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How Can Local Arts Agencies Engage Their Communities?

Maya Kumazawa

It seems that “community engagement” and “community arts” are paving the way to a new paradigm in the local arts sector.

By browsing through some local arts agency (LAA) websites, I got the sense that most organizations were somehow relating to their local communities already. But what exactly IS community engagement and how do you do it?

Of course, by sponsoring a public art installation or creating a cultural district, the community benefits. There’s no clear line between community outreach and actually engaging citizens in conversations.

An article in the New York Times describes the shift towards community engagement in MFA programs as, “[capturing] the evolving contemporary art world, one in which awareness of the social, cultural, economic and political context in which art exists has become increasingly important. “

However, even this description doesn’t clearly distinguish how the arts world is changing – the arts have always reflected an awareness of social and cultural contexts. By defining the paradigm more specifically, LAAs will be able to plan more efficiently.

So, here is a proposed definition:

A program or initiative that is intentional in fostering civic or social participation where community capital can be a measured outcome – that is, using art as a medium to achieve a greater societal goal in the local community.

What does this mean in practice? Community engagement can take many forms. Below are six examples of how LAAs are meeting the above definition:

1.    Programs: The City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program “builds lasting community relationships, bringing together people whose paths might otherwise never have crossed.” By targeting specific groups, such as victims and offenders of crime, youth, and those affected by behavioral health problems, the program allows for dialogue throughout the mural making process as well as leaving a physical artifact in the community to promote continuing conversations.

2.    Networks: New Hampshire State Council on the Arts’ Creative Communities Network is a group of local and municipal organizations and state agencies that collaborate on projects (such as designing an Artist Needs Assessment Survey) and discuss ways to incorporate the arts into the health care, environmental, and economic sectors in their communities.

3.    Partnerships: Pennsylvania Council on the Arts’ Arts in Education program works with local and regional partners to provide services on behalf of the Council. By working with local organizations, the program empowers local participation and leverages local resources.

4.    Grants: San Francisco Arts Commission’s Arts and Communities: Innovative Partnerships’ grants program funds programs that “engage in innovative creation processes – exploring artistic practice potentially outside of one’s comfort zone – in order to address pressing community needs or celebrate community assets,” which will result in ongoing dialogue.

5.    Education: Brooklyn Arts Council’s Arts in Education program provides collaborative resources through workshops, performances, participatory events, and professional development sessions for children, parents, and the elderly.

6.    Awards: Toronto’s Neighbourhood Arts Network is hosting the 2011 ACE awards  to recognize artists who’ve made significant contributions or achieved key milestones in “community transformation” through culturally diverse collaborations.

There is a common thread running through each of these examples: using the arts to stimulate dialogue within communities to address concerns or highlight successes.

It’s important that these programs are carried out on the local level, catering to specific needs and targeted groups – through partnerships, networks, and collaborations with both organizations and community members. Thus, an LAA is clearly the best vehicle for authentic community engagement – so let’s get busy!

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