Embed Artists Everywhere: They Are the Community Innovators the World Needs

Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series


So far our look at arts funding solutions in the 21st century has focused on the premise that art which moves through our community gains greater value in the marketplace — thus giving artists who are part of our community leverage.

But perhaps the more vital realization is the other side of that principle: art which moves through communities helps those communities. Art — and artists — are good for communities, and communities which support them flourish.

Which means that one of the key tasks to support a vital arts scene in the 21st century is to get more artists more involved with more kinds of communities. To re-think the idea that art has a particular niche in society (“it belongs in museums,” or “is a thing we decorate walls with”) and to recognize that all facets of society can benefit from direct engagement with the arts.

Artists Can Revitalize Communities

To some extent this is now an article of faith in economic development. The work of Richard Florida on the way the “creative class” creates economic vitality is so well known as to have become an automatic bullet point at TED talks, and has led to the formulation that creative entrepreneurs (not limited to, but especially including artists) set up in low-rent districts, create vibrant communities, and those communities end up being so desirable to people with money that they spend ungodly amounts of money to get in and the artists get thrown out.

Black Rock City is arguably a perfect case-in-point. The tent community made by artists and tricksters has become so valuable that people are asking how we can keep hordes of rich people from crowding everyone else out of a piece of arid desert with absolutely no market value or amenities. 25 years of dedicated work by artists created a line of millionaires out the door clamoring to get in. When you let art out of its box, that’s what it can do.

Far from being impractical, artists in this view actually have tremendous power when they engage with communities — so much so that mainstream economic development agencies consider a focus on regional arts and culture to be a key strategy in economic development.

But while the implications for demographics and gentrification and economic development have been well explored, what this means for artists … not so much. If artists are powerhouses of community vitalization, how should artists organize? What should they do? How do we best utilize their abilities?

A series of experiments is pointing towards a new approach — one suggesting that you maximize artists’ impact and opportunities by embedding artists everywhere. Not just in the museums, galleries, and educational institutions that have made up their traditional areas of influence, but hospitals, nursing homes, apartment complexes, grocery stores, tech companies, neighborhood associations, police precincts, construction sites, restaurants … everywhere.

Not because it’s good for artists, or the arts — though it is — but because we finally take seriously the considerable evidence that communities with artists in them flourish.

The more we demonstrate that, the more artists will be sought out to do exactly what they do.

Artists Make Healthcare Better

If you doubt that artists can have this kind of impact, you should talk to Tim Carpenter, the founder of EngAGE — a non-profit that creates affordable senior apartment complexes centered around the arts.

We’re not talking about offering classes in water colors or sketching — we’re talking about efforts to embed serious artists and artistic programming at a high level in every aspect of these retirement communities.

Why would someone do this — try to create senior housing focused on the arts?

Well, Carpenter says, there are two reasons, and one of them is that you get better quantifiable outcomes across the board.

“We’ve seen decrease in physicians appointments, decrease in hospitalization, better engagement in nutrition programs and exercise programs, increased socialization,” he told me. “But I’m not talking about art that’s just a kind of busywork: there’s this pernicious disrespect we have for seniors where we don’t expect anything out of them. They turn 60 and suddenly they all want to glue macaroni? No, these are professionally led art classes with real student goals across multiple levels and artists living in the spaces who are actively pursuing their projects.”

But you don’t have to take his word for it. A 2006 report on a long-term experiment conducted by by Dr. Gene Cohen out of George Washington University called “The Creativity and Aging Study” concluded that:

“Results reveal strikingly positive differences in the intervention group (those involved in intensive participatory art programs) as compared to a control group not involved in intensive cultural programs. Compared to the Control Group, those involved in the weekly participatory art programs, at the one and two year follow-up assessments, reported: (A) better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage; (B) more positive responses on the mental health measures; (C) more involvement in overall activities.”

