As we continue unpacking the 2016 ArtPlace Summit, we’d like to take a look back at the Artistic Breakout Sessions and the valuable insights that emerged. The goal of the sessions was to dive into nine arts disciplines and understand how these disciplines best address community development challenges and opportunities. These disciplines included: Craft & Culinary, Dance, Design/Architecture, Film Media, Folk/Traditional, Literature, Music, Theater, and Visual Arts.

These intimate discussions followed the broader plenary discussion with artists working at the intersection of the health, public safety and housing sectors.

Moderated by Arizona State University arts professors as well as other practicing artists, each began with presentations by individuals talking about their exciting work. The conversation then moved to a broader conversation with participants and Q&As.  

Common threads began to emerge: participants spoke often about the artist’s role as a listener and translator for the community and art’s ability to create safe spaces from which we can examine and interrogate social/cultural challenges. Others spoke about art as a tool for agency, which can offer individuals and entire communities sovereignty and re-vitalization. Each session took a unique turn and below are some interesting snippets.

In the Craft & Culinary session, one participant noted: “Sometimes it’s the thing that we have that’s of the greatest value right in front of our face that we fail to see. Craft and culinary are sometimes these low-hanging fruit that we walk right by trying to reach the stuff at the top of the tree. It’s authentic, it’s real and people have been doing it for eons and we just skim right over it.”

“Food brings everyone to the table,” another added.

Dance also has a way of equalizing people. John Michael Schert, co-founder of Trey McIntyre Project in Boise, ID, and a Visiting Artist and Social Entrepreneur at Chicago Booth pointed out that 57% of language is body language and 93% of all communication is nonverbal. Dance is now being translated and utilized by people across sectors who are trying to become more eloquent speakers of body language. For the artists whose role as translators is ever-increasing, this demonstrates the need for a shift in how they think about the social value of their work.

“I think we in the art world for a long time put our main value on the product and how we monetize it. I think we all probably agree–and creative placemaking has done a fantastic job of stating–that the real value in art is the process, not the product,” John Michael explained.

In the Folk/Traditional breakout session, an attendee asked, “How do we start to grow people’s understanding of traditional purposes of art as a cultural form? For example, understanding music as not just something to dance to, but as something that heals or represents culture or creates cultural identity?”

Nadia Hagen, artistic director of the All Souls Procession in Tucson, AZ, responded: “Don’t go along with the paradigm that there’s a master. Art is not a luxury for a few people who do it very well. It’s for everyone to have and experience as something that’s theirs, that they own. You make this thing and by the process, by the making of this creation, that’s what art is. You have to invite the public in to be a part of that process so they realize [art] isn’t this elitist thing that’s just in a gallery.”

When the community becomes part of that process and begins to achieve agency through art, real change starts to happen.

Attendees in the Film Media breakout came back again and again to the idea that film and video is increasingly a consistent medium by which people can have those breakthrough moments. Sophie Constantinou, co-founder of Citizen Film in San Francisco, CA, talked about her experience creating a 7-minute documentary about Green Streets, a recycling and composting company which employs young, disenfranchised people living in low-income neighborhoods.

“It was a creative process of saying, how do you present yourself to the world? What story do you want people to receive when they see you? We already know that–and the majority of these people are African-American–when people see you, they have a certain set of biases. You can work on those. [After the screening of the documentary] everybody came back to me and said, ‘I’ve never seen positive images of my community. I’ve never seen us reflected doing anything good, until now.’” Sophie told the group.

In the Literature breakout, Henry Reese, co-founder and President of City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, PA, echoed these ideas as he spoke about his organization’s work to provide sanctuary to writers under threat of persecution. “[Literature] engages other people. It began to expose to me the fundamentals of what a civil society really is and what’s necessary to imagine a future together in a community that is really made up with people very much unlike one another,” Henry said.

Through that artistic process–whether via film or literature or culinary arts–and the translation of the process by the artist for the community, we can achieve greater understanding of one another and the systems we work within. Our attendees repeatedly said throughout the sessions that this path led to an increased sense of agency within the community and, therefore, real, quantifiable change.

Other major takeaways were the importance of artists as listeners (in the Music breakout session especially, we learned about musicians’ unique talent in that area) and as drivers of commerce. In the Visual Arts breakout, we heard from George Scheer, co-founder and director of Elsewhere in Greensboro, NC, as he spoke about the incredible surge of energy, industry and interest brought to Greensboro as a result of artist residency programs and arts-driven development.

Perhaps the most illuminating moment came in the Theater breakout session, when an attendee said during conversation: “Perhaps, theater is a way to interrogate a complex issue without demonizing anyone.”

As we look back on the discussions during this year’s Artistic Breakout sessions, we’d argue that that thought can be applied much more broadly, maybe even to every artistic discipline featured at the summit. Art is a way of interrogating complex issues by way of process and engagement. We find solutions by listening, sharing and empowering others to do the same.