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Arts, neighborhoods, and social practices:
Towards an integrated epistemology of community arts
Karen Chapple & Shannon Jackson
Recent decades have seen a widespread push for more interdisciplinary research across the
academic “silos” on campus. Economists are borrowing left and right from the other social
sciences, cultural theorists and anthropologists are mutually revising each others’ fields, and joint
degree programs in professional disciplines such as law, public health, and arts management are
springing up on campuses across the country. Less well-represented in these collaborations are
ventures bringing together the arts and humanities and the helping professions. Certainly there are
significant programs at New York University, University of Maryland, California College of the
Arts, and University of San Francisco offering degrees in the community arts. But paradoxically,
such “interdisciplinary” arts programs do not always integrate the “disciplinary” perspectives of the
social sciences – as well as urban studies and planning -- that contribute to our understanding of the
geographic, political, and economic formation of “community.” Meanwhile, social science and
urban planning programs often tout the importance of “culture” in community formation, but they
less often integrate the historically complex understanding of culture debated in the fields of arts
and humanities. Despite a common concern for social change, the humanistic arts and social
science fields continue to be divided – by theory and practice, epistemologies, and even language.
This article seeks to bridge that gap by showing how a specific subfield within a broader humanities
nexus— performance studies—assists in redefining our approach to planning issues.
We begin a conversation between two multi-disciplinary fields—city planning and
performance studies — working to develop not only new cross-disciplinary methodologies for
understanding art, space, and community action but also new awareness of the vulnerability of both
artists and urban space in the face of neoliberalism and global capitalism.1 We argue that this kind of
collaboration offers a window into the tensions and possibilities of working across the humanities
and social sciences. Performance studies is not equivalent to the “cultural humanities” any more
than city planning is equivalent to the “positivist social sciences;” however, both domains have
developed in response to larger conceptual and methodological questions that have significant
relevance for community arts research. Performance studies is an interdisciplinary field that has
expanded a traditional purview in theatre and dance to consider the social and formal dimensions of
a wider network of forms—from festivals to rock concerts to everyday presentations of self to the
performative and social dimensions of museums, architecture, and urban space (Schechner 2006,
Jackson 2004, Bial 2004, McKenzie 2001, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998, Phelan and Lane 1998).
Like other humanistic disciplines that have questioned aesthetic hierarchies and incorporated the
frameworks of cultural theory, such an expansion includes anthropological and sociological
approaches to the role of the arts and performance in the production of local culture. Consolidating
as a discipline in the late 20th century, performance studies has also developed with a substantial
commitment to joining research to art practice and activist practice. However, its interdisciplinary
collaborations have occurred mostly with other arts and humanities fields, as well as the critical
social sciences, instead of with policy fields, social welfare, or positivist social sciences.
Meanwhile, city and regional planning is also an interdisciplinary field that, like
performance studies, has expanded its domain from the traditional core of land use planning while
affirming its commitment to social justice in its code of ethics (Teitz 1996). Yet though it engages
studies in sociology, economics, geography, architecture, and policy, it only rarely connects to the
arts and humanistic fields such as art history, theatre studies, music, literature, philosophy, and
studio training. We argue that city planning and performance studies share common roots and, taken
together, offer more complex ways of understanding the arts, neighborhoods, and social practices
that can move the conversations in both fields forward. We also suggest that such integration –in
many ways, a reintegration of the histories and goals that they in fact share -- is necessary to
anticipate and interpret the kind of tensions and possibilities that inevitably arise on the ground in
the creative planning of community arts. This integration then creates an anticipatory
epistemological framework – at its simplest, a way of acquiring knowledge about community arts
--that will support the work of students, artists, activists and urban planners entering this
provocative but highly contested area.
We begin by exploring the shared history of our fields, both rooted in the same moment in
the industrial city. Our fields also experience similar tensions, between art-making and social work
on the one side, and physical and social planning on the other. We then discuss three issues in
community arts as a framework for crafting a joint epistemology. The first is the concern over arts
as instrument: the tension in performance studies over the social uses of arts, and the debates in
planning over the arts as commodifying neighborhood. Second, we take on the concept of audience
development, often conceptualized as changing or uplifting the audience without acknowledging
daily lived experience. Third is the vulnerability that threatens artists and neighborhoods alike. A
concluding section addresses the human capital implications of a new field of arts and city planning,
one that would develop a shared network of skills for future cultural workers in the 21st century.
Let us begin with a chronicle of how these two fields began to blossom. The idea of the
creative city finds its roots in the Chicago School of Sociology, which argued that the size, density,
and diversity of cities led to occupational specialization (and often personality disorders as well),
which in turn allows the individual freedom that fosters creativity (Fischer 1984; Park 1916;
Simmel 1905; Wirth 1938). Though both Jane Jacobs (1961, 1969) and Richard Sennett (1970)
linked creativity to the diversity and disorder of the city, and Sharon Zukin (1982) and Neil Smith
(1996) explored the relationship of the arts to gentrification, it was Sir Peter Hall (1998) who argued
that creativity could be the basis for urban economic regeneration in advanced capitalist
consumption-based economies. By the time Richard Florida (2002) popularized the idea of the
creative city, it had become nearly axiomatic that the arts spur economic growth by attracting
residents, business, and visitors to cities, and city planners and arts funders reacted by channeling
scarce resources into downtown arts districts and major arts institutions (Heilbrun & Gray 1993;
Landry 2000). Others reacted by pointing out how the arts could benefit communities in other ways
as well – by building social capital, fostering community identity, and bridging social and racial
boundaries – reinvigorating interest in communities, neighborhoods, and the artists themselves
(Grams & Warr 2003; Jackson, Herranz, & Kabwasa-Green 2003; Markusen 2006; Stern & Seifert
2000; Strom 2001).
