I recently went to a public forum for educators hosted by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America where the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League moderated a panel titled, “The Role of the Community in Improving Education for All Children.” The discussion of education was limited to the PTA, charter schools, and the Boys and Girls Club. The role of the arts in schools was not considered—since no one there voiced it. But ideas of education and access are not the exclusive to one field; these issues affect those working in the arts as well. Surprisingly, the town hall meeting came to the same conclusions as a recent roundtable for the arts held at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.
There’s been a lot of talk about nonprofits recently. Within the arts, major grants from the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund were recently awarded to the Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, the Atlanta Printmakers Studio, and the Gwinnet Ballet Theatre, to name a few. The Hudgens Center for the Arts awarded $50,000 to local artist Gyun Hur, and a number of organizations such as WonderRoot and Twin Kittens are eagerly seeking your support during the big December fundraising season.
I was first introduced to some of these arts organizations when I went to Gather Atlanta over the summer. As I’ve said before, I was overwhelmed by the optimism from these organizations’ representatives, sense of collaboration, and DIY spirit that I felt there.
Some months later, I am now aware that this is not unique to the art scene: There are other organizations that are also gathering and attempting to envision the future for Atlanta. Exciting and innovative work is happening throughout the city within the nonprofit sector, but without the participation of Atlanta’s independent art spaces.
On Tuesday, December 7, a forum called Envision ATL met at the City Hall Historic Council Chambers. The meeting consisted of numerous organizations that address sustainability issues in the Atlanta area. Structured after the World Café model, the forum’s methodology sought to articulate the many unique perspectives in attendance, and then make common goals visible in order to work collectively towards their achievement.
Even in the forum’s name, Envision ATL channels the spirit of art events like Gather Atlanta and the art foundation Possible Futures, highlighting the common goals that Atlantans, both inside and outside the art community, are working towards. While the Metro Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition was a partner for this event, there was an absence of other art-focused perspectives. These efforts should not be occurring in isolation.
There are new roads to be paved for collaboration across these fields of art, social activism, environmental sustainability, and public health. As a perk for artists, it would further opportunities for creative work, and allow them to experiment beyond their preferred medium and subject matter. It’s about time we start seeing our roles as fluid and interrelated, allowing public art to take the form of sustainable neighborhood revitalization projects—more than just the percent-for-the-arts sculptures and murals that come from capital improvement funds.
The role of the artist in these realms has made unexpected and meaningful impacts in the social landscape, pushing the boundaries of what visual arts can be. Artist/architect Fritz Haeg, for example, developed a Sundown Schoolhouse project that turned his home into a site for learning. He not only became an educator, but he also changed the physical and social landscape of neighborhoods around America with his Edible Estates project. By “attacking the front lawns” of homes across America, Haeg has created eight regional prototype gardens that turn domestic lawns and other unused areas in front of homes into spaces for families to grow their own food. Most of these gardens are commissioned by local art institutions and developed in partnership with horticultural, agricultural, or community gardening organizations.
Marjetica Potrc, another artist/architect, has similarly transformed neighborhoods around the world. She created a prototype for stilt-supported shotgun homes in New Orleans that promote self-sustainability by including a rainwater-harvesting tank. Funded largely by the Stedelijk Museum, her project in Amsterdam, The Cook, the Farmer, his Wife, and Their Neighbor, established a community garden in a housing complex, as well as a space for its multicultural inhabitants to cook and share meals. Potrc described the project: “This is the start of a process of transformation for the neighborhood: The garden and the kitchen provide the people who live in the area with a way to redefine their relationship to public space and the public sphere.”
These kinds of artist-interventions connect with goals beyond the arts. Not only do they encourage a diversity of partnerships, they also reactivate the term “community.” The idea of community thus becomes rooted in collaboration and active engagement—an identity that holds its members accountable for their roles within the collective. “Community” stops being one of those words that that simply organizes the same kinds of people and separates them from others: e.g. the “arts community,” the “black community,” and “business community.” Community must not simply distinguish people in the same field or ethnic background; it should foster cross-pollination and collaboration between like-minded people and organizations of all types.
Whether it’s a town hall meeting, a roundtable, or a world café conversation, everyone in the nonprofit sector is calling for partnership. Before there can be progress toward partnerships, however, arts organizations need to reevaluate their mission statements. They have to stop using “community” as a catchall term that lacks specificity, and they must begin recognizing opportunities to align themselves with other socially driven projects. By reimagining the role of the arts within our neighborhoods, as part of the collective and sustainable growth of this city, public art does not become an isolated event, but functions within our lives.
Kristin Juárez is a recent transplant from Los Angeles conducting a fellowship at the High Museum of Art. This column maps her exploration of Atlanta’s art scene as a newcomer. With one foot testing the water of local arts practice and the other firmly planted in a greater landscape of cultural production, Juárez uses both to gauge the potential of the visual arts to impact our lives. How can art provide meaningful, sustained discourse that will help us articulate, and be held accountable for, what is at stake in the world today?
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