Excerpted from: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
To build bridging social capital requires that we transcend our social and political and professional identities to connect with people unlike ourselves. This is why team sports provide good venues for social-capital creation. Equally important and less exploited in this connection are the arts and cultural activities. Singing together (like bowling together) does not require shared ideology or shared social or ethnic provenance. For this reason, among others, I challenge America's artists, the leaders and funders of our cultural institutions, as well as ordinary Americans: Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 significantly more Americans will participate in (not merely consume or "appreciate") cultural activities from group dancing to songfests to community theater to rap festivals. Let us discover new ways to use the arts as a vehicle for convening diverse groups of fellow citizens.
Art manifestly matters for its own sake, far beyond the favorable effect it can have on rebuilding American communities. Aesthetic objectives, not merely social ones, are obviously important. That said, art is especially useful in transcending conventional social barriers. Moreover, social capital is often a valuable by-product of cultural activities whose main purpose is purely artistic.
Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange has built unlikely community togetherness using community-based modern dance, bringing together, for example, unemployed shipyard workers and white-collar professionals when the closing of the Portsmouth (N.H.) shipyard strained local community bonds. The Roadside Theater Company has mustered diverse local folks in declining towns in Appalachia to celebrate their traditions and restore community confidence through dramatization of local stories and music. The Museum of the National Center for African American Artists in Boston has convened diverse groups of black Americans (Haitians, Jamaicans, Afro-Brazilians, and native African Americans) to build and then parade twenty-foot fish sculptures to the New England Aquarium. Toni Blackman's Freestyle Union in Washington, D.C., usesciphering, a novel combination of hip-hop, rap poetry, and improvisational poetry slams, to attract people from all walks of life, from a Filipino break-dancer to a right-to-life Christian. The Baltimore Museum of Art urges local residents to exploit its public spaces on "Freestyle Thursdays" by inviting local choral groups and others to perform. Chicago's Gallery 37 provides apprenticeships for diverse young budding artists--rich and poor, suburban and inner city, black, white, Latino--to follow their own muses, building social connections among artist-mentors, artist-apprentices, and observers. In the Mattole Valley of northern California, David Simpson has used community theater to build bridges between loggers and environmentalists. Many of these activities produce great art, but all of them produce great bridging social capital--in some respects an even more impressive achievement.