Civic Engagement and Inclusion Through Art

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By Michael Greer

Our country is emerging from the most engaged civic exercise in American history. More individuals exercised their right to vote than in any other time in the past hundred years,1 and the context of this election was one dominated by events that will shape our world for a generation. The necessity of political engagement has been underscored in every aspect of our lives. And when we define civic engagement more broadly as the promotion of quality of life in a community, we are living in a time in which that engagement is paramount to the continuation of our way of life. This participation takes many forms, from volunteerism and community organizing, to electoral involvement in local, state, and national contests. In addition to these more traditional forms, arts and culture are another important vehicle for engaging with our communities.

The data supports a narrative of arts and culture playing a key role in positive social outcomes. In our most vulnerable communities, low-income neighborhoods with cultural resources have fourteen percent fewer cases of child abuse and neglect, and “at-risk” students involved in arts are twenty-three percent more likely to attend college than peers with low arts involvement.2 Across all communities, multivariate analysis has shown evidence that participation in the arts has a positive and statistically significant effect on people’s levels of civic engagement.3 In fact, organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts, Americans for the Arts, and ArtsFund regularly draw quantitative connections between arts engagement and civic engagement. But how do these numbers manifest themselves in the stories of our communities?

Since early 2020, we have seen our communities subjected to realities that have been difficult, if not impossible to process. A pandemic unlike anything the majority of living humans have ever experienced; the climax of political races that have highlighted dangerous divisions in our ideologies; and a racial reckoning that has, yet again, brought the racially inequitable foundation of this country to the forefront of our conversations. Throughout this, we have seen people reacting to these events through protest, through violence, and through art. Thousands of works of community art have been produced in response to the racialized violence highlighted in the summer of 2020 alone.4 As we have seen our communities attempt to process these traumatic upheavals, people are turning to art as a way to express grief, connect with each other, and provide hope.

Art is a deeply human response to social upheaval and has been a tool of reckoning and reconciliation throughout human history. The end of the Black Death generally coincides with the beginning of the Renaissance.5 World War II saw art take on many forms, from propaganda designed to win the hearts and minds of nations, to personal acts of creativity by individuals physically trapped in the most unthinkable circumstances. And contemporary artists like Hank Willis Thomas tackle issues of slavery and black identity through art. Some of the most powerful works of art have been born out of a deep desire for humans to simply make sense of tragedy and change. Today, as we find ourselves socially isolated and, once again, confronted with the dehumanizing reality of racial and economic power structures in this country, we find ways to express the inexpressible. Art, in all of its disciplines, has the power to convey messages that are difficult to otherwise articulate. Empathy, compassion, humility; these are messages that can be complex to convey and can easily be misconstrued depending on the context and the speaker. Through art, however, we are able to deliver these complex messages of healing at a deeper level that can resonate beyond race, color, socio-economic status, and gender. Our society needs to embrace the power of art to deliver these messages and support its use as a tool to grapple with these uncertainties.

There is an alternative way that we convey powerful messages about feelings we do not understand, and that is through violence. We have recently seen people turn to violence in order to communicate a frustration with uncertainty and injustice. For the sake of our communities, we need a better way.

So how do we engage? Arts and culture give us several ways to promote positive civic outcomes. Through creating and presenting art, individuals are able to start conversations about divisive social problems in an inclusive way that encourages dialogue instead of antagonism. Through experiencing art, we are able to engage with that dialogue and provide a positive outlet for anxiety, frustration, or confusion. And through philanthropically supporting art, we are able to promote this cycle of creation, engagement, and dialogue, whose effects can multiply throughout our communities. Having arts and cultural institutions in our communities provide multiple opportunities for community members to engage. Their presence, at all scales, create a virtuous cycle of placemaking and dialogue that add to the quality of life in a community. In a 2018 white paper, The Bridgespan Group named “strong, informal support systems, with neighbors helping neighbors” as one of six factors involved in positive social mobility in rural America.6 They highlight religious, educational, and social networks as examples of these support systems. Arts and culture create these same networks for community by offering spaces in which multiple strata of society are able to contribute and engage in a shared outcome. That outcome can be a performance, an exhibit, or a conversation. The arts allow us a way to engage with our communities in a constructive and positive way.

