Reclaiming Art

Posted by Xavier Cortada On November - 9 - 2011

Xavier Cortada

In using arts and culture to build community, we often forget that the greatest resource isn’t necessarily the program we design, or the object we create, or the idea we generate. It is the people themselves. We somehow forget that art is theirs; that for a very long time now people have intuitively used it to better connect with one another.

Sixty-thousand years ago, our deep ancestors in Africa began a slow-motion journey that populated that continent and the rest of our planet. Responding to nature, they hunted and gathered as they made their way. Along their migration through the land, some took to growing their own food and settled. Others continued on their path until they found a place to call home.

At each stop, they worked communally to build their society. They developed language and customs. They passed these on through rituals and stories. We see this in the artifacts archeology reveals to us today. They developed their culture in the context of their land. Grounded by nature, they built community.

Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost that sense of place, that connection to each other and the natural world. I use my art to try to help find our way.

In 2006, I developed the Reclamation Project — an eco-art intervention that invited my fellow South Floridians to engage in protecting their coastal ecosystem. Read the rest of this entry »

Walking the Talk & Talking the Walk

Posted by Caron Atlas On November - 9 - 2011

Caron Atlas

In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit describes the extraordinary communities that come together in response to disaster and how these ephemeral moments in time can enable us to improvise more meaningful lives in a more egalitarian society.

What if these moments of solidarity and transformation were more than just short moments in time?

What does it look like when we embrace a future of creative possibility and reject a future paralyzed in fear?

People’s Potlucks, a series of artist-led conversations and meals about interdependence, took place across New York City this past summer, carrying on the legacy of Sekou Sundiata’s America Project.

The Arts & Democracy Project
hosted a People’s Potluck in Brooklyn, facilitated by playwright and director Talvin Wilks. Drawing on several historical declarations, Talvin asked, “What are we are willing to declare, stand up for up for, and commit to over time?” Read the rest of this entry »

Tom Borrup (center) and friends

I’m writing this post on the return flight to Minneapolis from Seoul, South Korea following a whirlwind three days after speaking at an international symposium billed as: Artist, Enterprise, and Industrial Complex.

This half-day symposium was part of a larger effort by the mayor of Seoul to transform old industrial spaces into creative engines of innovation, to cross-pollinate urban regeneration, technological innovation, and the emergence of a new Korean culture.

Known as Seoul Art Space, this network of nine centers serve as catalysts to bring a growing and changing city and its emerging creative economy onto a world stage. As part of its charge, Seoul Art Space works to forge productive dialogues across sectors and constituencies–largely among people who have seen no need to converse, and who barely have a language to do so.

During the day before the symposium, I traveled with my interpreter and guide Kyuwan (pronounced, he said, like the letter Q and number one) via subway and bus across the vast city. He warned me that Koreans are always in a hurry and not to take it personally if someone pushed me on the subway. I saw the characteristic playing out at multiple levels. Read the rest of this entry »

Helping to Define a Sense of Place in Communities

Posted by Tatiana Hernandez On November - 9 - 2011

Tatiana Hernandez

People have looked to the arts to help define their communities and create a sense of place for generations. So, why are we so excited about creative placemaking today?

Perhaps it has something to do with context. In this digital world, many are reexamining the fundamental nature of “community” and our relationship to place. We now know, based on findings from the Knight Soul of the Community report, that social offerings, followed by openness and aesthetics explain why we love where we live. What does that tell us about the essential importance of our connection to place?

“Vibrancy” is popping up as a way of describing the intangible nature of a neighborhood’s character. Here are three projects working to help define a sense of place in each of their communities:

Philadelphia has a strong tradition of mural work, and thanks to Mural Arts, artists and residents continue to come together to help define “home.” As part of their Knight Arts Challenge project, Mural Arts brought two Dutch artists, Haas&Hahn, to North Philadelphia to live, work, and engage the community around a large-scale mural that will span several blocks of Germantown Avenue. Read the rest of this entry »

Changing Art, Changing Habits

Posted by Bill Mackey On November - 9 - 2011
Bill Mackey

Bill Mackey

You just finished writing the notes to the meeting you attended, made a .pdf of it, and sent it off via email to all the necessary parties. You check your email; you see what band is playing tonight. You leave your office and get into your car. The A/C is going and the voice on the radio is giving you a good mix of the economy, culture, sports, and weather…

Imagine attending an event about the environment or economy or planning in your community. The group that sponsors the event sounds official and they speak with official language and they speak of official issues, but there is something amiss.

