Sunday, June 5, 2016

Equity for the Arts Sector in its External Community Relationships

Good morning
"And the beat goes on.............."

Note:  As I have some upcoming medical testing and down time, I keep trying to get several posts up, but have been delayed for one reason or another.  I'm making a concerted attempt this week.

What is reasonable to expect in return for our involvement and engagement with, and within, our communities?

It is now a widely accepted given that the arts must have as a priority their involvement in, and engagement with, their communities; that they must seek places at the table where their strengths and positive values can help the communities to achieve a wide range of goals and objectives - ranging from economic development, to social justice changes, to improved education and more.  And this is arguably because (among other reasons) such involvement and engagement, such participation as members of their local "place", will ultimately help the arts sector to increase support for their growth and sustainability, will perhaps help to fundraise and garner public and private financial support, will help to increase the community's valuation of the arts, will expand audiences, and will, in other ways, inure to the benefit of the arts.  Plus it's the right thing to do.

I'm not sure whether or not the hoped for benefits have yet flowed our way, and the long term data remains to be collected to see if there is evidence to support the hypothesis that we directly benefit from the effort, but, let's assume, arguendo, that the arts, positioning themselves to be good community citizens and support the lofty goals of the community by bringing to the table their unique set of skills, talents and contributions, is in our best interests.  And let's also assume for the moment that there is some tacit understanding in the community itself that the value of the arts goes substantially beyond that which it can bring to help the community address specific problems and challenges; that the arts have meaningful, irreplaceable intrinsic value to the community and its inhabitants.

There seems to be some inequity in the way the arts are treated by these same communities that we are encouraged to embrace and help.  I wonder if there is movement within the communities where we are helping further other agendas, to help us?  Is there a quid pro quo that acknowledges our issues, our challenges, our problems and is there the effort and energy by the community to put us on their "help" agendas?  Are those segments of the community we try to help trying to help us?  I ask because I hear noise that in many places it's fine for us to help other causes, but that they are slow to reciprocate.  I hear a lot about the arts stepping up to lend their resources to addressing problems and challenges facing the community, but not so much about the community stepping up to help the arts address their problems and challenges.

Is this a one way street?  Are we expected to use the gifts and skills available to us to help other causes, but those same causes need not similarly look at what our needs are and bring their skill sets to bear on helping us address our issues?  Do they even ask the question of what we need? Is that disparity not an inequity?  Is the benefit to us more one in the trickle down theory?  Are we unwittingly once again donning the role of Oliver Twist left begging for a little more?  Is it fair? To be sure, there is support in some communities for us, and even increased support, as a direct result of our engagement with them,  and we are on some of the agendas of those we seek to help. But the extent to which that is the case seems to vary widely, is often the exception not the rule, and is thus far unproven by results and data.

To be honest, there is a hierarchy in most communities that designates certain needs and causes and assigns them priorities and importance above the arts.  The arts are important, but not as important as..................    That attitude exists.....still.  It's ok in some communities for the arts to sit at tables where strategies are developed to deal with certain community issues, to bring to bear our creativity as part of the solution  (and we want that, I think), but not ok to sit at the same tables where decisions that might benefit us are made.  In many cases, the arts remain the step child, invited to help others, but with no corresponding offer of help in return.

Shouldn't engagement be a two way, mutual street?  Is it?   If we are to engage our communities, shouldn't we reasonably expect that the communities will seek to engage us?  Is that the case?  Why not?

I think we need to focus somewhat on the whole of the relationship we want with our communities and its various segments and parts - both the give and the take.  I think we need to verify whether or not the simple engagement wherein we help others, pays off in the form of increased support, finances, audiences, etc.  How does that work?  On what timeline?  And we need to determine what is reasonable for us to give to the community, as well as what is reasonable to expect from the community, and how to structure and nurture the kind of relationship to the community that is mutual.  I think it not unreasonable to ask early on in the relationship if those we are trying to help are willing to try to help us -- and not as a theoretical question either.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit


  1. What you are asking, essentially, is how we want the nature of our (the arts') relationship to the community to be thought of, and what if any responsibilities stem from that. What sort of circumstance requires both give AND take? What sort of circumstance either defers our responsibility or denies it? What makes the role of things like the arts beneficial but not meaningful in any greater sense?

    I have recently heard tell that the arts are no more than a tool for achieving social goods, that the idea of the arts' intrinsic value is a phantom, and that the only reason the arts have value is that they serve some other end. Now if that were truly the case, what would be owed the arts in return for all its benefits? Gentle care? A tender thought? Tears at its demise?

    If the arts are sold as an *instrumental* good, the extrinsic means to further ends, then as a tool the arts are eminently replaceable. If we don't believe they have value in their own right is it any wonder they also don't have needs we are responsible for? A hammer breaks and you replace it. A nail gun works better and you cast off the hammer for the new tool. The fate of tools is that they are means to ends, and only *ends* are ultimately deserving of our respect and responsibility.

    We treat other humans as ends in themselves, not means. Treating people as means, using them, is not treating them as persons, not recognizing the value of their humanity, their worth in their own right. This is a matter of both justice and ethics. With humans the case is more clear, but its also a question of how we make sense of value in the greater world. It is by treating things as means that we learn to value them instrumentally. We place what they are good for above the good they are in themselves. The habit is as natural as it is dangerous. There are consequences.

    So you ask what the community thinks it may owe us in return? What does it owe any tool? That is the answer most will use to make sense of the situation. Those who understand the intrinsic value, the "Plus its the right thing to do" people, will all undertake greater responsibility for the health and welfare of the arts. Unfortunately its a rare occurrence.

    The typical response is to treat questions of what the arts deserve with a confusion of misplaced values. We're not responsible for the arts, are we? Why would we be (This is a moral question, after all)? Its a question that does not make sense from an instrumental point of view, and that seems where most are stuck.

    If we need to see an illustration of the way instrumentality works think no further than the chicken processing plant down the road from my house. The value of chickens is only in what they bring to the table. Unhealthy birds are cast off, not nurtured back to health. There is no care, just processing flesh for consumption. The *good* of chickens in a place like that is narrowly circumscribed by what they are good for. And its NOT abuse or negligence if the means all line up with the ends...... Think about that. Is this the model we wish to base the value of the arts on?

    For all the good the arts do, unless they are understood as a good in themselves what right do we have to expect a return for our service? A tool does not seek to be compensated. A mere tool is not worthy of respect. We are responsible for tools only up to a point. When they can be replaced or are no longer handy they no longer have claims on us. Its a much different relationship from understanding that the arts have value in themselves......

    The question isn't why more people don't feel responsibility for the welfare of the arts. That's easy. The question is how we have arrived at a culture where the arts are taken only as means to other people's ends. And if it turns out that this is the story we ourselves are selling, perhaps we have reaped what we have sowed.....

  2. I think that the reason that there is not a quid pro quo is that generally the communities that are being “engaged” are treated using an outreach model that sees their community as having a deficit. This may very well be true, and if it is true then they really do have other matters of survival, etc to focus on (it’s been the same song since Maslow's hierarchy of needs). On the other hand, if they are not treated as having a deficit then maybe they would feel like what they were bringing to the table was legitimate. It really just comes down to a question of value – is value being added, extracted or co-created and by whom. The economics 101 question of “What, how and for whom?” applies equally to community engagement in the arts as it does to politics and labor. Daniel Tucker, Graduate Program Director for the Social & Studio Practices Department, Moore College of Art & Design

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