Artists’ Voices Ring Through Civic Dialogue and Municipal Engagement

Artists’ Voices Ring Through Civic Dialogue and Municipal Engagement
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The role of the artist is changing.

In the midst of these challenging times, civic engagement has become the focus of attention across many sectors and fields. More than ever, the arts are promoting greater awareness and understanding of community issues, contributing to shifts in thinking and in attitude. I see artists and arts organizations across the country being integrated into practices of civic engagement, and applying the power of artistic imagination to inform, inspire, engage, and motivate social action. Over the last seven days at two different convenings in Detroit—the Independent Sector and the Grantmakers in the Arts conferences—I heard powerful stories about how arts and culture are being used to shape dialogue and spur real change. And I continue to applaud state and municipal governments across the U.S. for embracing such collaborations.

A great example is in Detroit itself, where the city’s challenged economy and tense race relations are a widely known, persistent stereotype. In matters of race, religion, and sexual orientation, the city’s media coverage lacks balance—Mayor Mike Duggan has commented on the unfairness that longtime black-owned businesses don’t get the same media treatment as newly opened businesses run by younger white entrepreneurs, for instance. To help remodel the city’s narrative through the eyes of its citizens, Mayor Duggan conceived a plan to give Detroiters a way to connect and discuss issues that don’t get covered by the city’s traditional media, and give Detroiters and their neighborhoods a stronger voice.

Last March, Mayor Duggan hired popular journalist Aaron Foley to be the city’s “chief storyteller,” embedded in, and employed by, city government. Believing that local residents deserve better and more diverse stories about their neighborhoods and the reality of living in the city, Foley created an online platform called The Neighborhoods, where these stories can be shared. From a description of the first black-owned roller rink in the U.S. to a Bangladeshi cricket ground, stories cover a range of topics. The platform is already acting as a bridge between more than 200 neighborhoods and communities. Foley’s work through the City of Detroit is empowering residents by validating their stories and perspectives.

Integrating the arts and creative thinking into a city’s practices and policies is vital. In July 2015, Boston’s Mayor Martin Walsh announced the creation of Boston Artists-in-Residence (AIR), as part of the cultural planning effort Boston Creates. Boston AIR embeds local artists inside city departments to promote creative thinking into the work of municipal departments and planning efforts. Eleven artists received a stipend while studying and expanding their own civic and social practice, and collaborated on large-scale projects alongside liaisons from city departments, including Public Works, Property and Construction Management, Parks and Recreation, Veterans’ Services, Commission for Persons with Disabilities, Education, Policy, Neighborhood Development, Women’s Advancement, Elderly Commission, and the Boston Police Department. Three of the artists each received a $20,000 stipend for a six-month residency, with projects including quilt and poetry workshops to help women in recovery from drug abuse; video installations taking advantage of unused city space; and an initiative using music to understand police relations.

In its second year, Boston AIR’s expanded residencies were grounded in Boston Centers for Youth & Family locations around the metropolitan area. One artist used her residency to teach children and adults in Hyde Park how to build cameras from unconventional materials; a graphic novelist interviewed immigrants and wrote and illustrated their stories, presenting their experiences in a new and unique way that will allow for easy translation into other languages. Boston AIR is one way Mayor Walsh and the City of Boston are invigorating Boston’s cultural scene, bringing this creative practice into the work of the city’s departments, while simultaneously supporting local artists as their innovation and creativity benefit every resident of Boston.

Sometimes collaboration between an artist and a civic agency takes the form of turning standard public process into something more inviting and constructive. In Maine, artist Jennie Hahn and civic partner Stephanie Gilbert of the Maine Department of Agriculture took on the hefty challenge of decoding the technical nature of farm land preservation policy and easements in order to forge a new conversation between farmers, policy-makers, community members, and other stakeholders including new immigrant farmers. The idea was to use theater exercises and role-play to engage people in technical and often incomprehensible farm land policy conversations, and to also create a comfortable environment where participants could tell their personal stories about land and farming to one another, and to be empowered to develop new policies—often a polarizing topic.

Hahn and Gilbert made the simple but unorthodox choice to hold a meeting out in the fields and gardens of a farm. First, to simplify complex language of easement legislation needing discussion, they broke the language down into short segments on paper. As participants walked the property of the farm, they read the passages aloud. The shared experience of walking the farm made the complex legislation more immediate and understandable. In addition, as people engaged with one another, stories naturally began to unfold, which also helped to reveal the human implications of the legislation.

As Hahn and Gilbert worked together, Gilbert learned these simple yet highly effective creative techniques and gained confidence to use them in her ongoing work in Maine’s agricultural communities around various public processes. Hahn’s and Gilbert’s story is one of discovering the power of the arts in non-arts settings, allowing people to engage with each other, improve the quality of decision-making, and foster coalition-building.

When the arts are integrated, often through local arts agencies, with practices of civic engagement and social activism, they can enhance awareness, knowledge, and discourse around issues; shift attitudes; promote effective participation and action; and improve systems and policies that ensure social justice. The arts broaden citizens’ voices, offering a welcoming entry point to those who have not felt power in the civic realm before. They prompt deeper exploration and shift sometimes contentious public debate to a more open and receptive space for listening, expressing, and truly hearing alternative views.

As vital as the voices of artists are, they must be protected, and we as citizens need to help them. You can take a stand with the resources of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, through petition signings, involvement in action campaigns, submitting letters to the editor, and by contacting your state and federal officials, voicing your support for the arts.

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