On Monday October 17, Forecast Public Art hosted Arlene Goldbard, critically acclaimed writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant. Arlene facilitated a workshop titled Ethics and Values of Participatory Arts Practice. The following is a reflection from workshop participant Julie Benda.

It is Tuesday morning and I am driving to work, listening to a news story on the Dakota pipeline resistance at Standing Rock. Anguish moves readily through the airwaves as the injustice of this conflict intensifies with the new arrests. While this peaceful protest gains momentum and press, some are pulled to the lines of engagement, and others to edge of avoidance.

The night before I attended Arlene Goldbard’s workshop on Ethics and Values of a Participatory Arts Practice, a 2-½ hour workshop to recognize and dissect the iceberg of questions that underlay some ethical challenges in community artwork. Complex as this issue proved to be, Goldbard’s opening statement was concise. There are two ways to deal with an ethical conflict: ignore and hope it goes away, or dig in.

As a room full of artists, writers, architects and organization leaders, many of us were there to address ethical issues around specific projects. To discuss the balancing act of commitments to funders vs. community participants, of including others’ creativity without intruding, or to question how much our aesthetics, values, and priorities should be part of community projects. However, as various case studies arose, it was clear the complexity and depth of those specific conflicts was much greater than what we had initially thought, which meant asking ourselves to keep digging.

The group finally focused on a local case study to pick-apart. The resulting discussion was so intricate and expansive I am at loss to summarize. Layers gave way to new insights, beliefs and understanding, and I can recall some personal revelations. They are the ones that still sit with me in the front seat of my vehicle this somber morning.

The question of intention arose. We discussed whether an artwork is understood as a creative expression or just work for hire? If neither, is it a partnership of specific outlined roles that each party mechanically abides by? Or is it an agreement of voice, that a work will be created by two parties coming together with equal voices, a partnership of expanding dialog that allows each to learn from one another? As soon I heard this being asked I realized that this was an important first and often undiscussed component of any agreement, that the very definition of partnership include room for every player’s voice.

Breaking down that definition even further, it struck me that so often partnerships appear simple on the surface: I give you resources, in turn you give me product. I give you limitations, you develop a unique style and expression of those limitations. But things get murky much past that point, and we saw in our example a partnership that struggled to embrace taking on reciprocal roles, when the “educator” failed to see when it was time to be the “student.”

This seemed to be the root of this example’s dilemma. Whose voice gets to be heard, who has the power to name, and what agency do each of the participants have? In the end, is it ethical or exploitive to have one partner be the teacher without also willing to be the student?

Ms. Goldbard facilitated our discussion well. As we covered freedom of expression, boundaries, identity and roles, individual postures in the room went from rigid to soft, then rigid again, and finally softened as breadth of this iceberg revealed itself. In the end, Arlene reminds, most people in the situation are trying to do the right thing.

Eventually conclusions were drawn, and decisions made. The case study we examined revealed that good resolutions involve mutual respect and give all voices credence. This may sound basic, but I give Goldbard credit for her process to get us there; it is plainly not a strategy practiced often in our society. I turn off the radio and exit my truck, I wonder which definition of “digging in” will become a model in our future.