Artists in Community: Building the Movement

By Janet Brown from her blog Better Together

Earlier in my career, I was privileged to work across sectors with passionate and gifted artists. In most instances, the connection with the non-arts organization (hospital, correction facility) was made by my organization. But the creation of the service to be delivered was designed and always implemented by these amazing artists.

You might define them as “teaching artists,” as Eric Booth does in his article in the 2015 fall issue of the Reader. These artists, and thousands like them across the country, are a combination of teacher, professional artist, creative problem solver, and community activist.

For the past several years, Grantmakers in the Arts has sponsored sessions on “artists in community settings” at our annual conference. My definition of “community settings” is a nontraditional arts setting where artists are working directly with community members within the structure of another sector to the benefit of the greater society. Some of these areas are described as arts and education, arts and environment or science, arts and health, arts and aging, arts in corrections . . . to name just a few. For the most part, passionate individual artists making their own opportunities and their own connections have led this work. Examples are Liz Lerman’s legacy with non-dancers and older populations, and Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison’s eco-art to improve the livable environment.

What seems different to me today, compared to three decades ago, is that these “pioneers” have laid the groundwork, inspired research, and opened doors. Non-arts sectors like aging, health, and environment are more welcoming and actively seeking creative solutions from artists who will help them meet their missions. How does the institutional arts world respond to this opportunity? There are, of course, no simple solutions or models that fit every situation. But there are a few suggestions that I think will help make artists (hence “the arts”) more prosperous, relevant, and effective.

Funders and administrators have the opportunity to see artists as a part of holistic community problem solving. The question then becomes, how do we best support a movement that places artists in decision-making and influencing roles in community settings? At GIA, I think funders working in social justice have a jump on others. They have been connecting for years, sharing programming and investing in cooperative initiatives. They have begun to build an infrastructure important to supporting individual artists while continuing to fund institutions.

We first have to accept that artists successfully working in community settings are gifted in communication skills in addition to being excellent artists. The best advice I got when putting together a team of artists to work in state-run juvenile correctional facilities was to select the best artists because that would ensure the continuation of the project. There is a false pretense that artists who “teach” or work with community members are somehow less than “professional” artists who only produce product for sale.

Second, if we are looking for artists to help make change in our communities, there needs to be an infrastructure that supports them: intermediaries to make connections and develop programs, training to assure artists feel secure and safe in what may be a new environment, and the sharing of knowledge and resources for artists to learn from one another and from other-sector experts. This is community organizing. Giving folks the foundation they need to succeed. For funders, it means working in your community with like-minded funders. Too often, the funders decide to create their own programs, independently from seeking solutions and processes for a sustainable movement. This works well for a few people in a few places. I think it is time for us to think bigger as a “community of practice.”

Great work is happening in many different sectors. It is feeling a little disparate at the moment. It is also feeling like we are on the brink of tremendous opportunity to make the arts more relevant by strategically raising up the artist as the real community asset that those of us supporting the arts have always known them to be.