They appear to be in costume, you have never heard of their agency or department, and some of the questions on the survey they have handed you are just plain odd. You realize it is a mock organization putting on a mock event, but they are tackling very real issues in a different way – with some levity, less bureaucracy. You buy into their prank, reorient your perception, and participate.

You drive up to the ATM and insert your card, enter your PIN, and request cash. You receive your cash and receipt. You put the car in D and set off. You pass signs, billboards, curbs, buildings, houses, and bus stops. You should go to the store and grab some prepared food, but you are too lazy… Read the rest of this entry »

Urban Design is a Universal Language

Posted by Radhika Mohan On November - 9 - 2011

Radhika Mohan

It’s no secret that cities are becoming larger and more diverse. The newest 2010 Census numbers speak for themselves:

  • Over 80% of our current population lives in a metropolitan area;
  • The Hispanic population grew by over 40% in the past ten years, now making up 16% of the total U.S. population;
  • The Asian population in the country also grew by over 40%;
  • Those identifying themselves as “two or more races” increased by over 30%;
  • Nearly 50% of the U.S. Western region’s population is minority.

What is it about cities that attract such diverse groups to one place?

I think on one level it is about comfort- as humans in an age of globalization and displacement, we find comfort in communities that feel like home. Cities are able to remind us of our heritage through access to specialized foods, clothing, and other goods and institutions: think of Chicago’s Devon Avenue, Philadelphia’s Italian Market, or even Tampa’s historic Ybor City.

Amongst all these different demographic and census groups, languages, and modes of communication that exist within cities there is something we all can understand about places and that is consistently aided with urban design.

In many ways, urban design is a universal human language, something that can traverse our differences and connect us all through visual and sensual interventions.

As an example, I will draw from my own neighborhood in Washington, DC: Columbia Heights. Read the rest of this entry »

Empowering Youth Toward Community Leadership

Posted by Sara Bateman On November - 9 - 2011

One the community gardens operated by the Norris Square Neighborhood Project. (Photo Courtesy of Norris Square Neighborhood Project)

Throughout the first half of the Animating Democracy Blog Salon, several have spoken to the powerful potential of creative placemaking for igniting engagement and change at the local level.

By capitalizing on community assets, placemaking can aid in elevating the potential of a neighborhood’s space, reinvigorating both the physical and the psyche of the local environment.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to wander through Las Parcelas, one of the six community gardens operated by the Norris Square Neighborhood Project (NSNP) in Philadelphia.

Consisting of over three dozen plots and coming alive through the vibrant colors found within bird houses, benches, garden ornaments, murals, and a rural Puerto Rican casita, the garden has breathed life back into a community historically plagued by low-income levels, high drop-out rates, and a deadly drug culture.

Las Parcelas has created an important third space for Norris Square youth and neighbors alike to embrace their heritage and celebrate the identity of the neighborhood through gardening, community gatherings, and educational programming. Read the rest of this entry »

Understanding Our Collective Sense of Place

Posted by Liesel Fenner On November - 8 - 2011

Liesel Fenner

Modernist plazas. Those large vast expanses of concrete often in the heart of a city’s downtown, perhaps lined with an allée of trees, a modernist sculpture, and a water feature.

I have fond memories of spaces like these – running as a child as fast as I could from one end to the other then looking up at skyscrapers that seemed to touch the sky. Wind, air, city smells, all combined to inform of my earliest aesthetic preferences and my professional career in landscape architecture and public art.

Many examples of these plazas include: Boston City Hall, the Christian Science Church in Boston, and Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco are significant places designed by some of the twentieth-century’s most outstanding designers – Hideo Sasaki and Lawrence Halprin to name a few.

