threads Project, using outside artists can be important because they are perceived to be without an agenda. Being unfamiliar with a community’s history can be an advantage in starting fresh.
Being sensitive to ethical concerns and responsibility in community based work - As we saw with projects in both Hawai’i and Lima, creative choices often require decisions about whose interests prevail - the subject’s the community’s, or the artist’s - and to what degree. Sometimes people’s stories have consequences for them at home, school, or work. Building trust depends, in part, on being sensitive to issues of privacy and understanding the potential for exploitation when private stories are transferred to the public realm. Cultural organizations need to anticipate if there will be necessary follow up for people who have high stakes in the outcome of a project.
Anticipating challenges regarding decision-making power and authority, and distribution and control of resources in collaborations - Negotiating the needs and priorities of artists, cultural institutions, and community partners can be one of the most challenging aspects of this work. Lead cultural organizations have to work hard to sufficiently engage key partners in early planning and project design stages; not to do so can leave partners feeling disempowered and frustrated by things that could have been better dealt with had they been more involved. Philosophical or practice-based differences are sometimes at the heart of challenging collaborations and these must be uncovered and discussed early. We have also found, as a grantmaker, that who receives and has control over funding can create perceived, if not actual, power imbalances in a project.
Arts and cultural institutions need to assess and often realign internal philosophies, norms, staffing, and operating practices to support effective community arts work. It may be difficult to shift out of usual ways of working. Institutions not driven by a community-based mission sometimes find it hard to break outside of conventional program models in education, outreach, or audience development, or to surmount expectations geared to product over process. Being seen in a different public eye, these organizations may take on a new burden of responsibility in terms of partner relations and civic expectations.
Beyond discussion about artistic quality, arts practitioners are increasingly asked to 󰡒prove󰡓how arts interventions lead to social change. Although anecdotal evidence is common, many believe that quantifiable data is needed to demonstrate the arts’ contribution to social change. As arts practitioners try to meet this challenge, they are often pressed to define what is meant by "social" impact, whose standards to apply, what evidence to look for, and what to document and track. They wonder how to gauge hard-to-measure outcomes such as shifts in attitude or whether they can attribute civic outcomes to their arts endeavors, exclusive of other factors. Recognizing that some outcomes are not apparent until well after a project concludes, many wonder what cultural organizations realistically can do to track change over a longer term. Many say that human and social transformations simply cannot be quantified. With limited staff and financial resources to support the demands of serious evaluation, efforts are often constrained, even with the best of intentions.
Animating Democracy’s current Arts & Civic Engagement Impact Initiative focuses more fully on these issues of measuring social change.4) Without explaining the initiative’s activities, I would like to share a few of the lessons we have learned thus far.
Qualitative data is crucial to understanding social change. While funders and civic leaders often diminish qualitative data as less scientific, we are learning that narratives and anecdotal evidence, in combination with quantitative data, are critical to understanding change. Qualitative data measure what is meaningful to people. In Hawai’i, the best way to understand new-gained confidence and commitment to participate in Kohala’s future among Native Hawai’ians was by talking with them, not through statistical data.5)
Expectations of social change need to be realistic. The arts are prone to make grand claims such as We will eradicate youth violence, or even The Arts save lives! One wonders in retrospect whether Common Thread project leaders were overly cautious or brilliant to aim modestly toward increasing civic participation rather solving racial inequities. We are learning that arts initiatives should not make claims or take full responsibility for impacting social conditions over which they have no direct control. Instead they should look at how they can make a contribution to change. In addition, arts initiatives should not expect to prove  that an arts intervention caused a particular outcome. The mere establishment of correlation with an intended outcome is enough in many fields to make a case about effects.6)
Social change is an incremental process and intermediate outcomes are important to track. The initiative recognized the importance of assessing intermediate outcomes such as: heightened awareness of an issue; increased or more diverse participation; new capacity for quality public dialogue; and strengthened relationships. We have observed that the arts perhaps make their greatest contribution to social change in these areas. So, it is important to understand how to measure them.
In the U.S., even though community arts are at the heart of community life, they still exist somewhat at the margins of the cultural sector. In cultural policy, arts and culture are still associated primarily with museums, the symphony, the ballet and major theaters. Although the current economic downturn has made advancing the role of community arts more difficult, arts leaders continue to work on several fronts.
First is to advance policies that promote cultural democracy. Cultural democracy is a fundamental concept that is at the heart of community arts. It is a commitment to protecting everyone’s right to culture and assuring fair and equitable access to cultural resources for the many diverse peoples in America.7) In the absence of an official U.S. governmental policy on cultural democracy, various organizations - particularly agencies using public funds - work to advance it in their own ways, including Americans for the Arts. However, there is still a long way to go in this policy area.
A second policy area is to develop systems and supports to advance the community arts profession. These include many activities, most notably training for students and professionals in community arts theory and practice. Over 70 university-level programs now teach community arts. In addition, some of the leading community artists in the country run their own training institutes to prepare the next generation of community artists. There is also a strong cry for documentation and critical writing to codify excellent practice and to take up questions of vocabulary, ethics, and standards of quality.
Third, policies are very slowly changing to bring funding support for community arts into balance with funding for mainstream arts. In one city, for example, the arts council boldly reduced its funding to mainstream institutions in order to increase support for smaller community-based groups. This was a highly controversial move but one I hope more cities follow. Funders who are interested in supporting arts that make social change are a small but growing sector. Americans for the Arts has just completed a report providing a first-time portrait of these funders. We hope it will serve to inform peer exchange among grantmakers and inspire more funders to support this work.8)
This leads me to my fourth and final point. If the arts want to compete with education, health, human services, and the environment, then the arts need to demonstrate how they are part of the solution in these areas. Typically, in the U.S., arts and culture policy is disconnected from other fields. However, the time is right to make the case to integrate community arts and other sectors. At the federal level, the Obama administration is receptive and the National Endowment for the Arts has been negotiating with other federal agencies such as the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development to broaden grant guidelines so that arts and cultural organizations can be partners. It will require good models and credible evidence to ensure that these first efforts become dedicated and ongoing policy.
Artists, cultural organizations, and their community partners are helping to shape a new paradigm of civic participation by tapping the power of the arts. Community arts help us reach inside ourselves to know what we as human beings hold in common, as well as what makes us distinct. Along with a greater sense of self, community arts inspire a sense of the broader public good at local, national, and even global levels. On this note, I offer my sincere respect, friendship, and gratitude to the Seoul Art Center Geumcheon and the Seoul Foundation for Art & Culture for this rich opportunity for mutual exchange and learning. Gamsa hamnida.
1) Americans for the Arts is the United States’ leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts in America. It is dedicated to creating opportunities for every American to participate in and appreciate all the arts.
2) A full case study is available. Korza, Pam. “King Kamehameha Statue Conservation Project.” Cultural Perspectives in Civic Dialogue. Washington, D.C.: Americans for the Arts, 2005.
3) A full case study is available. Wood, Sue. “Allen County Common Threads Theater Project.” Art, Dialogue, Action, Activism. Washington, D.C.: Americans for the Arts, 2005.
4) Animating Democracy’s Impact web site describes the scope and activities of the Impact Initiative.
5) To ensure the credibility of qualitative information, we simply need to get more skilled in methodically collecting and analyzing such data. Alvarez, Maribel. "Two-way Mirror: Ethnography as a Way to Assess Civic Impact of Arts-based Civic Engagement in Tucson, Arizona." Washington, D.C.: Americans for the Arts, 2009.
6) Jackson, Maria Rosario, Ph.D..󰡒Shifting Expectations: An Urban Planner’s Reflections on Evaluating Community-based Arts." Washington, D.C.: Americans for the Arts, 2009.
7) Institute for Cultural Democracy
8) Korza, Pam and Barbara Schaffer Bacon. "Trend or Tipping Point:Arts & Social Change Grantmaking—A 2010 Report for Funders." Washington, D.C.: Americans for the Arts/Animating Democracy, October 2010.