Arts, Culture, and Community Development

Posted by Ms. Aileen Alon, Apr 17, 2015 0 comments

Using the arts and culture to shape, build, and identify communities is not a novel concept; however, its place in the realm of community development is gaining more traction and credibility by community development practitioners, funders, policy makers, and community stakeholders themselves. The process of integrating art into community development is rewarding but arduous, particularly for emerging leaders such as myself. It often feels as if you have to “prove” yourself in, understand, and speak the language of two very different fields.

But the first question is almost always why? Why should art be integrated into community development?

I recently had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the Cross-Currents: Arts & Leadership Powering Rural Economies conference in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where keynote Jeremy Nowak said that “the arts…are not the dessert, but a key part of the meal.” The arts and culture are not an option in communities. The arts already exist – in some form – everywhere, and, in these various forms, the arts help to build bridges between people, ideas, and places. With the right support, they thrive. They define. So tell me then why a connective tissue like the arts should not be included in other fields or sectors? If the purpose of community development is to empower community members and enhance a community’s well-being, whether physical, economic, socio-cultural, environmental, or otherwise, then why not use the arts as the natural thread linking these different aspects?

That is the mentality that the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation (OLCDC) in Opa-locka, Florida, has taken since I joined as the first staff member focused on the arts in its 30+ year history. The arts came into play as the result of federal stimulus funds that allowed for unprecedented organizational ability to build capacity and reevaluate its community development model. A series of community charrettes led OLCDC to shift from a focus on affordable housing to a more holistic approach, in which the arts have become key. Artists, architects, designers and creative thinkers have proved to be valuable partners in efforts to change the housing landscape, provide economic opportunities, improve infrastructure, create public spaces, inform planning and zoning codes, enhance education and health opportunities, engage community members, and even rebrand the organization and community. It is vital that such efforts are inter-connected and done simultaneously to build a stronger foundation for our community.

Such instances of integrating the arts into community development strategies are receiving attention because there has been a lack of supportive research, infrastructure or policy to assist with the growing field. However, it is promising that entities, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and ArtPlace America’s recently launched Community Development Investment program, are attempting to build a greater understanding of and create awareness for the viable impact of purposeful arts integration into community planning and development. The increasing support for arts-based community development, particularly on the national level, is truly exciting as it emphasizes the unique role of artists and importance of the arts in creating sustainable change.

As emerging leaders, we have the ability and responsibility to push our field to be more innovative, inclusive, and impactful. And while it may be a daunting task, we benefit from having greater access to each other, resources, and other fields to learn, to collaborate, and to shape the future of the arts, especially how they are connected to and made more valuable to non-arts entities. The more that we reach outside of our traditional realm to link the arts to other parts of the community, the more we are able to help others see the arts as “a key part to the meal” – integral to and intertwined with our daily lives and community’s well-being.

Interested in joining the conversation? Meet us in Chicago for the Arts Leadership Precon during Annual Convention 2015!

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