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CAN Report
Table of Contents

The CAN Report

The State of the Field of Community Cultural Development: Something New Emerges

A Report from the CAN Gathering, May 2004

Published by Art in the Public Interest July, 2004


Other Roads Through Other Forests

It is the observance of this climate of frustration about the apparently chronic anemia of the community cultural development field that leads us to look to the edges of this work, and there we find a new energy. During the discussions of "burning questions," we noticed that some participants referred to lessons they were learning outside their field, responding with remarks like, "If you would only look at the field of (blank), these guys have this all figured out."

Bill Cleveland, for instance, said:

A significant number of the critical partners — this is all about partnerships — are not in this circle. I’m talking about community development corporations, educational institutions, housing authorities, boys and girls clubs, neighborhood associations, immigrant associations, all these folks who come and say, “This creative resource is an incredibly potentially valuable resource for our moving and advancing our issues and our agendas.”[22]

Several people consistently called out the others to look beyond their own communities and their accustomed colleagues for help, to plunge whole-heartedly into other fields and submerse themselves there. The implication is that the result is a new, hybrid kind of thinking, a synthesis of their experience in community arts and their deep investigation of other kinds of work.

In his opening remarks, Tomás Ybarra-Frausto mentioned theorist Gloria Anzaldua, and her concept of "nepantla," meaning a space that is neither here nor there.[23] This seemed to strike a magical chord for many of the participants and they repeated it several times. (“Where is the big space between the activist vision and the reality of people’s lives, a space in between where real change happens?” — Arnold Aprill[24]) The concept arose again when examining this new space between community-based arts and other fields that so many are beginning to explore.

Bill Cleveland again:

Increasingly wisdom, inspiration, regional support in my work is coming from the non-arts work. It’s coming from aspects of the world where the lines between cultural activity and community development are much more blurred than they are here. And so when you talk about evaluation, training, models of practice, etcetera, it's key to understand that actually there are some other roads through other forests that are well worn and where great practice is happening and we need to include them in these kinds of conversations to shift our brains around in different ways, and also to beg, borrow and steal from all the best practice in the world, rather than just thinking that this is the only brain trust we have.[25]

Cleveland, Tom Borrup, Kathie deNobriga, Lily Yeh, Norma Bowles, MK Wegmann, Arnold Aprill, Dudley Cocke, Dee Davis, Andrea Assaf, Judy Baca, Susan Perlstein, Jamie Jensen, John Malpede, Shirley Sneve and John O'Neal all spoke of the need to include practitioners in other fields in their conversations, and even a need to exit the arts for varying lengths of time and learn from people who may have similar or parallel goals and needs. Instead of trying to fit the arts to a social goal, like trying to fit an article of too-small clothing over the head of a growing child, they find they can abandon what they know for a while and move into another world of endeavor, learning new histories, research methods, technical capabilities, management skills and ways of thinking about a problem. In a way this is no surprise, given the interdisciplinary history of the arts over the last half-century, with painters and dancers and actors and sculptors trying on each other's methodologies.

This new mode of research has led to new synaptic pathways for these practitioners, and is so energetic, it is producing a new synergy in the field.

For example, Tom Borrup recently resigned his 20-year position as the director of Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis and launched full-bore into community development — not for the purpose of finding a new profession, but for enriching his own. His interests are in exploring intersections between culture and community building, and in the creation of civic dialogue and civic space, particularly in communities experiencing demographic shifts. He was a 2002 Fellow in the Knight program in Community Building at the University of Miami School of Architecture. He has been writing about community development projects that seek out the arts, rather than vice versa. Said Borrup in his pre-gathering statement:

The most significant change in how I do my work has been evolving during the past four years as I've learned the language and discipline of asset-based thinking and asset-based community organizing. While I have instinctively operated within this framework, it has only come into focus and grown in effectiveness since learning from John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, and other practitioners in the community-development and community-organizing professions. Another change that again was somewhat instinctive for me, but has come into better focus with the help of colleagues in cultural work, is rejecting the "either/or" approach and learning how to embrace "both/and" scenarios. I used to think I was "guilty" of wanting to "have my cake and eat it too," or that I was refusing to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. Now I know that searching for "both/and" approaches and scenarios is essential to cultural democracy. … I’ve been helping people and learning that they have a lot of assets, a lot of strengths and a lot of capacities that sometimes they don’t know that they have.[26]