Place is personal. Understanding what informed our earliest memories of spaces helps us understand our preferences in creating new places in conversation with community – people who have all had different life experiences and ideas of what define place. Read the rest of this entry »

Creativity Will Change the Model

Posted by Bill Roper On November - 8 - 2011

Bill Roper

On behalf of the Orton Family Foundation, I was recently visiting communities in Montana and Colorado, assessing whether they would make good Heart & Soul Community Planning demonstration projects. Part of my message during this tour was that community building and planning is broken in the United States.

Approaches to engaging the public over the last 30 years have become top-down, tired, and seemingly irrelevant. Who wants to come to a meeting to provide input on a plan developed behind closed doors and when it’s pretty clear a decision has already been made? Who ever catches the notices in the newspaper or on the bulletin boards that all look the same, are always in the same places and use technical or hot button words like updates, zoning, transportation trip levels, etc.?

In a country that expects another hundred million people by 2050, we’ve got to wake up and shake up the usual way of doing business.

To move from the left brain to the right brain, to excite people and entice them or inspire them to participate, to open up the government model and build on the assets found in our human, social, and natural landscapes. Art and the creativity it embodies and unleashes can play a critical role in this regard. Read the rest of this entry »

Sara Bateman

When it comes to creating a platform that effectively addresses the intersection of art and change while activating community engagement, there is no better way in my opinion to accomplish this task than by using participatory methods with a street-based approach.

Whether you call it community-based art, political art, social practice art, or participatory art, as long as the message is authentic and an entire community is engaged through every stage of the process, it can be one of the strongest ways to cultivate a movement towards change at the local level.

By now, it seems that almost everyone is familiar with the artist JR, a “photograffeur” who uses wheatpaste methods to post large-scale black and white photographs in public locations. By photographing different populations and placing their faces in strategic locations to bring visibility to them as individuals, JR works at the intersection of art and action, addressing issues of identity, freedom, community, and acceptance.

When JR became the 2011 TED Prize Winner, he in turn created Inside Out, “a large-scale participatory art project that transforms messages of personal identity into pieces of artistic work.”

Moving the project beyond his own boundaries as an individual artist, and opening it up for the general population to become co-creators, JR has spawned a worldwide movement for us as individuals to photograph our face in order reveal and bring visibility to ourselves within our own community. Read the rest of this entry »

Community-Based & Creative Strategies for Local Waterfront Revitalization

Posted by Anusha Venkataraman On November - 8 - 2011

Anusha Vankataraman

Artists and creative organizations are becoming increasingly more engaged in what is the traditional terrain of urban planners and local politicians—from local neighborhood planning, to revitalization projects, and even real estate development.

Engagement of the creative community in local planning issues not only increases the relevance of and helps to create broader bases of support for artists and arts organizations; it also ensures that the city planning policies enacted are sustainable, responsive to community needs, and perhaps more effective in the long-run.

One area of urban politics and economic development that is being tackled by creative institutions and local artists is waterfront revitalization. Because of the large public and institutional investments needed to accomplish projects of this magnitude, waterfront revitalization has typically been a city government-led effort.

However, in the face of limited public resources, citizens, grassroots organizations, and local institutions are taking the lead in re-imagining how their rivers and waterways can be used. This form of city re-development is more socially and environmentally just, equitably shared, and creatively implemented. Read the rest of this entry »

The Post-Jerk Era

Posted by Lex Leifheit On November - 8 - 2011

Lex Leifheit

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about jerks.

Steve Jobs Was A Jerk. Good For Him. writes Forbes contributor Gene Marks.

Al Davis, all-time great a**hole, was Slate editor Jeremy Stahl’s take on the passing of the infamous owner of the Oakland Raiders.

Marks wonders if embracing his inner jerk would make him more successful. Stahl asks, “What do we do when a legendary figure who was also kind of a jerk dies?”

As an arts worker, I frequently fantasize about a Post-Jerk Era. One only needs to read a newspaper or favorite blog to see that a “jerk” model of leadership and programming is still embraced in the arts.


