Improvised Intentionality: Artists Discuss Engagement and Community Building
If you’ve been to the Creative Capital Artist Retreat, you know that it’s a nerve center of artistic discourse. This year, I joked that it was impossible to make it from the coffee station in the dining hall back to your table without your coffee getting cold—there were too many brilliant and distracting conversations happening in between to waylay you! As Program Assistant for the Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards (an ancillary program of Creative Capital), attending my first retreat this year, it was inspiring to be so continuously surrounded by such dialogue.
Beyond over eighty presentations by the inspiring Creative Capital grantees and the fascinating Sunday Focus Sessions, some of the most special moments of the weekend were the spontaneous ones—the moments when putting a lot of artistically-minded heads in the same general area paid off with some truly memorable impromptu conversations.
In one instance, I was lucky enough to be in the room when a conversation started around how artists with a more community-based approach can best tour their work. The group included a wide range of artists, including Mondo Bizarro’s Nick Slie (2013 Performing Arts), performance artist Robert Karimi (2009 Performing Arts), interdisciplinary artist Jace Clayton (2013 Performing Arts), playwright and theater artist Lisa D’Amour (2009 Performing Arts and 2013 Doris Duke Artist), and dancer/choreographer and 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Kyle Abraham (2013 Performing Arts).
Here, I present the most popular strategies these artists discussed:
- Seeking out presenters that have staff and resources in place to help you engage with communities. One suggestion in the room was to reach out to fellow artists who had ties in the communities you wished to engage to get a sense of how local presenters work with artists.
- Having frank conversations with the presenters where you outline what your needs are, as the artist, to create the kind of engagement with which both you and the presenter will be satisfied. (One artist, for example, mentioned that he put his project’s community engagement needs into his tech rider.)
- Convincing the presenter to commit to a multi-year structure for your project. You, as the artist, come for a series of site visits that include “listening” opportunities via events or gatherings in year 1. Maybe in year 2, you return to a series of workshops over a period of weeks. Then, year 3, the project premieres.
- Identifying—or asking the presenter to help you identify—key community members (I liked the term “bridge people” or “crosswalkers” that one artist coined) who have connections to many different groups within in the community –in order to gain trust as the “outsider.”
- Listening to the community when you’re finally working with them. Allowing yourself to be influenced by the needs and responses of the community as you may need to adjust the scope and vision of your project.
- Finally, one of the most critical—but often overlooked—points is focusing on what happens the day after the project wraps, in order for the artist to sustain relationships with these communities for the future.