Karina Mangu Ward

Karina Mangu Ward

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.

A visitor in the Object Stories gallery encounters the large display depicting community members who have recorded stories about personal objects.

A visitor in the Object Stories gallery encounters the large display depicting community members who have recorded stories about personal objects.

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.

24 Responses to “Why Should Arts Organizations Focus on Social Bridging?”

  1. Janice says:

    We are constantly challenging ourselves and our organization to be the “third place” for people to engage socially and culturally. Hopeful that other cultural organizations will take up this challenge as well.

  2. Chris Wells says:

    Karina – this is fantastic. I completely agree. It’s something we think about a lot with Secret City, how to build community and not have that community be exclusive. It’s why we’ll be branching out to other neighborhoods next year, and soon to other cities. New York is an amazing place culturally, but the sense of bonding rather than bridging, as you put it, is powerful. I see this especially in the theatre, which seems to be catering mostly to itself or like-minded folks. Great article – thanks for sharing.

    • Chris – I love that you are working to both build AND grow community. It’s easy to get totally focused on building community among those that we’re already bonded to, but there’s real power in also opening up that circle. Secret City is a great inspiration. I’m curious – what tactics do you use – beyond moving location – to engage new community?

  3. Chris Audain says:

    “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.” The arts have a vital role in getting conversations started, and pushing the envelope. But also, as you argue here, they must bring us together. “Social bridging” (love that idiom) is incredibly important to our democracy, and understanding how to solve problems. With an ever increasing ability to communicate and socialize, we seem to be growing further apart and deeper into our niches. The arts, in order to remain pertinent, should lead as a a bridge to those who may not understand each other.

    How, in reality, do we transform our arts institutions from focusing on content to building bridges? How do we break free from the convention?

    • Nina Simon says:

      Hi Chris,

      Here are some of the ways we are transforming our museum from focusing on content to building bridges:
      1. We rewrote our program goals to focus on the kinds of experiences we want to support with our participants. These include but are not limited to content goals: http://www.santacruzmah.org/whatson/our-event-philosophy/
      2. When developing new events and exhibitions, we intentionally partner with many groups across the spectrum of amateur to professional, big to small, established to new. We want to bridge artists as well as audiences, which means developing events that ignite unexpected connections for everyone.
      3. We actively pursue partnerships with “unlikely suspects” like social service agencies, businesses, and non-profits to advance our mutual missions for community engagement.

      Here is more on how we approach community partnerships (and some tips for other organizations); http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2013/02/guest-post-radical-collaboration-tools.html

      • Nina – Thanks so much for sharing these specifics. And thanks for being an evangelist for this message. Your TED talk really changed the way I think about the role of arts organization in communities.

        • Kelly Page says:

          Karina, wonderful wonderful post. Glad to see another soul inspired by Nina’s work and her team at Santa Cruz. I wonder when this dominant model of arts organizations as “product” focused; instead of social space through which and within which to experience, discuss, engage and cocreate arts emerged — like the parisian artist cafes and social gatherings around art – creating space is but part of it, developing practices it too is key, especially as we traverse mediated and unmediated social contexts.
          Loved reading this :-)
          Thank you for sharing :-)

  4. Christy Bors says:

    “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”— What a great one-liner, er..one-paragraph?

    Awesome blog, Karina. Loved the read.

  5. [...] 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. 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.  [...]

  6. Hi Karina, I hopped over to read the complete post and will share my response both here and on artsusa.org. The idea that arts orgs are uniquely positioned for social bridging as opposed to social bonding really resonates with me. Certainly in my experience, the arts open me up to new ideas and communities. I want to push back, however, on some of your characterization of the role of technology in all of this. I agree that some of the implementations of technology do burrow us more deeply into the already familiar. I’ve recently read several things that reiterate of Facebook something like…if you don’t know what the product is, then the product is you – and I think that the continuous “sell” based on our behavior in a digital environment (whether as recommendation or straight up advertising) does happen across many social platforms. But, I think social and emerging technologies also have the capacity for supporting or even propelling social bridging. I would point especially to some of the projects I discussed in my recent ArtsFwd.org post on tailoring platforms for community engagement (http://artsfwd.org/tailoring-online-media-platforms/). The Brooklyn Museum GO project, as one example, brought all kinds of people together across neighborhoods by leveraging the power of the check in. Would love to hear your thoughts on this – what do you think of the possibilities of emerging media to enhance social bridging?