Early practitioners of what we now call community arts participated unevenly in such
conversations in urban planning, and performance studies researchers and other cultural theorists
have claimed this fraught history of the community arts movement as their own (Jackson 2000,
Kester 2004). In the United States, the early 20th century settlement movement joined a variety of
cultural organizations to engage in a discussion of the role of the arts in reimagining city life
(Horowitz 1989) The settlement house vision of the arts had its roots in a 19th century Arts and
Crafts movement, one that argued against aesthetic elitism to integrate the arts and architecture as
vehicles for a functional and healthful (rather than decorative and decadent) everyday life (Boris
1986). The settlement vision also sprung from middle and upper-class women’s club movements
and charity efforts that sought to incorporate the arts into philanthropic efforts to improve the lives
of children and marginalized sectors of the U.S. population (Firor Scott 1992). Dissatisfied with the
condescension and cultural elitism of many charity efforts, settlement workers devised a more
radical model for engaging cross-class and cross-cultural exchange by moving into immigrant and
working-class neighborhoods in the late 19th century. Settlement reformers argued that mutual
understanding could only be obtained by daily contact and a commitment to shared space, seeing
artistic and cultural practices as a key domain for sustaining meaningful interaction (Jackson 2000,
Hayden 1982). In settlements in Chicago, New York, Boston, Hartford, Cleveland, and cities
around the United States, settlement workers addressed a variety of issues—from juvenile justice,
public health, public housing, fair labor laws, childcare, and immigration reform—developing a
vision of social change from their local experience on the ground in the daily life of their neighbors.
Importantly, practices and events such as painting, dance, parades, living history museums,
ceramics, theatres, and festivals were developed to give neighbors an opportunity to express their
cultural heritage and to craft new arenas for cross-cultural exchange. At its flagship institution in
Chicago—the Hull-House settlement—Jane Addams and her colleagues saw such instances of
cultural work as integral to effective social work. Notably, she worked within and against the
framework of Chicago school sociology, collaborating with University of Chicago sociologists and
philosophers such as John Dewey and George Herbert Mead to tout the importance of the arts in
cultivating sites for cultural expression, sociality, and spontaneity in the ongoing development of
city culture (Feffer 1993, Deegan 1988, Haddock Seigfried, 1996; Jackson 2000).
A comparison of the early histories of these two fields shows how they dealt with similar
tensions in different ways, diverging in methodology while maintaining the common set of interests
that form the basis for the reconciliation we suggest. While art-making and social reform started
out integrated, with artistic practices playing a role in the everyday life of Hull House, city planning
was at the same time experiencing a schism in its roots. The split among the Progressive elite is
well documented: one group endorsed a civic aesthetic enterprise, the City Beautiful, and the other
social and housing reform (Marcuse, 1980). Whether concerned with urban form or society, a
professionalized bureaucracy would apply science in regulating the city with tools such as zoning
and housing standards. But another split lay beneath the surface. City Beautiful advocates adopted
a surgical approach to imposing a civic monumentality on cities, while social reformers adopted
extensive surveying and mapping of population health and poverty – often from the bottom up
(Figure 1). In the settlement movement, some resisted the ‘top-down’ orientation of the mapped
city, arguing that meaningful social change could only arise from local interaction in a sphere
committed to reciprocal transformation across classes. Many settlement workers mixed macro and
micro approaches with varying degrees of class condesension and class effacement, inculcating
urban residents into civic practices such as voting, budgeting, and schooling children while also
helping reformers gather information to help regulate the neighborhoods (Sklar 1995).
INSERT FIGURE 1 HERE
Ultimately, the settlement movement would split from planning and serve as the basis for the
professionalization of social work, melding the determinism of a scientific approach to social
amelioration with civic goals for cleanliness and urban health (Chambers, 1963; Trolander 1987,
Muncy 1991, Michel and Koven 1993, Gordon 1990). Meanwhile, planning gained legitimacy
through specialization, increasingly adopting a technocratic paradigm that relied heavily on physical
planning tools and standardized approaches across communities. In cities, mass production
occurred via federal and state urban renewal legislation, and in suburbs, through subdivision
planning. In both cases, planning started from the map -- two-dimensional representation rather
than three- and four-dimensioned lived experience. It expanded through rote replication, with little
attention to specific contexts. Since planners justified development efforts through efficiency
rationales, they tended to look for quantifiable outcomes (if they evaluated efforts at all): improved
traffic flows, reduced overcrowding in housing, more companies locating downtown, and so forth.
In the process, the profession lost much of its early commitment to the sustaining of local urban
cultures through design.
The role of the arts in civic imagining proceeded fitfully throughout the 20th century, with
leadership mostly from Europe. While the increasingly technocratic paradigm sidelined the arts in
urban planning, some historical moments such as the Great Depression created conditions for a
more dynamic vision under the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration. Defining artists
as civic laborers, WPA programs in theater, photography, mural design, and other visual arts devised
a large network of programs for struggling cities and their struggling citizens, funding projects that
often incorporated voices and skills of local inhabitants to address a variety of public issues and to
offer avenues for cultural expression (Harris 1995, Roberts 1998, Kalfatovic 1994, Park and
Markowtiz 1984, McKinzie 1973). This renewed sense of the importance of cultural work to the
goals of social work had its parallels in a variety of international settings with varying definitions,
values, and constituencies. The Bauhaus school of art and design in Germany promoted a vision of
the arts as functionally incorporated into social life (Droste, 2006). The Constructivist movements
of the Soviet Union employed artists as labor-citizens to redesign everyday life, imagining an urban
utopia of kiosks, functional objects, theatre, murals, and architecture to shape a healthful and
engaged Soviet city (Gough 2005, Lodder 1985, Kiaer 2008). Meanwhile, other art movements
tried to unsettle divisions between art and everyday life, developing strains of early 20th century
Surrealism and Dadaism to craft street performance, spontaneous poetry, and provocative
installation to disrupt and defamiliarize the everyday patterns of city life (Durozoi 2004). Such
fringe artistic efforts often sought to challenge top-down map-derived visions of the perfect city.
