Artists and Relationship Building

This post is part of a series in conjunction with TRG Arts on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Analysis from TRG Arts.) It originally appeared in Engaging Matters here.

There is a lot of work right now on building demand, value and interest in the contributions of art and artists to places, social change, economies and communities. This is the long overdue work to knit our creativity back into our daily lives and the way we address and confront the issues and inequities that face us. I am a true believer in this work and its many forms and structures. I also believe that it is not enough to work on the demand for this work – we also need to work on the supply of this work. Essentially, art comes from artists and if we are building the demand for artist-led, community-engaged work, then how are we supporting artists to build the skills and capacity they need to fulfill this demand?

Things that hold us back:

6 artist syndrome: At Springboard, we travel a lot and we’ve started making this joke that every community has 6 artists. There are usually about 6 artists that everyone in a given city points to as the exemplars of work that engages community. We call on them whenever we need a mural, a community created play, an innovative project with the city. These six artists do amazing work, work that is powerful, important and in need of support, but they can’t do everything. By relying on the same people over and over again we’re not building systems of investment, support and training that would allow more artists and more communities to make creative change.

“Of course, this work is not for everyone…”: People say this to mean that OF COURSE not all artists are interested in community-based work, or creative placemaking, or engaging in social issues. I’ve said it myself. But the more I think about this idea, I think it is wrong. ALL artists need relationships, ALL artists need to understand the context in which their work happens, ALL artists are trying to communicate and connect. In repeating the “this work isn’t for everyone” trope we are reinforcing a binary between artists who have a studio practice and artists who have a social/civic/community practice. This perspective narrows down the ways in which artists contribute to community life to a fraction of the full possibility. Yes, some artists work intentionally to co-create work with community members and other artists work alone in their studio. But the reality is that most artists do some of both. Our communities benefit from multiple ways of approaching and defining artistic impact. Even the most studio based artists need relationships with their community to inform and support their work.

Artistic quality vs. community engagement. Honestly, I can’t even bring myself to write about this conversation anymore. This tedious, insider argument serves no one.

What we need:

Expansive definitions: Artists are everywhere and every community has creative capacity within it. We need artists from all backgrounds and all walks of life to be recognized, supported and celebrated for their contributions. There is room for everyone. There are a lot of different ways for artists to build relationships, support communities, use their artistic skills to make contributions. For example, a singer-songwriter who lives in a neighborhood that is changing rapidly and is worried about displacement of longtime residents might write songs with her neighbors, or she might write her own song about the neighborhood and perform it on her national tour, or she might be intentional about playing gigs at bars and restaurants that are important institutions in her neighborhood—these are all equally valid ways to make an impact.

Multiple on-ramps and opportunities: We need to provide opportunities for artist training and learning, and, more importantly, low-risk opportunities to try new ideas and ways of working. Opportunities for artists to build new relationships and test ideas. This isn’t work that can be learned in a classroom alone, artists need an invitation and a charge (and resources) to find partners in their community and begin a relationship. At Springboard our artist-training in community development is almost always coupled with financial support to try out a small project. People learn by doing and when it comes to building relationships, only the experience of actually doing something together gets you farther down the path.

Mechanisms that make it easy for communities to find and connect with artists: In the arts we consistently underestimate how opaque it is for those who are not steeped in this work to navigate our systems and jargon. Here’s a conversation I’ve had approximately one thousand times:

“Hi, I’m calling from a community development organization/city agency/private business and we are working on an exciting new project to build affordable housing/address health disparities/get community feedback and someone told me we should work with artists.”

“Yes, absolutely, you should do that!”

“But how??”

Because we’ve had this conversation so many times, at Springboard we’re kind of obsessed with mechanisms: how to make the bridge between two people or two sectors easy to see and easy to cross? We recently launched a project called Ready Go that is a roster of artist-designed projects purpose-built to pique curiosity, prompt interaction and are available for hire. Our goal is to make it just as easy for a community organizer to work with an artist as it is for them to rent a bounce house. We hope Ready Go is a mechanism that introduces more people to the idea of working with artists, and also introduces them to actual artists.

There is so much opportunity right now to help communities understand and value the role creativity can play in supporting the agency and power of people, in building new social connection, in contributing to health, equity and happiness. So many of our challenges need and want artists’ contributions. We need to make sure we’re supporting, challenging and resourcing artists to make these contributions.

Laura Zabel is the Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts, which operates Creative Exchange, a platform for sharing free toolkits, resources, and profiles to help artists and citizens collaborate on replicating successful and engaging community projects.

An economic and community development agency run by and for artists, Springboard provides programs that help artists make a living and a life, and programs that help communities connect to the creative power of artists. Based in Minnesota, Springboard’s projects include: Community Supported Art (CSA), which is based on the Community Supported Agriculture model and connects artists directly with patrons; the Artists Access to Healthcare program; artist entrepreneurial development; and Irrigate artist-led creative placemaking, a national model for how cities can engage artists to help reframe and address big community challenges.

An expert on the relationship between the arts and community development, Zabel has spoken at leading conferences and events including the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Urban Land Institute, and Americans for the Arts. A 2014 Bush Foundation Fellow, Zabel’s insights on industry trends have also been featured in outlets from The Guardian to The New York Times. Zabel serves on the board of directors of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice and the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers.