Op-Ed—What Does it Mean to Build Community through the Arts?

By Guest Author on October 31, 2016
The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW) has been building community through the arts since 1972. Image courtesy CHAW.
The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW) has been building community through the arts since 1972. Image courtesy CHAW.


Editor’s Note: this op-ed is in response to the DC Cultural Plan spearheaded by the DC Office of Planning (DCOP) in partnership with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) and the DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Media and Entertainment (OCTMFE). In addition, DCOP has contracted consulting firms HR&A Advisors and Building Community [bc] Workshop to assist with this project.

What does it mean to build community?  This is a question we are constantly asking ourselves at CHAW, and it’s especially relevant as we work together through the Community Conversations listening sessions on the new DC Cultural Plan.  The question, at first, feels a bit too large and unwieldy to manage, not least because a plethora of diverse voices is at the core of our understanding of community, which makes any one definition difficult if not downright illusory.  So, for a slightly different perspective, we’ve tried thinking about it from the other direction: what are the barriers to building community, and how do the arts help us mitigate these challenges?

This is where we began in the Partnerships breakout session, led by Michael Bigley, Deputy Director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), and Lissa Rosenthal-Yoffe, Executive Director at DC Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative.  As a representative of an organization, one of the most interesting issues that was brought up was the tendency of formal plans to institutionalize art and offer support mainly to organizations working within a constructed framework.  And yet, it is easy to find Go-Go music, informal dance, street art, and more on many street corners in DC, in different contexts and different communities.  I was intrigued and challenged by this comment in particular, because the answer is not always to absorb these people—undoubtedly artists, though perhaps not always describing themselves as such—into our organizational structures.  Without bringing them in, however, there are fewer ways to support them directly and also benefit from the richness of their authentic cultural output.  How do we bring these communities together in our buildings and outside our buildings; providing spaces for shared cultural communities to form?

Spoiler alert—we didn’t come up with an answer, per se.  But we did talk about solutions, many of which centered on the need to work with the DC government to more actively place arts mandates in its contracting with developers and more insistence on arts in every school.  While it’s not a direct answer to the question of community-building, we felt that an important first step to achieving any kind of change will be building the arts in from the beginning of projects rather than ladling it on top.  It’s an issue of value proposition: until we have advocates at the highest levels insisting upon and even mandating arts experiences as part of the core of our neighborhoods, schools, and economies, how can we expect others to value it?  How can we expect more resources to be accrued?  How can we expect a conversation to open up between communities and organizations; businesses and arts and humanities nonprofits; corporations and individuals?

Community is what brings it all back together.  One of the deepest argument for the value of the arts is that participating in arts experiences makes us more empathetic, more open to different ways of thinking, and helps us take risks—and even fail—within the safe framework of creative expression.  We have a tendency to create a false separation between “community” art and “professional” art, a line many of us feel anxious about crossing.  But all art—any art—allows us access to the better parts of ourselves, and that is where we want the plan to support active partnerships that reach across diverse sectors and even into individual artists who are not necessarily a part of our current ecosystem in a direct way.

This cultural plan is only as strong as we make it by participating in these conversations and it is only effective if we find specific, actionable ways to implement it.  So what we really need, beyond the good ideas of our organizations, is the actual DC community to get engaged, involved, and proclaim right along with us the importance of the arts in our lives—not just at a nonprofit level, or a gallery, or a Smithsonian, but at a street level, a school level, and a neighborhood level.

That’s where I feel we can truly bring these threads together: I know, in writing this piece, that I’m generally preaching to the choir.  These are issues you’ve most likely teased out on your own, coming to similar or wildly different conclusions.  Either way, the arts community in DC is uniquely connected and, I feel, particularly united in its desire to make a collective impact.  But we won’t get very far just talking to each other.  It is incumbent upon all of us to not only attend these sessions, but also create open lines of communication to all of our community stakeholders to encourage them to voice their opinions as well.  There is so much possibility here, and I want to see DC become a model for arts integration into our city planning.  We can only do that if more people from our city are part of the process.  We can try to push through a plan that works for organizations and go full steam ahead, continuing to layer the arts on top of what is already there.  Or, we can start talking to people on the metro, people on the corner, people in the office–where can the arts be valuable to them?  To all of us?  We can start a deeper conversation about value, not just about planning.

If there is one thing we’ve learned about community-building at CHAW, it’s that “if you build it, they will come” mentality doesn’t always go far enough.  We have a strong arts community, but it isn’t the only community that will feel the impact of an effective plan—that’s the whole point.  So I’ll issue a challenge: will you join me in telling at least three people in DC about these listening sessions who are NOT already a part of the arts community?  It may not feel comfortable at first, but discomfort may be the best indicator of all that we’re heading in the right direction, sharing new stories, and growing our community from the inside out.

Hannah Jacobson Blumenfeld is Director of Marketing, Development & Strategy at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.  Visit CHAW online at www.chaw.org