By Linda Frye Burnham

by Linda Frye Burnham, 

Art in the Public Interest and Community Arts Network

December, 2008

In the U.S., those engaged in the field of community-based arts will remember 2008 as the year we all raised our heads at once and looked with guarded optimism to the future. The day was precisely November 4, when Barack Obama, a community organizer, was elected president. More about that later.

On a more granular level, great leaps were taken across the community arts field this year — in higher education, in action for cultural equity, in national cultural organizing and in contemporary arts theory. Making the leaps: Imagining America, the Cultural Equity Group, Water the Roots, the Community Arts Convening and Research Project and the Charleston Rhizome of Alternate ROOTS. And we at CAN are taking the greatest leap since we founded the site in 1999: CAN is looking for a new home.

Leaping with the Community Organizer in Chief

Barack Obama’s policies have promise for change of every kind at the community level, and especially for situations in which communities collaborate with artists for public benefit. As Arlene Goldbard said recently on CAN — in “The New New Deal: Public Service Jobs for Artists?” — Obama and Congress are expected to shape and approve block-grant-driven public works and job programs to meet the current economic crisis. She recommends that if/when the decision makers turn to community cultural development to help address our many social needs, they will realize that there’s already a cadre of people trained and ready to work, and they need jobs. Wrote Goldbard, “…experienced practitioners who already have the skills and training are … needed, people who require livable salaries, a continuity of employment and decent working conditions to invest in local cultural development in the substantial way the Obama administration finally has the chance to actualize.”

Goldbard lists ways that artists already know how to help communities, and she details several proposals already being put forward to the new administration by community arts practitioners who are taking a proactive approach to this opportunity, including:

  • The National Campaign to Hire Artists to Work in Schools
  • The National Green Arts Corps and
  • The Music National Service Initiative

These activists are not waiting to find out what will be available, but are using their considerable experience and energy to try to help shape the new arts policy.

The Leap for Cultural Equity

Several coalitions joined together this year to try to increase financial support to arts organizations important to the infrastructure of communities that are often marginalized and under-resourced. This year saw unprecedented activism from New York City’s Cultural Equity Group(CEG), made up of the executive directors of cultural institutions serving primarily black, Latino and Asian communities from all five boroughs. In January 2008, they united to demand “fair and equitable funding from the City of New York.”

The CEG manifesto, available on the Web site of Manhattan’s Cultural Caribbean Center/African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), makes the case:

Although New York City is the cultural Mecca of the United States, an enormous amount of cultural ignorance continues to exist in high and low places, which naturally produces police brutality, failing school systems, teen pregnancy, unethically high incarceration rates, etc. All of the members of the CEG work directly with communities plagued with these issues in order to utilize art, history and culture to decrease the negative statistics that plague these underserved and under-resourced communities. These community institutions stabilize whole communities with far less resources, assistance, staffing, health care and opportunities than their white counterpart institutions that have the luxury of focusing on ”art for arts sake.”

CEG also demands a more transparent approach to city arts funding and more diversity among panelists who are the decision makers: “Of all the City Agencies, the Department of Cultural Affairs should be more reflective of the City of New York, which would have a great impact on the way institutions of color are viewed, supported and respected.”

On November 18, 2008, N.Y.C. Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate D. Levin announced Building Sustainability, a capacity-building grant initiative of DCA's Community Arts Development Program. Supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, the initiative is intended to “strengthen community-based cultural organizations serving the City’s low- and moderate-income communities.” To be eligible for this grant program, cultural groups must have an allocation in the City’s five-year capital budget for FY 2009-13 (that’s 34 City-owned cultural institutions and approximately 200 other cultural facilities throughout the five boroughs) as well as an operating budget of $1,000,000 or less. DCA estimates that each capacity-building project will cost between $15,000 and $35,000. DCA will make an allocation supporting each project with a cap of $30,000 and grantees will pay the balance. Applicants have to show a cash commitment or a letter of support from a “sponsor,” and winning proposals will be carried out through “qualified management consultants” selected by DCA staff.

At this writing, there has been no official response from CEG members, but it’s easy to predict that there will be some bumps in the road due to the small size of the grants, the pre-set qualifications and the paternalistic process.

