Why the arts?
While Americans engage in the arts (1) for enjoyment, the arts are by no means frivolous leisure activities. In Making Democracy Work, Robert Putnam observed that the responsiveness of Italian regional governments could be gauged by the number of regional choral societies per capita. Those vocalists weren’t singing to improve government efficiency, but simply because they loved singing. Nevertheless, by associating with one another, they created vitally important social capital. As we seek ways to increase civic engagement in America, we should avoid what Putnam calls "civic broccoli" (salubrious behavior that citizens are unlikely to find appealing). The arts may offer a uniquely pleasurable means to the same end, and a better way of luring the civic "couch potatoes" off their couches.

But the arts may be much more than social-capital policy sweeteners. Political scientists have shown that the trust and reciprocity in social capital contributes to the health, wealth, tolerance, and efficient governance of society. The arts appear to be linked with comparable outcomes. (2) For example, Michael Argyle, a scholar in the field of happiness (that is, "subjective well-being"), reports that leisure is important to mental health, and that participants experienced high levels of joy from dancing, and music, among other pursuits. (3)

While some still dismiss the arts as nonessential, increasingly they are seen (independent of social capital benefits) as useful in addressing important social issues, such as education, criminal reform, therapy, youth at risk, community healing (4), job training (5), etc. Moreover, the arts can provide economic engines for employment, tourism, tax revenues, and revitalizing neighborhoods while fostering pride in community. (6)

Because the arts provide a neutral meeting ground and inherently involve dialogue and cooperation, they are especially conducive to bridging socio-economic, ethnic, generational, and educational differences. They can function on a deeply personal and emotional level, stripping away the superficial, thus yielding friendships and trust of special intensity. (7) Deeper sharing facilitated by the arts may accelerate the formation of interpersonal bonds faster than would, for example, discussions at a typical Elks meeting.

Art as social event
By their very nature the arts are social activities which connect artists with spectators. Artistic exchange is a form of communication -- the "making common" of an idea or emotion. As such, the arts offer a naturally fertile terrain for cultivating social capital.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways to be involved in the arts:

1) as a spectator at an art event
2) as a performer in the arts

3) as a presenter of an art event (e.g., producer, sponsor, organizer, curator, etc.)

While arts attendance in America is steadily rising , (8) spectatorship itself is not necessarily a significant form of social capital: looking at a painting, listening to a concert, or watching a dramatic performance is at its essence an individual activity, even when it occurs in the company of others. The degree to which arts-going stimulates social capital probably depends on whether or not the spectator uses the experience to build new or strengthen existing bonds of trust and reciprocity with co-attendees, and whether the experience is structured to promote new connections and to strengthen these social bonds. (9)
In any event, it is group-performing and arts-presenting that offer the surest means of creating social capital. Taking part in a multi-person dance, concert, or drama involves social and emotional interaction, coordination and trust, as does to a lesser extent participation in arts classes or on-line discussion groups. Helping to bring art to the public can be another source of social capital. The staff of the art gallery, the theater management company, or the YMCA can come to know, rely on, and trust one another, as well as the community around them through collaborative endeavors.

In other words, the arts can yield civic engagement and social capital, sometimes while addressing pressing social concerns. But how can we maximize social capital through the arts? And are there keys to the process -- certain types of art or ways of presenting them -- that might bolster social capital?

At Saguaro VII, we considered three areas:
1) How can the visual arts, specifically museums, increase social capital?
Joining us in this discussion were Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and Edmund "Barry" Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.

2) A charrette related to Liz Lerman's "Hallelujah Project," a nationwide series of dance workshops and community performances on the theme of praise and celebration. The charrette focused the group’s attention on how best to deepen the social capital impact of the Hallelujah Project.

3) How can the performing arts engender social capital?

Joining us in this discussion were were: Dudley Cocke, director of Appalshop’s Roadside Theater, whose audiences tell local tales that become part of the production; Tom Hall, president of Chorus America and musical director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, who seeks to engage communities through choral music; and Toni Blackman, director of Freestyle Union, a DC-based group that develops hip-hop curricula and trains youth to teach these curricula, and convenes youth to perform spontaneously written, positive hip-hop rhymes.

Gauging the effect of the arts on civic engagement
Is there reliable evidence that the arts increase civic engagement? How can we measure social capital produced by the arts and gauge its true impact on society? It is one thing to calculate economic impact, but social effects such as trust and reciprocity are less quantifiable. While considerable data has measured social capital at the state or national level, some are skeptical of measuring the social capital impact of specific programs, artistic or otherwise.

Despite the difficulty of tracing long-term programmatic impact, examples do suggest that the arts indeed have an impact on civic engagement. Artists vote at higher rates than the general public. And it has been widely reported that youth participation in non-school arts programs leads to increased academic and civic achievements. Shirley Brice Heath's research on the arts as a means of increasing the social capital of at-risk youth shows that these artists perform community service and participate in youth groups roughly four times as often as their peers. These youth are also three times as likely to take other music, arts and dance classes. (10)

And specific results have been obtained in relation to creative-writing residencies in prisons, as conducted by Grady Hillman in more than 50 centers since 1981. These programs enable prisoners to develop self-understanding and interpersonal skills through a process that builds trust and understanding. (11) Studies indicate that the result is a reduction in the number of thefts and violent incidents in prisons, as well as lower rates of recidivism among convicts. Given the $20,000-40,000 it costs annually to maintain a prisoner, turning around even a single individual can reap large societal savings in a short period. "The blatant truth is that art needs to be in the school curriculum...otherwise, [youth are] just going to become alienated and they're going to turn on society...Yet you don't see school boards and probation departments making that connection," Hillman observes.

