“Who gets to feel the magic?”

The quality principles reflect a view of ‘quality’ and ‘excellence’ which we encountered among those working with children and young people which is not just about creating great art but also about having an impact on people’s lives, in particular creating opportunities.  Not simply economic opportunities, but opportunities for young people to achieve their full human potential – emotionally, socially, physically and intellectually. And not just for whoever turns up, but targeted at those who stand to benefit most. (…)

Perhaps Matthew Bourne’s dance-theatre production of Lord of the Flies (one of the quality principles pilot projects) offers a glimpse of a new perspective.  The production is transgressive in many ways and deliberately hard to categorise.  The source novel is on one hand a children’s story, yet also a highly respected (by adults) in its own right.  The production mixes a cast of professional dancers with teenage amateurs who perform the roles of the younger boys – having been selected through dozens of workshops held in each of the stops on the tour. In terms of identifying as either a social project or a commercial show Matthew Bourne and his team present the production as no different from any other produced by the New Adventures company; setting the bar at the highest level of technical quality, and artistic appeal.

From Who gets to feel the magic? on the #CulturalValue Initiative blog. Ben Lee of Shared Intelligence reported on a piece of work commissioned by Arts Council England for the purpose of exploring new ways of understanding and assessing ‘quality’ and ‘excellence’, especially in projects that also have a social aim and whose ambition is to have a real impact in the lives of participants yet reject the notion that this requires compromises on the quality front.


“Al Noor ~ Fragile Vision”

Doing this for four years in Bahbrain we’ve actually seen the impact the work has had on many on the centres we’ve worked with, over the past four years. We’ve worked with kids, we’ve worked with parents, and with teachers. And we have seen the cultural shift that it has caused within these centres. (…)

This project has taken us to the Saudi-Bahraini School for the Blind, to work with young people with autism, to do an artistic residency in al Riwaq Gallery with an autistic young woman from Bahrain and an Omani professional artist, and another artist who’s a sculptor and who’s blind, from Saudi Arabia. All of us are disabled. Four female disabled artists. And we’ve done live performances. I’ve created live paintings to general audiences and mainstream audiences, so these discussions just roll out at every single level of the community so it can’t be ignored.

Al Noor – Fragile is a multi-cultural collaborative project by Rachel Gadsen, Visual and Performance Artist, between UK and Middle East communities and arts organizations which will consider perceptions as to disability, culture, diversity and openness about impairment. This short film is produced in partnership with the British Council UK.

“Why Is It So Difficult to Talk Critically About Socially Engaged Art?”

This article pulls out the best threads, featuring plenty of quotable quotes, of contemporary thought, and aspiration, from artists, observers, and participant (herself) of socially engaged art. It also includes a great round up of recent such works.

As artist J. Morgan Puett of Mildred’s Lane noted in her recent lecture at the Regis Center for Art, “this work is not new, there’s just a new reaction to it.”  But why? Socially engaged practice is often framed as an alternative to an elitist, exclusionary, and capitalist art world. But the more institutionalized and professionalized social practice becomes (in predominantly wealthy, white institutions, I might add), the more I see a hierarchy emerging that separates social practice knowledge-authorities and those working on the outside. That growing divide raises an important question: Does social practice belong in art museums at all?

I had another one-on-one interaction on that same visit with dancer Dolo McComb, who is a collaborator with BodyCartography Project, a Minneapolis-based choreography/dance confab who were resident artists in thinking making living from late October to mid-November. The afternoon I visited, BodyCartography was rehearsing their piece closer, which is best described as:

a practice in being present.  It is a performance intervention for two strangers (audience and performer) in public space that evolves into a communal experience. It is an invitation for engagement and empathy.  Together we will examine how the space of connection between performer and audience can function as a site for transformation.  closer lays bare the power of live performance to facilitate a re-enchantment of physicality and presence.

For 10 minutes, I followed McComb as she moved throughout the spaces of the Nash Gallery, trying to keep a safe distance, not knowing what to expect. What began as a slightly uncomfortable, self-conscious experience became something like an intimate wordless conversation. At one, transformative moment, McComb was standing right against me, shoulder to shoulder; our breath slowly synchronized, and I felt a great empathy for this woman I’ve never met. I also had an increased awareness of the space surrounding us, particularly when McComb was stretched out on the cold lobby floor while I sat on a bench nearby.

From the article “Why Is It So Difficult to Talk Critically About Socially Engaged Art?” by Ashley Duffalo.

“Art for Politics’ Sake”

I think anyone who’s interested in art’s relationship to politics and society needs to engage with this kind of work, which, as you can tell from the term “social practice,” is interested in treating society as its material. In fact, it’s telling that the term “social practice” doesn’t even have the word “art” in it anymore. The phrase “social practice” seems rather to draw its currency from law, or from medicine—professions that we refer to as “practices.” This seems to cry out for analysis.

Is the aesthetic being crowded out right now by these more political considerations of social practices?

Of course from a market perspective, social practice is still very marginal, so there is no question that the aesthetic (in the old sense of the word, as something visually appealing) is still rife, adorning collectors’ homes everywhere. So I don’t see social practice as influential enough to crowd out the aesthetic in contemporary art. But social practice’s identification with ethics and politics should lead us to ask what’s prompting its allergy to the aesthetic. I’ve already mentioned the art market as a system with which many artists do not identify; this represents a bigger problem, which is a widespread dissatisfaction with free market capitalism and the inequality and disempowerment it produces. I think social practice also says something about our relationship to technology. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that social practice arises simultaneously with the digital revolution. Face-to-face relationships are becoming important as we spend more and more time online.

From the interview  “Art For Politic’s Sake” with Claire Bishop.

“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

“Why Should We Support Grassroots Theater”

As Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert write in Culture and Urban Revitalization: A Harvest Document the changing culture and economy are restructuring how we think of the arts. The impact of technology on the public sphere changes the relationship between audience and performer, amateur and professional, pushing the transformation of the arts field in new directions. Art can be practiced virtually anywhere and by anyone. The pendulum of duality between low and high art has burst into thematically specific theater companies that serve niche audiences. With the changing demographics, larger arts organizations have to pay greater attention to appeal to a more diverse spectrum of theater goers. The inclusion of minorities into the production of art has become an imperative task for all cultural organizations. Moreover, restricted funding resources have impacted medium sized theater companies that keep fighting with chronic financial instability and still, regional theaters are not able to escape their association with white upper-middle class representation of dominant social values.

How can we ensure greater arts participation? (…)

The antithesis to art’s top-down approach seems to be grassroots projects. By their anti-institutional design they have a greater potential to draw new audiences and advance audience engagement. Using this approach the definition of the artist changes with it too. The artist is now interpreted in relation to social and cultural conditions, while art reflects them. Art is not above social structures, but is an expression of these very structures, thus art finds an inseparable link to communal identity. Grassroots companies are important, for they provide empowerment through the sense of place, representing the community’s social and cultural values. Projects like the San Francisco DIVAfest, which showcases new works by women, San Francisco Fringe Festival, which brings independent grassroots theater companies on stage, Bindlestiff Studio, which presents Filipino-American works, or San Francisco Theater Pub, which welcomes new audience in non-traditional spaces such as a local cafés or bars, are all examples of grassroots projects that have the power to supply the missing link in the instrumental top-down approach.

Why Should We Support Grassroots Theater, Lenka Belkova at the Theatre Communications Group