By the 1970s, back in the United States, more inclusive, plural planning processes had
largely replaced (or supplemented) the top-down approaches of the first half of the 20th century
(Davidoff 1965; Krumholz 1983). Interestingly, this meant not only a renewed commitment to
design that embodied democratic principles, but also more integration of art-making into planning
and community building. For example, the Comprehensive Employment Training Act of 1973
(CETA), which helped to sustain the infrastructure of community-based organizations (CBOs)
spawned by the War on Poverty, was also a major boon for artists. Along with its on-the-job and
classroom training components, CETA offered subsidized public service employment that hired
artists to make art in the service of the public (Goldbard 2006). This period also saw a more vital if
also complicated discussion in the field of public art in the United States, ushering in the National
Endowment for the Arts as a federally-funded body in support of the arts. Interestingly, presidents
Kennedy and Johnson walked a fine line in doing so during what remained the Cold War; in
forming the NEA, they tried to reconcile “American” values for individual expression with the
federal goal of public service without, at the same time, seeming to endorse socialist and communist
values in promoting the arts for social good (Buchwalter 1992, Binkiewicz 2004, Dubin, 1987).
Once again, movements toward the social uses of the arts varied internationally and within nations
themselves both in sensibility and goal. In France and Europe more broadly, the Situationists
International (SI) challenged habits of public art and city space with tactical disruptions in the city
environment, hoping to develop alternate “psycho-geographies” that would bring fresh social and
aesthetic imagining. At the same time, the SI co-existed with—and often resisted— a variety of
other civic-minded arts initiatives, funded by European federal governments, whose aim was social
cohesion rather than social disruption (McDonough 2004, McDonough 2007) . In many ways, the
promotion of the arts in city space continued a productive struggle between competing visions of
the arts as a vehicle for social cohesion, on the one hand, and as a vehicle for social challenge on the
other (Bishop 2004, Joseph 2002, Thompson 2004, Jackson 2008, Deutsche 1996, Kwon 2002).
The legacy of plural planning remains intact, and if anything the infrastructure for
community building has expanded as the public sector contracts out to nonprofits (Salomon 2002,
Smith 1993). But in this march towards neoliberalism and market logic, reconnecting art-making
and community development appears increasingly complex. More than ever, planners rely on
sophisticated tools, such as data-ready mapping applications that allow them to make plans without
ever setting foot in a neighborhood. The push for accountability in both public and nonprofit
sectors has meant even more reliance on quantifiable outcomes. As a result, no Workforce
Investment Board would even consider spending job training funds on an artist today. Agencies
allocate funds according to market demand, not potential for capacity building. Meanwhile, in the
United States and the international art market, the arts have developed their own form of privatized
support structure, channeling creative energies toward success in investment and speculative
appreciation in the art market. The prevailing, increasingly privatized art market system values
forms of art that can be commodified, sold, and collected, benefiting artists that work in
packageable media more often than those who work in social and community forms, serving an
audience of private investors and collectors more often than an audience of local communities. In
this way, even self-defined “radical” gestures in painting and sculpture are easily assimilated into
neoliberal models of the marketplace. Yet, these common pressures may make it easier now to
reintegrate these strands of art-making, social work, and physical planning.
The arts as instrument: The Oakland case
How should the role of the arts be imagined —and is it appropriate to formally imagine this
role at all? Despite the general push in planning towards more marketized outcomes, the planner’s
answer to that question is gradually evolving towards a more inclusive and empowering vision of
the arts and community. Yet, the performance studies perspective complicates that approach.
As noted above, the 20th century saw numerous attempts to mobilize the arts in the service of
a variety of social and political visions. In the 20th century history of aesthetic theory, the effects of
those mobilizations were routinely debated. Thinkers such as Georg Lukac touted the importance of
the arts as a vehicle for making a socialist reality; Nazi ministers of culture did the same in
imagining the role of the arts in Germany. Concerned about the effects of these artistic
deployments, thinkers of what came to be called the Frankfurt School debated the social role of
culture. Amongst them, Theodor Adorno ultimately argued against the social use of the arts,
showing that any social program convinced of the rightness of its values can limit and neutralize the
artistic gesture. Adorno instead advocated an art practice that resisted immediate intelligibility,
favoring a socially resistant stance that could not be readily assimilated by either a bureaucratic
social program or the capitalist version of what he came to call “the culture industry” (Adorno,
1998, 2001). Along the way, Adorno’s frames also suggested that social art was quite simply “less
good” for capitulating to readily accessible themes and forms, a position that sounded radical to
some and elitist to others.
In the field of community arts, the paradoxical legacies of Adorno’s position are still
debated; as public art commissions are vetted, as artists seek patronage while trying to resist
censorship, artists and art organizers vacillate between promoting the social value of the arts and
worrying that such aesthetic instrumentalization will neutralize the power of art to provoke its
audiences and to generate unexpected connections. Such a legacy is especially paradoxical when it
meets the field of urban planning. To what extent is it appropriate to “plan” the arts in a city space
if aesthetic effects by definition cannot be fully planned?
Though such questions emerge constantly in the execution of public and community art and
in the humanistic fields of art history and performance studies, the city planning field gives less
attention to them. For planners, the key concern about instrumentalization is not how art is being
used for social purposes; instead, the issue is how developers, planners, local residents, and even
artists are using art to commodify and profit from neighborhoods. The transformation of the SoHo
neighborhood by artists in the 1960s showed how a process that starts with artist “pioneers” can
change neighborhood identity and increase property values, often gentrifying the area (Zukin 1982).