    • Anna – Great point. I agree that in our highly networked world, technology has the potential to facilitate social bridging by bringing disparate individuals/groups together. I would say that the relevant distinction is whether that technology facilitates an interaction across difference that creates empathy through new understanding, or whether it brings people together in a superficial way. In the example of the GO project, I’m convinced that it brought people together across neighborhoods, but is there evidence that those people did anything but pass by each other? I believe that technology can get people into the same space – real or virtual – but that true social bridging is occurs only when those people engage in vulnerable exchange. Is it possible to do this entirely online? Maybe. Can technology fuel this by bringing people together offline? Absolutely.

  7. [...] 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 …  [...]

  8. [...] 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.  [...]

  9. I agree that in this digital era, it is all about social bridging. Our students should be interacting not only with one another but cross generational, cross cultural, even cross town! I have the pleasure to work for Early Stages’ Live Theater program which brings students to see Broadway, Off Broadway, dance and music performances that they would not normally attend. In fact 75% of these students see their first live performance with us. We provide the students with pre and post workshops and chaperone students to regularly scheduled performances. I think Tarc, an 11th grader from Queens put it best when he said “I laughed along with total strangers .” It is not just going to a show, it is about exploring outside the comfort zone of their neighborhood and keeping an open mind to new experiences, new people and new opportunities.

    On that note, I want to leave you with a quote from one of our teachers. “Each show we attend contributed to my students’ social awareness as well as to classroom discussion and their personal interactions. My students hae started realizing that there is more to life than that which they have already experienced” Mr. Berman, Teacher at GED Plus

  10. Very fine post, Karina. It is particularly relevant for us in Canada, as our latest census just revealed that 1 in 5 resident is foreign-born. I wrote a news item about it on our website: http://www.capacoa.ca/en/news/field/476-census. Your post is quoted in it.

  11. Kreativito says:

    interesting perspective of view… well.. some technology, like you mentioned watching TV etc., might not really help to bring people together with the same interest. But others do very well.. take as instance the internet, the article you wrote.. catched me..

    and yes, I agree… arts organization should focus on social bridges.. bring people together, make them curios, and finally.. make sure they are not sitting on the couch watching endless commercials..

    at the moment, I try to build a creative platform – for artists, from children to seniors… with one goal.. to have fun on art, regardless if drawing, painting, sculpting, etc. etc.

    it’s a german speaking platform – I am native german speaker, and I missed a place like this. http://www.kreativito.com

    it’s a nice challenge.. but I am very optimistic to do the right thing.

    thank you very much for your wonderful article – enjoyed reading.
    all the best & till later

  12. Bernhard says:

    Hi Karina,

    I think you are absolutely right. Thumbs up for your article. This is what we also need – we need people like you, saying how it really is and how you see it. Courage and also a respectful way of sharing – appreciate it !

  13. Trevor Davis says:

    Fantastic post, Karina. I came across this a few months back and it’s already helped me as a community organizer and arts advocate by giving clear, concise language about our aims.

    I serve as co-chair of the Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Empowerment Congress Arts and Culture Committee, and we are working to bridge communities by sharing the brilliance of the underserved communities in the 2nd District. Additionally my non-profit community center/arts collective “Imaginese” seeks to use these moments of community bridging to support charities and organize a “pay-it-forward” movement of artists working for positive change.

    As such, I’ve founded a charitable arts festival in Culver City called “L.A. artRISING” to do just that. It’s happening this Saturday night, Oct 19th…hope you can help spread the word.

    Looking forward to more of your thoughtful posts!

  14. Trevor Davis says:

    October 15, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    Fantastic post, Karina. I came across this a few months back and it’s already helped me as a community organizer and arts advocate by giving clear, concise language about our aims.

    I serve as co-chair of the Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Empowerment Congress Arts and Culture Committee, and we are working to bridge communities by sharing the brilliance of the underserved communities in the 2nd District. Additionally my non-profit community center/arts collective “Imaginese” seeks to use these moments of community bridging to support charities and organize a “pay-it-forward” movement of artists working for positive change.

    As such, I’ve founded a charitable arts festival in Culver City called “L.A. artRISING” to do just that. It’s happening this Saturday night, Oct 19th…hope you can help spread the word.

    http://www.LAartRISING.com

    Looking forward to more of your thoughtful posts!

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