Neighborhoods Supporting Artists

Art often gets a bum rap. Well, I should be more specific and say art making often gets a bum rap. Making art is often viewed as something done for fun, a diversion from the day-to-day responsibilities of job and family. Art is something we do in our spare time, like reading a book or gardening. Unless, of course, you’re actually making a living at making art, then it’s ok and you can go about your business as a respectable member of the community without being asked when you’re going to finally get that “real job.” The artist character in movies, television, and literature is often portrayed as the loveable and talented but nonetheless jobless, irresponsible freeloader who sleeps on the couch at a friend’s house. Some even say making art, and funding it, is a waste of time and money. I should also say I’m referring to art in the context of this article mostly as works created by an individual artist through his/her own passion, voice, and creativity, not commercial art created for a particular audience.

We occasionally attend plays, concerts and exhibits and watch artistic television and movies, saunter down to the local pub to hear the latest band, or purchase art from galleries and individual artists. Otherwise, as a society and as individuals we are generally not engaged with artists or making art on a regular basis. Our individual participation in the arts is minimal and from a distance: “We have become a society composed almost entirely of audience” (Ted Orland, artist & author). As a society, we relegate the responsibility of the support of the arts to the government as a common good, or to the consumer as a commodity. These two forms of validation leave out the majority of art makers who create works because they love it, not because they’re getting paid. And, in times of financial or political uncertainty the arts are usually the first to suffer because art is perceived as an elective rather than a necessity, as a hobby rather than a pathway to greater understanding, creativity, and innovation, as an after-school activity to keep kids occupied until parents get off work rather than a means to bridge cultural understanding.

But, according to the The Global Agenda Council on the Role of Arts in Society 2012

The arts exert a powerful influence on the development of societies. Artists often challenge commonly-held perspectives with innovative thinking, raise awareness of social issues, break down barriers to cross-cultural understanding and global dialogue, and inspire creative ideas.

If art is important to the development of societies, yet art funding is unpredictable and insufficient, and art is not viewed as an important pursuit, what encourages people to set aside time to doodle, write a poem, walk in the park, paint a picture, or photograph?

Artist and author Ted Orland, in his book The View from the Studio Door, brings it home when he writes

Art is not made by a special breed of people, but by ordinary people who have dedicated a piece of their lives to special work… Artists are regular people who work all the time, and lead real lives all the time as well… The need for more art in the community is not nearly so great as the need for more artists in the community. Every neighborhood should support a musician or two, a painter or two, a writer or two.

I suggest “artist” refers to anyone who makes art, dedicated individuals and “part-time artists” alike; adults and children. Many, if not all, neighborhoods have a local artist living there or at least nearby. They may not call themselves an artist, but it is someone who paints, draws, knits or quilts, makes scrapbooks, wood toys or builds kites. What if neighborhoods engaged with their local artist(s) to have them teach about their art, supported and encouraged their art making, and neighborhood residents became more active making their own art as a result? What if the neighborhood artist, supported by the neighborhood, inspired a neighborhood of artists?

What does neighborhood support of an artist look like? How about hiring the artist to lead after-school programs, to give demonstrations in the local park, neighborhood musicians getting together in the park or on a cul-de-sac for an evening concert or jam session. A neighborhood art show, play or outdoor movie night? And support doesn’t always mean money. “Artists need to feel they have the support of the community in their art making efforts; if not for what they have already achieved, then for the potential they represent” (Ted Orland). What about working with city and state arts organizations to engage neighborhood children in creating public art where they live? Could a neighborhood be inspired to support neighborhood artists? If a neighborhood doesn’t have a local artist nearby, arts organizations and clubs may have a list of artists you can contact.

In Toronto, Ontario, the Neighbourhood Arts Network works with communities to show

The arts are a powerful tool in building and sustaining successful neighbourhoods. Community-engaged art making is a unique and effective approach to community building that fosters relationships between artists and residents while producing exciting, unique art, and nurturing mentoring opportunities. The result is a dynamic explosion of creativity that changes how art is made, how communities are built, and how we live together.

In Lowell, Massachusetts a neighborhood created a public art piece that involved local children.

In Taos, New Mexico, the Harwood Museum of Art set up Neighborhood Arts Projects that went to neighborhoods to bring art to children and families during the summer months. There’s nothing stopping a neighborhood from doing something similar on its own with their local artist.

In Detroit, a neighborhood of abandoned homes was turned into an art gallery that changed the character of the area for the better.

Back to Toronto, a city that created Neighborhood Arts Hubs (NAHs) that act as catalysts for projects, link artists and residents, offer meeting and networking space, and generally promote the cultural activities in the neighborhood. NAHs are designed to act as a resource and to support a spectrum of arts activity, not compete with community art programs already happening. NAHs cooperate and complement the work of other NAHs including libraries, health centers, schools, and after-school programs.

How can this be done? Where will the funding come from? Your projects don’t need to be expensive. There are many art projects that can be done with items found around the house. Neighbors could collect materials from their own homes to provide for projects. There are many sources for funds that can be found working in collaboration with your artists. State, county, and city arts agencies provide grants, so do foundations like The Knight Foundation. Several outlets for crowd-sourcing funds are out there like www.kickstarter.com, http://crowdfunding.com/, www.indiegogo.com, and www.razoo.com. Neighborhoods can self-fund projects entirely or in part through their own fundraising efforts. Your local arts council/agency and community centers will be very happy to work with you and your artist(s) to help find sources, write grants, and build your neighborhood art community.

As an artist, explore the possibility with your neighbors. As a neighbor, explore the possibility with an artist you know. I’m pretty sure it’ll be fun, challenging, and beneficial to everyone who participates (and probably even to those who don’t).

When you make art, you are making the world a better place. Everything that happens afterwards, whether to you or to your art or to society, flows directly from that initial act” – Ted Orland