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Helping the Field Flourish: Community Arts Research

By Zoë Reznick Gewanter and Rebecca Yenawine

Though community art has drawn the support of funders and universities and is treasured by many communities, there is still much that needs to be done to make the case that the field is worthy of funding and that the outcomes that result from this work are significant in the larger picture of community development and/or youth development.

Research and critical reflection on community arts practice provides measurable evidence-based knowledge and insight that can shape effective practice, articulate the benefit of the work to those outside the field and create a platform for further research and evaluation efforts.

While studies have been conducted investigating creativity and the brain, arts and education, and arts and cognitive development, there is currently not a significant amount of rigorous research defining the unique dynamics of community arts practice and the outcomes of its work. This indicates a need to undertake research and evaluation efforts that seek to (1) help practitioners to critically reflect on and hone their practice, (2) increase the field’s legitimacy among related fields, policy makers and funders and (3) help to articulate how this work has a critical impact on participants’ lives.

The research in this paper was conducted by Zoë Reznick Gewanter with the guidance of community arts practitioner and Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) faculty member Rebecca Yenawine, as a part of the Masters of Art in Community Arts (MACA) program at MICA. This study attempts to create a picture of the field through the perspectives of selected practitioners (see Addendum). The methodology involved interviews with 14 community arts practitioners who have been in the field for ten or more years. Interviews reflect a developed community arts practice, which means that preference was given to those who have been able to financially sustain the work over time and those who have developed to the point of having published articles or books about the work.

Interviews were recorded on video and were guided by questions addressing the tenets, methods and outcomes of the work. The following key questions were asked:

  • Addressing Tenets: How do you define community arts? (Or if you do not identify with the term, how do you define your practice?)
  • Addressing Methods: What are the methods you use in your practice?
  • Addressing Outcomes: What are the most important outcomes that you observe as a result of the work?

Each interview was transcribed and the responses were separated into discrete ideas, concepts and/or themes. These ideas were individually summarized, categorized and sorted into one of the domains (tenet, method, outcome) based on the content of the ideas expressed. The summarizing, categorizing and sorting processes were also completed by MACA graduate students in the spring of 2010 as part of their research and evaluation coursework. The graduate students’ participation in the data analysis process provided them with educational research experience and lent multiple perspectives to the process, increasing the objectivity of analysis and the resultant findings.

The most important part of the data analysis process was the collaborative coding and distillation of the tenets, methods and outcomes into distinct categories (see Addendum). Our findings revealed that despite a wide array of practitioners working with a variety of settings and populations (i.e., prisons, after-school programs, American military veterans, adults in Appalachia, youth in Baltimore City), there was notable consistency in how people defined the tenets, methods and outcomes of the field. This article focuses on the outcomes that emerged from the study because these findings have the greatest implications for how we might evaluate the field in the future.

Understanding Community Arts Outcomes

The outcomes that practitioners provided indicate a wide range of positive emotional and social outcomes, above and beyond the acquisition of art skills. The table below shows the various outcomes generated by the data analysis. Quotations from the data for many of the subcategories illustrate how the outcome cluster was described by practitioners.