In concert with a growing literature on the economic impact of the arts (Blaug 1976, Frey &
Pommerehne 1989; Heilbrun & Gray 1993; Violette & Taqqu 1982), as well as the role of creativity
more generally as an engine for regional economic growth (Wiener 1982; Florida 2002; Strom
2001), this has led to an understanding of arts districts as economic bonanzas for cities. Studies of
economic impact are based on two concepts: the rise in neighborhood property values that occurs
with new investment, and the multiplier, the spending that ripples out into the economy from
projects as they compensate their workers, purchase supplies, and generate spinoff activity. For
instance, the City of Berkeley’s Downtown Arts District is estimated to have generated $68.5
million in direct organizational expenditures and stimulated $142.2 million of induced or indirect
impact on the local economy.2
We use a recent study of informal arts districts in Oakland in order to give a snapshot of the
paradoxes of “planning” artistically innovative activity within the mixed economies sustained by
artists, neighbors, civic planners, and developers (Wodsak, Suczynski & Chapple 2008). Artists
began moving to the vicinity of Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street in the early 2000s. Although this
node had some 3,000 residents within a quarter-mile radius, the artists perceived the area as a gritty,
abandoned frontier. “When I got there, there was nothing,” recalled an artist. “Which was
beautiful. There was so much room for invention in this environment.” Another elaborated: “A lot
of us were drawn toward the abject space, the way a lot of us were drawn towards experimental
music—the idea that you look at a piece of garbage and create something out of it. Why not take a
run-down storefront and use it as an art space?” As Wodsak (2008:39) writes, “The spatial and
aesthetic qualities of the neighborhood, as perceived by the artist, allow for the elevation of place
and object from ‘junk’ to art, from ‘low’ to ‘high’ value—and ultimately to commodity for
consumption.” On the heels of artists came real estate developers (a 500-unit high-end condo
building), escalating property values, and then, the Starbucks (Figures 2-4). By January 2006,
artists in the district had given it an identity, as the Oakland Art Murmur; the following year the City
even began a complimentary (but little-used) city-run shuttle bus service to escort visitors to
different galleries (Figure 5). Perhaps because the City had its own ambitions for the district, as
part of Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K Downtown Housing Initiative, the City never consulted Art
Murmur organizers: “They set their own route and decided who would be included. Essentially,
they’re capitalizing on Art Murmur marketing and press response” (quoted in Wodsak, 2008:48).
Called “one of the hottest art parties in the Bay Area” by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Art
Murmur’s 23rd and Telegraph neighborhood was subsequently featured in a national magazine story
about the “best, unexpected local music scenes” across the U.S.
INSERT FIGURES 2-5 HERE
It seems there are unlikely bed partners here in instrumentalization, developers, cities, the
media—and artists. The artists find “abject” spaces to work in – and the developers and cities flag
that space as a commodity they can sell. Once again, this process is not dissimilar from what
Situationists called “recuperation,” in which the commodity-spectacle society makes radicalism its
own (Debord, 2002). When artists talk about the everyday trivia of the neighborhood becoming
part of their art and performance, when musicians speak about building an audience for “people’s”
music, they are putting forth an unconventional or rejectionist stance that not only gives them
legitimacy as artists, but also has enormous market appeal. In other words, in the 23rd and
Telegraph example, the district gradually begins to embrace both establishment commercial art and
the informal art that is the abject space integrated into the performance pieces. But both are
transformed into commodities and sold back to audiences –and to the artists themselves.
Ultimately, the meaning of work itself changes, since one is distributing one’s “art” through a
commodification. Interestingly, varieties of artists who might cultivate socially resistant art
practices find their so-called resistance assimilated by a 21st century version of “the culture
Yet, this time it is the planners, not the art theorists, who have articulated the role of capital
in the urban process. By marketing city neighborhoods as forgotten canvases for artists, the
changing political economy of that neighborhood proceeds invisibly, obscuring a complex of
landlords, speculators, and financial institutions as well as “the rent gap,” i.e. the market
devaluation of neighborhood assets that enables capital to flow back and make profit for all
participants (Smith 1996).
This kind of speculative commercialization of the arts is only part of the story, however. An
emerging literature in urban studies and planning is starting not only to expose this neighborhood
change process, but also to illustrate the less quantifiable ways in which communities respond to
arts, culture, and creativity (Borrup 2006; Grams & Warr 2003; Jackson & Herranz 2002; Stern &
Seifert 1998). This work is showing how smaller arts venues and cultural activities based in low-
income neighborhoods — including a host of non-arts amenities that allow for cultural participation
and creative expression, such as community centers, churches, and parks—can serve as catalysts for
gradual change while benefiting the existing community. New, more inclusive views of the arts and
culture focus not just on large commercial venues and established 501(c)3s, but also these more
informal venues for the unincorporated community arts sector (Jackson et al. 2006; Markusen et al.
2006). Where once we thought of “high art” trickling down from the downtown opera house to the
school auditorium, just like its economic multiplier effects, we now see commercial and
unincorporated arts linked in a mutual learning process.
Artists may engage in community development in ways that lead to local empowerment
rather than gentrification; such an approach returns us in new ways to the earlier locally-oriented
approaches to culture touted in the most innovative sectors of the settlement movement For
instance, Stern & Seifert (2005) identify “natural” cultural districts that emerge organically as the
artists and consumers decide independently to co-locate. These neighborhoods seem to remain
racially diverse over time, even as poverty rates decline, and they also foster greater participation in
both local and regional arts activities than less diverse areas (Stern & Seifert, 1998, 2000). Borrup
(2006) documents a growing number of community-based arts programs involving disadvantaged
community members in the creation and/or interpretation of theater, dance, music, visual arts, craft,
or other artistic forms. Lily Yeh argues that Philadelphia’s Village of Arts and Humanities, which
she founded to help neighborhood residents express themselves, actually cannot be commodified
because of its location in a fringe neighborhood and the transient nature of its effects “The outcomes
of this project can’t be measured. They are smiles, less anger all around” (2006, personal
interview). In the real frontier, there is no rent gap to be realized.
Another informal arts district in Oakland provides an example. The Village Bottoms Black
Cultural District, which began to take shape in West Oakland in the early 2000s, consists at its core
of a gallery and café, a store that sells African art, and a music performance venue, with other arts
activities spread throughout the neighborhood. In direct response to the surge in real estate activity
in West Oakland and its anticipated effected on this very low-income, predominantly African-
American neighborhood, a local artist and activist, Marcel Diallo, conceived of the Black Cultural
District as a focal point for the black community that will enhance neighborhood stability.
In the Village Bottoms, grassroots arts are tools in the quest for self-determination,
embraced by a community that seeks a voice to defend its interests. Some local leaders describe the
arts as a source of positive energy that gives individuals the strength and the skills to make peace
with the past and transform both their neighborhood and personal life circumstances. Artists and
organization leaders interviewed in the Village Bottoms mostly discussed their work in relation to
issues concerning the neighborhood, ranging from gang violence, to toxic pollution, to drug abuse.