In addition to this New York City effort, CCCADI’s Marta Moreno Vega reports that her organization and CEG are joining Voices from the Cultural Battlefront in “working on a concept of establishing a Community Arts University Without Walls to address the importance of community-based organizations as locations of learning, as well as landmarking the field as a discipline not only at the university/college level but throughout the arts and cultural world.” Watch CAN for more news on this initiative.

Folk Culture Leaps into the Picture

Water the Roots is a group of traditional performing arts presenters invited to Chicago in September by The Fund for Folk Culture and the Old Town School of Folk Music to consider creating a national network for their field. Representatives of some 20 organizations that support traditional, grassroots, community-based arts met to discuss the structure of existing models, like the National Performance Network, and the services a new network might provide: membership benefits, communications, funding, advocacy, touring support and "a paradigm for contending with the issues of racial and cultural diversity that plague most presenters." Organizations participating ranged from the San Francisco Arts Commission to Kentucky’s Appalshop to D.C.’s Kennedy Center to the Whirly Bird Dancehall and Saloon in Opelousas, Louisiana.

The primary propellant for this convening was the fact that community-based art is rising in visibility and access to funding, and these presenters want a piece of that pie. One of the most frequently repeated complaints was that “our priorities aren’t shared by any public funders.” For these “roots” folks, the highest priority is “getting funding to those who have the most trouble finding it: individual traditional and folk artists,” and it was acknowledged that most of those artists are elders. They discussed a possible network, framing, branding, mission, leadership imagery, language (viz.: advantages and drawbacks of language like “endangered music”) and action — most particularly a national event week.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of this meeting was the fact that all the participants paid for their own travel and lodging (avg. about $500). Another was the confidence they showed in moving forward with a group decision-making structure. Arlene Goldbard ran the meeting efficiently with an open heart, and the organizers, primarily Bau Graves and his Old Town staff, have continued to keep the group in communication. Says Graves: "Water the Roots is envisaged as an open-ended invitation to participation, encouraging initiatives that can enhance heritage-based art in all its forms. Next year, this new entity aims to develop a Web presence to share information with our field, and stimulate planning for a simultaneous, multi-venue/multi-city folk arts festival in 2010.” See Graves’ blog here. Watch CAN for further developments.

For the Art World: The Critical Leap

It is obvious that traditional culture is the wellspring of all culture. In 2008, we heard loud and clear the message that traditional cultures and art forms continue to be vital to the survival of communities everywhere. The recognition of that reality, and the integration of that recognition into the accepted version of contemporary culture, are key jobs for curators, educators, critics and historians in the coming decade.

Community-based artspaces, especially those that serve immigrant audiences, are already presenting traditional and contemporary art forms side by side. Remarkable mixtures are on view at places like Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, the Cultural Caribbean Center/African Diaspora Institute in New York and the new Arab American National Museum in Michigan.

Radical scholars are emerging with complex and interesting theories. For example, see folklorist Maribel Alvarez’s "Strike a Global Pose: Considerations for Working with Folk and Traditional Cultures in the 21st Century" for the Fund for Folk Culture. Also see her essay for CAN, “The Pedagogy of Intangible Heritage: Los Cenzontles and Mexican Folk Music,” in which she examines the “hybrid folk context” of the cultural project/organization Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds), based in San Pablo, Calif. “I am hopeful,” she writes, “that their work may also amount to a forcefully persuasive argument against the stereotypical ‘dancing-around-the-guacamole’ syndrome that has for too long burdened Mexican folk music and dance.”

Alvarez is among scholars, including Alaka Wali, Tom Borrup, Gaylene Carpenter and Doug Blandy, who are expanding the definition of arts and culture to embrace all kinds of participatory activity. See Alvarez’s "There’s Nothing Informal About It: Participatory Arts Within the Cultural Ecology of Silicon Valley" for Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley. And visit the James Irvine Foundation Web site for a new report, “Cultural Engagement in California's Inland Regions." It may raise your eyebrows.

Leaping through the Hoops of Higher Education

This year saw the first national meeting of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life since the university coalition has been under the leadership of community arts maven Jan Cohen-Cruz. “Public Engagement in a Diverse America: Layers of Place, Movements of People” occurred in Los Angeles in October at the University of Southern California and it got rolling early by overlapping with a convening of Voices from the Cultural Battlefront, the itinerant national conversation on cultural equity.

