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Creativity as Engagement

March 1, 2012

Art can be a powerful tool in collective action. In fact, creativity is central to building sustainable communities, which requires organizing residents across social and economic boundaries, to revitalize their communities. Creative organizations work to bring people together to do this important, difficult work: using the arts to bridge divisions in the community, engage residents in meaningful dialogue, and create a strong sense of place.

In West Philadelphia, several organizations are using the creative arts to bring people together. Additionally, CDCs like the People’s Emergency Center (PEC), are incorporating creativity and public art into their community engagement and development strategies.

Residents participate in creative activities at PEC open houses.

The Rotunda (4014 Walnut St) is a community arts venue offering space for regular arts events, classes, and shows. Founded by students at University of Pennsylvania, the Rotunda’s has a strong commitment to providing a space for almost any proposed community-based arts endeavor. Their culturally diverse repertoire attracts people from nearly every segment of the community.

Gina Renzi, Director of the Rotunda, wants to use the programming to create meaningful partnerships and catalyze social change. She encourages those who use the space to talk with others who have similar interests, to collaborate on events and performances, and to work to reach out to a diverse group of people.

Another local program that demonstrates a commitment to the role of the arts in community revitalization and social change is the Artists in Residence program (AIR). AIR awards West Philly artists 1 year of free studio space at 4007 Chestnut St, in exchange for their participation in community-based art projects – leading workshops, teaching classes, exhibiting in the area, etc. AIR addresses the challenges that working artists face, and provides them with stepping stones: tools to support their work and free up their time so that they can contribute creative value to the community.

Another key organization in these efforts is West Philadelphia Arts Connect (WPAC), which provides a space for artists and arts organizations to share information and work together.

WPAC received a SCI-West small grant to team up with Neighborhood Bike Works and local youth to create “bike art” to showcase in the New Kensington CDC’s annual Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby. The partnership worked out so well they will be working together again this year.

These efforts of artists and arts organizations to build community across constituencies, according to Renzi, is essential to community development. “We need to make art accessible and connect the arts to people’s daily lives.”

The SCI-West CDC partners are working to incorporate lessons from arts and community-based organizations in West Philly, like the Rotunda and AIR, and from other organizations city-wide. The People’s Emergency Center (PEC) in particular, incorporates the arts into their work in many ways. Kira Strong of PEC echoed Renzi’s sentiments: “Art is a part of vibrant cultures and vibrant communities, and always has been historically. It remains a vital component.”

Young people enrolled in digital literacy training at The People’s Emergency Center (PEC) use their digital media skills to help serve local businesses. Several students have created  promotional videos for businesses along Lancaster Avenue. (check out ‘Doughnut Heaven’

PEC is using creative methods to engage residents in community planning. They held an open house to coincide with the LOOK! on Lancaster art exhibitions to attract more residents. PEC used hands on mapping, drawing, photo booth, and other creative activities to stimulate and capture fresh ideas.

PEC utilizes art to draw residents to neighborhood planning open houses.

PEC also uses local events and public art to foster a sense of community and cut through the divisions that exist among community residents.The Lancaster Avenue Jazz festival in Saunders Park has become a source of neighborhood pride.

PEC and its partners also use placemaking improvements to engage residents while beautifying the neighborhood. Improvements at 39th and Lancaster were particularly successful. They combined public art installation, greening, and building and infrastructure renovations. The project engaged a wide array of community partners: residents shared ideas for the mural, the artists worked an auto body shop on the corner, and local youth helped paint the mural.

Placing this public art at a major gateway into the city from the suburbs was strategic. It assured that pedestrians and car drivers from outside the neighborhood would see an ongoing transformation. The public art demonstrates a sense of pride in a place often portrayed in the media as crime-ridden. The project used an effective collaboration of community partners: PEC, LISC, other SCI-West partners, Bank of America, the Mural Arts Program, and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Community stakeholders participated in the artistic additions along Lancaster Avenue.

This combination of art, greening, and building renovations proves more effective than pursuing any of these improvements alone. A tree and bench can provide aesthetic benefits that a beautiful building cannot; meanwhile an artistic addition can transform buildings and landscapes in a fresh way. “Art brings a certain spiritual element that may be lacking in a really nice landscape design,” McNulty says. “Art gives you reason to linger.”

Strong reiterates this sentiment. “While folks may disagree on what is beautiful,” she says, “public art installations provide an excuse for public interaction and conversation.”

Ultimately, creativity and the arts can foster community engagement in multiple ways: making, exhibiting, and performing art; supporting artist collaborations; using creative and artistic methods of community planning; engaging artists in community development work; and engaging residents through place-making public art.

The effect of a comprehensive arts strategy that combines these benefits would, “generate goodwill and excitement,” McNulty hopes. “It gives people a reason to come here and stay here, a reason to be engaged and involved with their neighbors.”

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