Five Misconceptions about Documentation, Archiving, and Communication in the Field of Community Cultural Development

Article by Jamie Haft; Photos by Andrew Morikawa

This article was originally posted on Roadside Theater’s blog

Virginia Tech recently hosted a small national meeting on documentation, archiving, and communication in the field of community cultural development. Articulated by convener Bob Leonard, the meeting’s lead organizing question: How is documentation, archiving, and communication in the community cultural development field serving and not serving artists, humanities researchers, community organizers, non-artist community partners, community agencies and institutions, and scholarly communities? For me, the meeting debunked five misconceptions about documentation, archiving, and communication in the field.

Misconception #1: There’s no urgency.

Documentation, archiving, and communication are essential to demonstrating the ability of community cultural development to improve the lives of community members and to fostering a critical discourse that builds and sharpens those doing the work. Questions for the critical discourse include: Is community cultural development work advancing equity? How does the field deal with well-meaning but ineffective and sometimes even unethical practices? Bill Cleveland,Center for the Study of Art and Community, called for investments in independent reporting and data collection to reveal impact – for example, a study and report about how and where projects are doing damage and how and where they are making a difference. Participants pointed to assessment resources like Animating Democracy’s Impact Initiative and Imagining America’s Integrated Assessment Initiative. Cindy Cohen, Acting Together, suggested a core group commit to regular meetings over a sustained period of time to discuss and communicate the moral and ethical dimensions of community cultural development.

As a 28 year old, I think documentation, archiving, and communication are especially important to upcoming generations of artists working in communities. The founders of the field’s flagship organizations created in the wave of the U.S. civil rights movement are retiring. For decades these community-based artists arguably had more funding opportunities for creating new work, touring, and building institutions than new leaders have today. For example, in 1995 the rural, working-class Roadside Theater had nine full-time and four part-time ensemble members. Today, how many rural, or for that matter urban, working class professional theater ensembles even exist? As Roadside’s artistic director Dudley Cocke documents in The Unreported Arts Recession of 1997, the economy for community-based arts collapsed after decades of right-wing pressure that began with Reagan’s election. While young people now may have less funding to do the work, through technology they have more access to the field’s history and lessons, so that when they are able to work, there’s the opportunity to be more effective.

Misconception #2: The community cultural development field needs a central digital town square.

The Community Arts Network (active from 1999-2010) was an amazing prototype for online information exchange and dialogue, providing the sense that those in community-based arts were part of a larger field. The digital landscape has rapidly changed, and now there’s a proliferation of websites, designed in different ways, serving the field. Animating Democracy’s Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Pam Korza noted the difference between websites curated with content for particular audiences and those with content driven by users in the spirit of a commons. (For a robust model of the latter, see HowlRound, which uses a commons-based peer production approach.) At the Virginia Tech meeting, Animating Democracy volunteered to co-convene a Website Exchange Learning Group to critically review websites using observation and analytics to consider content, design, and distribution.

To provide a central portal through which users can discover the range of what’s out there, Virginia Tech’s Manuel Perez-Quinones will lead an experiment to aggregate the RSS feeds of websites relevant to community cultural development. The experiment’s technology draws on his pilot National Science Foundation funded Virtual Town Square, a hyper-local news aggregator that encourages online civic discussions.

Participants agreed that conferences and other face-to-face meetings are important for fostering a field-wide critical discourse; virtual exchange prior to and following such meetings helps advance and sustain the conversations. Matthew Fluharty, Art of the Rural, described how digital mapping can be a roadmap to human, face-to-face dialogue and how digital and analog projects and products can coexist and enliven each other. The potential for new media, in transcending the laptop screen, can break cultural and artistic material out of ‘the archive’ and re-introduce it to communities.”

Haft Article 2Misconception #3: Community cultural development lacks broad appeal.

The community cultural development field is growing: As documented in the national report Culture and Community Development in Higher Education, there is an increase in community organizers collaborating with artists to bring cultural awareness into their efforts, and an increase in new community cultural development courses and programs in higher education. However, Michael Rohd, Sojourn Theatre and Center for Performance and Civic Practice, noted that the term community cultural development is not useful in all contexts. He challenged us to create portals that avoid jargon and reach out to partners from across sectors. Participants discussed strategies for encouraging people from other sectors to write about the impact of community cultural development (such as this reflection by a health professional onThe Carpetbag Theatre’s play, Speed Killed My Cousin; and Arts & Democracy’s Bridge Conversations).

To bring a feeling of cohesion among all those who use culture in their development work, Cocke suggested The Universal of Declaration of Human Rights as a unifying principle: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits” (Article 27, Section 1).

As follow-up to the Virginia Tech meeting, Animating Democracy will coordinate an effort to research ways to reach cross-sector partners, which will include identifying the major platforms for information sharing among professionals in government, community development, environmental sustainability, and health.

Misconception #4: Archiving is for academics.

Meeting participants affirmed the principle of first voice in documentation, and called for more integrated approaches for colleges and community-based organizations to collaborate on documentation, archiving, and communication. Jan Cohen-Cruz, Public: A Journal of Imagining America, cautioned that the field could become bifurcated if some web platforms and publications are seen as “academic” and others “community-based.” As follow-up, a group including Cindy Cohen, Jan Cohen-Cruz, Linda Parris-Bailey, and Carlton Turner will develop a program in which artists can be in residence at a college to document their work in partnership with scholars.

Misconception #5: Archiving isn’t related to current events.

With an extensive 40-year collection of play scripts, videos, audio recordings, photos, essays, and articles, Roadside Theater is prioritizing the archiving of its content based on current social and cultural issues. Its approach is to craft jargon-free narratives explaining what they did and why, and to connect those narratives to current events in the field and society. Using “news hooks” can help extend the reach of an archive. This blog post, reflecting on the 50thanniversary of the March on Washington, is an example of this type of approach. To help Roadside shape these narratives and prioritize which archival content to digitize, they’ll enlist guest editors who are new leaders in the field. For example, to support companies like Mondo Bizarro and M.U.G.A.B.E.E. in creating new artistic work about race and class (see their Race Peace), Roadside is making accessible archival footage from its 30-year collaboration about race and class with Junebug Productions. Here’s a newly digitized performance of Junebug/Jack:

As follow-up to the Virginia Tech meeting, Roadside is hosting a field-wide “pitch meeting” where editors and others interested can practice linking their website content to current events on Thursday, February 6, at 7pm Eastern/6pm Central/4pm Pacific – email to join this virtual exchange.

What are other misconceptions about documentation, archiving, and communication in the field of community cultural development? Email to add your perspective to the blog.

The December 6-8, 2013 meeting was hosted by Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts | Music | Theatre | Cinema, in partnership with The Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech, the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, and the Institute for Policy and Governance.


Jamie HaftJamie Haft is Assistant Director of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, where she is organizing leadership teams within its consortium of more than 100 colleges and directing story-based campaigns in multiple media. She has been collaborating with Roadside TheaterAppalshop for eight years.

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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.