Mediating
I saw at least three major areas of danger for socially engaged projects made by visiting artists like me, who are invited by arts institutions to work in a neighborhood or professional community other than those that the artist is regularly in contact with, and which the arts institutions do not have regular contact with. When anyone claims to “do good” and begins to work with a group or in a neighborhood that they do not intend to return to, it is far more likely that the group or neighborhood is helping that person than the other way around (the visitor helping). I know that the person who spends the most time on the project will be transformed, and that person is likely me.
I asked myself, “How long will I really be involved in this area? Would I be involved if I were not invited to go there? If not, is there a way that I can connect an issue that I am working on locally to a group in the visiting location?”
In this project, I tried to be upfront about the limits of my engagement with partner organizations, to pay them for their time, and to make sure I met their goals for the project as well as my own goals, and the art institutions’ goals. For example, with CUCI, I decided to act as a graphic designer of sorts, making an illustration/design project with cards, as that was most appealing to them, and I know we can use it in the co-op movement in NYC.
I initiated a reflection document about LISTEN with feedback and commentary from project partners that I published. “LISTEN: A Case Study in Socially Engaged Art” compiles a summary of LISTEN's process, a project timeline, notes on the approach, commentary by collaborators, and worksheets developed for LISTEN. We hope that it will serve as a case study to think through the possible forms of engagement when a visiting artist is invited by an arts institution to work in a geographic or professional community that the visiting artist does not regularly interact with.
“Caroline did an amazing job of getting this group of women who struggle to find their voice, feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts and ideas. What was interesting was the bond that they felt with her in that they were willing to share very honest opinions of prototypes and drawings that she shared... I think it would've been nice to have Caroline on site while she was building some of the prototypes or in person for the discussions because they were so rich. I've given multiple examples related to what worked the best and that was the empowerment it gave to the women who participated. It would've been great to have a bit more time on the end so that Caroline could have shown the women her final product herself. Overall it was a fantastic experience and I know the women really enjoyed their time with her and felt that she respected them and truly wanted and valued their viewpoints. This hasn't been the case with all of the artists they have worked with so I feel it's a very sincere comment from them. Thanks for this and making our world a brighter place through the sharing of your gifts and talents!”
—Sheryl Rajbhandari, Welcome Project
"We were brought in, by MORTAR, to be a part of this. But ultimately, I think it would have been better for us to have been separate. A big reason being us no longer sharing a space—which we didn't expect to happen when we started this project, but also because our organizations likely had different needs for this and the compromises we needed to make to fit both of our needs made the outcome less useful than it could have been with two distinctly separate ideas. This isn't to say that Caroline didn't do a wonderful job of synthesizing the collaborative ideas we had, it is just to say that we could have been free to think directly of the work we do (same for MORTAR) and build from there.”
—Shawn Braley, CincyStories
“Sometimes an outsider is exactly what’s called for. Caroline Woolard has deep, on-the-ground, hands-on experience with community and artistic engagement in her own home city of New York and beyond, around issues from equitable development, to barter economies, to shared spaces and objects for learning, presence, and listening. Cincinnati has a few active social practice artists, but for most Cincinnatians the idea of “social practice art” is likely to elicit puzzled looks. Most haven’t heard of it, don’t know what it is. It helps to have a known and respected institution (the Contemporary Arts Center), and a known and respected community-based arts center (Wave Pool) say to Cincinnati, in essence, “Social Practice Art is a vibrant and valuable genre within fine art. Here’s an example of an artist and project in that field being done right here. We think this is important, and could offer something good to our city.” It helps to have someone who is cultivating significant experience and mastery in the field to come and show us how it can be done.
Of course, because social practice art is, well, social, Caroline didn’t just come into town and make art on her own. She partnered with four community groups. The challenges brought by the fact that she doesn’t live here were mitigated by having me serve as bridge between her and the groups. My deep roots here helped ground Caroline’s work. That was key. It didn’t have to be me, but it did need to be someone, and hats off to the CAC, Wave Pool, and Caroline for seeing the value in that and putting resources to it.
This project brought social practice art to Cincinnati in a bigger more visible way than it has existed to date. So our city benefited, but I gained something important too. I had a lot of quality time with Caroline. Because of who she is and how she works - down to earth, generous, open and transparent, a teacher by nature - I had access to how she was thinking about the project, and at points got to think and talk through how to solve problems with her. And now I have a relationship with her. This brings value not only to me as a social practice artist, but to Cincinnati; now our city has in me an active social practice artist with a relationship to a leader in our field. All of us who worked with Caroline on Listen have this. We have what we learned, we have more connected relationships with each other, and we have our friendship with Caroline.”
—MC, local artist liaison
“As someone often attempting to bring artists into communities for positive social change, I often find myself having to navigate the territory of engaging visiting artists with communities that are not their own. I really appreciated Caroline being upfront about her schedule as well as her knowledge and background that would all play a role in how she could best connect with and understand certain communities within our city as a visiting artist.”
—Cal, Wave Pool
“The CAC formed a Community Engagement Council in the Spring of 2017 to help establish a dialogical model when working with various communities on art-inspired projects. Rather than “impose” an artist and/or project upon a community, we aimed to listen to community wants and needs; determine which of those an arts organization could realistically address; and connect these aims with an artist/s who could engage them through the lens of art. Caroline was sensitive to these circumstances and thoughtful about how best to organize a project that would not be weighed down with politics before it began in full.”
—Steven, Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center
I made these worksheets for people to consider, when doing similar projects.
TIME/SCALE/MONEY AGREEMENTS (1)
TIME/SCALE/MONEY AGREEMENTS (2)
TIME/SCALE/MONEY AGREEMENTS
WORKSHEET 1
(for Visiting Artist, Local Artist, Inviting Arts Organizations, and Partner Organizations)
What do you hope to accomplish with this project?
What do you need from the other parties in order to accomplish this goal?
How will you balance time, scale, and money in order to accomplish this goal?
TIME/SCALE/MONEY AGREEMENTS
WORKSHEET 2
(for Visiting Artist, Local Artist, Inviting Arts Organizations, and Partner Organizations)
Looking at Worksheet 1 from the Institution and the Partner Organizations, what overlapping hopes do you see? What potential conflicts do you see?
How might you alter your goal for this project, in order to navigate these overlapping hopes and conflicts?
In the arts we so often work in shorthand, relying on conventions and upholding what we believe to be enlightened practices—even as the demands of timelines, budgets and the expectations for tangible outcomes erode a priori integrity. LISTEN opened up the sightlines of that which is obscured in second thoughts, and allowed us to hear, and to heighten.
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