Art museums and civic engagement

What can art museums do to increase visitors’ social capital? They are staying open later, creating singles nights, musical soirees, theme dinners, and group travel options to attract and entertain a wider audience. And museums are inventing programs that reach out into their communities. (12) A few examples may help. The Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio realized that with employees staying late and socializing at work, workplaces could provide "access to existing social and communications networks that will help [the museum] reach new audiences." In 1997 they established "Art & the Workplace" initiative that has formed partnerships with 18 employers -- from small architecture firms to hospitals and automobile plants -- each of which sends a representative to the museum's Workplace Advisory Committee where, based on surveys of employees' tastes and involvement in the arts, they develop programs designed to match employee needs, such as family events, opportunities to volunteer, and even regular exhibitions of employee art. (13)

In 1995, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis changed the name of its education department to "Education and Community Programs". According to department director, William Cleveland, the museum no longer regards itself as "a repository of static objects and a fixed history", but rather as "a more…dynamic center....listening and learning from the diverse communities and cultures we seek to serve." Mr. Cleveland believes community engagement requires ongoing relationships. "We are shifting from episodic community and school projects to more sustained partnerships," he says. A prime example -- one of many at the Walker -- is the Teen Arts Council, a self-governing group of 15 teenagers who meet weekly to discuss ways to make the museum relevant to their contemporaries. (14) They collaborate on a quarterly teen ‘zine, distributed free to schools and teen hangouts, in which they publish criticism, creative writing, graphic design, and museum news. All teens enjoy free admission to the museum. Similar programs at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the Forum for Contemporary Art in St. Louis focus on inner-city teens.

Additionally, museums have increasingly been stepping in to fill the void caused by the decimation of arts education in public schools since the 1970s. Increasingly, museums also seek to establish ongoing relationships with other community organizations, such as community centers, civic groups, and employers.

"Public" artists who make civic engagement part of the process Many of the most interesting examples of "public art" involve community residents in theater or dance. Consider Roadside Theater, a well-established itinerant troupe based in rural Appalachia. Their one- or two-week "community-building" residencies begin with public performances of Roadside repertory; the members then collect host community folk tales, music, and religious traditions and encourage local artists to weave these stories and music into original plays. These pieces are performed by seniors, students, and church members for the public, and then taken on tour out of town. The process can strengthen participants' self-awareness and pride, and create social capital within the community. Afterwards, Roadside seeks to identify resources and infrastructure for an ongoing theatrical project in the host town. Now in its twenty-fifth year, the ensemble performs more than 200 times annually and has toured to 43 states and Europe. (15)

Maryland-based Liz Lerman, a Saguaro participant, brings a similar method to the field of dance with her multigenerational touring company, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. (16) She and a core group of dancers, ranging in age from 20s to 70s, hold panel discussions and workshops with students, teachers, healthcare providers, and other groups in the places they visit, mining material that the choreographer orchestrates into metaphorical performances with community members. For two years, for example, they worked with Portsmouth, NH residents on a piece exploring the demise of the city's shipyard which had been a lynchpin of their identities and livelihoods. "Dialogue can be made easier and the quality...deeper when people are involved in the art-making process," states Lerman, repeating a tenet of many artists who make civic engagement a strategy in their work. "Dance has become so stripped of its community function that dancers are expected to care only about form. It wasn't always this way," she says.

Subjects for discussion
What kinds of partnerships between institutions, community organizations, and artists best produce social capital? Should community members be involved in the planning, production and presentation stages of an exhibition or performance? Should the museum send a curator to lecture in the schools and churches, or train students and congregation members to address their communities?
Does utilizing the arts in pursuit of social and economic goals (from education and recreation to integration and urban renewal) bear civic fruit? How can we measure social capital produced by the arts and gauge its true impact on society? Can we distinguish between the immediate and longer-term impact of community involvement with the arts? At what point do issues-oriented arts programs cease to be art and become social work or community activism? Is there any conflict between artistic excellence and art involving the community? If great art combines stimulating ideas, affecting emotion, superb technique, and often moral or ethical substance, can we do all this and still insist that it do other things like reduce local crime rates or drug abuse? How can we encourage artists to engage their communities? Do artist-led programs differ from those headed by non-artists? How do we ensure that inviting artists into needy communities for projects is really collaborative rather than resented for its perceived paternalism? (17) Many programs create social capital in episodic and ephemeral ways. How can we help develop mechanisms for the ongoing production and conservation of social capital in the arts? What will insure that this social capital is sustained when the artist leaves, and not wither on the vine? Do certain kinds of art best stimulate community dialogue? One of the greatest challenges -- and potentials -- of the arts is to maximize their capacity to introduce audiences to cultures other than their own, thereby promoting tolerance. Can we design arts programs that facilitate this kind of "bridging" social capital? How best do these mesh with more typical programs designed to attract specific ethnic populations: a Mexican folk art show to attract Chicanos, or an African dance performance to attract African-Americans? Finally, how can we educate arts administrators, educators, legislators, funders, and artists about the role of social capital in the arts?

Additional Resources and Readings:
We have created a list of related and readings which is available either as a direct link or a downloadable PDF document. Please note that while we have tried to maintain the links to most of these readings, some of the links might not work.

Information on Arts and Civic Engagement

The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America - Harvard Kennedy School of Government
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, Phone: 617-495-1148 - FAX: 617-495-1589
Copyright © 2012 The President and Fellows of Harvard College