Outcome Cluster Outcome Subcategory Quotations from Data Sample
Emotional shift: Participants experience engagement, joy and a feeling of being uplifted. This emotional shift allows for a sense of hope and possibility. Engagement “Some kids were coming just to hang out to people who were really engaged and really care about how the class is going.” -Marshall Clarke
Emotionally uplifting experience “I mean those brothers were actually crying and saying how grateful and how thankful they were to be a part of that project and to express themselves and release from all those things that they’ve been going through.” -Mama Kay Lawal and Mama Rashida Foreman-Bey (describing men in prison who participated in a collaborative performance with young people)
Sense of possibilities “The learning process actually allows them to imagine themselves in a positive, successful situation upon completion from high school—that’s what we do with the arts program.” -Bill Strickland
Joy “I think especially when I work with children, but even when I work here in the studio with adults, …the more I do it, the more I realize how creativity is tied to our essential joy.” -Cinder Hypki
Positive Sense of Self: The ability to express oneself affirms participants’ strengths and identity, builds confidence, self-esteem and self-awareness. The approach creates a focus on one’s assets. Affirmed strengths and identity “We’ve had so many parents come up to us and say, ‘I never knew my child was this talented.’ Or ‘They’re always in trouble in school, but they do so well in your program!’ ” -Karen Summerville
Confidence “It’s a way to engender a trust within themselves that they can actually create stuff, tackle stuff.” -Marshall Clarke
Self awareness “I know that my work provides the opportunity or at least the platform for the families to see themselves. So, in that sense it’s transformative without the pressure to change on whatever the issue is.” -Pepón Osorio
Empowerment: Participants are able to make good choices and determine their own future in a way that allows them to be self-sufficient and self-actualized. Participants grow into leadership and continue the work beyond the duration of a project. Carrying on the work “We've done a community cultural development project in Zuni, New Mexico, now for over 25 years and we were just out there three weeks ago making a new piece of work with them. They’ve come and established their own theater, their own Zuni language theater, so now we're just collaborators.” -Dudley Cocke
Leadership “I believe that this really creates leaders within the community as well because they are forward-thinking.” -Karen Summerville

“We have one student named Marcus Ross who has actually moved from teaching–a student, a teaching assistant, a mentor who is now rehired as a teacher.” -Marshall Clarke
Good choices “The creative impulse comes from the other side of the equation, which is that you actually understand that there is this massive world of choices. That you are a participant....and that you have control over (choice-making) and actually can become better and better at it.” -Bill Cleveland
Creative problem-solving: Participants learn to think for themselves, connect divergent ideas, think imaginatively, refine ideas, and focus on multiple constructive ways to solve a problem. n/a “When people are given these tools they can add them up in their own way, not add them up so they look like my work. “ -Liz Lerman

“And most of the issues that we deal with with young people, young people come to the core of it on their own because you start tearing everything away, there’s nothing left but real. There’s nothing left but truth.” -Mama Rashida Foreman-Bey

“I think that art allows that stepping back and connecting things that aren’t necessarily apparently connected and drawing from different things.” -Marshall Clarke
Increased sense of community: Participants experience increased connectedness even across differences, understand new perspectives and experience an ability to contribute to culture and community. Connectivity “My work, what it does is create connections that are beyond class and are beyond race.” -Pepón Osorio

“If I didn’t happen to get an ‘oh, by the way’ e-mail from one of the participants saying, “since this project we have—I have had a—ongoing good relationship with the school, this project has really done a good job at creating communication between the school and the community.” -Peter Bruun

“I think they’re all understanding in a deeper way that we are all on this planet together.” -Mama Rashida

“I think it’s almost always adding to the connective tissue of a community or society or an organization of whatever, you know, entity you’re talking about.” -Arlene Goldbard
New perspectives “That project with our students was probably one of the most transformative we ever had because they realized they were eating the food of people who were going hungry, who picked their food and got that food to them, but they didn’t have enough food and they were getting sick from the work they were doing.” -Amalia Mesa-Bains
Contributing to community “Enlarging possibility for people, enlarging that transition from seeing themselves as kind of objects of history where other people have the power and make the choices and do the things that make the difference to seeing themselves as subjects of history, makers of culture, the people who make choices that are reflected in their lives and the lives of people around them.” -Arlene Goldbard
Social change: Participants become agents of change who address systemic issues. They become helpers, healers and advocates who contribute to social cohesion and a shift in thinking about culture and stereotypes. n/a “I mean the social change I’m interested in is for people to be able to bring more of themselves into the public arena, to be more free and to have a more just world.” -Arlene Goldbard

“MRFB: And I don’t know what will change, but there are many people, particularly in our community, that are believing how important and knowing how important this art is and know these like minds multiply in the way that we are coming together to create and realize that this is an important part of the fabric of our lives and that’s what’s going to change it. I guess that kind of revolution is …what is happening and what should happen.