The L.A. forum of Voices was truly energizing. It started with a rundown of the ad-hoc group’s analysis of the global free-market economic model and how it “destroys communities by putting profit before people, market before community,” and then proceeded to testimony from local L.A. artists and organizations. This meeting was extraordinarily timely because it occurred right after U.S. Treasury Sec. Henry Paulson announced that the economic sky was falling and taxpayers would be required to bail out financial institutions and corporations to the tune of at least $700 billion. After considerable exercise of what one participant called “irritable growl syndrome,” the Voices meeting decided that the crisis was actually an opportunity. To quote (not verbatim) Randy Martin, who teaches arts politics at NYU: “It turned out there was an extra 700 billion dollars! We don't have to talk from a place of scarcity. Everything we need is obviously available!” This, of course, sparked renewed advocacy planning. Seriously, though, it’s hard to imagine a more pertinent and well-timed discussion than this one, coming at the beginning of what looks like the oft-predicted collapse of free-market capitalism. Kudos to Voices (again)!

Imagining America’s workshops and seminars ran the gamut from work-a-day to academic: from dialogue-fostering exercises by Cornerstone Theater to an arcane, scholarly panel discussion of the term “public humanities.” Artist Judy Baca gave an intensely powerful keynote called “La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra: Creating Sites of Public Memory,” about bringing to life the visual iconography embedded in the landscape, as she has done with so many community mural and monument projects. “I’m not asking people what they want to see,” said Baca. “I’m asking them what they care about. Then I put the best minds together to bring those things to life.”

Other workshops and seminars I attended:

  • “Public Engagement in the Virtual World of Second Life,” a presentation on creating online “islands” for interaction. It looked like so much technical trouble that it left me wondering why it was any better than face-to-face interface.
  • “Artists, Cultural Organizers and Scholars as Part of Sustained Movements for Change,” an activist panel on “going beyond wonderful projects and making systematic change.” Chaired by Caron Atlas, it included such riveting speakers as Third World Majority’s Thenmozhi Soundararajan, and also raised some pertinent questions about university involvement in community activism.
  • Detail-rich exploration of the findings of The Curriculum Project, an AI-sponsored project (by Arlene Goldbard, Dudley Cocke, Jan Cohen-Cruz and Jamie Haft) that researched the state of higher education for community cultural development. Leading the discussion, Goldbard suggested that community arts training “could be introduced into the training of all artists as an alternative way of making a living.”
  • A fascinating demonstration of The Living Newspaper Project from UT Austin’s Humanities Institute, reviewing the Depression-era Living Newspapers of the Federal Writers Project. The presenters demonstrated how the technique is being used in Texas by a paid, multi-ethnic high-school theatrical troupe.

I have to commend IA for offering reduced fees to community members who don’t have the advantage of university salaries, and I thank them for interfacing with Voices. The whole experience gave me some more cultural armor with which to face the 2009 upheavals and meltdowns.

And on another higher-ed front, a review of 2008 would not be complete without recognizing the enormous achievement of the Community Arts Convening and Research Project (CACRP), which created the first peer-reviewed publication for the field: Community Arts Perspectives, edited by artist/scholar Amalia Mesa-Bains. The six issues of the first volume of the publication are available on CAN. There are several other significant aspects to this body of writing: one, it includes writing not only by community arts academics but also by students and community practitioners, and two, the process by which it was produced was unprecedented in the field.

Maryland College Institute of Art (MICA) in Baltimore took the lead for the CACRP, sending out a call for essays from the field. Submissions were reviewed by a national editorial board, and selected essays were the basis for discussion at the national convening in May at MICA. Then the essays were revised by their authors and edited by and published on CAN. Round Two of this process is currently underway, with the second national convening scheduled for California State University Monterey Bay, on April 19-21, 2009.

The Local Leap: The Future Is on the Table, Charleston, S.C.

The most intimate and delightful convening I attended all year was The Future Is on the Table, organized by Gwylene Gallimard and Jean-Marie Mauclet of the Alternate ROOTS “rhizome” in Charleston, S.C.

Alternate ROOTS (Regional Organization of Theaters South) is a passionately dedicated, multi-ethnic coalition of artists who work in communities in the southeast U.S. They come together for an annual meeting each summer to talk theory and trade practicalities. The organization empowers “rhizomes” to develop projects locally.

