Back to list

In and Out of Crisis: Building Meaningful Support for Artists and Communities

June 18, 2020

Header image: Pablo Helguera, El Club de Protesta/ The Protest Club (2011) — Senior citizens studied and adapted traditional protest songs from Latin and North America in a series of workshops with Helguera and professional musicians, culminating in performances on Manhattan’s High Line. Project commissioned by More Art.

An introduction to More Art’s Methodology

How does an organization like More Art operate, and why? What standards do we hold ourselves to and what changes do we see as necessary? How can arts organizations and community allies create change and ensure equitable futures, in and out of times of crisis? The below, excerpted from the concluding essay of More Art in the Public Eye, discusses the organization’s methodology, one honed over many years but ever-evolving and, ideally, adaptable. Calls for longer-term commitments and greater access to resources are painfully all the more urgent now, as pandemic relief efforts, grants, and loans proliferate to try and stanch the loss of income and opportunities for artists. Demands for justice, an end to the continued criminalization, incarceration, and murder of Black people in this country and around the world, and the empowerment and liberation of all people are vitally reshaping the expectations for cultural producers; we have a role to play in dismantling white supremacy, fighting for equity, honoring the past, and realizing a better future.

As every community-minded organization is asking itself right now: What support systems are still lacking? What must we rethink?

For fifteen years, More Art has fostered the power of art to bring neighbors together, first in our Chelsea home, then New York City-wide, and now across municipal and even national borders. ​During that time, we have shaped opportunities for more than fifty mid-career and established artists​ to realize large-scale, socially engaged public art commissions, and have equipped an equal number of emerging artists and community leaders with the tools and resources to do so tomorrow.

As we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century, the field of socially engaged art and social practice is expanding, becoming more popular, and dare we say, fashionable. More and more organizations, small and large, are beginning to embrace the elements that are uniquely central and specific to More Art’s work: community involvement, site-specificity, accessibility, interdisciplinary partnership, and public collaboration. For the next fifteen years and beyond, we will continue to delve deeper and push further, expanding the field and raising the level of artistic rigor, equity, and accountability achievable by socially engaged public art.

As we build towards the future, we continue to ask ourselves: what types of support do artists need to create impactful work? We favor depth of engagement as a metric in determining how we contribute to social change. While our peers at neighboring nonprofit organizations, universities, and museums focus on the important work of teaching emerging social practitioners and youth, fostering the placemaking of key urban neighborhoods, promoting community development through the arts and cultural policy, offering philanthropic support, and providing documentary storytelling and short-term public programming, More Art remains one of the few organizations that works directly with artists and the public to directly incubate a large breadth of visionary works of art. More Art-supported projects take on a range of forms, including those rooted in place or geographically bound borders, and others that experiment with new approaches to public interaction writ large. Many live on beyond our initial support, morphing into lifelong practices, campaigns, models, and reenacted durational works. But our key motivation persists: to provide strategic support to ambitious, socially engaged art that may not happen otherwise. We believe the opportunity to achieve the scale, scope, and success that is possible when artists and cultural producers work collectively and flexibly in teams and in boundary-crossing partnerships with experts outside the arts is all too rare. That is the style of art support we practice; that is the level of support we envision for the field at large.

What distinguishes our methodology is our long-term commitment to ​artists,​ community partners, and contemporary ​issues​, and the fact that we give considerable weight to all three of these components of our public art projects. There are two areas in particular that we find to be crucial in doing this type of work: partnership building and articulating an ethics of public engagement.

Partnership Building

Socially engaged art should catalyze the power of value-aligned social justice organizations, groups, and individuals, and when applicable, add to the reach of grassroots and popular movements by drawing on the power of public art. Partnerships must be synergetic and reciprocally beneficial to all involved.

Ethics of Public Engagement

Stewards of public engagement should employ humility as a deep listening device, honoring the insight of the communities and individuals they identify and work with. Public art projects are living organisms, which will only thrive when all parts are accounted for and healthy. A healthy and equitable project is a project in which the artist, the communities, the issues (or content), and the place (or site) are all fully integrated. Works should not live only as broad and abstract or intangible concepts, but prioritize the real experiences of people, underscoring the very human dimension of making and experiencing works of art.

We believe interdisciplinary arts organizations should invest significant resources, time, and organizational capacity, at every phase of project building, over long periods of development, to work in a community in deep, thoughtful ways. We don’t encourage that projects engage in timeframes of less than two to three years. Sometimes our work takes nearly four years of fine-tuning before being presented to the general public. This is in obvious tension with the all-too-common three-month to one-year standard of commissioning opportunities, residencies, and grant support found in the American visual arts landscape today. Of course, a commissioning organization cannot work on a project forever; that is never our intent or goal. But we do believe that new, socially engaged works require adequate time to evolve. We aim to provide a missing infrastructure of support during those early stages.

This is a call to action to supporters and creators of this kind of work, a plea to slow down and focus on the details when aiming for meaningful collaborative impact, to hold the value of crafting cultures of cooperation as a goal in and of itself.¹

1. See Tom Finkelpearl, introduction to What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2012) on the discourse of “cooperation” in social art.

What support systems are vital to you? Join the conversation — follow More Art on Medium and Instagram as we share updates on current projects and revisit past work to better understand our present moment and what’s to come.

Excerpts are from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.