Resources for Community-Engaged Artists: A Conversation with Aaron Landsman

Top: Alyson Pou; bottom: Aaron LandsmanEarlier this month, I shared a summary of the Community Engagement session that I moderated at the 2012 Grantmakers in the Arts conference. I wanted to dig a bit deeper into the issues around community-engaged work with Aaron Landsman, a theater artist and long-time workshop leader for Creative Capital’s Professional Development Program. Aaron has developed a one-day Real Community Engagement workshop for PDP that he recently conducted in Broward County, Florida. Here are excerpts from our conversation about some of the key issues and topics that came up at the GIA session:
Alyson: One of the session participants mentioned the necessity of “first, do no harm” in any organization or artist’s priorities when they are considering or planning to do a community-based project.  What do you think about that?
Aaron: I do think that’s a great baseline, although it can also run the danger of being interpreted as “make everyone comfortable.”
There have historically been projects that purport to engage specific communities, but which may not come from a real expressed desire on the part of those communities to be engaged with, but rather are driven by the artist, funder or presenter. Those kinds of relationships can easily become patronizing or harmful to the very people with whom they are trying to ally.
On the flip side, presenting and creative partners sometimes become overly cautious against wanting to do something provocative or uncomfortable. And I think artists often can bring a valuable outside perspective to a community; even if it may not always be an easy fit, at least not at first, it can produce insight and reward if it’s handled well.
So there’s a delicate dance we have to do. There’s do no harm—meaning if folks really don’t want what you’re offering, don’t go there. But I do think these relationships cannot be fear based, and can’t only be about pleasing people. The most profound experiences I’ve had, educationally, artistically or otherwise, have often worried a bone, or taken me out of my comfort zone.
Alyson: Any thoughts on the key issue for artists of needing long-term commitment to accomplish their community-based projects?
Aaron: One of the things we talk about in the Real Community Engagement workshop is that clarity counts double when you’re working with partners who may be new to the arts. To establish really good long-term relationships, you need to make your intentions plain, probably more than once, and probably in an evolutionary way as the project develops.
I also think socially engaged work demands more time than traditional work—there’s very often a process of bringing people along with you on a journey, or in finding out how best to work with a particular group of people, given their history, concerns and tensions. As the  designer I’m working with, Jim Findlay, likes to say, “we don’t want to parachute in to do community engagement.”
And more time means more money. One of the ironies of doing a real process of engagement is that, for venues that are used to working within a traditional presenting model, this kind of project costs more, even though we’re sometimes working for or in communities that are marginalized in some way. It’s important for artists to negotiate arrangements that allow us to really spend time in a place, with people.
And they can’t all be “goal-oriented.” With my City Council Meeting project in Tempe, we wanted to approach homeless young people to perhaps be part of our performance there. Our presenter there, ASU Gammage, which is an amazing organization, first asked us to teach a workshop as our initial interaction with a local homeless services facility. We suggested instead that we just go talk to people there, listen to them, and see if they wanted to take it further. A year later, we are collaborating with a client from the facility and planning to teach a writing workshop for them as we work toward the production. But we needed to lay that groundwork first, and show them we weren’t just there to mine them for difficult stories and then take credit.
Last, and related to this, clarity about money and time also means clarity about authorship. On one hand, artists who are drawing on community stories or partners to build a work need to be clear about crediting, payment and who benefits from or gets recognized for the work in the future. On the other we often need to claim our own centrality to the creative process and outcome. We don’t want to steal other people’s material; nor do we want to lose our own voice. Again, a delicate dance.
Alyson: I continue to observe that the term “community engaged” covers so much territory, so many different artists of different disciplines and different focus in their work.  For example, an artist coming to the work with a primary focus on cultural equity or one focusing on social justice or another investigating how dance can bring people together—do all these artists have the same professional development skills and training needs?  How might they vary?
Aaron: It’s a great question. I do think there are some baseline skills and departure points, and I am always inclined to make them as plainspoken as possible: hyper-clear communication is the absolute cornerstone. Can you have an honest conversation about the money and time required for the work to get done right? Can you dream big with your partner, even if you have to compromise later in production? Can you relate to community members, partners and other collaborators (all of whom may have different agendas on the table), such that the work has integrity, everyone feels respected and the project lives up to its intentions?
I think there are some nuanced points that might differ, artist to artist, project to project. Meaning, some work is designed specifically to offer a community a sense of empowerment around a specific issue or history, while other work is aimed at provoking a discourse that might be more fractious, but ultimately edifying. Some work has an education component that is explicit, and other projects don’t. If you aim to teach with your work, can you do that alone, or do you need someone with experience in that field? (For further reading on this subject, I recommend Pablo Helguera’s Education and Socially Engaged Art.)
Alyson: What have you observed on this score in the different groups of artists that you have worked with at the RCE workshops?
Aaron: I’m impressed by how many people this workshop is relevant to. It could be an artist trying to maintain a place in a rapidly evolving downtown area, who needs to create a program with local businesses; it could be an artist making a video installation in a particular neighborhood; it might be an artist starting a program in the schools. What everyone tends to share is a desire or need to get beyond the limit of a more typical art-going audience.
Especially when there is a pressing political issue at hand, I do see artists who let themselves get swept up into the issue itself and sometimes the art gets lost. When working with a social service organization, the approach is often very result-oriented (for good reason) and the art can become instrumentalized in the service of that result. Again, slowing down and being clear helps.
Alyson: Any other observations on the GIA session I described in my last post?
Aaron: I think the examples of Xavier, Alternate ROOTS and Urban Bush Women are really apt ones for the field. They do this a lot, and they do it brilliantly. Specifically, each of them strikes a balance I think is healthy: they integrate art-making into their larger visions, but they separate making a piece from teaching a workshop, even around the same overall project. They separate the creative act from the uses it can have once the art is made.
Aaron Landsman is a theater artist and long-time Artist Leader in Creative Capital’s Professional Development Program. His cross-genre performance work City Council Meeting includes collaborators from local government officials to church choirs, high school students to homeless or formerly homeless young adults. The work is being presented in four U.S. cities in 2012-2013, with support from NPN, NEFA’s National Theater Project, MAP, ASU Gammage, DiveseWorks Art Space, The MItchell Center For The Arts  and HERE Art Center. Learn more at

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