“Social Vision and A Cooperative Community”

Mark J. Stern is a professor of social welfare and history and the co-director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has also conducted many studies of how cultural engagement influences urban neighborhoods. Rick Lowe is the founder of Project Row Houses, a “multi-decade experiment in social action, preservation, community development, and public art”also one of the important examples in social practice and socially engaged art.

Below are snippets of an interview, where Stern and Lowe chat about the value-making abilities of social networks by art communities:

M.J. Stern: We got started on our work in reaction to the economic impact of the arts movement that was trying to reduce all of the value of the arts movement that was trying to reduce all of the value of the arts to the multiplier effect in terms of restaurants and tourism. We were saying this flattened the arts, didn’t take into account the depths of art’s potential for transforming communities and improving the social environment generally. I think as you get a feel of that depth, you can actually come up with ways of measuring that allow you to represent it to a wider population. You’re self-consciously trying to say you can do a community arts project that has a social mission, but also an aesthetic, emotional aim. (…)

R. Lowe: I have heard that IKEA determines a price for a product, and then have their designers design to that price. You know, to make sure that the product is affordable. Anyone can design something nobody can afford. So put the economics first. And when most people engage in a discussion of valuenot just in the arts but in other community work tooit starts from the notion of economic impact. (…) Oftentimes too a lot of the creativity is spun out in resistance to the economics, because you can’t afford the standard way so you have to do it differently. And those spin-offs are really where the juicy, exciting stuff happens for me.

Tim: Mark, you have said that using an economic model for these arts organisations isn’t often the most apt, that it’s more like a social movement.

M.J. Stern: Sure. The dominant model that’s used to judge organisational success in the arts conforms to orthodox organisational standards like economic stability, successful marketing, clarity of the staff organisation, and stability or moderate growth. A social movement model, on the other hand, is built around the motivation of the people involved in the group.(…)

Part of the reason we got into making this distinction was that there’s a tendency on the part of policymakers and funders to think unless an organisation grows and becomes more orthodox, it’s not succeeding. While growth and development are desirable outcomes for some organisations, that shouldn’t be our only standard.

From the book What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, by Tom Finkelpearl


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