Arts venues in the Village Bottoms play an important role as civic spaces that allow for social
interaction and foster dialogue across lines of age, gender and race. Audiences might come
together because of their interest in a particular art form. Once engaged in conversation, however
they might discover shared concerns as citizens and neighbors. As one local artist describes it,
“Black New World [the music venue] is where people meet and discuss their issues. It’s a club, but
really a community center more than anything else” (quoted in Wodsak et al., 2008:8).
Such cases in the urban studies and planning literature complicate and are complicated by
the art historical understanding of the fear of social instrumentalization. What does it mean to be
socially engaged as an artist? What exactly does it mean to be instrumentalized? Is art
instrumentalized when it enhances the commercial power of a retail district? Is art instrumentalized
when its themes conform to the values of a predetermined social program, even one with
progressive ends? One kind of artist might seek to represent the voices of a community. Another
kind of artist might find community representation to be an impossible project. One kind of artist
might seek to provoke “smiles;” another kind of artist might seek to provoke debate. Another
might hope not to have to choose.
Meanwhile, all of these questions are further complicated by a theory of capital that takes
seriously the 21st century recuperation of aesthetic gestures. The “smiles” of one kind of art can be
appropriated by a marketing industry bent on creating contexts of pleasurable consumption in an
“experience economy” (Pine and Gilmore 1999, McRobbie 2004). Artists who intend to provoke
receivers — whether through the unexpected use of unusual materials or in the unexpected use of
abjected space — can find themselves recuperated as well, assimilated by either an art market or a
loft developer, both of them eager to find and to market the “next” “new” “edge” of creative
disruption. Indeed, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello argue that the incorporation of the “critical”
function that used to belong to aesthetics is one of the key attributes of what they call “the new
spirit of capitalism,” one where a spirit of irony and resistance actually facilitate rather than
interrupt the pleasures of the market transaction (Boltanski & Chapiello 2005)
Within the constraints of these processes, however, there is room for a critical practice that
joins and co-educates policy makers, artists, and neighborhood residents in the dynamics of urban
change. Artists who wish to engage the social need to understand the dynamics of political economy
as both their artistic medium and as a determining principle of their working lives. Planners eager
to use their toolkit to engage and grow the arts need to understand the tension and contradictions
that artists have historically confronted and continue to encounter when working in urban and
community contexts. The case of the 23rd and Telegraph district—Oakland Art Murmur—is
illustrative. Not only did the City provide little support for informal venues and local
empowerment, but also its use of transportation (the shuttle) as its primary tool ironically brought
formal (and mapped) recognition to the district without necessarily connecting it better to a market
that would benefit local artists. How, then, might planners avoid instrumentalization – and the
selection of the “smiles” of community development over other forms of art? In the case of 23rd and
Telegraph, and similar arts districts across the country, it is in part a problem of ignoring plural
voices, choosing to hear city fiscal imperatives rather than the needs of artists. But another piece is
the well-intentioned idea of linking art and community empowerment, demonstrated in so many
inspiring programs that use art to reach disadvantaged groups. The planner’s commitment to social
equity – and linking design to democracy -- does not have to mean supporting empowerment
programs at the expense of art. After all, artists are yet another group disadvantaged and left behind
by mainstream economy and society.
Another issue that a cross-disciplinary lens puts into new perspective is audience
development. Foundations, arts advocates, and city economic development agencies alike see
marketing the arts as critical to survival. Just as Coca-Cola starts building its market from the crib
up, arts advocates have begun considering how, when, and where to begin cultivating arts
audiences. To create new arts consumers, some argue, we need only to expose, educate, and
enlighten youth about art, particularly high art.
The perspective of performance studies highlights a number of problems with this approach
that can inform planning. One immediate concern of course is the uni-directional model of a
“cultural missionary” approach, one where the audiences are positioned as objects of developmental
uplift. The legacies of what have been dubbed as a “picture lady” approach to arts education are
replicated in this approach to audience development. Imitating the condescending relationship that
reformers unevenly tried to avoid in the settlement movement, such an approach conceives of
audiences rather than art institutions as in need of change. The inadequacy of such an approach has
been well-documented in historical and contemporary studies that show the importance of
imagining the audience-institution relationship as reciprocally transformational. The domain of
audience development can make use of community art studies that show techniques for soliciting
perspectives and participation from multiple communities and for adapting and altering institutions
and art production from community responses (Conquergood 1991, Kuftinec 2005, Jackson 2000,
Cohen-Cruz 2005, Kuppers and Robertson 2007, Read 2007).
Scholars in performance studies and allied fields also have engaged in long-term debates
about how we define “reception” and hence, what it means to be an audience member in the first
place. Different art forms have inherited different kinds of receiving conventions, ranging from the
row-seating of a theatre to the mobile flow of a museum. Some kinds of art forms ask their
receiver to be quiet; some ask them to be loud. Some art forms ask receivers to arrive at a certain
time; some allow receivers to “drop-in” when convenient. Some forms of reception emphasize
sound or vision; some seek to cultivate multisensual, even tactile, forms. While we conceive art
reception occurring in shared space and real time, some forms of reception are diffuse and
distributed across time and place; increasingly, reception occurs on-line. This variation in the form
of audience reception means that forms of audience development must be varied as well. As
researchers and art producers learn from their potential receivers, they may come to terms with a
range of cultural and classed views and practices about how to be an art receiver. A respect and
openness to a variety of ways of “performing reception” will inevitably become necessary for both
institutions and for receivers —as well as planners. Crucial to embracing a variable model of
reception is one that considers the role of “participation,” thereby conceiving reception as
something dynamic and productive rather than static and passive. The goal here is not to prescribe
certain forms of art and reception as inherently “more” community-oriented or “more” active, but to
cultivate a wide array of competencies within institutions and within reception communities.
