Using Arts To Bind the Community

New Canvas

Anna Faith Jones is a believer in a simple truth about art. Whether you hang it, sing it, dance it, play it, or wear it, art, she says, is about community.

It's a long-held conviction, rooted in a childhood immersed in music lessons and choir singing - and the memory of Marian Anderson drawing huge crowds when she sang at the Lincoln Memorial, after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her give a concert in Constitution Hall because she was black.

"I come from a people for whom music was a great outlet," says Ms. Jones. "It was an outlet [for community] when they had few outlets, first as slaves and later in deeply segregated communities. I've always understood that about art."

Today, as president of the Boston Foundation, a community foundation with assets of more than $500 million, she is overseeing a recently announced campaign to create a multi-million-dollar fund that aims to weave every aspect of the arts more closely through the daily lives of Bostonians.

Ms. Jones is no lonely pioneer in championing the relationship between the arts and communities. While many headlines continue to focus on the so-called culture wars, as well as the funding woes of the National Endowment for the Arts, there is a quietly building commitment at state and local levels to nurture art within communities across the country.

"It's not necessarily a role that art has always been funded to play in the past," says Jonathan Katz of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA).

While funding for the NEA has hovered around $100 million for the past few years, state funding for the arts has jumped - from $212 million in 1992 to $310 million last year, according to NASAA. Roughly half that money is now going to a variety of community-based programs - everything from using the arts to help teach math to building on a town's jazz heritage to boost tourism.

Increasingly, says Mr. Katz, government agencies at all levels are turning to arts-based programs. When his organization published a report about ways the arts can help youths, one the biggest patrons was the US Department of Justice. It bought 5,000 copies to distribute to counselors working with at-risk teens.

Cutting crime through art

Katz points to places like Maricopa County, Ariz., where law-enforcement officials have set up an arts program to help prevent youth crime. The program hires artists to do "community residencies" with teens who might otherwise be out on the streets.

In Boston, the campaign announced by the Boston Foundation follows more than five years of research into the way art complements the foundation's goal of community-building. After years of being criticized for its lack of support, the foundation now plans to create a permanent fund of at least $10 million to help strengthen participation in the arts.

In fact, applications for the first grants to be distributed from the fund - which will be announced tomorrow - include a wide range of nontraditional projects, such as using dance to help people with mental and physical problems, and working with the elderly to develop their life stories into plays.

"We were astounded by the range and creativity involved in these applications," says Jones. "They all involved a desire to give people a better sense of themselves and their own self-worth."

Under a previous grant program, run as part of its research into the arts and community, Jones and her staff found a broad range of projects. Among them:

* The Back Porch Dance Company, an amateur group of women from different racial backgrounds, who used dance to create the kind of intimacy once marked by sharing news and gossip across the railings of back porches.

* ZUMIX, a free music program for youths, which set up mentoring projects and included performances by youths at senior centers during the holidays.

* STAGES (Story Telling for the Ages), a project run by a local theater company, which created plays based on the oral histories of senior citizens.

Some critics - most notably Robert Brustein, director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. - criticize such funding efforts as "social engineering." They don't believe art should be used as a tool to change society - for instance, to improve race relations - but should be pursued purely as art. And some long-time community-arts activists question whether the new funding trend is simply a matter of "fashion rather than passion." But Jones defends the project as having grown out of conversations with the local art community and argues: "Why shouldn't art be more a part of our daily life?"

The Boston Foundation fund was launched last month with a $1.2 million seed grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, which also gave $9.5 million in grants to nine other community foundations around the country. According to Holly Sidford, Wallace program director, the grants are part of a trend that has been building to reverse the image of art as an elitist activity. It is being prompted in part by concern among traditional arts groups that their audiences are dwindling.

"Part of making an arts institution vital in the late 20th century is going to be having a very lively role in the community," says Ms. Sidford.

The funding trend coincides with a growing mood among artists who are fed up with the stereotype, fueled by NEA controversies, of their work as controversial and removed from everyday life.

"I think artists are angry about what's happened to them, that they've been painted as villains for the public and not as integrated members of their community," says Joan Jeffri, director of the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University in New York. In a 1997 survey of more than 2,000 artists, she found a high degree of public participation - including 46 percent who engaged in community service.


Among those tied to his community is Dudley Cocke, who for more than 20 years has directed the Roadside Theatre in the Appalachian town of Whitesburg, Ky. Now working with rural communities nationwide, the theater stages plays that draw from the lives and oral histories of local people. The purpose, says Mr. Cocke, is to help communities "find and amplify their own voices." The result, he says, is that "local life starts to become aware of itself, which is very different from what people get from mass media, which always takes you somewhere else and says the grass is greener."

Cocke says the theater's work has drawn interest from groups as disparate as the US Forest Service, which is interested in the way the plays can help promote conservation, to rural development planners, who see the work in schools fostering regional pride among youths.

"The content and form of art doesn't come from Mars," says Cocke. "It's about a whole set of values, including participation, which seems to me to be a real worthwhile democratic value."

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