Widening the Lens: Arts, Culture, and an Equitable Future for All Communities

November 5, 2019

By: Lyz Crane, Deputy Director

In this conversation, held in April 2019, Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink, and Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation and chair of the Funders Council of ArtPlace America, explore why arts and culture strategies are central to equitable development. They provide insight into how leaders can build on lessons learned from ArtPlace’s Community Development Investments (CDI) program to create healthy, opportunity-rich communities for all. Communications consultant Fran Smith moderated the conversation.

The below is an excerpt from their conversation. The full dialogue will be available in the forthcoming new Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Community Development Innovation Review on “Transforming Community Development through Arts & Culture”, to be released on November 13, 2019.

The journal will be released at a public event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  Click here to learn more and register for the event.

There will be a livestream of the event on November 13th (view the full program here) available from 3:00-6:30pm PT via the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco twitter account (@SFFed). Follow #SFFedArts to learn more and mark the time on your calendar!

UPDATE! Read the full journal here and see the announcement here!


Why is fusing arts and culture as an integral component of community development important for achieving equitable outcomes?

Rip Rapson (RR): One of the things that has always perplexed me is why we ever thought that arts were anything but an integral part of community development. As we look at the way communities have evolved in America, issues of community identity, history, economics, politics, and otherwise have always been expressed through the vocabulary of arts and culture. So, I would phrase the question differently: Why have arts always been an integral component of community development, and how can we support that work? So much of what we’ve tried to do with PolicyLink and others is to ensure the role of the arts is understood, valorized, and strengthened over time.

Michael McAfee (MM): I agree with everything you said. And I think of James Baldwin’s statement that art is a way to correct delusion. I see arts and culture as essential for correcting delusion in our society, in our perception, and in our consciousness. In community development and in our organizations, we run to data, data, data. But data often miss the things that are right in front of us. If we’re going to get to equitable outcomes, we must see clearly the ways in which we’ve designed the society to not be equitable, and we must see the ways in which humanity causes harm. If you don’t correct that delusion, you don’t get there. That’s why I think arts and culture are integral.

RR: That reinforces a couple of things for me. One is that arts and culture have always had a powerful role in social capital, in reinforcing or even creating informal bonds of trust and support that lie at the heart of community and certainly at the heart of equitable communities. To that end, arts and culture are as much a process as a product. I mean, they can be a product, and often they’re a glorious one. But they are also a process of bringing people together to find shared identity, find difference, find shared purpose, or find divergent purpose. That active, creative iteration makes the arts and cultural process so different from our normal problem-solving process.


How does incorporating arts into community development create new avenues for problem-solving and elevate resident voice and power in that process?

RR: If the problem is defined through a lens of creativity and artistic heritage, often the problem we think we’re trying to solve changes. If we think we’re trying to solve a housing problem or a transportation problem or even a human services problem, the conversation gets narrow pretty fast. It gets technocratic and isolated pretty fast. Arts and culture tend to broaden the aperture of problem analysis. Once you do that, all sorts of different solutions flow in. Opening the aperture permits many more aspects of the economic, social, and political dimensions to inform how you take something apart and put it back together. When we’re talking about issues of urban America, I think we have to focus at least in part on deconstructing barriers to full equity and justice. Arts and culture play a really powerful role in that active deconstruction and reconstruction. It’s not enough oftentimes, but I think we’ve failed to appreciate fully the extent to which it is absolutely necessary to pry things open in a way that our traditional disciplinary approaches to community work don’t permit us to do.

MM: Arts and culture awaken us to what is already there in a community—the artistic expressions, the cultural connectivity, and other things we miss because of the limited aperture that we bring to the work. Art-centered development amplifies and accelerates resident voice and power. This is the work for us to be doing at this moment in our nation because, one, our institutions that are central to a strong democracy have a very limited aperture, and two, we are grossly disconnected from that resident voice and power. We can’t seem to find the right set of strategies to alleviate so many of the problems that frustrate us because we are unmoored from the soul of community, which to me is arts and culture.

RR: I think one of the complexities of urban America is figuring out how you honor, acknowledge, and value community heritage while creating a sufficiently wide berth for exploring a community’s changing form and function. We see this struggle in Detroit and many other communities. It’s quite complicated to look back, look current, look forward, and understand the relationship of those things as you begin to define where your community wants to move next. It’s an act of synthesis that often lies outside the competence of our traditional systems. They don’t work that way; it’s just too hard. Arts and culture do a particularly good job of trying to hold those concepts simultaneously. Not every piece of art, not every artistic process, but in the aggregate. It’s almost the job description of the arts to weave past, present, and future.


How can arts and cultural strategies help communities deal openly and constructively with the often-unspoken dynamics of race?

MM: This really gets to the power of arts and culture. It reveals who we are. It reveals the beloved community to ourselves. Race is not a thing that has to be dealt with and that we have to fear—it’s just an embrace of us and our humanity. We need to be able to see that race is no different from any other thing we struggle with, and we can overcome our racial divides if we develop the muscle to do that. But we have to care about it. We have to want to acknowledge and atone for the things we’ve not done well in our nation’s history. If you don’t get race, you don’t get arts and culture, because you’re denying folks their experience, the soul of who they are.

RR: In the past few years, I’ve participated in different institutions’ attempts to come to terms with issues of race, equity, and justice. Some have come at this purely as an intellectual proposition, through history or pedagogy. That’s sort of a dead end. You need a wide set of tools that draw on something much deeper and more profound, at a personal level and a community level and a societal level. The efforts that have been enormously powerful blend storytelling, musical expression, and visual creation—different ways of seeing a community and the talents in that community. It’s the ability to bridge heart and soul and intellect.

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Stay tuned on November 13th and follow conversations via #SFFedArts to read the full interview and see additional answers to questions such as:

How can arts and culture serve as a bulwark against displacement and reinforce the cultural richness that makes cities so vital and attractive?

This volume features a number of community development organizations, intermediaries, and financial institutions that have embraced this work. What is the broader impact of programs like CDI and other ArtPlace investments?

What do you see as a key challenge to fully incorporating arts and culture into all community development work?

…and more!