Oct 1, 2018 4 min read

The Many Roles of Art

The Many Roles of Art
Image quote: "Artists are here to disturb the peace." - James Baldwin
I sometimes feel I’m in a daily struggle not to become a shallower version of myself...So I’m trying to take countermeasures. I flee to the arts. - David Brooks

Art can open us, but it can also be used to challenge, provoke, and motivate change. It can take us deep into self-reflection, and it can sustain us and give us strength for the difficult journey ahead. It can be used to recognize and celebrate as well as build and foster a stronger sense of community identity.

We have several podcast episodes that focus specifically on art. We've pulled them together in our Art Collection. In this spotlight we share some of the takeaways from those discussions.

If you're not purposefully using art in your community equity and inclusion work, you're missing a tremendous opportunity.

-Art as a Way Into Community Conversation

Our discussion with Bob Faust and Nick Cave taught us that art can offer new ways into the conversation around equity and inclusion. It can also offer a way for a community to process difficult experiences and heal. In their AMENDS project, Bob and Nick used their creativity and art to co-create a community conversation with one thousand of their neighbors in response to the murder of George Floyd. That was community conversation at scale.

Through this project, the artists gave their community a collective way to process the emotions of that horrific time, a way into that conversation. Phase I was about hope, writing letters toward the eradication of racism. In Dirty Laundry, it was about reflection and about honesty. It was about what The Practice of Adaptive Leadership calls “owning our part of the mess.” Finally, it was about a shared call to action. Through this project, Nick and Bob reminded us that art can have even more impact on the street than in a studio or gallery.

-Art as an Act of Co-Creation

Nick and Bob didn’t create AMENDS alone. It was a co-creation between the artist and community members. In talking with Nick and Bob, they talked about this notion of co-creation. Bob shared that:

“We talk about collaboration all the time, and I think that definition is really, really broad. Sometimes it seems like collaboration is just contributing to something that gets used in something bigger. But our collaboration is really when somebody brings something to the table that changes the way that the initial idea is to be delivered. It's when two or more ideas get mixed together and make something new, not one that sits adjacent to but augments. So, co-creation takes a lot of guts, and a lot of trust, to move through some worry and some fear about what it's going to be and know that by choosing to go through that path, it will be stronger because so many more energies have been mixed into the pot.”

-Using Art to Meet People Where They Are

I also discussed art with Monique Davis from the Mississippi Museum of Art and their Center for Art and Public Exchange, or CAPE. CAPE’s methodology “centers around the power of art to change lives, coupled with the viewer’s agency to make meaning in dialogue with art.” Isn’t that a wonderful ambition?

Monique told us of one initiative where CAPE sponsored grants to artists and local communities to co-create artwork in smaller towns where they did not have physical access to the museum’s collections. She also reminded us that with any piece of art, we can experience it at a surface level. Still, with guidance, patience, and time we may also go much deeper into the metaphor or experience that the art offers.

Monique offered some words of wisdom that I find particularly helpful.

Try to do more heart work, less brain work.  - Monique Davis

-Your Community Already Possesses the Necessary Gifts and Talents

Suzanne Thomas, in her interview, talked about an exhibition done by her organization, Inclusion in Art. The exhibition was called the Spirit of Color. They used this exhibition to highlight artists of color who’ve been doing art in Oklahoma for decades. Some for as many as fifty years.

Everyone was just floored by it. Who knew that we had this talent here all this time? I’m glad we were able to bring these people and give them that space and that honor to show that this has always been here. - Suzanne Thomas

Suzanne also discussed the importance of building a thriving and diverse community of artists.

As you consider your community's journey toward equity and inclusion, you might consider the following questions. How can you use art to help prepare the hearts and minds across the community? Can you find a way to use art to enable difficult conversations or bring unlikely groups together? Can you use art to help co-create community conversations on a broad scale? Are you bringing your beautiful and powerful art out of the gallery and into the street, maximizing its impact and reach? Are you using your community's art to build and deepen inclusive and equitable culture? Are you making art that is both personal and local, meeting people where they are? Does your art offer opportunities for interaction at different levels and deepening over time? Are you using art to stimulate, challenge, motivate, or even create a call to action? Are you recognizing, celebrating, and building on the talents and gifts that already exist within your own community? Are you building an inclusive art ecosystem where diverse artists feel supported and are able to thrive?

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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