The video Views from the Ground is part of a research initiative to create a framework that allows practitioners to better communicate with stakeholders and to better articulate the benefits of the work. The interviewees chosen in this film have been practicing for ten years or more and represent some of the most prolific writers and leading practitioners in our field. We asked them for definitions of the field and about outcomes of this work. This inquiry into community arts outcomes is designed to help emerging practitioners gain more knowledge of best practices, define outcomes that inform assessment, and explain the field to those who are unfamiliar with it.
Defining the field is especially important because community art has many names, and its tenets and outcomes are often only loosely defined. This lack of consistency and clarity in language makes it difficult to communicate with those who are outside the field who we often look to for support. As practitioners we have seen community art projects anecdotally make a difference in people's lives, yet in our hometown of Baltimore, this success has not led to the financial support needed for the work to flourish. This is not a new struggle. Data have been collected on the impact of art education, for example, for a long time and despite evidence of positive impact, the field still struggles for funding and adequate inclusion in schools. The traditional art world is a tough place as well. To survive it, a vow of poverty, tremendous persistence, and confidence are often required. Community art struggles for legitimacy as well and is often relegated to an after-school program or an aspect of a larger community initiative without being seen as of value in itself. If art is proving to be a tool that has value on a community level, it is worth understanding its impact on individuals and on young people in public school in particular who are by and large having an uninspiring experience. If art is to be implemented as a change strategy, we need to be savvy with data, to be compelling in our storytelling, and to keep working to understand the barriers to embracing this work.
There is some research to suggest that when art is used as a tool, rather than seen as an experience reserved for the privileged, there are community benefits. Richard Florida (2002) suggests that if municipalities invest in commercial art there is the potential for economic growth. Stern and Seifert's research posits that community-based art and culture strengthen community ties and enhance its livability (2007). This research has taken root enough that the National Endowment for the Arts now invests in "creative placemaking projects that contribute to the livability of communities." We observe that some funders and municipalities see their art and culture sectors as assets that build community. In contrast, elsewhere, such as in the poorest schools, the emphasis is often on conventional instruction rather than on arts-infused instruction or art classes. This signals a need for more research and advocacy to help make the case for how and why art is a tool for learning and community building in multiple contexts.
A challenge that community art faces is a lack of support from more traditional art fields. Some feel the product created in a community arts process is not of the same aesthetic quality as art made by professional artists (Bishop 2012, 26). Though professional art and art education are related to community arts, the focus is different. Art educators often strive to give tools to young people so they can think about art as a possible profession. In community art, whether a young person grows up to become an artist is not the primary concern. The collaborative and socially engaged nature of the work brings very different benefits. Efficacy, engagement, empowerment, and sense of community are among the outcomes found through our research (Reznick-Gewanter and Yenawine 2011). Though this has little to do with becoming an artist and with making a product that has financial worth, this does not mean the art produced lacks value. The process of engaging people who have traditionally been denied access to art means we create an avenue for them to speak their mind about nagging social issues. In the same way that folk art may not speak to contemporary aesthetic concerns, the alternative perspective that is offered provides unique value. The product is also different in that the intended audience is not the same as that of the mainstream art world. Often, community art strives to reach policy makers or community members through a perspective that uniquely positions them to make a product that is especially significant to the target audience. This kind of art making is more ancient than what we have come to call mainstream art; it is art that functions in ritual and ceremony, communicates important cultural or practical ideas and concepts, and has a tangible function in our everyday lives. Whether the aesthetics are as central as those of artists who make art for art's sake is irrelevant when our purpose is to educate, support, and elevate each other.
Articulating a common language based on seasoned practitioners' statements creates a way for the field and its stakeholders to discuss, advocate, critique, and strengthen the work. Creating definitions for what we mean by art producing empowerment, studying why arts engagement in a school setting may be just as valuable as conventional instruction in say, math, and being able to assess art's individual and community impact are all possible with more definition of art's unique processes.
Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. New York: Verso.
Florida, Richard. 2002. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. New York: Perseus Books.
Reznick Gewanter, Zoë, and Rebecca Yenawine. 2011. "Helping the Field to Flourish." http://www.mica.edu/About_MICA/Research_at_MICA/Community_Arts_Journal/Helping_the_Field_Flourish.html.
Stern, Mark, and Susan C. Seifert. 2007. "Cultivating 'Natural' Cultural Districts." Social Impact of the Arts Project. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.