Activating Audiences to Create Vibrancy

Activating Audiences to Create Vibrancy

Originally posted on on April 18, 2013.
by Mike Hoyt,

One of the many great things about attending conferences like the ArtPlace Creative Placemaking Summit is meeting people from across the country that are engaged in similar work, and being inspired by and learning from all of their projects and activities. I had the great pleasure co-facilitating the discussion Active Audiences: Making the Connection to Vibrancy with Miami local Vivian Marthell of O-Cinema, and was asked to write a quick follow up on the topic and how it relates to our current work.

Active Audiences: Making the Connection to Vibrancy:

The Pillsbury House + Theatre (PH+T) is an urban community center in the most diverse neighborhood in Minnesota, the theatre is a company of multidisciplinary artists working in partnership with diverse audiences to create transformational arts experiences. As part of Pillsbury United Communities, a large and respected human service agency committed to building relationships to strengthen the core city, PH+T upholds the tradition that the arts an integral part of all healthy communities.

On any given day at the Pillsbury House + Theatre, “Audience” is defined hundreds of different ways. As a professional arts institution committed to the Settlement House tradition of creating art in collaboration with community, “Audience” is a preschooler in our early education center, a neighborhood resident waiting in our lobby with an appointment for free tax filing services, a family with children enrolled in our after school programs, a homeless teen receiving basic needs services at our Full Cycle bike shop, an emerging community artist accessing career and capacity building resources, as well as a person whom would be conventionally considered a “theatre patron” attending a main stage production.

The integration of the arts into every aspect of our neighborhood center has led us to focus on increasing connections among all of the 24,000 people that enter our building each year. We seek to layer connection upon connection upon connection so that peoples experience with the PH+T is rooted in multiple layers of creative connectedness. We believe this layered connectedness leads to increased agency, attachment to place, and cultural connection among community members. It’s founded on incorporating an “Art Each Day” approach to our work whether it be an exhibit in our lobby, resident teaching artists in our youth programs, or a participatory art event out in the community.

So what does this look like, and what are some examples or successful strategies?

Partnerships: Our ArtPlace initiative was intentionally designed and proposed to involve 5 key partners (2 arts organizations, 1 resident driven neighborhood organization, the office of our city council member, and a professional artist). It’s difficult to serve residents of a specific geographic area without establishing cross sector partnerships with an articulation of shared vision and goals. Each partner has a specific and unique connection to, and process for, engaging community members.

Local Focus: The leadership team of the Arts on Chicago initiative chose to keep our focus hyper-local. We required that all artists engaged in the project either live or work in our 4 immediate neighborhoods. This was an intentional investment in our local creative assets in order to ensure that the resources had the most impact on our most immediate creative economy. As one of the Arts on Chicago key requirements is to draw on local talent, all of the nearly forty artists involved live or work within Powderhorn, Bancroft, Bryant and Central neighborhoods. Arts on Chicago artists engage in a year-long institute process that involves trainings on arts based community development, universal design and accessibility, community engagement, and navigating local government or regulatory systems in order to build individual artists capacity. Artists meet monthly through workgroups and receive coaching and encouragement from the project manager in an effort to challenge them and build their skills to develop successful projects.

Engagement required: Another required component of each placemaking project was that artists had to articulate how they would engage community members in co-creating or actively experiencing art in the community. This challenged artists to really think about their own artistic process and practice and how it might be relevant to people they see every day but have no established connection to. To support these efforts the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association Latino Community Coordinator stepped in to serve as a liaison to the large and growing Latino community. The staff of Upstream Arts led a workshop on universal design and how to develop projects that would be accessible to communities of all abilities. One great example of this is the EyeSite project, which will paint murals using a glow in the dark paint that is activated by motion sensor lighting. These artists are working with property owners to secure locations in our target neighborhoods that are potentially deemed as “trouble areas.”

“By creating an art project that is viewed exclusively at night, we will encourage creative and positive occupancy of a neighborhood that regularly deals with safety issues. The surprising nature of this piece will also aid in the feeling of human presence in an often-underpopulated neighborhood nighttime environment. By meeting with neighbors, inviting them to be part of the development process and hosting an interactive tour we will bring community members together and reinforce the creative identity of the Chicago Avenue Corridor.”

The belief among several of our selection panel members was that if proposals did not have a strong or well articulated community engagement plan, then they would probably not be successful projects. And taking it a few steps further, if a project failed to engage a community in relation to how it was proposed, it probably should be considered a failure (the whole “if a tree falls in the woods and nobody sees or hears it, did it really happen” argument applies to art in a community as well).

Breaking Ice: As I blogged about in March, our lead off project was to work through our Pillsbury House Theatre’s award-winning Breaking Ice company to create a 45 minute production that included the topics:

> How are our neighborhoods responding to development and change?
> How do we respond to culture clash and conflict?
> How can neighborhoods evolve in economically stable and sustainable ways?

The artists/actors were tasked with hitting the pavement and going out to interview residents and business owners along the corridor. The material gathered by the actors became the actual stories and characters for the production. We invited the audience to join us for the show and participate in a short, facilitated discussion afterward as we confronted these questions in an effort to strengthen the ties that bind neighbors together.

Grassroots approaches: We subscribe to the door to door, person to person approach to relationship building, and we take advantage of the local online community as well. Two of our immediate neighborhoods have online e-democracy forums with over 1,300 active members reporting on daily events in our hood. We routinely share events, ask questions, elicit dialogue, and invite participation on these forums.

We work with the 38th and Chicago business association (at the heart of our cultural district) and frequent their monthly meetings to stay connected to their activities. They are excited about our Arts on Chicago community celebration on June 8th and have agreed to align the date of their annual BBQ and music festival to coincide with our event. This type of synergy will ensure that more people from the community will learn about and share in the diversity of art experiences we are promoting. And one desired outcome is that residents have a deeper understanding of the artistic assets, especially the people that might live right on their blocks.

Art Blocks: In our March blog entry we highlighted our new initiative that will train and support 12 Artist/teams to organize and serve as Art Block Leaders who will form a cohort representing multiple populations in the 4 neighborhoods. To get this project rolling we enlisted support from our local experts, the four participating neighborhood organizations, whom collaboratively led an initial “how do you organize your neighbors” training for the artists. In the simplest of terms, we subscribe to the belief that if you want to change the world (and Art is the tool or process in which you want to change it…) then you should start in your own front yard, in partnership with your most immediate neighbors.