By Dudley Cocke, Craig McGarvey, and Peter Pennekamp

Community Arts Network, 

March, 2008

Dudley Cocke is artistic director of Roadside Theater, the Appalachian ensemble known for its original plays and national artistic collaborations with traditional musicians and other professional theater companies. He has directed or codirected the premieres of 28 main stage productions.

Craig McGarvey is an independent consultant working with foundations on program development and evaluation. For a decade he was with the James Irvine Foundation, a California-wide philanthropy, serving first as director of administration and then as program director in civic culture.

Peter H. Pennekamp is executive director of the Humboldt Area Foundation, distinguished for its mix of philanthropy and direct community services, particularly in regional economic and community development. He is a trustee of the Bush Foundation and on the steering committee of the Rural Development Philanthropy Collaboration.

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DUDLEY COCKE: Peter, we first met 20 years ago when you were working at the National Endowment for the Arts. And Craig, we met 10 years ago when you were running the Civic Culture Program at the James Irvine Foundation. That whole time I’ve been working at Roadside Theater/Appalshop in central Appalachia. Each of us has chosen the nonprofit sector as a way to make a contribution to a more just and equitable world, and in our work each of us daily experiences the power of art. But for all of art’s potential, each of us is often disappointed that artists and community organizers—and others who are working for social justice at the grassroots—cannot collaborate in more powerful ways. Why is this? What’s the disconnect?

CRAIG MCGARVEY: The arts and community organizing/social justice fields were much more organically connected in the Civil Rights Movement through the tradition of music in the African American church and in the farmworker rights movement through teatro in the fields. The role of the arts in social reform activism, with some notable exceptions, has arguably fallen away in the past 20 years.

COCKE: Some would think that’s surprising given how much both artists and community organizers understand about the intellectual and emotional impact of public storytelling. Story is at the center of their respective efforts.

PETER PENNEKAMP: I think we humans are the storytelling animal. My refugee father was a storyteller who used material from his life during the rise of Nazism to teach us—his children and his friends—values, strategies, and ways to analyze struggles for change. These included tales of humor in prison camps (“those who survived did not take themselves seriously”), of being rescued by a member of the Gestapo (“even the most airtight stereotypes are only stereotypes”), and of courage by people who did not know that they were courageous, until tested.

COCKE: I remember a Holocaust survivor saying what gave him the will to survive was his obsession with telling the story of what had happened—although he knew that it would be far more pleasant to die.

MCGARVEY: Community organizing puts storytelling to use purposefully to bring people from the private to the public arena, not as passive victims but as active narrators of their own lives. Organizers help marginalized folks draw connections between their life stories in order to see systemic patterns behind the arcs of their narratives. But the organizers are sometimes wary of ‘art for art’s sake’. With their sights set on particular social change goals, organizers can be impatient with the aesthetic value of the arts. And artists worry about compromising the aesthetic quality of their product. Art seems often to be seen as something produced by genius, which can only be diminished by specific utilitarian goals in the community.

COCKE: Well, part of this misunderstanding comes from both artists and organizers mistakenly thinking that more truth means less beauty, and vice versa.

PENNEKAMP: As I age, I get less tolerant of work that has no larger community purpose other than aesthetic pleasure. Also, it now seems to me that all fields of knowledge, including the arts, are one field of knowledge, splintered into phenomenological parts initially for the ease of study—for the power of focus—and then because those who master the part can claim some authority over the whole. There is polarity between the understanding and practice gained from isolating and focusing attention on specific parts of human experience and the blindness and limitations created by that focus.

MCGARVEY: I think one notable exception to this separation of art from the community can be found in the youth organizing that has grown rapidly around the country—young people from high school through college age and beyond working collectively to solve social problems in their communities and institutions. The use of the arts—poetry slams, story and theater, visual arts, digital arts—seems to come as naturally to this next generation as the newest electronic gadgetry.