“In conclusion, these results point to powerful positive intervention effects of these community-based art programs run by professional artists. They point to true health promotion and disease prevention effects. In that they also show stabilization and actual increase in community-based activities in general among those in the cultural programs, they reveal a positive impact on maintaining independence and on reducing dependency. This latter point demonstrates that these community- based cultural programs for older adults appear to be reducing risk factors that drive the need for long-term care.” (Emphasis in the original)

Less hospitalization, less need for doctors, better nutrition, better exercise, more independence, less need for long-term care, better mental health — the active engagement of artists in a community can make all that happen, and if these things don’t strike you as worthy for their own sake (you monster), then, fine, let us also acknowledge that this has a strong financial benefit as well because healthier people cost society less. (It’s true, but I feel dirty just saying it.)

The second benefit is less quantifiable, but far more noticeable: communities built around the arts and artists are places that someone would actually want to live.

What we’ve come to think of as “traditional” retirement communities are based on a hospital model: the residents are seen as sick patients and are treated accordingly, and the buildings are designed around hospital standards … and when was the last time anyone went to hang around a hospital just for fun?

EngAGE, by contrast, is a “senior arts colony” model, Carpenter said. “It’s about how you create a higher sense of community in any environment. Art is one of the key components to why we’re human and why we’re alive. If you boil down the things that make people happy, the sense of purpose that art brings, the sense of explanation of why we’re here, invoking the creative spirit which I think everybody yearns for. Putting ‘art’ on the door is an inherent promise to come to play. It also creates a center and a hub in the community that invites people to come and check it out. We’re always having shows and performances, and it changes the way people view seniors and citizens of a community and what it means.”

Sounds like we need a lot more artists actively engaged in the retirement industry — and in healthcare as a whole. Why aren’t artists brought in to transform hospitals and doctors offices, not in a superficial way but as places for community? They need to be embedded.

“Thank you for keeping the city alive”

The idea that communities that have nothing to do with the arts and humanities can benefit from having artists around has pioneers well head of us — and they have proven the benefits.

One of them is Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who since 1977 has been the Artist-in-Residence for the New York City Sanitation Department.

Yes, you read that right.

The founder of “Maintenance Art” — the idea that art can be found in the repetitive tasks we do to keep things running, not just acts of new creation — Laderman Ukeles has spent nearly 30 years supporting the NYC Sanitation Department through her art.

She is not, alas, paid: she gets an office, though, and access, and has proposed plans for projects on both a small and enormous scale.

Some of those seem conventional — she’s spent years working with the department to turn one of the world’s largest landfills, the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island (yes, my understanding is that this is really a thing) into a massive park filled with public art. That’s certainly one impact an artist-in-residence can have on a community like that.

But much of her work has been of a far different cast. Her first art project with the department? To track down every sanitation worker, shake their hand, and thank them for the keeping New York City alive. (Not clean, note, but “alive” — an important shift in concept.) Follow-up projects included shadowing workers on their jobs, studying their movements as if they were choreography, examining how they prevent injury, exploring how on-the-job concerns are brought up and discussed, and conducting interviews of everyone in the department asking how they handle the repetitive and mundane aspects of their work, and what they need to keep going. In essence, her work has created a stronger sense of community, enhanced morale, and developed communication around common struggles — in addition to helping the department beautify the city.

No one has (to my knowledge) conducted the kind of studies on Laderman Ukeles’ work that have been done on the arts’ impact on health and retirement communities, or the arts and economic development, but she has demonstrated what is possible: that an artist can engage with a community as unlikely as the sanitation department of a major city and find ways to use her work to connect, explore, and beautify. If we accept the studies that artists can do it for whole neighborhoods, and that artists can do it for retirement communities, Laderman Ukeles’ seems to have proven that they can do it in the goddamn sewers, too.

Which means that artists should be there.

Better Approaches to Daily Decisions

The City of Vancouver is poised to be the next pioneer in this effort. As I write this, legislation is before the City Council to create the position of Artist-in-Residence for the City Engineer’s office, and for the Department of Sustainability.

“We can vote funds as a council and that goes a long way, but getting staff inside and looking for ways to include art in their daily work creates huge opportunities,” said Deputy Mayor Heather Deal, who is proposing the legislation (and is a Burner).

Having an artist work specifically and directly with these departments will mean that an element of aesthetic beautification can be brought to every project — transforming what is utilitarian into something beautiful, even extraordinary.

