Arts + Democracy > The Sum of Their Parts
Joe Namy, "Hands"
In this time, when the narrative of hope and change is being challenged by the hardships of the economic crisis and an increasingly polarized and intolerant political climate, there is a sense of frustration that the old ways of working aren’t solving our current problems. There is a spirit of enthusiasm about new forms of organizing. Art, culture, and creativity have a powerful role to play in this moment.
Many people who had not previously seen themselves as participants in democracy have found themselves inspired to action through contact with art or culture that moves them to better understand an issue or more deeply feel their power. We know that arts and culture can be a catalyst for action. But the gap between arts and culture and strategic activism and sustained movement-building has limited its creative power. Too often arts and culture are not an integral part of the activism, relegated to communication, special events, or instrumentalized in a manner that they lose their power. Artists and arts organizations may be committed to social change but often do not play an ongoing role in organizing for change (for example, as members of coalitions) or have a seat at the tables where decisions get made.At the Arts & Democracy Project, we seek community and systemic transformation along with the individual transformation often associated with the arts. We recognize that this requires shifting power, dismantling structural racism, and recognizing and engaging class and economic justice issues. We believe that to make this change we need to build sustained equitable collaborations that embed arts and culture practices in activist groups and that root organizing strategies in arts and culture organizations. Cultural organizing makes culture integral to organizing, and enables people to bring their whole selves to their activism.
We anchor our work in the following values and understandings:
- Arts and culture have the power to expand participation, speak to people’s deepest values, name challenging issues, hold multiple perspectives and contradictions, support critical thinking and problem solving, and help people imagine and experience what change might look like.
- All cultures have inherent value and all people have the right to participate in art and culture.
- Communities must determine for themselves how arts and culture can best strengthen their neighborhoods, how change will be shaped, and how benefits will be shared.
- The people most impacted by policy need to play a significant role in shaping that policy.
- Building participatory democracy, equity, and social justice takes time. Trust and respect are needed to work across sectors, cultures, and communities and form effective coalitions.
- The diversity of approaches to linking art, culture, and democracy is a strength of the field. An ecological approach – where we are aware of what each group is doing and support each other’s efforts without being redundant to them – strengthens field building.
- An integrated cross sector approach that is rooted in the imagination and resiliency of our communities and scaled up through collaboration, training, and networking is most likely to succeed.