Blog Posts for Civic Engagement

Rethinking Social Impact: "We Can’t Talk About Social Well-Being Without the Arts & Culture"

Posted by Mark Stern, May 01, 2012 0 comments

Mark Stern

Mark Stern

Susan Seifert and I began the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) in 1994 in response to the attention that economic impact studies were gaining at the time.

We felt—in addition to their methodological flaws—that these studies captured only a fraction of the importance that the arts held for society. We committed ourselves to think through the theoretical and methodological issues involved in documenting the contribution that arts and cultural engagement have for community life.

Over the years, we’ve discovered many connections between the arts and social well-being, some of them quite surprising.

It turned out that the arts were associated with preserving ethnic and racial diversity in urban neighborhoods, lower rates of social distress, and reduced rates of ethnic and racial harassment. Perhaps most surprisingly, we found that the presence of cultural assets in urban neighborhoods was associated with economic improvements, including declines in poverty.

We used the concept of “natural” cultural districts to study neighborhoods where we found unplanned concentrations of arts organizations, cultural enterprises, artists, and cultural participants and documented that it was the social and civic engagement associated with the arts that seemed to drive these economic benefits and revitalization.

Over the past several years, we’ve been trying to re-conceptualize our findings and their meaning for the cultural community, urban public policy, and scholarship.

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Blog Salon: Evaluating the Social Impact of the Arts

Posted by Joanna Chin, Apr 30, 2012 2 comments

Joanna Chin

Growing interest in capturing impact of many types of programs has resulted in escalating discourse and developing practice-based theory about the social impacts of the arts. This current focus on understanding what difference we make builds on, and goes beyond Robert Putnam’s theory, which connected the power of arts and culture in creating social capital.

Across the board, researchers are exercising leadership in this area. For example:

  • Alan Brown, in An Architecture of Value, has drawn out and interpreted key concepts from the RAND Corporation’s Gifts of the Muse report to advance a framework of public value centered in and building from the arts experience.
  • Clayton Lord and Alan Brown, working with theater partners across the country, have devised indicators and scales to measure the intrinsic impact of experiencing theater.
  • In the media arts, American University’s Center for Social Media has reviewed state of the art methodologies for the strategic design and evaluation of social issue documentary films in its Designing for Impact.
  • Mark Stern and Susan Seifert at the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) have developed cultural clustering as both a methodology and a concept. The method involves integrating data on cultural assets into a geographic information system to produce a Cultural Asset Index that can be used to identify census block groups with the highest density of these assets. SIAP is developing a Creative Assets Mapping Database as a community and economic development tool.
  • The Knight Foundation and Artplace are working to create vibrancy measures for communities, while the National Endowment for the Arts is looking for indicators to assess the impact of Our Town and other grant programs.

Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, has been working to bring together these strands of thinking in the Impact section of our website; particularly, when artists are intentional and art is integrated with practices of civic engagement and social activism as catalysts, conveners, forums, and forms for change.

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The Power of Local Arts Leadership

Posted by Ursula Kuhar, Apr 19, 2012 1 comment

Ursula Kuhar

Local. Public. Value. Arts.

Try creating a cohesive, comprehensive sentence that reflects our field using these four words.

These simple words that occupy so much complexity within our industry, and an entire day of dialogue at the first Americans for the Arts Executive Directors & Board Member Symposium held on April 15.

It was an exhilarating experience to participate in a peer exchange with diverse leaders from organizations around the country including Americans for the Arts President & CEO Bob Lynch, Jonathan Katz of the National Association of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), and Mary McCullogh-Hudson of ArtsWave.

In order to frame our work as arts leaders forging into a “new normal” in the industry, Bob shared the history and context of the local arts movement in America, rooted in the discovery of the Americas to the first established arts council in 1947 by George Irwin in Illinois, to the evolution of today’s local arts enabling organization that provide cultural programming, funding, community cultural planning, and of course, advocacy activities.

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Site-Specific Dance and Social Change

Posted by Rachel Engh, Apr 10, 2012 0 comments

Rachel Engh

The first time I saw site-specific dance was in a park in New York City’s Chinatown. While dancers climbed on tables and scaled fences, older local men who looked to spend much of the day in the park continued to read newspapers, staying still while the dancers moved around them.

I remember wondering, how do these men feel as we, the audience members and the dancers, share their space? Did they see us as intruders? Did the choreographer want the audience members to think about the relationships between the local men and the dancers?

It is hard to know unless a choreographer facilitates dialogue, and thankfully, Heidi Duckler does just that.

By bringing dance into public spaces, site-specific choreographer Duckler also succeeds in bringing social issues out into the open. Duckler is based in Los Angeles and leads the Heidi Duckler Dance Theater (DHHT), a company she has fostered since 1985.

In her work, Duckler inserts dancers into public spaces from washing machines in a laundromat to Los Angeles City Hall. The audience is a critical part of the experiences and Duckler works to engage audience members in dialogues about art, civic engagement, and social issues.

In one of her most recent pieces, Expulsion, Duckler brought together ideas of migration and displacement to examine the theme of “home" (you can check out the Project Profile dedicated to the performance on Animating Democracy.org for more information).

As part of the A LOT series, sponsored by the Arts Council for Long Beach, Duckler looked for material for Expulsion by soliciting stories from community members. Each piece is performed in a vacant lot in Southern California.

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Cultural Historians: Paying Homage to the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

Posted by Molly O'Connor, Apr 06, 2012 1 comment

Molly O'Connor

Working part time at a bookstore to pay for college, it was in 2001 when I first learned about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. I was shelving books when I came across a copy of Up from the Ashes by Hannibal B. Johnson.

I recall flipping through the pages, stunned that such massive atrocity that had taken place in my home state. And how was I just learning about this? The riot was certainly not included in Oklahoma History class.

Since that day, I’ve discovered I’m not the only Oklahoman who has been oblivious to the Tulsa Race Riot, the most horrifying act of racial violence in American history.

While this incident made national news, local history books and classes were devoid of information about this violent attack on the community of Greenwood. Even today, researching the event often leads to more questions.

There are discrepancies in the numbers of fatalities, and, as always, history has been written and controlled by those who have committed genocide. The mysteries of what really happened on May 31, 1921 are perhaps lost in the ashes.

For Oklahomans, how do we collectively reconcile this deep scar in our history and take steps to heal the wounds that still hurt and divide us? How do we ensure that we learn from the Tulsa Race Riot so that history does not repeat itself?

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Partnering for Civic Engagement: The Tucson Pima Arts Council & Finding Voice

Posted by Sara Bateman, Apr 06, 2012 3 comments

Sara Bateman

In my first post for the Emerging Leaders Blog Salon, I discussed the need for producing collaborations and partnerships in order to elevate ourselves from arts leaders to community leaders.

If the arts are to become a cultural zeitgeist, where we can leverage our work to address the social inequities of our time, we must be open to partnerships, collaborative environments, and shared leadership.

In searching for this combination as an emerging leader, I feel it is important to not only to leverage our new perspectives and fresh energy, but also to learn from the examples of those who have already been pushing the field forth.

Throughout the past two decades, the arts have been recognized as a way to revitalize communities across the nation. We’ve seen that programs celebrating an individual community’s character, history, people, and values through art have the potential to communicate and empower a neighborhood’s voice in a manner that can create powerful place making and important systemic change.

But who is best placed to initiate and leverage this type of work? Is it a local artist, a small community center, an arts council, or a major institution?

While all mentioned above are capable and have already initiated successful community and civic engagement projects, local arts agencies in particular are in a unique place to spearhead revitalization, change, and engagement through the arts.

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