But artists-in-residence have the capacity to be far more than that, as Laderman Ukeles and the sanitation workers in NYC demonstrate. Because these departments are not just “jobs,” they are communities trying to serve a greater community — a task artists are uniquely positioned to find new ways to support.

“We have discussed the importance of engaging the artists not only to help make physical things more beautiful but also to help staff see and address their daily issues and decisions differently,” Deal said. Artists connect and work with communities in ways that others can’t — or at least don’t.

We’ll eagerly wait to see what kind of results come out of Vancouver’s approach. But Burning Man, of all organizations, is certain that having artists work with your civic infrastructure — your planning department, your Department of Public Works, your accounting crews — can make a difference. We’re pretty confident we’ve proved that by living it.

Art Is Not Optional

What we’re seeing is a compelling case, based on the examples of:

  • Art as a force in neighborhood revitalization and economic development;
  • Art as a driver of positive outcomes and better living conditions for health care and retirement facilities;
  • Art as a facilitator of new kinds of workplace bonds and community outreach

Which strongly suggests: artists enhance communities they’re part of.

Artists accomplish this not because art is a quantifiable, utilitarian thing, but precisely because it is not: it speaks to what cannot be quantified and should not be ranked and measured against other values. Which is why communities rally around it, and it can have the impact it does. The expression of our humanity through art is good for humanity.

The research is on this is clearly present, we ourselves are a living example of it — one among many. And yet the larger conversation about the “place of art” and the “usefulness” (or lack thereof) of art does not acknowledge this impact at all. Twitter is hyped as a vital tool for connecting communities while art is dismissed as a disposable accessory.

We can change that.

The more art’s capacity to make communities vital is recognized, and the more we get artists out of the traditional lane of museums and galleries and into businesses and neighborhoods and libraries and hospitals and communities of all kinds, the better for everyone.

Our community can change the conversation around the arts.

We can encourage our own civic institutions to follow in the footsteps of Vancouver and NYC and begin embedding artists into their civic processes. We can talk to our own professional communities about the benefits of embedding artists into their professional standards. We can hire them ourselves, if we’re in a position to, for our own businesses or agencies. We can make it clear that these are experiments worth doing.

Ultimately, we can begin to set an expectation: any community that doesn’t have artists embedded in it doesn’t take its own welfare seriously.

Kim Cook, Burning Man’s Director of Art and Civic Engagement, made crucial contributions to this piece.

Top photo courtesy of Megs Rutigliano

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

5 Comments on “Embed Artists Everywhere: They Are the Community Innovators the World Needs

  • Timeless says:

    It’s me again, your armchair investment advisory and dusty Firemeister — and are these articles being noticed out there! Hello!? I hope so, a good Renaissance could save the world. Jus’ say’n… I saw one coming as a kid and now that one is within our reach, I feel bound to help if I can.

    It was winter of 2008 when first I showed my art-as-investment ideas to Crimson, I even suggested an event to highlight these ideas I’d been hatching since my 20’s. I’d labored over the document at length, but it failed to impress. That was then, this is now and many, many incarnations and edits of that document later, my decades of thought and research are distilled into the funding model / investment vehicle I now share if you will click my name here; Fundiversify. Maybe you read Caveat’s article about it in this blog series and maybe now is the time for a meeting of the minds. I’ve proposed such a confluence at the Precompression, “SoulFire”, June 24-26, at least at my installation and adjoining camp there, Lupin Lodge, Los Gatos but I hope with more official luster than I alone can muster…

    Also, our camp has been in communication with Silicon Village about some sort of on-playa interaction with our installation set to play-out at 12:00 and our Temple, “Creative Cauldron” and I want to explore the possibilities all weekend at SoulFire. So stop and say hey! Better yet, hit me back through the info in my document and I can let you know if discussions about Fundiversify culminate in any one, showcase event or talk there.

    Side note: Just before my first, cherry-popping Burning Man I had an eerie dream that stuck in my mind like a thorn through the event … an ominous dream that fascinates me still. I was all alone on a vast desert plane — one I now know as our playa. Reaching from the far distant foothills was an extension cord, another going off into the limitless expanse, but the two lay at my feet unjoined, only inches apart! I stooped, inserted the one into the other and and and … I don’t honestly remember what happened next, but this time I’m paying much more attention. Ha ha!

