When a community wants to engage an artist to work in the public sphere, one of the most important questions they must answer is: What is our intention?
Artists have many unique and important skills and can do a number of pretty amazing things. They are not, however, magical unicorns that can solve all of a community’s problems. Instead, each artist has a set of specific and limited skills. Being exquisitely clear about why a community wants to work with an artist and what you want her/him/them to do is critical. In thinking about this, five prepositions are important. You should decide whether the community wants the artist’s work to be done:
- To the community: Art designed and created by the artist and bestowed upon a community; for example, a sculpture by a wonderful artist that is an incredible piece of work, but could be installed anywhere.
- In the community: Art produced via the artist’s own “muse” but created in relationship to a particular place, which serves as the context or background for the work—perhaps site-specific installation.
- For the community: Art that is intended to bring some kind of benefit to the community but is still centered in the artist’s own experience and preferences, such as a mural where an artist tells a story about the neighborhood, a pop-up shop or restaurant, imaginative playground equipment, or a meditation space.
- With the community: Art co-created by the artist and the community. The work is about the community and designed to benefit it. An example might be a collaborative mural, where an artist works closely with community members to design and execute the piece.
- By the community: Art centered in and created by the community; the artist’s role is to help the community do it themselves. In this mode, an artist helps a community “tell its own story.” She/he/they might help host story circles to collect stories from neighborhood residents, help them write and develop a play about their community, and help train actors, musicians, set designers, and others to be the star of the production. Community members are ultimately responsible for the final design and execution of the project.
To be clear, this is not about making a “good” or “bad” choice, but about communities being clear about their intention and desired outcome. Because many artists are adept at working all along this continuum, it is critical for communities to clearly communicate what they expect from the artist. Everyone needs to agree on the role the artist will play in the project in question, what the standards of practice are for that role, to whom they are accountable, and for what. If the artist is primarily interested in developing his or her own vision, while the community hopes for a collaborative process, the result could be frustrating and unsatisfying for all involved. When, however, they can agree, the outcome can be magical.