From Community Supported Art in Canada to a New York project that stages work in laundromats, Laura Zabel looks at the ways in which artists and communities can pull together
St Paul mayor Chris Coleman at the launch of the Irrigate project
St Paul mayor Chris Coleman at the launch of the Irrigate project. Photograph: Springboard for the Arts
executive director of Springboard for the Arts
Thursday 12 February 2015 11.10 GMT Last modified on Thursday 12 February 2015 14.26 GMT
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From income inequality and unemployment to poverty, education and healthcare, communities around the world are facing critical challenges that require creative ideas and solutions. Any of these challenges could use an artist’s mind, a creative question or a critical thinker to help us find our way to a more healthy and just future. Artists can illuminate truth, offer transcendent experience in a far too literal world, challenge us to feel, and connect us to our common humanity.
The good news is that almost every community already has artists. Often, though, this readily available resource is untapped and underdeveloped. Communities need better tools to help them find and collaborate with artists, while artists need not just an invitation but a charge to engage with their communities.
In cities around the globe, there is an exciting movement afoot to share ideas and models that help connect artists more deeply with their communities. From Santiago, Chile, to St Paul, Minnesota, local citizens are partnering with artists to address challenges and make positive change.
This movement isn’t about positioning artists as special outsiders who parachute in with easy fixes, but as neighbours who are one part of a whole set of things a community can do to be healthy. Nor is this movement about artists volunteering their skills, or being asked to contribute their skills “for exposure” – rather, it’s about artists who are justly compensated for their work and skills.
Of course, not all examples in this movement play it this way. But that’s what they should strive for: a point where all participants are valued for their unique contributions. Here are some projects that demonstrate the potential of artists to help create vital and just communities.
Community Supported Art (US, Canada)
How do you build a direct connection between artists and community members that is simple, fun and organic? You look to a model that’s working in an adjacent field. Modelled on community supported agriculture, in which people buy seasonal produce directly from local farms, Community Supported Art commissions artists to create original work, which is then sold as “shares” to interested collectors. Artists and buyers come together for pickup parties, creating a direct connection between community members and artists that lasts well beyond the scope of the project. Community supported art programs now exist in 40 neighbourhoods in the US and beyond.
Neighbourhood Postcard Project (US, Chile)
When artist Hunter Franks was working with youth in the Bayview neighbourhood of San Francisco, California in 2013, he asked what they wanted to improve about their neighbourhood. They told him what they wanted to change the most was people’s impression of Bayview, an area that was mostly in the news for the wrong reasons. The Neighborhood Postcard Project was born. Now in cities from Santiago to Detroit, stories from residents in underinvested communities are collected on postcards and sent to random people in the same city to break down stereotypes and build new community connection.
Gap Filler (New Zealand)
After the initial recovery period following a natural or manmade disaster, communities face unforeseen challenges such as vacant spaces, low community morale and negative perceptions. Following the September 2010 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Gap Filler project collaborated with creative stakeholders across the city to make and place temporary projects that bring people together and experiment with space. Highlights included a coin-operated public dancefloor, a community pizza oven and the Commons, a new public gathering area. The organisation’s commitment to community engagement is shaping the future of the city.
The Laundromat Project (US)
“Go to where the people are” is a phrase that should always be step one in community engagement strategies. In order to amplify the creative power of artists, the Laundromat Project in New York has made this their core principle. Based in Harlem, the project supports artists to create new, community-engaged work based in laundromats, a place where people are going to be and have the time to collaborate. Projects have included renaming streets based on personal and social history, transforming laundromats into yoga studios or English classrooms, and creating community mix tapes. This approach opens communities to new ideas of what it means to be an artist and builds power through creative expression.
Irrigate mobilised the skills of more than 600 local artists
Theatre of the Oppressed (Brazil, India and more)
Drawing on the work of Brazilian director and politician Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed is a model that brings together marginalised individuals with professional actors to create plays based on their real-life experience. The process engages the audience to solve the underlying problems through activism, advocacy, legislation, policy change and more. In Bangalore, India theatre performances are used to address issues ranging from government corruption and police harassment to how to improve communications between doctors and patients.
A major three-year light rail construction project through the heart of St Paul, Minnesota, could have been a major hardship for city residents and small businesses along the route. Irrigate, however, mobilised the skills and power of more than 600 local artists to offset the impact of the construction with more than 150 place-making art projects, turning disrupted neighbourhoods into destinations. These projects included murals, performances in restaurants and parking lots, plus giant puppets that acted as business signage. These projects created a positive counter-narrative of joy, surprise and commitment to the communities in the construction zone.
These projects demonstrate our responsibility as artists and as citizens to look for the open doors where change is possible. There is an urgent need for us to step up and to build the bridges between disparate groups that are necessary for communities and cultures to move forward. To do this artists need access to skills, resources and systems of investment and engagement. If we can create these mechanisms, they will reward us by changing our neighbourhoods and cities in ways both practical and transformational.
Laura Zabel is executive director of Springboard for the Arts, which operates Creative Exchange, a platform for sharing free toolkits and resources for artists and communities
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