New Ways to Talk About Art, Artists, and Community

Posted by Ms. Margy Waller, Dec 22, 2015 0 comments

A young dancer recently told me she would be so happy if architects of community change and innovation and planning came to her with a request to put her skills to work for her community. Nothing would make her happier as an artist.

She’s just waiting for the invite! So, why doesn't this happen more often? And why do artists find it so hard to get a seat at the community planning table?

In recent meetings about the role of arts in community building and development, including the four regional meetings of the New Community Visions Initiative this fall, participants from the arts told us that they have a hard time getting a seat at that table. They sense that people in other sectors don’t seem to take arts seriously as a community development partner.

Artists and arts producers want planners to have a different understanding of the role arts can play and they’re asking: how do we explain what we do in a new way, a way that communicates how great it can be when art is added to a community development initiative? How do we talk about “Arts and….?” (Arts and health, arts and education, arts and community development, arts and civic engagement…)

Research by Topos for a Midwest arts organization revealed that the natural way most people think about the arts is a barrier to considering the arts as an important benefit or tool for community development and building. Of course, we face challenges because there is a widely held view of the arts as something other people—rich, old, white people—do. And if that’s how people think about art, it’s hard for them to see why the arts should benefit from public funding or get a seat at the community development table. But this is old news to most of us. 

At Topos, we designed the research to identify a new organizing idea or frame for the dialogue, to provide a new explanation of how things work, and to explain the role arts play in the community. 
After a year of investigation, this research found that public awareness of the role of the arts is undermined by deeply entrenched perceptions. Yes, people like the arts, some quite a lot, but that’s not enough. Because the way they think about the arts is shaped by a number of common default patterns of thinking that obscure a sense of public responsibility or value in this area.
We found some prevalent assumptions about the arts that work against the objective of positioning the arts as a public good:
● The arts are entertainment and therefore, a private matter: Arts are about individual tastes, experiences, and enrichment - and individual expression by artists. 
● The arts are a good to be purchased: Therefore, most assume that the arts should succeed or fail, as any product does in the marketplace, based on what people want to purchase.
● People expect to be passive, not active: People expect to have a mostly passive, consumer relationship with the arts. The arts will be offered to them, and therefore do not need to be created or supported by them.
● The arts are a low priority: Even when people value art, it is rarely high on their list of priorities.
Perceptions like these may well be a barrier to thinking of the arts as a contributor to a healthy and equitable community. And overtures by artists to assist with the business of community development may seem frivolous or confusing if you think of the arts primarily as entertainment.
When advocates talk about art as a transcendent experience, important to well-being, a universal human need, etc., we’re appealing to private, individual concerns, not public, communal concerns. While many people like these messages, the messages don’t help them think of art as a contributor to community quality of life.
Of the many communications approaches explored in the testing, one stood out as having the most potential to shift thinking and conversations in a constructive direction. This approach emphasizes one key organizing idea: A thriving arts sector creates ripple effects of benefits throughout our community.
These are benefits to life in a place that people already believe are real—and that they value. 
A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are livelier, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc. Note that this goes well beyond the usual dollars-and-cents argument and becomes about creating an environment that is memorable and a place where people want to live or visit or work. 
A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.
Elected and appointed officials have used this way of talking about the arts to build broad support and increase public funding:
● Connecticut officials doubled funding and tied grantmaking to strengthening neighborhoods and creating places we all want to live and visit.  A state official explained, "Instead of the money going out with no strings attached, we are placing the goal of creating a more vibrant community," said Kip Bergstrom, deputy commission of the state Department of Economic & Community Development, which runs the Office of the Arts. "We want to put our money behind folks that are doing this well."
● In Cincinnati, Mayor Mark Mallory used the Topos research findings in his state of the city speech to encourage broad giving from individuals (and found a perfect way to also recognize a large donation to the Symphony).
● And Mesa Arizona Mayor Scott Smith, speaking on a panel at the Republican National Convention, discussed his support for maintaining public funding of the arts even in a tough city budget year. "There is a direct connection between the health of the arts and culture in your community, and your ability to grow economically," Smith said. "People want to live in a place that is vibrant, that is growing."

This organizing idea shapes the subsequent conversation in important ways. It moves people away from thinking about private concerns and personal interests (me) and toward thinking about public concerns and communal benefits (we). The arts are no longer just nice – they become necessary because practical benefits become just as apparent to people, as does the emotional appeal. Importantly, people who hear this message often shift from thinking themselves as passive recipients of consumer goods, and begin to see their role as active citizens interested in addressing the public good.

The arts’ value to the public is a critical part of engaging other sectors in partnering with the arts for community development. The way we talk about the arts has to build value and understanding for the role of arts in community development.


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