What is a Great Community-Building Arts Project?

by Joel Ratner, President & CEO, Neighborhood Progress, Inc.

Cleveland, OH

The arts play a major role in the development of any community. As an opportunity for self-expression, arts activities are critical for struggling communities. However, for these communities, perhaps as important or even more important than the chance for individual expression, the arts provide opportunities for participation and community cooperation. From a community development perspective, it is this chance for neighbors to come together, to dance, to sing, to paint, to act or whatever the case may be, that is invaluable. So while a solitary artist creating may have a positive impact on a community, arts activities that provide opportunities for people to create together are most valuable for the positive development of communities. Process is at least as important as the final product and engagement and involvement are the measures for the arts from this perspective.

Arts that highlight and lift-up ethnic expression may be particularly useful. Community-specific or ethnic arts provide the chance for self-expression in a way that can bring the community together and improve and increase self-esteem and self-awareness all at the same time. For minority communities that feel disempowered by the dominance of the primary culture, positive expressions of their own culture, especially for youth, have added value.

For example, a community mural can be done in so many different ways, each process implicitly valuing different aspects of art and community. Now we have witnessed the appearance of artists who are able to use a mural as a focus for a community dialogue and process. In this way, issues like race, culture and community conflict that are present but hidden or only awkwardly discussed may be presented in a positive way—without being minimized. In other words, by bringing the community together to discuss and/or design the mural, the community seizes the chance to deal with important issues. This type of expression is at the heart of a serious artistic endeavor.

Community members may discuss the mural’s design or may provide drawings that are incorporated into a design or may work with an artist in some form to actually create the design. All these possibilities for community process amplify the value of the mural in the community, and of course, increase the likelihood for community ownership and pride and understanding.

In a discussion about cultural organizing, Peter Pennekamp, the President of the Humboldt Area Foundation stated that “art as community practice is art valued beyond product. It is not amateur or secondary, but is the very reason a culture’s art will be valued and supported highly and widely, not just narrowly by an elite.” He added that “[w]hen art strengthens a community it is at its best”

  • From a community development perspective, great art
  • Engages people
  • Is derived from a community process
  • Serves as an expression of the values, problems or traditions that are particular to the community
  • Challenges stereotypes
  • Builds community pride
  • Increases understanding or cohesion in the community
  • Serves as an expression of hope
  • May create economic development opportunities

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