Arts & America

Arts, Culture, and the Future of America’s Communities

Edited by Clay Lord. 2015, 175 pages, Americans for the Arts
Review by Caron Atlas

The opportunity to change the way everyone views the world is at hand.
 —  Felipe Buitrago Restrepo
With this powerful possibility comes responsibility. The arts sector must listen to the community around it, partner deeply and intentionally across sectors and movements, and align its interest boldly with values of equity, justice, and prosperity for all.
 —  Laura Zabel

Arts & America asks us to look into the future. As the first phase of its New Community Visions Initiative (see overview, following page), Americans for the Arts asked ten people to write about trends over the next ten to fifteen years in the fields of community development, education, technology, environment, infrastructure, immigration, criminal justice, and tourism. They were then asked to reflect on what role arts, culture, and heritage might play in these sectors as our communities and country change.

The book is framed as follows: “In 2015, in the wake of the Great Recession, just as in the wake of the Great Depression, the world finds itself in a new era of transformational change and possibility. The aim of this collection is to identify a vision of the future, where at every turn, the arts have the potential to better the chances for strong vibrant communities as we head deeper into the 21st century.”

The trends and visions identified in the essays range from hopeful to terrifying. On the positive side we hear about increased opportunities for a holistic, wellness-based health care system, more political openness, authentic cultural tourism, sustainable infrastructure, education with a greater emphasis on deep learning, and a more inclusive reshaping of what it means to be American.

Climate change, gentrification, prisons, and income inequality offer more sobering trends, including the negative economic and cultural impacts of displacement and challenges to cultural survival from climate change. Past decades of mass incarceration in the United States have resulted in the trauma of more than 2.7 million children with a parent in prison. Undocumented students face systemic isolation from social and economic mobility.

Technology and changing demographics are crosscutting themes. Felipe Buitrago Restrepo describes the “ubiquitous connectivity“ and power of one trillion devices that will be online by 2050. Rosa Cabrera writes that “demographers predict that the Latino population, including undocumented immigrants, will make up 30 percent of the total US population by the year 2050, and whites will no longer constitute the majority.”

Issues of equity and racial injustice determine who benefits from the trends and who doesn’t. For Talia Gibas, “the dangers of inequity are real, and we are already close to a two tiered system of public education.” Judith Tannenbaum asks about the root causes and long-term impacts when disproportionate numbers of African Americans and other people of color are in prison. Brea M. Heidelberg reminds us that for many people suffering systemic injustice, the idyllic “post racial America” looks more like a present day Jim Crow.

Yet this is primarily an optimistic book, hoping, as Robert L. Lynch, Americans for the Arts president and CEO, puts it, “to identify who and what is needed to create healthy and equitable communities for all.” The spirit underlying many of the essays is agency, interconnectedness, creativity, and collective responsibility. People are claiming identity, space, and human rights. Creative activism, inclusive planning, and transmedia organizing are supporting new forms of solidarity and civic participation. Integrative medicine, intersectional identities, and connections between environmental and cultural sustainability provide hopeful and holistic visions for change.

As each chapter points out, arts, culture, and heritage have much to offer. They are a means to a greater awareness and expression of humanity, to the “rehumanization of dehumanized people” (Heidelberg), and to self-definition and political mobilization. They offer coping mechanisms for people who are forced to migrate, prisoners serving life without possibility of parole, and seniors facing dementia.

We learn how arts and culture can preserve disappearing music and dance traditions of populations displaced or pulled apart by climate change. Cultural organizations can be models of energy conservation, and public art can draw attention to renewable energy and sustainable business practices. Cultural tourism offers opportunities for soft diplomacy, job creation, and community well-being. Artists add social and economic value, and arts and culture build needed connections between disparate peoples. The essays offer inspiring examples, and their footnotes provide a wealth of resources for further reading.

We are also reminded that what arts and culture bring can be as intangible and powerful as the soul of a community. As Ian Garrett writes, “for everything we can measure and for every adaptation plan, our deep links to the world around us will affect us in ways that are hard to describe. This is precisely why arts will be instrumental to our future.”

Americans for the Arts starts the collection with their own essay by Clay Lord to provide context for the future by invoking the past. It draws on thoughtful source material by Maryo Gard Ewell, who with her father, Robert Gard, has played a key role in the history of community arts. The essay offers valuable information about settlement houses, the WPA arts projects, local arts movement, CETA, the NEA, and local arts agencies. It argues that our field needs to know its history. I agree. Yet for history to be an inspiring force for an equitable future, it must be inclusive.

What would a history look like that reflects the multivocal quality that is this collection’s strength? It would include the voices of diverse cultural communities and respond to the cultural inequities and historic injustices that determine whose cultures are valued and whose histories get told. It would expand the frame of community cultural development to include networks growing out of social movements like Alternate ROOTS, cultural movements like hip-hop, community media, and community cultural centers. It would feature the cultures and perspectives of indigenous peoples. Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy program and cultural equity summit have engaged in this exploration. The new national visioning initiative provides another opportunity where an inclusive understanding of history can help to shape the future.