The concept of a reception community anticipates another puzzle in audience studies from
within the arts and humanities. Cultural theorists have a long history of reflecting upon the
reliability of measuring aesthetic reception: how do we know what a receiver thinks or feels in
encountering works of art or, for that matter, any kind of cultural form? Earlier approaches to
aesthetic forms measured the success of reception in the degree to which receivers “got” the “right”
message or effect, whether rightness was determined by the artist-author’s intention or the
discerning sensibility of the critic. With class and cultural critiques of artistic hierarchy, more
researchers and art producers widened their frames to include the possibility of multiple
interpretations of a single artwork. With this kind of multiplicity, however, it still became difficult
for reader-response theorists to understand what the range of interpretations might be and how they
were produced (Iser 1980, Bennet 1990, Fiske 1989, Radway 1991). Reception occurs in reviews
and letters to the editor, in students’ essays and teachers’ notes, and in audience questionnaire forms
that are inconsistently filled out at the end of the show. But some also worried that these forms of
measuring reception were also constrained themselves, leading receivers to answer in specific
ways., Cultural theorists of reception increasingly developed a wider array of techniques for
gauging reception, qualified by a healthy respect for a range of factors: 1) the degree to which
interpretations cross-reference a wide array of cultural and popular forms, forming rich
“intertextual” readings of singular cultural forms; 2) the degree to which interpretation of single
works changes over time, even within the same individual who may reflect differently upon a work
a week or even a year after seeing it; 3) the degree to which receivers might respond to a work
through means other than verbal communication but through image, affect, silence, or gesture; and
4) the degree to which individual reception depends upon location within particular interpretive
communities, networks of groups that share codes, histories, stories, and frames of reference that
build ways of receiving and interpreting together (Fish 1982). Recent cultural studies of reception
thus focus on interactive communities, particularly in marginalized communities whose receiving
strategies “poach” for their alternative use, recontextualizing the cultural forms and codes they
receive from dominant culture industries (de Certeau 2002).
In many ways, the techniques developed in neighborhood studies of urban planning respond
productively to the goals and dilemmas of reception studies in the arts and humanities—and by
extension the goals of audience development in community arts organizations. The idea of plural
planning evolved into the participatory community planning movement of the 1990s and beyond.
Instead of advocating for the disenfranchised as technical experts, planners increasingly entrusted
not just the planning but also the deep study of neighborhoods to residents themselves (Angotti
2008; Gaber & Gaber 2008). The angry and passionate voices formerly obliterated by urban
renewal became, for some, the planning itself, as professional planners morphed into deliberative
listeners and a humanistic philosophy began to guide planning theory (Forester 1999; Friedmann
2009). Even urban designers abandoned their imperial architectural training and turned to careful
neighborhood observation and ecological sensitivity as their guide (Jacobs 1985; Hester 2007).
Meanwhile in some neighborhoods residents are actually conducting the “planning” outside of
formal institutions. For instance, MacArthur genius Camilo Vergara shows in his photography of
Richmond, California how residents maintain their own private space amidst crumbling public
buildings, giving their neighborhoods form and meaning.3 The Village Bottoms Black Cultural
District in West Oakland creates a room for the community, literally and figuratively, to express
themselves (Wodsak et al. 2008). Places thus reinforce human dignity, as locals create meanings in
specific contexts. Acknowledging this local creative process seems a necessary step towards
building an audience for formal art.
In planning practice, however, these methodologies remain marginalized in favor of a
market area and multiplier approach that centers on the art production rather than the receiver.
Seeking to understand the audience for the Art Murmur, for example, the 23rd and Telegraph district
study surveyed the audience for zip code of origin and was able to map the “artshed,” or regional
market area for the district (Figure 6) (Wodsak et al. 2008). The artists and musicians in the district
had successfully reached out to a regional community, through existing social networks, internet
communication, and attention from the local and national media. This mapping effectively shows
how these efforts had attracted the region’s gaze to the district, creating a market for gentrification
and redevelopment (Sandoval 2007).4 At the same time, it is silent on some questions: Why is the
local community not one of the stronger constituencies for the Murmur? Where is their “artshed”?
Consider how adopting a neighborhood lens forces us to rethink audience development. A
neighborhood approach allows for the careful gathering of a wider but nevertheless local array of
codes and frames that may structure the reception of particular communities. In addition, it has the
capacity to conduct not only synchronic but diachronic analyses of community to understand the
way that reception and the process of being an audience member extends over time, well beyond the
initial encounter with the work of art. By using group-based models of interviewing, the processes
of gathering views in neighborhood planning are aligned with the processes of gathering views in
progressive audience studies. When the neighborhood is our unit of analysis, rather than the
audience, we have a way of understanding what art means in daily lived experience, rather than as a
special event occurring in a designated place. By looking at how people construct their experience
within a neighborhood, we discover where they find space for their own creativity and expression
during the day or week, rather than how they consume art marketed from outside. This approach
unsettles our current methods of calculating and mapping impact from the venue out, rather than the
audience in. In acknowledging residents as active contributors to neighborhoods, mapping their
own experiences, rather than submitting to pre-ordained maps as passive receivers, we thus join a
preoccupation with agency and activation that has characterized the best work of reception studies
in the humanities fields with the best work in neighborhood planning within the field of urban
Vulnerability of artists and neighborhoods
As important as it is to conjoin artistic and community efforts, we need also to take a step
back to notice the vulnerability of the arts as a chosen profession. To some degree, it is paradoxical
to be asking artists to attend to the social ills of our contemporary cities, effectively asking one
vulnerable sector of society to fix another vulnerable sector of society. At a time in the United
States when there are social welfare rollbacks, cuts to public education, and the elimination of after
school funding, what does it mean to ask artists to pick up the pieces? Artists in the United States
do not have access to universal health care nor the safety net of social welfare; to some extent, they
experience great difficulty even finding the space for creating socially-oriented programs. When we
add the processes of gentrification, it becomes more difficult for artists to sustain their own lives
even as they try to sustain the lives of our cities and communities. Evan as a new U.S. federal
administration puts forward new social and cultural ideals, the remaining economic and social
hardships of artists’ equivocal position needs to be carefully factored.