Caron Atlas, a consultant who was founding director of the American Festival Project and worked at Appalshop, says she rarely finds herself in meetings with artists any more, or in fact with anyone she already knows. She is immersing herself in the world of community organizing:

I'm working with a non-arts national coalition, National Voice, to connect arts and culture into their work. Mostly in the past I've worked with arts groups and networks to connect their work with organizers. Approaching art and social change from both sides of the connection is a broadening of my work that has been happening over time. Also changing is my approach. My emphasis is shifting from getting stuck on what's wrong or missing, to trying to think imaginatively and practically about a vision for the future and how to make it happen. …Those of us who are moving into other worlds are finding skills and languages and ways of interacting that we don’t know .[27]

Susan Perlstein, who founded Elders Share the Arts in 1979, now finds herself on the unfamiliar terrain of public policy. Recently tapped by several federal agencies to head the National Center for Creative Aging, Perlstein faced a steep learning curve

…working on a policy level with the powers that are to effect systemic change. At present we are working with the National Endowment for the Arts, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies as well as National Council on Aging, Federal Administration on Aging and their Area Offices on Aging. And local groups in 20 states. We are trying to put into place systemic change that involves culture change — building a society for all people, especially including older folks. … We've taken on a public awareness campaign, and we've made strange bedfellows, meaning I feel like my need as a cultural worker, one of my personal issues is just how to feel comfortable working on that level. I've been to Washington at least once a month, I mean the NEA asked me to present to the Office of Administration Union Services Division of Transportation and Environment. …There's this big shift going on where older people were looked at as a disease and a medical problem of the country, and now the shift is to look at older people as a resource and strength of our society, and there's really… I hear it, and I feel it, and I never dreamed I would see that day, but it's here, so I need to learn how to step up.[28]

Progress: From Partnership to Integrated Thinking

Dee Davis has already made the transition from an arts environment to public policy and back — to a bridge in between. He was the executive director of Appalshop, the Kentucky arts and media center, for 20 years. He left that position to found the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonprofit organization devoted to expanding the national discourse about rural people and issues. He works with members of Congress, state governments, trade unions, major national nonprofits and grassroots citizens to help rural advocates use communications as a strategic tool for improving the public-policy environment. He now says, "We work at strategic communications on policy issues. More specifically, what we try to do is create a cultural context for examining rural issues and advocating for rural communities."[29]

This immersive strategy is not precisely new, and in fact is presaged by Adams and Goldbard in their descriptions of ideal community cultural development. John Malpede, founder of the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a performance company of homeless and formerly homeless people, migrated from the New York performance-art world to "the Nickel" (L.A.'s 5th street, or Skid Row) in the mid-'80s. There he worked for four years for The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, as an advocate for homeless individuals, and as evidence gatherer for class-action lawsuits brought against the County of Los Angeles welfare system on behalf of the class of homeless people in L.A. County. It was this work that informed and inspired LAPD's creative work and its ongoing partnership with other non-arts organizations trying to empower the poor to improve their own conditions.[30]

In addition to artists crossing over into other fields, these CCD practitioners included people who have crossed into the arts. Both Anan Ameri and Ron Chew, who identify themselves as "community activists," are in the process of creating community-based museums. Chew was a journalist and community organizer and Ameri is a longtime leading activist in the Palestinian-American community and served as the first president of the Palestine Aid Society. They bring with them community-based knowledge and strategies not taught in museum training.[31]

While cross-disciplinary exploration can bring new knowledge and spark new ways of thinking, it can also be daunting for artists who are used to working on the cutting edge. Arnold Aprill talked about the hurdles he has been jumping in the arena of public education and when dealing with reactionary funders.