Photo courtesy of Path with Art, Path with Art dance class.

An organization called Path with Art in Seattle, Washington, offers a small case study of how civic engagement through the arts can drive social change. Started in 2008 by a group of women who had experienced the healing power of art in their own lives and decided to share it at a local women’s shelter, Path with Art has since grown into one of the “most all-encompassing arts and homeless organizations found in North America.”7 Today, they serve approximately 750 adult student-artists, referred to Path with Art through partnerships with over thirty social service organizations. Supported by volunteer creative mentors, student-artists engage in rigorous arts education ranging from printmaking, poetry, choir, mosaic, and dance in eight-week classes taught by approximately thirty-four professional teaching artists and arts faculty.

In addition to the direct effect Path with Art has on the lives of hundreds of individuals, they also aim to change the way that society interacts with homelessness. They have created programming that attempts to bring art into public spaces that allows for housed and unhoused citizens to have a shared experience. Inspired by Bryan Stevenson’s theory of Proximity and Empathy,8 Path with Art intentionally set out to create venues where a tech CEO might stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a formerly homeless artist and experience a piece of art together. Throughout the COVID pandemic, they have continued to provide services to their artists and the public by moving programming online and distributing technology to their artists so that they can continue to serve as a support system during these times and reinforce the sense of community between their artists, their staff, and their patrons.

As our society continues to make rapid and material shifts in the way we interact and the way in which we define community, art will continue to play a critical role in how we engage with each other. During the COVID isolation, art has fostered new networks and broadened people’s ideas of how they can create and support community. With technology creating exponential change in how we live, art will not only allow us opportunities to be civically engaged. It also will have the power to actually define our communities in an increasingly more digital world.

The past several months have pushed many to their individual limits and it is the thin safety net of community that stands between us and isolation. Civic engagement is the thread that creates this net and the more we engage, the stronger it becomes. As community members, the more ways we have to engage, the more chances we have to save our neighbors and ourselves. Arts and culture offer a powerful tool to take part in community building and that community is what supports us all.

Michael Greer is the President and CEO of ArtsFund in Seattle, WA. He has previously served as the executive director of Oregon Ballet Theatre, as a trustee on the Oregon Arts Commission, and held executive leadership roles in for profit companies in mainland China.

1 Schaul, Kevin, et al. “2020 turnout is the highest in over a century.” The Washington Post, 5 Nov.2020,

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/elections/voter-turnout/

2 Social Impact of the Arts Study: How arts impact King County communities. ArtsFund, 2018.

https://www.artsfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/ArtsFund_2018_SIS_11.6.pdf

3 LeRoux, Kelly, and Bernadska, Anna. “Impact of the Arts on Individual Contributions to U.S. Civil Society.” University of Illinois at Chicago,

https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Research-Art-Works-Chicago.pdf

4 Feiger, Leah. “A Virtual Museum Preserves Black Lives Matter Protest Art.” Hyperallergic, 24 Aug. 2020,

hyperallergic.com/581979/virtual-protest-art-museum-black-lives-matter

5 Wright, Lawrence. “How Pandemics Wreak Havoc – And Open Minds.” The New Yorker, 13 Jul. 2020,

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20/how-pandemics-wreak-havoc-and-open-minds

6 McKeag, Mark, et al. “Social Mobility in Rural America: Insights from Communities Whose Young People Are Climbing the Income Ladder.” The Bridgespan Group, 14 Nov. 2018,

https://www.bridgespan.org/insights/library/children-youth-and-families/social-mobility-in-rural-america

7 Social Impact of the Arts Study: How arts impact King County communities. ArtsFund, 2018.

https://www.artsfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/ArtsFund_2018_SIS_11.6.pdf

8 Varela, Keosha. “Death row attorney Bryan Stevenson on 4 ways to fight against injustice.” Aspen Institute, 20 Jul. 2016,

www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/death-row-attorney-bryan-stevenson-4-ways-fight-injustice

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