    See you at SoulFire.

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  • Bruce Lee Phunzjyn says:

    This is really hitting home right now. I am getting to a point where I require a proper workspace/gallery, I’m torn between setting up shop in a community highly receptive to my art (Nevada City) or staying in the place where I love to create but where landscape photography thrives but visionary abstract possibly less so (Tahoe).

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  • Ԍood article! We will Ƅe linking tto this particularlʏ gret content on our ᴡebsite.
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  • Timeless says:

    Attention, Philanthropic Investment Alert!!!
    To brainstorm and fine-tune a plan to put welcome money in artist’s pockets, inspiring art in blank community spaces, real fire inside communities and fun diversity into investment portfolios — a plan Larry Harvey calls a “a virtuous circle”.
    Where! SoulFire Precomp Lupin Lodge, Los Gatos. (I’ll hook you up if you click my name over there and send me an email).
    June 24-26
    What the fuck is Fundiversify!
    You can click my name to read all about it but first you may want to read what this court certified art and antique appraiser says about it (Tony Pernicone has more certifications than I have unmatching socks.):
    “I read through your Fundiversify concept, and it’s brilliant. I can see why so many people are latching on to the concept. It seems like you took our conversation years ago about building the value of a work of art based on its exposure, and applied it to the principle of Fundivesify. You’ve obviously done your homework and have come up with a substantial and very doable plan. I’m especially intrigued with allowing the sponsors of the work to include the working class man/woman, who’s affinity for art, can be taken to a new level by being a part of the ownership process. And potentially share in profits as time moves along.”
    And who else likes the idea!
    Larry Harvey: “I find your Fundiversify model very interesting. If I understand this correctly, it mandates that art move through communities. By doing so, it would seem to accrue both cultural value, as we understand it, and marketplace value, which works as an incentive for the patron to sponsor the artist.”
    Caveat Magister: “It arguably creates more of the world we want to see…”
    Cam K [not sure who this blogger is but he’s spot on]: “Using a 100% inclusive funding model to promote art for Burning Man while also recognizing that the non-burner community is deserving of these visual works as well could become the newest platform for art crowd-funding and the next great generation of art and artist.”
    And who the hell are you!
    My name is Timeless. I’m an aging Firemeister and fellow playa rat and I bring fresh water to keep the pond from go’n smelly. To do this, let’s see, so far I’ve invited Larry Harvey, Caveat Magister and their buddy Stuart Something — and other mighty Burners. Let’s see who shows!
    The Conference may be hosted at one of the camps or maybe at my art installation there (waiting to hear…). It’ll probably be a steady stream over the weekend of chats and ideas and connections made and then I’m think’n a general meet and great, maybe Sunday brunch-time (bring bacon!) Hit me up if you want updates, we’ll get’ya there!
    Everyone should try to come sometime over the weekend, because I think an idea recently discussed, a national database of available display venues in public spaces (See “Art Gets More Valuable When “Data” Becomes “Relationships”, May 23, 2016, By Caveat Magister) I think this data base could be the bare bones of Renaissance and I think Fundiversify will be the muscle. Hey Leonardo would approve the anatomical analogy.
    OK we’re all gonna try to show up there, thanks Timeless, your great!!!

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  • Timeless says:

    Ahhh yes, and here’s a blurb about such a community art project playing out now at Lake Tahoe. (click my name)

    Few realize the hidden work and costs of sharing art in a public setting. I mean…usually still in debt from all the production costs, artists face huge costs in transport, lighting, landscape, custodial, plaques and signage, promotional literature, insurances, permits, regulatory wrangling, publicity…. Whew! Where does the money come from, yikes! Here’s a hint: Investment with a chance of returns while doing something meaningful is more exciting than donating — and it’s less hassle!

    That’s right. I’ve worked for wealthy people who are peppered from all sides with donation requests. The more they give the more they’re pestered, because people find out they are generous — enough to be a deterrent to giving in the first place. Not so with Fundiversify… The artist wins, the investor wins, the property owners wins — the community wins… And Burning Man sparks a new Renaissance…

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