December 8, 2020

Community Development: Advancing Outcomes by Embedding Artists 

Pandemic PSA posters for Foundation Communities in Austin, by resident artist collaborators Jesse McCrum, Gabriel Reeberg, & Cynthia Pecore. Spanish poetry translation by Tony Beckwith

Pictured: "Distance/Distancia" pandemic PSA posters for Foundation Communities in Austin, by resident artist collaborators Jesse McCrum, Gabriel Reeberg, & Cynthia Pecore. Spanish poetry translation by Tony Beckwith.  

How artists and community developers are co-creating a culture of creativity and healing in the affordable housing sector

Much has been written about the essential role that art, culture, and creativity play in the lives of individuals and societies, and how important it is for the community development field to embrace the integration of artists, cultural workers, and creative practices into the standard ways of being in our field. Practicing at this intersection, however, is not simple - for artists or community developers.   

Maria Rosario Jackson’s research on investing in creativity elucidates that, “demand for what artists do is not fully conceived or well articulated, in large part because the formal validation mechanisms in both arts and non-arts contexts are relatively narrowly developed.

For example, if an artist is working at the intersection of arts and community development and making contributions in both areas, it is very likely that the full extent of those contributions will not be recognized or valued in either the cultural realm or the community development realm. Moreover, adequate language to describe such practice and contributions does not exist.” 

In a September interview titled “Art, Culture and Community Development: The Importance of Asking Why Not? , three artists working as full time staff at community development organizations shared their experiences at this intersection. They talked about the ways in which they are contributing to the development of language that describes their practice and contributions.

In the conversation below, the community development colleagues who are working alongside these artists offer thoughts on their own role at this intersection of art and community development: what they are learning, how collaboration with artists has changed them in unexpected ways, and the new possibilities and questions that it raises for the future of community development and for the places where we live.  

Julie Candoli and Paula Suchland work with Foundation Communities in Austin, Texas. Their Rose Fellow is Olivia Jimenez
David Valecillos is Director of Design with North Shore CDC in Salem, MA. Their Rose Fellow is Yuko Okabe
Grant Sunoo is Director of Planning for Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) in Los Angeles. Their Rose Fellow is Carol Zou

Nella: What has surprised you about working with artists - and in particular with the artist fellows you have working full time as staff members in your organization? 

Grant: Nothing surprises me anymore. But I am always impressed by the ability that creative folks have to cut to the heart of issues so quickly. To be able to explain things so simply, and then the willingness to try things and experiment, and always the unanticipated joy of where that experimentation takes you and your work.  

David: We have learned that there is a difference between working with an artist for a week or a month and working with them as a colleague full time over a much longer period of time. When the fellowship started, we first thought of Yuko, our arts fellow and illustrator, as many of the other visual artists we have worked with in the past over a week or month's time.

However, it has been quite different from those short engagements; rather than focusing on illustrating, she was more interested in the process of connecting with people and using her creative thought process to create meaningful outcomes that might or might not require illustration.  

Paula & Julie: This is our first time with an artist embedded in our staff and everything feels new. Given COVID conditions, we’ve ended up using her “other” skills (yoga teacher, movement therapist, producer, etc.) as much as her artistic skills. Her interest in and perspective on the organization as a whole has been refreshing--her willingness to work across silos is a plus. 

Nella: In what ways have your original work plans changed, and what have you learned from that experience?  

Grant: We began this process with the assumption that the work plan would be fluid, but had no idea exactly HOW fluid 2020 would require us to be. Fortunately, I think this is where - generally speaking - artists thrive. From the outset of the pandemic, Carol has been consistently coming up with really great ways for us to foster connections between residents who speak 5 different languages, are dealing with existential crises in their personal lives, and are not able to be in the same physical space together. 

Through these interactions and connections, we have learned volumes about the value of neighbors supporting each other through challenging times -- and just how important community is in that process.  

David: Similar to the other host organizations, our plan changed significantly from the original and we knew this early on. There are many types of artists so we were thrilled to have one that could challenge the status quo and could bring different ideas and skills to the organization. Yuko has forced us to rethink the internal links between community engagement and our newly formed arts and design team, designed online tools that can help us reach other audiences, and expanded our understanding of artists as contributors to our process, not just creating a product.  

Paula & Julie: With Covid-19 of course everything changed. Integrating the artist into our design process has been delayed, in large part due to simply trying to move ahead during really challenging conditions. Resident engagement, for which our organization has no formal process, has also been a challenge, especially given limited technology access and proficiency among some residents.

We were lucky that Olivia had established strong relationships before the lockdown and was able to capitalize on those. The Intergenerational Penpals project, the Community-Sourced Cookbook, and a virtual community art showcase are examples of projects that have resulted from this early relationship building - both with residents, staff, and external partners. All of these projects have been powerful examples of how to decrease social isolation and increase wellbeing and connection during the pandemic.  

We also have felt the tug-of-war on our artist between programs vs. properties and what actually her role is supposed to be, given our arts & culture strategy is evolving. We had to pivot on several of the pilot projects we had outlined for her first year. In reexamining the work plan for Year 2, we were able to focus more on her interests and her skill set, even given COVID, and we hope to capitalize on that. 

Nella: What ways have you and/or your organization adapted or changed your practices in order to more effectively host an artist and facilitate the success of their work? 

David: The fellowship came at the perfect time for our organization. We had just finished our first strategic plan for our newly formed Arts and Design team. This gave us flexibility to test ideas among the team members and take the team’s direction as we wished. We immediately understood that our Arts and Design team needed to work across the entire organization and collaborate closely with other staff in other departments in order to achieve the strategic planning goals.  

Grant: Generally speaking, working with artists has taught me to value process overall -- but cyclical process even moreso. As a planner & manager, my thinking tends to be more linear and outcome driven. But working with Carol has encouraged me to be open to iteration of projects, while still focusing on a particular outcome. Bringing a new staff person into our community has also helped me reflect on the importance of relationship and trust-building. Carol has really excelled in establishing deep rapport with a handful of tenants, which is leading to powerful projects. We are already starting to reap rewards from these friendships. 

For example, fairly early on in her fellowship, Carol met a woman who spends a ton of time in the Casa Heiwa community garden. They met informally - not as part of a tenant council or other structured setting. Initially, Carol asked me for permission to use program funds to purchase gardening supplies to support this woman’s work in the garden. (A somewhat “outside of the box” use of program funds related to an arts grant).

But…a few hundred dollars in soil later, this woman and Carol have worked on intergenerational gardening projects, drawn portraits of other residents, written poetry for our residents’ zines, involved youth in our building, mapped out the garden, and continued to expand the relationships outward.  

In some cases, we have been more fluid with program deliverables and outcomes and our overall interim success measures. I think that long term success still looks the same, but we’ve become more comfortable with the fact that the path from A to B is not as clear cut as we may have once thought. And it turns out this type of thinking has prepared us well for the pandemic, where everything is upside down.  

Paula & Julie: We’re fairly new to the business of integrating arts and culture into housing and as a comprehensive approach. The presence of our artist fellow has allowed us to reach across departments and start this ball rolling, and the timing could not have been more perfect.

For example, a new City of Austin RFP for affordable housing/mixed use development has a creative placemaking component. We agree with Grant: relationships and trust and enjoying the process itself are important components, ones that we sometimes lose track of with deadline-driven projects. 

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