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Creative Acts as Democratic Work (Connections 2015)

The four-page article, “Creative Acts as Democratic Work” by Paloma Dallas and Melinda Gilmore was published Fall 2015 in Kettering Foundation‘s annual newsletter, Connections 2015 – Our History: Journeys in KF Research. In this article, Dallas and Gilmore explore the role of art in civic engagement and community problem solving, in response to David Mathew’s query, “If the public has to do more than observe – if it has to be a citizenry-at-work – then the question is, how does art affect people doing the work of citizens?”

After much research, the two gathered a mixed group of folks for the first Civic Capacity and the Arts exchange at Kettering, and determined that the arts often play a critical role in community engagement. Below is an excerpt of some of the insights gained from Dallas and Gilmore’s research and multiple Kettering exchanges. Connections 2015 available for free PDF download on Kettering’s site here.

From the article…

KF_Connections 2015A few insights are currently coming into focus. Like any discipline, there are many arts organizations that have a more conventional notion of their role and their place in community life. They tend to look to communities as their audience and their funders. This is fine, and even good. But those with whom we have been working see a different role for themselves.

The arts have an ability to tap into other ways of knowing. As Esther Farmer wrote in her article “Strange Bedfellows: Community Development, Democracy, and Magic” in a 2015 issue of Community Development, “Traditional models of democratic debate have tended to privilege abstract, ‘disembodied’ forms of reason. . . . These kinds of disembodied environments that are overly intellectualized and abstract are dangerous on two fronts; they engender boredom, the enemy of enthusiasm, creativity, and imagination (i.e. magic), and even worse, these heady environments can also engender feelings of resentment and inadequacy.” Another participant, a professor of communication studies who has been collaborating with a visual artist, speaks about his concern with the professionalization of dialogue and deliberative work. His collaborations with a visual artist are born of a desire to explore the full range of democratic participation.

Another ongoing theme has been the power of imagination. While an important democratic capacity is the ability to make sound collective decisions, another important capacity is to be able to imagine beyond one’s experience. Many see this as a key role for the arts. For some, art creates a space for play and imagination, which can open up new options and possibilities to explore. At the same time, art can be a word that leaves some people out. It can feel exclusionary.

Building Democratic Muscles

Again and again, we’ve heard that the practice of working with others to literally create something together can help build up “democratic muscles.” Making something together can create a sense of ownership as well as a sense of collective identity. As one participant said in a research exchange, “When I do things, they are embedded in me in a different way than when I am just talking in a head space.”

The research has continued to evolve. Many foundations and municipal governments are funding “creative placemaking” initiatives that incorporate the arts in efforts to build vibrant communities. In the summer of 2015, we held a research exchange with a group of people to look at the democratic potential in these creative placemaking efforts. The organizations we brought together are all trying to ensure that citizens in community drive the work.

As a new area of Kettering’s research, it has generated enormous energy and expanded the networks with whom we exchange. As with all of our work, the questions we are asking overlap with other areas of research. For example, in Kettering’s community politics research, cooperative extension agents began experimenting with the arts in naming and framing issues to encourage more members of the community to participate in solving public problems.

We’ve seen art affect the work of citizens in myriad ways; each discovery has opened up new questions. As we continue to move forward in this work, we’ve been thrilled to find experiments not only across the United States but also around the world. Insights about the role of the arts don’t just come from artists and arts organizations but from other professionals and organizations. They are created in community themselves.

About Kettering Foundation and Connections
KF_LogoThe Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.

Each issue of this annual newsletter focuses on a particular area of Kettering’s research. The 2015 issue, edited by Kettering program officer Melinda Gilmore and director of communications David Holwerk, focuses on our yearlong review of Kettering’s research over time.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

Resource Link: www.kettering.org/sites/default/files/periodical-article/Dallas-Gilmore_2015.pdf

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