Here is a selection from the ArtsAccess Project’s “Community Arts & the Museum: A Handbook for Institutions Interested in Community Arts” (download in PDF (7.45MB)
Community Arts in Institutional Contexts
“In my work as an art museum educator and researcher, I have become increasingly interested in the role of public galleries beyond the physical space of the institution. I look to practitioners and researchers whose work supports critically self-conscious institutions concerned with their public role and relationship to community. ArtsAccess is one such initiative, unique for its community arts–inspired model of institutional-community collaboration. My involvement with ArtsAccess began at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery (KW|AG), where I was Director of Public Programs and Education from 2004 to 2007. The project continues to inspire my current thinking and research as a graduate student focusing on the intersection of culture, communities and education.
At KW|AG, I was responsible for integrating ArtsAccess structurally and philosophically into the education department and into the Gallery as a whole. Implementing the project involved sustained efforts to seek out partnerships with local organizations. In most cases, the Gallery had to be re-introduced to community groups as a public resource invested in collaborative community development. Such repositioning of the institution as “a collaborator” disrupted community and institutional perceptions of the traditional edifying role of the art gallery — and it was as much of a challenge to dispel this perception within the institution as it was to dispel it within the public imagination.
Working in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario, Thunder Bay Art Gallery and Woodland Cultural Centre was crucial to the organizational learning and change that happened at our institution. The ability to collaborate across institutional boundaries created a collective forum that responded to the challenges and opportunities created by the project. The greatest of these was the unpredictability of genuinely collaborative work — work that was driven by grassroots community arts approaches that contradict more familiar “top-down” forms of museum program development. In this article, I reflect on some tensions created by the unconventional placement of community arts models within the institutional setting of art museums. Specifically, I consider the ways in which ArtsAccess required a renegotiation of boundaries between arts institutions and communities. My experience with the project has led me to believe that art museums can learn much about creating socially engaging practices from the field of community arts.
Renegotiating Institutional and Community Boundaries
Adapting community arts into an institutional setting generates fundamental questions about the nature of institutional power and the extent to which a museum is willing to have its authority challenged. How might public perceptions of the institution as a place of hierarchy be overcome in order to motivate a sense of individual and collective agency among communities? The collaborative model presented by ArtsAccess challenged both traditional ways of working in the museum and participants’ expectations of the institution.
Whereas community arts practices emphasize the processes and products that emerge from collective experience and relationships, traditional museum-based programs are often carefully designed and delivered by staff to participants who learn the curricula promoted by the institution. ArtsAccess drew from a community arts approach, where the distinction between instructor and participant is leveled. Each individual is instead valued as a collaborator, and the program agenda is collectively determined. Such a shift in practice could be unsettling from an institutional perspective because it requires a willingness to concede a position of unquestioned authority and engage in processes of mutual learning. It also requires a concession of editorial power over the final outcome — a privilege often retained by museums even in instances of community partnerships.
As the case studies in this resource reveal, the challenge of renegotiating the boundaries between institutions and communities varied with each institution and context. For partners with existing strong ties to local community, such as the Woodland Cultural Centre and the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, ArtsAccess provided the means to enrich and expand these established relationships. At the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, ArtsAccess made it possible to pursue community partnerships and long-term projects that otherwise would have been difficult to initiate and justify due to financial constraints. The resulting relationships with social service organizations such as Anishnabeg Outreach, The Working Centre and the K-W Multicultural Centre were decisive for establishing the Gallery as a credible partner in community development. The Art Gallery of Ontario had the challenge of carving out a unique role in Toronto where community arts is an established field of practice and defined by some practitioners as antithetical to a large institution. The AGO’s size made the pursuit of collaborative relationships even more difficult and complex.
In addition to generating change in institutional practices, much of this work involved repositioning the role of museums in the public imagination. The partnership-building process revealed the public’s deeply entrenched notions about museums’ authority, expertise and autonomy. Despite our efforts to establish a collaborative framework for partnership, I recall initial meetings with local organizations that still expected the Gallery to deliver pre-designed programs. They often deferred to our expertise as museum staff due to their own perceived lack of knowledge about art. In these instances, organizations conceived of collaboration as a logistical matter, rather than one that also encompassed shared meaning-making; our aim was to integrate the two. From the Gallery’s point of view, these local organizations were experts regarding their members and communities, and we deferred to their knowledge in order to effectively engage and serve their constituents.
Critics question whether it is appropriate for the art museum to engage in a field of practice defined by some as inherently counter-institutional. To institutionalize community arts would arguably detract from its very purpose. The goal, however, is not for museums to co-opt the field of community arts but to adapt some of its principles and methods toward the democratization of the institution. Since museums have the power to demarcate the types of arts activities that are valued by society, incorporating practices influenced by community arts is one means of redistributing institutional power to more marginalized art forms. The pairing of community arts and art museums generates a timely re-examination of the social relationships between art, artists, cultural institutions and communities.
Artists, in particular, were key figures in the implementation of ArtsAccess. Known as Community Artist Facilitators (CAFs), they were responsible for developing community partnerships, generating group participation and meaning-making, and facilitating community expressions of these meanings through artistic media. The CAFs fulfilled an important bridging function — they were at once representatives of the museum within the community context, and community advocates within the museum context. In addition to creating art objects and experiences, the development of relationships
and a sense of collectivity were the ar tistic products of this work. Contrasting market models that situate artists as producers of commodities and the general public as consumers, the CAF position challenged traditional institutional arrangements by placing artists in a catalytic role. The Community Artist Facilitators straddled the boundaries between insider and outsider in relation to institutions, communities and art worlds, re-inventing the relationships between them. The artists’ predicament embodied the overarching challenges, implications and opportunities of ArtsAccess as a whole.
Concluding with Questions
Inspired by community arts models, ArtsAccess challenged each partner institution to reconsider its current role and relationship with community, in search of new ways of working. The conclusion of ArtsAccess among the four partner institutions raised many more questions for institutions interested in pursuing similar work:
- What are the qualities of experience your institution hopes to foster by adapting community arts approaches as part of your museum programming?
- What is your institution’s current role in the community and how is it perceived by diverse publics? What can your institution uniquely contribute in a partnership?
- How will museum staff, program partners and other stakeholders be prepared for the emergent nature of this work? How will you plan for continuity of relationships over time?
Finally, my colleagues and I have come to understand that a project such as ArtsAccess is not aptly characterized as having a beginning, middle and end, as it was originally conceived. Instead, it is more accurately described as a multi-layered series of relationships that strengthen, deepen and change over time. That the project must officially end as funding expires does not allow for the long-term change these partnerships could affect within our institutions and communities. We hope the lessons and accomplishments of ArtsAccess will invite institutions that wish to engage in thoughtful practices of community engagement to scrutinize, debate and search for creative solutions to further fuel this work.”
Culture, Communities and Education, Harvard University
Former Director of Public Programs and Education,
Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery
-The handbook was compiled and edited by Tara Turner and Judith Koke. This selection is posted with permission from Judith Koke; Deputy Director, Education and Public Programming at Art Gallery of Ontario
“This handbook is the legacy of the ArtsAccess project, a four year partnership between the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, and the Woodland Cultural Center…This handbook is for anyone, artist, museum or community organization – interested in creating a community art project.” (from the AGO’s Art Matters Blog)