A city planning methodology for the study of community arts can help artists and cultural
theorists to understand this dimension of socio-economic vulnerability and to devise more resilient
systems for sustaining their lives and critical practices. Over thirty years of studying the
phenomenon of concentrated urban poverty, planners and urban theorists have gained a rich
understanding of what causes poverty and how to lift residents out of it. One key factor in both
upward mobility and community stability is the ability to form social networks with both bridging
and strong ties (Fischer, 1982; Wilson, 1996). The social connections that are most likely to help
people move up in the world, or connect to the mainstream economy, tend to be weak ties, or people
from a different ethnic group, different educational level, and/or different neighborhood (Elliott &
Sims, 2001; Johnson, Bienenstock, & Farrell, 1999). But these networks are not necessarily directly
instrumental. Rather, they create a channel for information to flow better across groups; since many
jobs are filled through chance--or serendipity--more channels mean more opportunity (Chapple,
2001). Strong ties, or family and friends, play a different role: they tend to help find job
opportunities that complement daily activity patterns, as well as provide the social and logistical
support that makes work possible (Ibid.; Gilbert, 1998; Stack, 1974).
The 23rd and Telegraph arts district in Oakland illustrates how such networks might work –
or fail -- in the context of community arts (Wodsak et al. 2008). Local artists activated network ties
to attract a regional audience, which undoubtedly provided more economic opportunity for some.
But this was at the expense of the more economically vulnerable artists, many of whom have
already been forced to relocate (Wodsak et al. 2008). Moreover, while embracing the region, these
networks did not extend to the local community and community organizations. The perception of
the area as “abject space” had become reality for the artist community, blinding them to the
potential for creating ties with their neighbors, and even the resources nearby (for instance, the
dozen nonprofits within a mile that provide housing assistance).5 As one Oakland observer
commented, “It’s a closed loop. The benefits don’t loop back to the community” (quoted in Wodsak
In the case of the Art Murmur, the network not only excluded the local community but also
worked largely through strong ties demarcated by race. The African-American artist community is
not represented among 23rd and Telegraph artists and gallery owners, and as a result has largely
missed out on the press and market attention to the Oakland art scene. For instance, there are just as
many artistic venues in the Village Bottoms Cultural District in predominantly African-American
West Oakland as in the 23rd and Telegraph area (Figure 7). Likely in part because of the
formalization of the latter district, however, the City has been slow to recognize the West Oakland
district with resources (Figure 8). Here, though the planner’s instinct is again to map arts activity,
arguably setting the recuperation process in motion, it brings forth a powerful and potentially
transformative picture of disparity by juxtaposing arts activity with resources.
INSERT FIGURES 7 & 8 HERE
Understanding how the artist ecosystem is embedded in the regional economy is another
way to reduce artist vulnerability. This means considering the range of sectors in which artists work
to support themselves as well as the broader reach of particular organizations (Markusen et al.
2006). The multiplier from a Lincoln Center performance does not just accrue to local businesses
but to the substitute trombone player on call, who now can subsidize her street performance in her
neighborhood through her formal income. At the same time, she contributes new ways of thinking
about the performance to her Avery Fisher brass section. A networked approach to artistic
economies also keeps us from assuming the purity of a mythically uncorrupted art practice. One
actor in a local community project might support her work by simultaneously maintaining her
profile as a commercial industry actor. A digital artist might also consult for Disney on the side.
Another might join academia to teach—but also to secure health insurance. The interconnection of
the formal, informal, and unincorporated sectors offers an opportunity to examine the economic
support structures of the most vulnerable while reinvigorating art-making in the formal sector.
Using a networked approach to understanding relations across social networks and within the
unincorporated and incorporated formal arts, we find ourselves most excited by programs that use a
systemic understanding of networks to create new collaborations across artistic and social sectors.
At Artspace in Minneapolis, artists work with city planners and housing policy makers to create
subsidized housing projects that meet the professional and personal needs of working artists and
their families. In teaching artist programs across the country, the arts are maintained in public
schools by hiring professional artists, thereby giving the latter a source of income and the former
access to creative expression and collaboration. Sanitation programs in New York City, San
Francisco, and elsewhere have begun “artist in residence” programs that give sculptors and
installation artists access to materials while simultaneously promoting ecological reuse.
At the same time, it needs to be understood that the ideological and economic dimensions of
art ecosystems are increasingly national and international, sometimes eclipsing the possibility for
building local sustainable relationships. For instance, the repertory theatre model—one where a
core group of actors, designers, and directors commit to living, working and providing work for
each other in a local theatre—is increasingly a thing of the past, unsustainable in a theatrical
economy that imports and exports artists across the country for brief periods in cities where they
have no personal history. Dance companies have confronted the impossibility of sustaining
themselves in a local district alone, creating instead easily transportable choreographic work that
conforms to the technical and economic demands of the national and international “tour.” By
extension, museums and other presenting organizations gain prestige by importing artists and
exhibits from elsewhere, curating events whose appeal and funding come with the cachet of an
international profile. By the same token, local artists find that their own artistic profiles are raised
only when they leave their local communities, paradoxically gaining a more legitimate reputation at
home when they build their careers elsewhere. As we research and develop new systems for
sustaining artistic careers, we need to confront the degree to which sustainability can also
accommodate a local approach to developing cultural worlds and the cultural workers who live
To understand the role of the formal and the informal, and the pull of the non-local vs. the
local, the planner will need to recreate conventional tools. Mapping can reveal disparities, as in the
case of arts funding in Oakland, or show the extent of networks, as in the Art Murmur artshed. But
maps are only as good as their data: they crystallize the easily known categories and render the
hidden even more invisible. In mapping one funding source, we cannot see the full spectrum of
resources available in the two arts districts, or become aware of how needs may differ across the
two places. We might be able to outline the Art Murmur’s regional market area, but we know little
about how national and international networks are reshaping its market. Although we are not likely
to find quick fixes to these data problems in planning, reintegrating the planning with the
performance studies perspective can at least help highlight what our planning methodologies miss.
Moving ahead: Training our students, professionals – and communities
In this article we have argued that the fields of performance studies and planning share
common roots and concerns, particularly with regards to community arts. Although research in
planning and urban studies has become increasingly sophisticated in terms of understanding the arts
and community empowerment, integrating the performance studies perspective into planning
research and practice introduces new concerns that could transform how planners approach and
understand the arts. We use the examples of the instrumentalization of the arts, audience
development, and the vulnerability of artists, along with a case study of arts districts in Oakland, to
illustrate how this integration might work.
