Art, Space, and Community Engagement

By Andrew Hickey

Art can play a powerful and valuable role in healing community and fostering dialogue about public policy. I experienced a striking example of this when a Portland art and music venue became a center for talking about community issues that failed to be addressed in other spaces, like the gender divide in electronic music; current sex worker issues; or the need for music spaces to address larger political concerns, such as the presidential election. The effectiveness of these events, workshops, and community dialogue, lead me to investigate recent efforts that bridge the gap between art and community.

For example, The Mural Arts program of Philadelphia connects with local graffiti artists to create programs that foster art education, social justice, and behavioral and public health for Philadelphia’s youth, those suffering from trauma, mental illness, and addiction. To mark their 30th Anniversary, the Mural Arts Program restored a Keith Haring mural, We the Youth, which had been a collaborative work by the artist, CityKids of New York, and the Brandywine Workshop. Restoration was by a team of artists led by Kim Alsbrooks.  The completion was celebrated with a local street party, with music, food, and family-friendly activities, free and open to the public.


We The Youth by artist Keith Haring in Philadelphia, PA

The Arts at Marks Garage, (Marks) a community arts project of the Hawai'i Arts Alliance, organized the Talk Any Kine (TAK) festivals in Honolulu to garner feedback from the community about solutions to problems the neighborhood was facing. They were looking for input on such issues as creating a better business environment, homelessness, affordable rental housing, infrastructure, and safer neighborhoods. It was a speak-out event for people who would not normally attend meetings in city hall. By using arts and cultural activities in a festive setting in the park, Marks Garage believed they would draw people together and elicit more feedback and creative solutions from underrepresented community members. The festival had over 350 attendants.

Marks presented its findings to the City Council, with the data that was gathered organized and presented at a practical solutions summit to the Mayor. In order to enact change on a local level the organization also provided small grants to those who proposed the most popular, feasible, and effective ideas.

Metro Health Plus in Queens experienced similar success with community engagement when partnering with the Queens Museum of Art to encourage preventative healthcare, including screenings for chronic disease.  Multiple organizations unified to create street festivals combining visual art, entertainment, and social services, offering free health evaluations and the ability to sign up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Thousands of people attended, initially drawn to the event due to the art and music, but staying to participate in the health-related services. During the initiative’s street festivals, the Queens Museum of Art and its partners provided access to health screenings for nearly 1,400 people, and registered over 1,300 previously unregistered people for free or low-cost health insurance. 

Queens Museum of Art Street Festival

Meanwhile, In San Francisco, Bindlestiff Studios, a Filipino performing arts venue, and South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN) dedicated to serving the needs of the youth, seniors, veterans, the Filipino community, low-income residents, and the homeless affected by neighborhood gentrification collaborated to raise awareness and funding. In one project they engaged seniors and houseless individuals through art workshops, with the ultimate purpose of using the art created to educate local policymakers. Participants from singleroom occupancy hotels were invited to sketch aspects of their lives; SOMCAN and Bindlestiff Studios created a play to weave together the vignettes created by the residents of these hotels. Eighty policy makers attended the play, learning about the issues related to singleroom occupancy hotels and houselessness.

How might these successful initiatives be recreated? Hiring effective organizers is an important step, as direct outreach is critical. Before any planning process can begin, intentional listening is required. All programs can have a social justice aspect, but it's important to consider and prioritize what matters in a given community. Art institutions can survey communities to see what the level of community involvement is, and what’s already known about public arts in the area. Technical advisors can help facilitate discussion and communicate the needs of the local public to planners, facilitating social capital, a key element to an active and healthy civic community. With social capital, individuals can come together to express their needs related to housing, sustainability, public health, and more.

Urbanists should keep in mind that any community involved art worth its weight has the potential to be controversial. The Santa Fe mural program is a series of art projects organized by the local Teen Court, pairing artists with first time offenders to complete community service hours through beautifying public spaces. A local artist Chris McLean has spurred debate about what it means to portray community history “accurately” vs. the kinds of stories public art should depict. He drew attention to Glen Strock’s draft of a mural showing a legend in which a Spanish colonial governor on horseback is pointing a sword at the ground where an indigenous boy is offering a cross to denote peace. Local educator Cristina Gonzales notes that art like this can “...in sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways, [perpetuate] racism and colonialism”. On the other hand, Jason Martinez commented “… I look at it as a whole and say, ‘Yeah, that’s who we are,’” and James McIntosh, a local Santa Fe resident and Cherokee commented that the mural is “...just part of our history, and if we draw over history, or if we don’t know our history, then I don’t think that’s very good — for our history or for anybody else”. Community discussion is providing input to the final version of the mural.

Glenn Strock's mural in Santa Fe, before revision

By using the arts, cultural assets can bridge gaps and often open eyes to shared interests. Applying the arts to diverse groups often opens the door for community conversation, allowing individuals to express their opinions and ideas, with constructive criticism. How should cities foster artistic developments like these? The best approach may to be to get out of the way of artists, and preserve the organic and multifaceted ways that artists have for appropriating and changing the nature of space, or facilitate the artistic capacities that already exist locally.