I live in New York City, a place with seemingly endless cultural opportunities. The problem is that the majority of these cultural experiences are designed to bring me closer to people I showed up with—an activity sociologists call “social bonding.”
That’s all well and good for me, but it’s not going to make my city more livable, more humane, and more just.
Inspired by Nina Simon’s TED Talk, I would argue that what my community needs, and what communities across this divided country need, is more opportunities to connect with people across difference—what sociologists call “social bridging.”
Moreover, I would argue that arts and culture organizations are uniquely poised to become a platform for social bridging in our communities, and that it’s essential that they do so or risk irrelevancy.
Why is social bridging so important?
Our country is more politically, economically, and generationally divided than ever. Culture has been parsed into endless niches—with the rise of Facebook and Twitter, we’ve all become Creative Directors of our own brand, with our own set of followers.
In this new era of divisiveness and splintered identity, it’s essential that we create spaces where people can connect with others whose experiences are substantially different from our own.
Without social bridging, we risk losing our ability to empathize with others, and with it our concern for the outcomes of others’ lives.
Why should arts and culture organizations focus on social bridging?
This is where social bridging doesn’t occur: on your couch watching Netflix, listening to your favorite band on Spotify, reading your news feed on Facebook, and at dinner with your friends.
These modern pillars of culture are designed to reinforce your personally curated vision of the world, but they don’t challenge you to see outside of it.
Arts organizations are, by inviting people to a shared space around provocative objects, in a unique position to connect people in unexpected ways and should embrace their ability to do so.
Why? Because in the future, when cultural experiences are even more accessible, customizable, and cheap (or free), I’m betting you’ll be less likely to buy a ticket to the museum, theater, or ballet to bond with friends.
However, in that same future, when the open public forum has all but disappeared, you might just head to your neighborhood cultural organization if it offers you the unique experience of connecting with someone different from yourself, who shows you something genuinely new or expands your view of the world.
How can arts organizations bring our cultural landscape to the next level?
Arts organizations must consider letting go of the notion that they are first and foremost producers of content and—in order for our communities to thrive—transform themselves into platforms for engagement, especially engagement across difference.
That said, I know from my work documenting stories of innovation for ArtsFwd that this kind of organizational transformation is challenging.
For a great example of experimentation and success, check out the Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project (Winner of the last year’s Innovation Story Contest on ArtsFwd), which invites visitors to record their own narratives about personal objects and then puts them on display in the Museum.
At ArtsFwd, we’re so passionate about organizations undertaking this kind of work that we’ve just launched our Business Unusual National Challenge—a collaboration/competition to support organizations seeking deep change. Participants will have the opportunity to crowdsource responses to their most pressing challenges and win $35,000 in grants and facilitation.
What might the future of my community look like?
My vision of the future of New York City includes a cultural landscape that prioritizes social bridging over social bonding, where I regularly visit my local museum, go to a concert, and see theater and dance performances in the hopes of being changed.
It’s a future that doesn’t expect me to sit in the dark and watch, but to turn to my neighbor and talk about where we’ve come from and where we might go.