PENNEKAMP: I think they’re on the right path. The main lesson I’ve learned through endless muddy efforts to further social justice is that the justice to which the community aspires always has to take primacy over a particular field. The field of art can be highly effective in contributing to social justice along with other fields, but only if it contributes first to the structure of change, instead of the structure of change being modified to fit the arts—the same can be said for community development, media, political reform, etc. This is why constructive community change is so rare: Members of fields try to modify action based on presumptions about their field, rather than to every moment hold the assumptions of the field accountable to the realities and possibilities for community change.

MCGARVEY: Then art, depending on how it positions itself, can be as powerful a vehicle for change as it can be a bastion for maintaining the status quo?

COCKE: That’s been my experience. And I’m inferring from what we’re saying that the present gap between artist and community organizer/social activist can’t be bridged by the exchange of their respective techniques and methodologies, but that what’s required is a new paradigm for their relationship.

MCGARVEY: I think so. When you say, Peter, that art “can be highly effective in contributing to social justice along with other fields, but only if it contributes first to the structure of change, instead of the structure of change being modified to fit the arts,” I think about community engagement. Authentic engagement starts with the dreams, aspirations, and problems of people, working with them to develop their collective authority and ability to build their community. Art can greatly enhance this process, because cultural change is made possible by the connecting influence of cultural exchange.

The Tamejavi festivals (the name is drawn from the Spanish, Mixtec, and Hmong words for cultural harvest market) of the past few years in California’s Great Central Valley represent some attempts at this paradigm shift that we are discussing: Aging Braceros (Mexican guest workers) sharing oral histories, young Hmong refugees staging a play about their epic journey from the mountains of Laos to this country, Cambodian artists presenting for the first time in the U.S. their classic opera Lakhaun Bassac—used in Cambodia to draw people into public space for civic activity. As one Tamejavi organizer put it, “It’s like a tree. The history of my people, the traditions, my parents, all are the roots, they make me who I am. Reaching out through the branches, others can understand me, know who I am, not just what I do. And I need to understand their roots, everything behind them in order to know them. Expression through art is a way of attracting people, pulling them together, and opening up the connection. It starts with the relationships, then they are empowered to more common actions.”

The arts are an inherent form of human and cultural expression and a powerful means of human connection and the strengthening of community. Performance by those who have reached the peak of their artistic disciplines—and passive reception of such expert performance—is arguably but one end of the spectrum of the arts in the human condition. Starting from this perspective of a spectrum can be an empowering position for those in the arts who wish to collaborate with other fields, for it enables the arts to empower others. A new paradigm may mean ‘undoing’ personal perspectives that keep separate the ‘amateur’ from the ‘professional’, and the receiver from the performer.

Once the spectrum is acknowledged, profound implications can follow. Rather than simply filling seats through community outreach, the goal of those in the arts field becomes one of community engagement in as many aspects of the work as possible, from conception to final production. It is neither the same work as outreach, nor is it easy work to engage community members. It is organizing work: the patient, respectful, nuanced effort to come to know individuals and their lives, to draw various viewpoints into collective consensus, to bring the appropriate art world professionals into the common mix.

COCKE: Producers and their marketing departments think of art as a commodity to be packaged and sold. But many artists, myself included, think of their artwork as a series of experiments in which at any moment in the art-making process—not just during the ticketed presentation in the auditorium—there is the potential for insight and even catharsis. As you point out, Craig, this can be true for the public as well as the artist, if the public is invited to witness and otherwise participate in the creative process. As I understand it, Tamejavi as a year-round organizing project makes room for these multiple opportunities for the artist and community alike.

PENNEKAMP: In traditional Native American culture on the Redwood Coast, there is little distinction between artist and audience member. The most important thing is participation. In these Indian communities, I regularly witness art as the sacrament of daily life, the path to greater personal and community health, and as the power that demands better treatment.

COCKE: With that, I think our inquiry has come to a resting point—to be continued. We agree that the barriers to more effective collaborations between artists and community organizers will require more than an exchange of techniques and methodologies. We think what’s needed is a new paradigm for the relationship. We see this new paradigm valuing broader and deeper public participation in the entire art-making process. We are encouraged by all those—including youth organizers—who seem to have an innate understanding for what many of us will experience as a new way to work together for positive social change.

This e-mail conversation was convened and edited by Dudley Cocke.

Original CAN/API publication: March 2008