Archival Revival | Community-based Art for Social Change

By Kathie deNobriga and Mat Schwarzman
Originally published: 1999 | Re-published: May 2, 2016

The Archival Revival Series looks back at articles by ROOTers, about ROOTS, in celebration of our 40th anniversary. This series and the field of arts activism, owes an incredible debt of gratitude to ROOTS members Linda Frye Burnham and Steven Durland who, through Art in the Public Interest (API), first published this piece on the Community Arts Network (CAN). API describes CAN as a “project [that] promoted information exchange, research and critical dialogue within the field of community-based arts.” Active from 1999-2010, CAN modeled the kind of grassroots documentation and thought leadership that we seek to cultivate on the ROOTS blog. The full CAN archive is still available via Archive-It, courtesy of Indiana University. We gratefully reprint these articles here, with the permission of API.

Community-based art is creative expression that emerges from communities of people working together to improve their individual and collective circumstances. Community-based art involves a wide range of social contexts and definitions, and includes an understanding of “communities” that includes not only geographical places, but also groups of people identified with historical or ethnic traditions, or dedicated to a particular belief or spirit.

Those who identify themselves as community-based artists are concerned with the ways art can function within many different types of public arenas, including community development, corrections, education, intergenerational communication, aging, the environment, healthcare, technology, politics, disability, conflict resolution, community regeneration, cultural citizenship and more. They are working in all media, in all disciplines, in all locations. They can be found in traditional galleries, theaters, museums and centers of higher learning, as well as hospitals, unions, community centers, prisons, community-based organizing groups, wilderness areas, youth organizations and juvenile halls, and public schools.

They are committed to bringing the arts to bear on the widest possible range of social conditions and challenges facing our communities. This includes, but is not limited to, issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, classism, ableism, and all forms of discrimination that systematically deny individuals’ rights and opportunities because of physical traits, family background or social identity. These efforts seek to create social change at every level of society, from the most “personal” to the most “political.”

At the heart of this social vision is a belief in cultural and creative expression as a means to affecting deep and lasting social change. Laws may be altered, court decisions may be handed down, officials may be voted in and out of office–but if the majority of the people do not believe in the possibility and the rightness of their/our common cause, nothing authentic or long-lasting will be changed. This is where art, artists and artist educators play an essential role. If we want freedom, we must promote free expression. If we want equity, we must have equal access and support in expressing ourselves. If we want respect and love and beauty among us and all our many communities, we must actively and systematically promote it through our art and through our teaching of others. Teaching, in this sense, becomes a political act, a conscious effort to build a movement of people prepared to facilitate and participate in social change.

Community art is by its nature dialectical. It is an expression of both individual and group identity. All creative expression, no matter how “original,” is an expression of both individual and group life. In recognizing this, community art distinguishes itself from more conventional Western approaches in both vocabulary and theoretical approach. Instead of being viewed as an isolated individual genius, the artist (or artists) serves as a cultural catalyst, an integral part of a larger process of social intervention and transformation.

Through art, we can challenge many of our society’s deepest-seated assumptions, such as the boundaries between self and other, “artist” and “non-artist,” present and past, male and female, young and old, “normal” and “abnormal.” The community artist builds upon the power of artistic creation and expression to spark new ideas and elicit new actions, both from people who participate in the creative process and those who witness its results. Art can catalyze critical thinking, inspire individuals to work together, create visions, heal. This energy, in turn, helps catalyze, inspire and heal the community artist who facilities its development.

*This article was written in 1999, as an introduction to the Community Arts Training (CAT) Directory, a list of individuals and organizations offering quality training in the field of community arts.

One comment on “Archival Revival | Community-based Art for Social Change
  1. Mat Schwarzman says:

    Wow, thanks for reprinting this, comrades. Great to think this is still useful. Shout out to Kathie D!

Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.