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“How can theater artists help communities tap their rich cultural assets for economic and civic development?”

Adam Fristoe

By Adam Fristoe, Co-Artistic Director at Out of Hand Theater
The answers to this question, originally posed by Roadside Theater and Imagining America in their Performing our Future Initivative, can develop sustainable revenue streams for artists and arts organizations, drive cultural and economic development in Atlanta, and create community relationships that make art not only relevant to the community, but essential.

Since 2001, Out of Hand Theater, where I have the pleasure of serving as Co-Artistic Director, has been reimagining how theatre can reach new audiences by creating performances in cars and living rooms, in parks and businesses. We have also been investigating how our skills as ensemble theatre makers—including expertise in creative thinking, problem solving, ideation, group dynamics and conversation facilitation—could benefit businesses, museums, festivals and civic groups. The impulse to do this was born of necessity due to steep declines in corporate and individual giving, and compounded by the 2008 Recession. It is now the cornerstone of our strategic plan and overall organizational health.
Here are a few things that emerged:

  1. Scientists realized they had a storytelling problem. We know how to tell stories. So, we got together and made an event that toured the US and Europe. 
2. An Atlanta-based law firm wanted to improve the experience and retention of their summer associates. We know how to build experiences that engage hearts and minds. We created an immersive game, based on our annual adventure theatre game, which serves as a learning tool about the company and a way to assess potential new hires, plus it’s fun. This solution is now an annual event in multiple cities.
3. A fantastic Atlanta attraction has long lines on the busiest days of the year and needed a solution to improve guest experience. We know how to engage audiences, create small moments of magic AND stay on brand. So, we got together, applied our theatre-making skills to the specific problem spots and found wonderfully creative solutions. This partnership is now in its fifth year.

In each of these instances, the arts partnership has created value for everyone involved: marketing, human resources, and customer solutions, mission fulfillment, and sustainable income for arts organizations. Each has become a multi-year partnership that has led to additional projects.
So, how do we encourage and develop these sorts of partnerships? And how can we apply this process to all sorts of businesses and civic organizations in our community?
Over the course of the last year, thanks to funding from the Arthur Blank Family Foundation’s Audience Building Roundtable, Out of Hand has had the pleasure of working in consultation with thought leaders in this field at the Center for Civic Practice.

IAMO4W. Photo by Brooke Swanson

“The CPCP defines Civic Practice as arts-based partnership work that is developed in service to the needs of a partner organization or agency that does not have an arts-centered mission.”
We are putting these ideas to the test through an artist-led community engagement project called IAMO4W, which focuses on Atlanta’s Old 4th Ward neighborhood. We hosted a series of community meals and information-gathering events to hear the joys and concerns, desires and worries of this diverse and rapidly changing community. Using our theatre-making skills, we built creative interactions, curated conversations and designed a series of fun, engaging ways for people to share their voices. Our artists are now developing future projects in response to those findings, striving to contribute to the vitality of the community, seeking solutions to civic questions, playing an essential role in civic discourse, and doing what the arts do at their best: building community.  Through this work, we leverage the neighborhood’s rich cultural history to create economic and cultural development.
For more ideas on how businesses, civic organizations and artists can collaborate, I highly recommend spending some time browsing the CPCP resources and case-studies for ideas. Another resource for community building ideas is the Minneapolis Springboard for the Arts – community building toolkit. And, of course, I’m always up for a good chat on the subject.

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2 Comments

  1. Amy Brooks May 29, 2018 1:12 pm

    Adam and Out of Hand, thank you for lifting up the language and development framework of Performing Our Future, an ongoing co-project of Roadside Theater and Imagining America. This paradigm arose directly from our 43-year CCD practice in working class rural & urban communities. For more information on how Roadside Theater and our parent org Appalshop evolved, and are leading, this initiative, please visit performingourfuture.com or roadsidetheater.org.
    As to POF’s central question “How Can Theater Artists Help Communities Tap Their Rich Cultural Assets For Economic And Civic Development?”, one way is for theater companies serving economically-exploited communities to connect, coalition-build, and be mindful of how philanthropic, reputational, and artistic capital often flow upwards to elite institutions rather than downwards to artists on the frontlines, and the co-options in mainstream nonprofits, media and the academy which enable this “trickle-down” effect.
    Congratulations on your very necessary & timely work in the 4th Ward. We look forward to learning more and to sharing this knowledge equitably within an arts field that is striving harder than ever to lift up and connect the voices of citizens from Atlanta and eastern Kentucky alike.Report

    Reply
  2. Admin May 29, 2018 4:54 pm

    Hey Amy, Thank you for posting about the column. Adam intended for the title of the post to have quotations around the question. Those were removed in the process of posting the column. We have fixed the issue and amended the first paragraph to more clearly identify the source of the original question.
    Thanks again,
    Britton Edwards (SaportaReport)Report

    Reply

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