In this blog series we’d like to start conversations about what meaningful community-engaged participatory arts for social change (ASC) partnerships can look like, how they can be effective and enriching, while also discussing some of the challenges and difficulties.
The content of this series draws primarily on research conducted by Judith Marcuse (Principle Investigator on the ASC! Project) and Nicole Armos (ASC! Research Assistant) during the 2013-2019 Art for Social Change (ASC!) Research Project, but the content of these posts is meant only as a starting point.
We want to hear your thoughts too!
Read the other episodes in the series here: Post #1 > Post #2 > Post #3 > Post #4 > Post #5 > Post #6
ASC Partnerships Blog Series Post #4: Shared Language and Understanding
Amara is the Artistic Director of MAZA Arts (fictitious person and organization to be representative), a bustling art studio in the heart of the inner city, offering low-income and homeless individuals space and materials to explore issues affecting the community through art. Katie, the program coordinator from a local women’s shelter, contacts Amara to say that the women’s shelter has received funding to offer an arts program for their clients. As they have limited space and no experienced staff to facilitate such a program, Katie is calling to ask whether MAZA would be interested in collaborating with the women’s shelter.
The opportunity sounds like a good match for MAZA, so over the course of several meetings and phone calls, Amara and Katie discuss and plan the logistics for the proposed program. They develop a detailed written agreement that outlines the budget and financial management, liability, and protocols for using the space. However, just two weeks before the launch of the program, Amara receives the promotional pamphlets the women’s shelter created, and she notices that they describe the program as “expressive arts therapy.” The people at MAZA Arts believe that art-making can be healing for individuals but do not frame MAZA’s work as “therapy,” as the goals and methods are different.
When Amara calls Katie, they realize that although they have put a lot of effort into negotiating the logistical details, they did not spend enough time discussing their respective expectations about the goals of the program or meeting with the artist facilitators to hear their approach to the work. Katie believes that it is merely an issue of word choice. She and her staff at the women’s shelter saw the term “art therapy” as being informal and fun, in the same way people refer to going shopping as “retail therapy.” When she understands MAZA’s framing of their work, Katie offers to change “expressive arts therapy” to “open art studio” and to reprint the pamphlets right away. She is worried that a project delay, or worse, low attendance due to limited advertising, will lead to the funding being withdrawn.
Amara, however, is concerned that Katie may not really understand MAZA Arts’ philosophy and approach to community-engaged art. She invites Katie in for another meeting where she shows her examples of recent projects, such as a photovoice project they organized with local residents living in precarious housing situations. The project culminated in a professional gallery exhibition and a dialogue on affordable housing policies.
Unfortunately, the meeting heightens the disparity between their visions. In previous meetings, Katie had interpreted terms like “social change” and “transformative” to mean “therapeutic.” Katie is impressed by MAZA Arts’ projects, but she worries about the strong activist lens of their work. Funding for the women’s shelter comes from a government ministry and private businesses, and Katie believes these funders might be uncomfortable with overtly activist programming.
The meeting leads to a standstill. While Katie is still eager to push the project forward as a form of recreational art-making for the shelter’s clients, MAZA Arts feels it would be too great a departure from their mandate to avoid any social justice lens. They agree to postpone the project indefinitely while keeping dialogue open. Katie agrees to propose a few examples of MAZA Arts’ projects to her Board and funders to see if they would be comfortable supporting an emergent process that may raise critical social issues, while acknowledging that she may need to consider looking for a different partner whose work is a closer fit.
Now it’s your turn! Please comment on Facebook or Twitter to tell us about your experiences with partners in community-engaged arts using the same words to mean very different things (or different words to mean the same thing!) and how you were able to surface the differences and find a common language.
In our next post: We’ll highlight some of the key messages from our research participants about how to clarify commonly misunderstood terms and create a common language with partners.
*Source Image from Shutterstock