  • Jerks are dictatorial…and so is a lot of our programming. Seasons and exhibitions are decided by one curator or artistic director. Community initiatives are sidelined rather than central to marketing, programming and education.
  • Jerks are narcissistic. They put their name and image on everything and emphasize the importance of their vision. This is true for many of our most influential arts leaders.
  • Jerks sensationalize whatever they are selling you with words like “premier,” “best,” and “new.” In the arts, we are experiencing a moment where some funders are putting innovation (new!) and physical expansion ahead of community impact. Read the rest of this entry »

Back to the Future (Part One)

Posted by Erik Takeshita On November - 7 - 2011

Erik Takeshita

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We have a responsibility to those who will come after us.  

These simple yet powerful concepts have been echoing in my head the past few days in New Mexico where I participated in a roundtable discussion held at the Institute of American Indian Arts sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, First People’s Fund, and Arts and Democracy Project. The people I met and the stories I heard reinforced the power of the arts – and more importantly culture – in transforming our communities.

Six case studies were presented at the roundtable: KUYI Hopi radio (Hopi Nation), Jikaat Kwaan Heritage Center (Alaska), Penn Center (South Carolina), Tamejavi Festival (Central Valley, California), STAY Project (Appalachia) and Cornerstone Theater (Los Angeles).

Despite the differences in geographic location, populations or medium, these exemplars all shared common elements: they were place-based, holistic approaches that engaged both youth and elders, and, perhaps most importantly, put culture at the center.

Place-based: When in New Mexico, it is obvious that place matters. This is, of course, true everywhere. Place informs who we are, how we act, our thinking, our relationships. Place is more that just a setting, but rather is an active participant that informs what can and should be done. Read the rest of this entry »

What Can We Do…Now? Cultural Asset Mapping in Los Angeles County

Posted by Erin Harkey On November - 7 - 2011

The Los Angeles County Arts Commission was recently awarded a grant through the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town initiative to produce a cultural asset map in the unincorporated community of Willowbrook, CA.

Located just south of Watts and west of Compton, Project Willowbrook: Cultivating a Healthy Community through Arts and Culture will capitalize on the county’s over $600 million investment in health services and infrastructure. This includes the Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Medical Center Campus Master Plan and the Wilmington Streetscape Plan that will link the campus to the nearby Rosa Parks Metro Station.

The arts commission and primary project partner LA Commons will use community engagement activities to identify artists, organizations, programs, and artworks, with the understanding that “art” and “culture” should capture both the formal and informal ways that people engage, this information will be compiled in a final report. The report will provide recommendations on long-term, sustainable strategies that will integrate art into development and achieve overall community objectives. Read the rest of this entry »

Every Museum Needs a Community Organizer

Posted by Damon Rich On November - 7 - 2011

Damon Rich

With Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center (2009), I tried to transform several galleries of the Queens Museum of Art into a place to explore how our society pays for housing, how the system has broken down, and the arguments over fixing it.

Developed between 2006 and 2008 at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies, the work included video conversations with mortgage investors, homebuying counselors, bankers, financial justice advocates, and government regulators; a model of the city’s foreclosure geography using the Museum’s famous Panorama of the City of Newark; the inhabitable head of a real estate appraiser; a sinister forty-foot interest rate graph; bus-stop-style posters on the history of mortgage institutions; and puppet shows about mortgage scams and how to avoid them.

Even with this physical setting, the life of the exhibition as a learning center — not just a conceptual model for one-depended upon connections beyond the gallery, allowing the museum to play a distinct role as part of a larger democratic discussion, providing an aesthetic and abstracted supplement to the concrete but disassociated facts of the news and the disciplined and goal-oriented work of community advocacy.

While artists like Fred Wilson, Andrea Fraser, Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, and Hans Haacke have focused art audiences on the limitations of the institutions that show their work (including class and race biases and their role in the self-legitimation of the powerful), few institutions have built upon these critical insights to develop the organizational capacities to overcome them. Which organizational capacities? Read the rest of this entry »