We would like to conclude with a look at what a cross-disciplinary approach might mean for
pedagogy and more broadly for engaged scholarship at research universities, particularly in North
America. The evolving planners’ toolkit, including mapping, participatory methods, urban
observation, and network analysis, has much to offer to the field of community arts. Yet, until
recently planners have relied almost exclusively on an economic lens to understand the relationship
between the arts and cities. Most planning narratives about the creative city abstract artists to
“talent” and places to economies. Until the work of Markusen et al. (2006) and Jackson et al.
(2006), there was little understanding of how formal and informal support systems for artists co-
exist (and co-depend). If narrow economic approaches continue to dominate planning research,
there will be little hope for developing the mutual trust with community organizations and artists so
necessary for understanding neighborhood dynamics.
From the other end of the spectrum, we have varieties of artistic groups and humanities
researchers working to engage the social lives of their communities through artistic practice.
However, to actualize these goals, many of these individuals find themselves in conversations with
policy makers, retailers, developers, and urban planners whose terms and goals are unfamiliar. By
extension, the larger processes of development and political economy affect their working lives in
ways that are subtle and to which artists feel powerless to respond. Cultural theorists who seek to
understand and historicize the contemporary art and performance world focus on interpreting
individual acts of agency and resistant critical practice, but they do not always have the training to
analyze and interpret the political economy of the contexts in which these groups work. The result
is that, with a few exceptions, sustainable systems for community arts have occupied the blindspot
not just of academic researchers in planning and performance studies, but also the students they
train and the practitioners they interact with.
To broaden this conversation among academic disciplines and include local communities
and artists, the North American university itself also needs to rethink its role in the community.
Communities remember decades of colonialist researchers moving in to research locals and publish
studies with little attention to helping over the long-term. With this history of “poverty pimp”
research, university researchers stand little chance of developing the reciprocal relationships that are
key to community-based research. Even where universities have built more permanent relationships
with their communities, through university-community partnerships and more recently Creative
Campus initiatives of many varieties, they are threatened in this age of privatization (Soska &
Butterfield 2004).6 . Universities themselves are often fragile organizations that are dependent upon
private and public funding to sustain themselves. Programs such as the Creative Campus need to
position the university as another node in a mutually sustaining ecosystem, rather than as a uni-
directional “giving-back” community partnership in which the university is positioned as a
financially secure “patron of the arts.”
Ultimately, there is much potential in conceiving programs that support the project-based
learning models so necessary to understanding the community arts. City planning syllabi in higher
education might incorporate cultural theory and historical perspectives from the arts. For instance,
one of the key lessons of the community arts fields is that empowerment and dignity can come out
of the creative process; why not consider the arts part of the pedagogy in community economic and
workforce development courses? Meanwhile, scholars, artists, and art producers in performance
studies and the arts and humanities more generally can supplement their analyses of socially-
oriented work by developing pedagogies that position social and economic relations as a medium of
enactment and as an essential part of its context of interpretation. Joint projects that educate
planners in the practice of artists and that educate art producers in the practice of planners create a
sphere of engagement that can de-mystify worlds that too often misunderstand each other. Finally,
our sense is that the goals of both neighborhood urban research within city planning and the larger
social sciences parallel that of community arts research within performance studies and the
humanities more generally. Both domains seek methods of research and practice that value the
situated knowledges of particular, local sites; both domains work to challenge artistic divisions
between high and low that have marginalized certain communities and cultural practices; both
domains take seriously the creative and unexpected ways that users and receivers interpret the
cultural world for their own life goals; both domains seek models that integrate social systems and
artistic lives into sustainable supporting structures for both communities and artists. It is time to do
the hard work of creating our own weak and strong networks of alliance, education, and advocacy
to make good on the histories and knowledges that all of these fields have to offer each other.
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Figure 1. Booth Map of London Poverty, 1887.
Note: According to the legend, black represents the “vicious, semi-criminal” lowest class; dark blue “very poor, casual”
and “chronic want”; pink “fairly comfortable” and “good ordinary earnings”; and red “middle class” and “well-to-do”.
Figure 2. The “abject space” of 23rd Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland.
Figure 3. Rock Paper Scissors Collective, a local arts organization in the 23rd/Telegraph district.
Figure 4. Starbucks arrives in the 23rd St./Telegraph Avenue arts district.
Figure 5. The official City of Oakland map and shuttle bus route for the 23rd/Telegraph arts district.
Figure 6. The artshed (or commuteshed) for the 234d St./Telegraph Avenue arts district audience.
Figure 7.. Formal and informal arts venues in Oakland arts districts.
Figure 8.. City of Oakland arts funding, 2006-2007.
1 This paper originates from a symposium on Arts, Neighborhood, and Social Practices held at UC-Berkeley on January
25, 2008 and jointly sponsored by the Center for Community Innovation, and the departments of Theater, Dance &
Performance Studies and City & Regional Planning.
2 Figures quoted from the City of Berkeley Arts and Culture Plan, August 2004. Available at the City of Berkeley
website, or http://www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/uploadedFiles/City_Manager/Level_3_-_Civic_Arts/FinalArtsCulturePlan.pdf
(accessed April 16, 2008).
3 See Vergara’s photos of Richmond and Camden at http://invinciblecities.camden.rutgers.edu/intro.html.
4 Drawing from Sartre’s (1956:374) idea of the “look,” “the upsurge of an object into my universe…indicat[ing] to me
that I am probably an object at present,” Sandoval (2007) writes about how political and economic elites take note of
the marginal spaces occupied by immigrants and low-income residents, awakening the gaze of pro-growth coalitions
and redevelopment institutions.
5 In contrast, a couple miles away the Village Bottoms Black Cultural District created its very identity out of the culture
and history of its West Oakland neighborhood, embedding itself in community networks and thus ensuring its own
stability (Wodsak et al. 2008).
6 Creative Campus initiatives – an idea championed by Chancellor Nancy Cantor of Syracuse University and replicated
at universities across the country – seek a more active role for colleges and universities in encouraging the performing
arts and artists. By collaborating with local communities, these initiatives try to attract new audiences and new
participants, breaking down the “official” boundaries of the arts disciplines and campus itself.