If the arts are to become a cultural zeitgeist, where we can leverage our work to address the social inequities of our time, we must be open to partnerships, collaborative environments, and shared leadership.
In searching for this combination as an emerging leader, I feel it is important to not only to leverage our new perspectives and fresh energy, but also to learn from the examples of those who have already been pushing the field forth.
Throughout the past two decades, the arts have been recognized as a way to revitalize communities across the nation. We’ve seen that programs celebrating an individual community’s character, history, people, and values through art have the potential to communicate and empower a neighborhood’s voice in a manner that can create powerful place making and important systemic change.
But who is best placed to initiate and leverage this type of work? Is it a local artist, a small community center, an arts council, or a major institution?
While all mentioned above are capable and have already initiated successful community and civic engagement projects, local arts agencies in particular are in a unique place to spearhead revitalization, change, and engagement through the arts.
The Tucson Pima Arts Council (TPAC), under the leadership of Executive Director Roberto Bedoya, lends us a strong example of partnership success through the lens of a local arts agency.
When asked about why local arts agencies are best positioned to serve as a leader for community and civic engagement work, Bedoya remarked that, “It seems so elementary in some ways. You’re supposed to serve the public and what better way to serve the public than by supporting civic engagement projects. Ultimately, that work is grounded in relationships and relationships are the essence of civic life.”
Under Bedoya’s leadership, the Tucson Pima Arts Council has become an exemplary model for arts and civic engagement work. Evolving out of the council’s professional development and artist-in-residency programs, Bedoya was able to leverage a modest amount of money from city and county allocations and form a partnership with the Kresge Foundation that enabled TPAC to launch its arts and civic engagement work in a robust manner.
The Kresge funding helped develop the P.L.A.C.E. Initiative, which stands for People, Land, Arts, Culture, and Engagement. With a platform to celebrate the distinctiveness and identity of the Tucson region, TPAC selected 15 projects that were blending arts and civic engagement work to be funded for a two-year period.
One of these projects was Finding Voice, an innovative literacy and visual arts program that is dedicated to helping refugee and immigrant youth develop second language skills by researching, photographing, writing, and speaking out about critical social issues in their lives and communities.
The relationship between Finding Voice and the Tucson Pima Arts Council highlights how local arts agencies can aid in cultivating successful projects based around arts and civic engagement. More than just simply acting as a funder, TPAC has become a collaborator and a partner.
In addition to helping the project financially, TPAC has aided in brainstorming organizational strategies, provided community outreach and press communications, assisted with exhibition preparation, and provided professional development opportunities to Finding Voice’s founder Josh Schachter.
Schachter noted that, “Building my own capacity to connect arts and civic engagement has been a real key element to our partnership. Knowing how to facilitate very sensitive conversations in the community that come out of the artwork is really its own art form.”
Being an artist and having the capacity to ignite civic engagement can be two very different skill sets. In the process of their collaboration, TPAC has become a crucial link in providing the civic engagement component and pushing the program beyond the art.
And beyond the artwork it has gone. The participating Finding Voice youth have presented their work publicly in the Tucson region to raise awareness around issues including immigration, war, health, poverty, and education through community forums, exhibitions, and public art displays.
In 2008, the program founders and select youth had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C., where they exhibited their photographs in the U.S. Senate and participated in a Congressional briefing where students presented their work and policy recommendations. The Finding Voice program, with TPAC’s committed support, has allowed for civic engagement to occur on all levels, from local community engagement in the Tucson region to national awareness.
With their finger on the pulse of the community, local arts agencies are in a unique position to build partnerships and push forward art that serves as a means for engagement and change. With several years of successful projects under their belt, Bedoya observed that the community they serve is responding well to the work being done and that people are beginning to understand the value of the arts to respond to social issues.
As emerging leaders, lets take a cue from leaders like Bedoya and project innovators like Schachter, and push the envelope on how the organizations we work within can leverage partnerships that support the important issues our communities face.