MKL: We’re making revolutionaries. We’re making revolutionaries that are committed to changing their community, in every walk of life that they take.” -Mama Kay Lawal and Mama Rashida Foreman-Bey

“We did this project, a whole collective of us in Montana and it was with a lot of gay/lesbian community folk and what surfaced there is how separate they felt from one another and how they didn’t really have a chance to be a community and hear each other’s story. So from that they decided they had a particular goal. They wanted to get rid of a particular piece of state legislation…that criminalized their lifestyle they felt. So they used the whole community cultural development process to work on that issue. So it took a lot of forms, performances and so forth, and building the community through story and a lot of marches and so forth and in the end, they were successful in overturning that piece of legislation. So that’s a particular outcome.” -Dudley Cocke
Skills gained: Job skills, art skills and life skills. Life Skills “You know, we can’t make up for what they’re not learning in school in terms of math and reading and things like that. And I don’t think that’s our role, but I think that we can give them more life skills to give them to deal with things in their life on a small scale.” -Marshall Clarke
Art Skills “The most extensive manifestation of a discipline-based arts education is that some people decide to become ‘professional’ at it and very good at it.” -Bill Cleveland
Employment Skills “And you know we’ve had a student actually move through the program and now get a steady paycheck because of the skills he learned in this class, so I think that in a microcosm encapsulates what we want to do. You know art was what got him in the door, he’s gotten skills now that may not make tons of money, but he’s actually making a living.” -Marshall Clarke

The outcome clusters and their consensus strength as indicated by the number of practitioners citing each are shown in the chart below.

chart 1

Analysis of the data showed subcategories emerging within some of the outcome clusters. For example, the “Skills gained” outcome consisted of three subcategories: life skills, art skills and employments skills. The consensus strength of each subcategory within their outcome is shown in the chart below:

chart 1

We believe the outcomes that emerged from this study, especially those that relate to empowerment, a positive sense of self and increased sense of community, are significant in a broader society where the social fabric of communities has been challenged by racism, classism, gentrification, low performing schools, violence and drugs. Though these outcomes are not often sought after by schools because they are not strictly academic, we believe they are critical to becoming a thriving and successful person who is engaged and contributes to his or her community.

This brief study of outcomes we hope will help to create a common language for practitioners to use in understanding and promoting the work and to form a basis for the next steps of evaluation and research. Ultimately, it is our hope that this kind of inquiry will help the field flourish and strengthen the enduring impact and value of community arts work for the participants and communities it engages.

To view the video of practitioners, produced as a part of this study, visit: www.viewsfromtheground.wordpress.com.


Community Artists Participating in Research Interviews:

Community Artist Affiliation Location
Peter Bruun Art on Purpose Baltimore, MD
Marshall Clarke YouthLight/Access Art Baltimore, MD
Bill Cleveland The Center for the Study of Art and Community Bainbridge Island, WA
Dudley Cocke Roadside Theatre Norton, VA
Rashida Forman-Bey Wombwork Productions Baltimore, MD
Arlene Goldbard Independent consultant San Francisco Bay Area, CA
Jane Golden Philadelphia Mural Arts Philadelphia, PA
Cinder Hypki Hypki Consulting Baltimore, MD
Kay Lawal Wombwork Productions Baltimore, MD
Liz Lerman Liz Lerman Dance Exchange Takoma Park, MD
Amalia Mesa-Bains California State University Monterey Bay Monterey, CA
Pepón Osorio Temple University Philadelphia, PA
Bill Strickland Manchester Craftsman’s Guild Pittsburgh, PA
Karen Summerville Creative Alliance Baltimore, MD

Methodology Notes

All categorizing and coding was cross-checked by more than one researcher to locate and resolve coding or categorizing discrepancies.

As “Mama” Rashida Forman-Bey and “Mama” Kay Lawal are collaborating colleagues interviewed at the same time, their data was processed and represented as a single practitioner perspective, producing a total count of 12 practitioner perspectives.