Gallimard and Mauclet are French-born artists who live and work in Charleston. (See my 2004 article about her work on CAN.) Their project, “The Future Is on the Table,” brought a number of artists to Charleston from England, France, India and South Africa to work with local communities around the concept of gift exchange and the themes of water and shelter, and included local artists as well. I was privileged to be invited, along with artist/activist Alice Lovelace, to help guide the fall public conversation around the experience.

The remarkable thing about these two artists, particularly Gallimard, is their concept of inclusion. They throw ideas into the air and then collaborate closely with whomever is willing to catch them. This strategy results in arts productions so diverse that the two artists have to take on the role of ringmaster to the circus. But since, in their philosophy, all things are related, the task may be complicated, but the mission is clear.

This time, the airborne concept was embodied in a group of three-legged stools offered to contacts all over the world. Those who accepted the gift were asked to make art with, around or in response to the stools. Gallimard and Mauclet documented the results, then raised enough money to bring artists from around the world to Charleston. They included visual artists, dancers, performance artists, a textile collaborative, a stone carver and more. They came to work with groups all over town — from the staff of Gallimard-Mauclet’s restaurant, Fast & French, to students at local schools — to create an exhibition of installations at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park. Local artists were also included.

The installations varied from a clothing store to a poetry venue to an ice dance to a walk-in burka to a huge tree made of indigo-dyed fabric. The opening drew one of the most diverse audiences I have ever seen in an art gallery anywhere.

Conversations circled around the surprising combinations of elements that drew the show together. Questions were raised about art for art’s sake, social change, cultural difference, aesthetic choices and feminist politics. No firm conclusions were drawn, but there was much testimony about personal change — and one vigorous argument about tolerance when it comes to the wearing of the burka.

Please visit the Web site of The Future Is on the Table for visual images and interesting critical writing that emerged from the project. At CAN, we are hoping to get some deep writing from South Carolina critic Darryl Wellington about the meaning of the experience for Charleston.

CAN’s Leap into the Unknown

The Community Arts Network, according to a survey by Americans for the Arts in 2007, is recognized by its users as a vital portal into the field, providing crucial information exchange, critical dialogue and access to research. In 2008, Web analysis showed that CAN receives up to 70,000 visits per month. There are more than 10,000 pages on the site and 500+ essays. Subscriptions to APInews, our news service, are at a high, and CAN’s Blognet keeps our readers up to date with 17 arts blogs from around the world. This success is heartening but it presents CAN’s small parent organization, Art in the Public Interest, with significant challenges: expansion at the same rate as the rapidly growing field, creation of a staff succession plan, adaptation to constantly changing interactive technology, and assurance of long-term sustainability. The API board of directors decided that it is in the best interests of CAN and its users to look for a new home. We want to transfer all of CAN’s assets to an institution, agency, organization or coalition that is ready to contribute in a significant way to the emergent field.

We spent six months crafting a Request for Proposals, which went out December 16 and may be found on the CAN Web site at All the details of the RFP can be downloaded there. Letters of interest are due February 1, 2008.

We feel strongly that now is the moment for CAN to take a great leap, and we look forward to the process. Yes, we CAN.

Words from the Leapers

Finally, this year I asked several colleagues to comment on the year 2008, and some of them reflected on issues I have raised above. Others went further…

From Jan Cohen-Cruz, Imagining America, Syracuse University:

I see deeper work going on to make campus-community arts partnerships more equitable. The MICA-led effort is one example, and Imagining America's various efforts to be more inclusive of our members' community partners so they experience IA membership, too, is another.

I see more effort to tie public art on the local level to urban revitalization, and art on campuses (part of which is as extended into surrounding neighborhoods) to larger methods of carrying out higher ed's mission of stimulating student curiosity and connection to the world. The first point manifests itself to me through serving on the Syracuse municipal Public Art Commission and learning a bit about efforts in other cities; participating in a "Creative Campus" convening is the source of the second.

I see the seeds, the potential, for more value being placed on engaged citizens given the grassroots strengths of the Obama campaign. I dare to hope this will manifest itself as a new appreciation of community art's role in that regard but that's the whisper of a hope, not a trend.

From Maryo Gard Ewell, consultant and occasional CAN contributing editor:

Hopeful things—

  • The appointment of Bill Ivey as transition leader for arts & culture in the Obama administration sends a signal that the administration is committed to inclusion (people "participating in the culture of the community" ), access by people to the arts, a broad definition of arts, and meaningful public policy in the arts and culture.
  • The grassroots groundswell for the Obama candidacy, especially by young people.
  • A strong arts statement in the democratic platform and by Obama himself.