One of the problems I have to deal with is the morbidity of the people I’m negotiating with. You know, I’m working with the Chicago Public School bureaucracy, and there’s some very creative leadership at the top, but it’s a huge bureaucracy, with radical incompetence. I’m not saying this flippantly. How do you negotiate with people who have been very, very badly damaged by their inert power structure? And then also, many of the foundations I deal with, incredible turnover in staffing, contradictions in policy, right-wing boards that are censoring program officers’ decisions, so, right now I personally am dealing with a very particular problem of being at the table, being fully aware of what my constituency has to bring, and being more than happy to be the messenger, but trying to negotiate the minefield of a morbid power structure, and figuring out who are the capable, credible people inside that power structure, that universe, that I actually can work with, and not go crazy with frustration when the people I have to negotiate with are pathologically incompetent, and I’m having some cases, real pathology. And it’s a very interesting new problem.[32]

After discussing these challenges with a small group, Aprill brought up some ideas for learning from these situations:

What we might want to do is some case studies. Like, track Susan’s dilemma of having this incredible opportunity and this incredible complexity. We actually know some stuff about how to negotiate this. In our group we talked about certain personality types and certain roles that have emerged in these negotiations across hierarchies of power. Who are the hidden subversives inside the dominant institution that you can actually align with, who we realize are hungry for our presence. They’re waiting for us. And Bill has the whole taxonomy of the different sorts of obstructers and enablers. And then Jan was talking about the dynamics between the rigid forces inside universities, and the progressive forces inside universities that are opportunities for unlocking all those resources. So a lot of us have started this sort of cross-hierarchy work. And we should have case studies, and we should articulate some of the knowledge. And some of us have had practice in some of the arenas. I’m part of an ethnography being done now with my group and a group called Parents United for Responsible Education. And the ethnography is, “How does a progressive organization deal with a large city and transient political system?” And they're just going to interview people from Chicago public schools and art teachers and artists and parents, and talk about: What are we learning about the actual dynamics of those relationships? So, I’m advocating for case studies and people starting to write down their knowledge about this. I think there is actually quite a bit, more than you realize.[33]

It is this kind of integrative approach that results from the interdisciplinary inquiry in which many of the CAN Gathering participants are engaged. It can produce what has been so often called "thinking outside the box." It is clear this is what is imperative in the CCD field, for the box has become too small for these change-makers.

As Bill Cleveland said:

The most interesting, the most powerful, the most impactful, and the most sustained projects that I’ve worked on have been collaborations between the creative community and others… The ideas that [these other leaders] have may not be framed in artistic terms but are sometimes incredibly creative…If we tried to do it alone, it might be a sort of interesting drama but it’s not going to move us forward to that place where we actually raise the bar to work. … We are creating a resource center that is framed around a locally informed body of practice that is intrinsically cross-sector in nature.”[34]

Artists are accustomed to stimulating unconventional thinking and unexpected discoveries. Artists who aim at social change and social justice are tackling problems that require input from a broad range of expertise, problems that have exhausted the capabilities and methods of conventional modes of inquiry. Immersion in other fields connects them with different experienced professionals so they can exchange information or effectively collaborate toward solutions. It can inspire the creation of fresh, dynamic research agendas and more solution-focused inquiry by introducing practitioners to important, relevant work that falls outside their specific expertise.

It goes without saying that such deep experience can create a lasting collegial atmosphere, and can vastly improve cross-disciplinary collaborations. In effect, it can create whole new webs of networks organized around a shared topic or problem. In fact, the field itself might even be called an "internet," yielding valuable new platforms and interdisciplinary tools for creating, synthesizing and integrating knowledge.

[Next: What Must Happen for this Field to Develop?]  [Table of Contents]

[22] Bill Cleveland, from transcript

[23] Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, from transcript

[24] Arnold Aprill, from transcript

[25] Bill Cleveland, from transcript

[26] Tom Borrup, from preparatory writing and transcript

[27] Caron Atlas, from preparatory writing and transcript

[28] Susan Perlstein, from preparatory writing and transcript

[29] Dee Davis, from preparatory writing

[30] John Malpede, from transcript

[31] Anan Ameri and Ron Chew, from preparatory writing and transcript

[32] Arnold Aprill, from transcript

[33] ibid.

[34] Bill Cleveland, from transcript





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