Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Is the Arts and Culture Community on Your List of Potential Collaborators?

Few would argue the value of arts and culture. The vibrancy of arts and culture within a community has long been a key indicator of its livability. Individuals and companies looking to move into an area frequently evaluate the number and diversity of offerings as part of their decision-making process. Art therapy has proven helpful in treating a wide variety of conditions, from Alzheimer’s to physical and emotional trauma. And, a great deal of attention has recently been paid to the substantial economic impact of arts and culture. According to the 2010 National Arts Index, a report issued by Americans for the Arts, economic activity in the U.S., while losing ground during the recession, is still a $150‐$160 billion a year business that puts more than 2 million people to work and increasingly attracts cultural tourists (the number of foreign visitors who attend cultural events or venues has increased 23% since 2003).

However, today we have another reason to value arts and culture. It’s being used “in increasingly diverse ways to engage and build communities and address the root causes of persistent societal problems, including issues of economic, educational and environmental injustice as well as inequities in civil and human rights.” (“Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy” by Holly Sidford for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2011) Artist-activists are pulling us in, forcing us to examine our assumptions and the way we do business.

To-date, most of this work has emerged from and been centered in the art world. Just one example from my community is the Center for Folk and Community Art, which involves the community’s residents in story-telling, using a combination of written work, murals and public presentation. In the past it has focused attention on societal issues such as gang culture and violence, bullying, abuse and violence in teen dating relationships, the environment and homelessness.

But, arts and culture could be so much more. It could be totally integrated into the fabric of social change, where artists sit at the same table as nonprofits, private businesses and governmental agencies committed to creating a healthier place for each of us to live. This is particularly important as the artistic voices of those who have previously often been disenfranchised – i.e., those making art outside of the better supported and recognized Western European, “classical” art forms – break through, since there is much to be learned from these voices.

According to the Animating Democracy’s 2010 report, “Trend or Tipping Point: Arts and Social Change Grantmaking” there are currently more than 150 funders nationwide that have recognized the value of supporting coalitions that are dedicated to social change and are inclusive of artists. I am proud that our own local community foundation is one of them. But what of the many nonprofits currently putting together coalitions to more successfully tackle community issues that are at the heart of their mission?

If your organization is contemplating collaboration, I would like to know if your board is considering the contribution artists, arts and culture could make in your success? How intentional is your board about including artists, especially those outside “mainstream arts and culture”? How are you going about finding the appropriate partners? Please write in and share your experiences and learnings.

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