Bill Cleveland, Center for the Study of Art & Community:

Notable things—

  • The election of a president who has said, The “arts teach people to see through each others eyes. … to respect and understand people who are not like us. That makes us better citizens and makes our democracy work better.… imaginations sparked by the arts are more engaged.”
  • The closing of two great organizations serving the international community cultural development field. Creative Exchange and the Center for Creative Communities were both vital links to an extraordinary wealth of information about the work of artists working in and for communities in Europe Africa, and Asia. I will miss them.
  • The loss of the Rockefeller Foundation’s significant support for community cultural development in the U.S. (Not sure exactly when this went from speculation to an established fact.)
  • The emergence of the MICA conference [Community Arts Convening and Research Project] as an ongoing forum for learning and debate among community and academically based community arts, practitioners, students, thinkers, etc.
  • The establishment of the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. This provision of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the state constitution establishes the arts as an essential part of community infrastructure through the creation of a permanent funding stream for cultural development. This is also important because the cross-sector nature of the initiative, which was a collaboration between the state's arts and environmental communities.
  • Imagining America taking a more assertive role helping to build bridges between academic and community-based community arts practitioners,
  • The passing of Odetta, Studs Turkel and Miriam Makeba.
  • The election of a president who is committed to providing affordable healthcare for all Americans. If some form of universal healthcare becomes a reality, the potential impact on the arts community will be enormous.
  • The full flowering emergence of New Village Press as a publisher of record for the field.

From Grady Hillman, arts-and-corrections consultant:

As for trends: I am wary about using that term since it suggests change more substantial than it warrants. After nearly 30 years in the arts-in-corrections field, I feel safer using the "swinging pendulum" metaphor. We make ground; we lose ground; we adapt; we make ground and so on. Over the past 8 years, the most significant change was turning social services (and just about everything else) over to the faith-based folks toward creating a church/state with lots of notable folks like Bill Moyers likening it to the rise of fascism. In our world, Bush's most tangible legacy is the Faith Based Initiative, which shifted an enormous amount of nonprofit funding to the evangelicals. A dozen years ago, we had Bill Bennett and Lynne Cheney promoting the culture wars, and now the candidate on the stump who most consistently promoted arts education and community arts was Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher. In Mississippi, this is a "trend" I have to contend with regularly.

I want to echo Jan on another trend and that is the significant re-focus of architects and urban/rural designers to the theme of creative communities. Project Row Houses and the late Sam Mockbee's Rural Studio are getting lots of currency in civic economic development and cultural design discussion and projects. There's been sort of a quantum cognitive leap beyond arts programs in/of community-to-community as an art program and vice versa extending beyond common activities to habitat, cultural preservation and cultural identity.

In terms of community arts growth, the general consensus seems to be that arts programming for seniors and healthcare is the current and coming wave given the rapidly aging baby boomers. I see that happening and just wish the same logic would apply to the massive and expanding prison industrial complex, but that pendulum has not swung back. However, juvenile offender programs and programs for the children of incarcerated parents are expanding.

From Dudley Cocke, Roadside Theater, Appalshop, Voices from the Cultural Battlefront:

I think it is very hard for anyone to understand what has happened to the nonprofit arts and culture sector since trickle-down Reaganomics created the long boom for the elites and the bust for the rest. Now in the general recession, who in the nonprofit arts will get bailed out?

After 27 years of cultural war against the principle that all people everywhere have an equal right to develop and express their intellectual, emotional and spiritual heritage, we don't know the damage done. To make this assessment, how about a federally sponsored task force led by artists? What would be the questions such a study group would seek to answer? I bet each of us could come up with a few. Here are several:

  • How have the NEA's Expansion Arts and Folk Arts grantees fared since those programs were abolished in 1997?
  • What has happened to the market for touring original ensemble plays?
  • What happened to the WPA Federal Theatre Archives after the Reagan Administration's Library of Congress director suddenly took them away from the careful curatorial care of Dr. Lorraine Brown/George Mason University?

A twenty-seven-year trend won't be reversed soon, which is all the more reason for us to re-double our efforts.

And that’s all for 2008. We’re still mid-leap and waiting to exhale.

Linda Frye Burnham is co-director of Art in the Public Interest and the Community Arts Network.

Original CAN/API publication: December 2008