"How can theater artists help communities tap their rich cultural assets for economic and civic development?"
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:
- 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.
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.
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.