Welcome to the Argument in My Head

Posted by Ms. Laura I. Zabel, Dec 03, 2012 3 comments

Laura Zabel

I believe deeply that the best solutions are local.

The work I admire most is deeply rooted in the community it serves. And it often takes years and years to know a community well enough to provide what it needs, to have the right network to make the work accessible to the people who want it and the cultural intuition to make the work resonate.

And I also believe you can always go deeper and always have more impact.

Springboard for the Arts has been in Minnesota for over 21 years and there is still so much more to do here—more ways we can reach new communities, more partners to work with, more issues to understand.

When it comes to cultural experiences I can’t think of an arts organization that should be worried about market saturation (said another way, I think we’ve got a long way to go before we’re reaching everyone, even in our own backyards). Not to mention the great benefit to remaining organizationally small, nimble, and responsive.

And yet. And yet…I also believe deeply in sharing. I know that by collaborating and sharing models that work, or ideas that inspire, we have the capacity to do much more together than we could ever do each toiling away in our own silos. And so, at Springboard we’ve decided we want both. We are both deepening our local presence AND scaling nationally.

We’ve spent the last two years talking, strategizing, experimenting, and piloting. And we’ve decided it’s not replication we’re after—it’s movement building.

We want to increase the impact of the work, without building an institution. We want all artists to have access to the resources they need to make a living and a life. And we want all communities to know how to tap into the power of their creative community. We have some ideas that we think are worth sharing. We want to learn new ideas from other communities.

Or in the words of Theaster Gates: “How can the work act as a kind of meat for the creation of new opportunities and new models in other places? That is, how can we model interesting things in a place and have them become resonant and resounding so that people, whether they want to replicate the thing or not, they gain more ear for the fact that there are gaps in culture or there are gaps in a place?”*

Yes, exactly. But how?

1. Steal ideas from other sectors. There are people who already know how this works, particularly in the urban agriculture and local food movement. The local food movement is by definition “local”—and most of the organizations who lead this movement have strong roots in a local community (think Growing Power or Sustainable South Bronx), but they’ve been able to share those ideas and understand the national context for their work-sometimes actually training people in how to do similar work or starting programs in new communities and sometimes just by inspiring new people to action.

2. Make sure someone local wants your crazy ideas. I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of well-meaning “replicators” and it’s not always fun. For example, a national organization called me up a few years ago—not to offer, but to tell me they were bringing their services to the Twin Cities, because they had a grant to serve “underserved” communities. Hrm. We may be in flyover country, but the Twin Cities are hardly underserved when it comes to cultural resources. I really don’t want to be that guy who makes assumptions about who could benefit from my help. So, for now at least, we’re only going where we’re invited.

3. Local control. We know that if the whole movement building thing is going to work, then anything we share needs to be locally adapted and locally owned. This is where I think we can to have our cake and eat it, too. Ideas, models and tool kits are shared widely and then customized by local partners. We’ve learned that if you are clear about the values or guiding principles of a model, then you can be really free with how people implement it. That takes a certain amount of risk and trust, but I also think it allows for speed and authenticity in a way that we will never get if we try to make all the rules or do it all ourselves.

4. Reciprocity. The other great benefit of allowing a lot of customization and local control is that other people have better ideas than you do! And you can learn from them and use those ideas to strengthen the work. Every time our work lands in a new place or with a new group of people they bring new life, new perspective and new culture back to us. And that’s the part that’s really exciting about sharing or replicating: what if we can build a national network of “sharers”? People all across the country (or the world) who are feeding each other’s work, making the work better, working towards a common cause that makes art and artists more visible and valued for the contributions they make to their communities?

Now that’s a movement I’d like to join.

(Editor's Note: The Theaster Gates quote is from “Community and the Arts: All Art is Local” at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, which is available as a podcast.)

3 responses for Welcome to the Argument in My Head


December 04, 2012 at 11:51 am

Laura, This is a wonderful response that refocuses the question of scale to the more meaningful question of impact. Too often in discussions I have been in at the Council on Foundations, for example, scale seems to become the goal rather than one of many means of reaching the larger goal of positive social change. Thinking about and more importantly doing movement building is a great link between local and regional or national impact. I hope you will keep arguing in your head and sharing the creative and positive thoughts and solutions to the fundamental questions of how arts and culture can contribute to positive social change!

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Penny Snipper says
December 06, 2012 at 11:02 am

Movement building, not replication, is the only way to move forward. In the past, the distinction between those two words has been misinterpreted, and a lot of resources and good intent was wasted.

Here in Minnesota, we are known for creating great models that work - from social services to political advocacy. The recent election proved that, when we voted NO, on to amendments to the constitution that would have been so harmful to our society. Now, the task is to not to squander the energy, focus and will of the individuals that made up this movement, but, build a solid foundation, so that the movement can grow.

So, Laura is right, we have 'seeded" the movement, now we need to nurture it carefully.

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December 03, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Laura, I like the open source spirit of your premise ... that models like Springboard’s are and should be freely adaptable with the caveats you also provide!

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