• Jen

Excellence in Community Art Programming

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

(originally posted 10/15/2018 at inkyspace)

I have a set of principles that I work to ensure are present in all my community art programs. I believe these principles help make the programming I collaborate on with others interesting, engaging, and meaningful to participants.

  • Person-First Programming

  • Accessibility

  • Authentic Artistic Experiences

  • Shared Power


You may have heard the term person-first language which specifically means in discourse, when one refers to a person based on a specific characteristic, they put the person first, literally: for example, "disabled" becomes "person with disabilities," and "colored person" has been (thankfully) ditched for the much more palatable "person of color."

I could really go on and on about language and it's adaptation to reality in use, the debate on "PC culture" and so forth (I may just do that, in a future post). But for now, I'll just leave it in the professional field. If a person works with the public or is a community organizer, as I am, I believe we are beholden to a professional standard to approach every community member/ constituent as a whole human being, a person that is not just the culmination of their circumstances, but rather someone with an entire lifetime of experiences and beliefs that have shaped who they are. As a community organizer, I believe it's my obligation to work with people, not data points.

That being said, Person-First Programming is more than how we label people with words; it's about how we approach shared experiences and actually put the experience of each participant first, even above the art in a community art program. I've said it before and I'll certainly say it again, THE 👏🏽 ART 👏🏽 DOES 👏🏽 NOT 👏🏽 MATTER more than the people doing the art (the learners, the artists, the participants).

It's a simple concept, but very much worth repeating ad nauseam because it really is at the heart of community organizing and community arts work. With the idea of putting the participant/learner first always as a starting point and a goal, all the following principles will fit in neatly...

Community members work together to create small artworks that contribute to a mosaic of community art.


Any place that is attempting to serve a community must have accessibility at the core of its public programming. Accessibility means that organizers have taken time to consider the possible barriers folks may encounter that would prevent them from  participating in an experience, whatever it is. This includes things like physical accessibility (i.e. would someone who may rely on a wheelchair be excluded from the experience?) and intellectual accessibility (i.e. would a person need special knowledge on a subject to get the most out of the experience?).

It's worth noting that likely no single experience can meet all the needs of all the people and be fully engaging as well. The most important thing to do, when planning a public program is to spend the time to consider what those barriers may be, and making sure folks whom you would want to participate in the program are able to contribute their perspective and ideas to the planning process.

Here are the accessibility points I consider with every public program:

  • Physical accessibility - is there something about the location and space of the program that may be a potential barrier?Is there wheelchair access to the space?Is the location remote or difficult to get to if a participant must rely on public transportation

  • Intellectual/ Skill/ Relevance - do participants need to have had previous experience or special knowledge to be able to understand the project or experience?How can the experience be adapted for all skill levels and learners, without losing engagement for folks who may have experience in a subject, as well as not discouraging folks who are totally new to the subject? If the subject is specialized, how will it be presented to a large group to engage interest from folks who aren't already familiar with it? How will it be relevant to them?

  • Age accessibility - is the experience appropriate for all ages?If it's not appropriate for children, how will adults with children participate? Will they need child care? Can child care be provided in conjunction with the experience?

  • Time accessibility - is there a time commitment for participation in the experience?Do folks need to be able to stay with the experience for longer than 10 minutes to have a good experience? How can the experience be adapted to allow some folks to engage for just a few minutes, and others to really get into it for an extended time?

Participants (actually, my mom) dripped liquid watercolor on a board and then spread it by throwing water balloons at the board. It was awesome and very messy.

Authentic Artistic Experiences

Authenticity is a little tough for me to articulate as a principle. On one hand, it means not assuming mastery or expertise on subjects that are adaptable based on the needs and interests of the participants. On the other hand, authenticity also demands a high standard that is identifiable to mark the artist experience as "special," "unique" and "high quality."

Authenticity requires complete awareness of the goals and objectives of an art program - what is it participants should experience, what should they do next after the experience? And we need to be really honest about those goals and the intentional ways organizers are working to meet goals.

For example, I have a Dia de los Muertos event coming up at The Arts Center next month. My goals for this program are to introduce the holiday to our community, engage folks with it's history and contemporaneity, and encourage folks to explore the medium of sugar skulls and ofrenda building for their own personal creative expression.

To achieve these goals, it's important that I represent the holiday and the creative culture and practices around it authenticallyIt isn't enough to just have sugar skull coloring pages and paper masks. For one major reason, that's not how the creativity of the holiday is practiced in its cultural context. I spent the time creating sugar skulls in the common method (with sugar and meringue powder). I also considered that some folks may not want to use real sugar skulls for whatever reason, and so I created paper clay skulls, too. Plus, I will also have original coloring pages available for folks to use. The authenticity of this program is present in the time spent on preparing the art materials, the use of artist-level supplies and techniques, and in the diversity of ways to engage with the subject (sugar, paper clay, and coloring pages) so that participants can have a choice of what way is the most authentic for them to interact with the subject.

There is also cultural authenticity/ cultural appropriation to consider here. Those are big topics, and as a mixed race woman of color who is a cultural organizer and community artist, I have some FEELINGS about them, which I'll get into on another post. In regards to ensuring the cultural authenticity of the project, every effort must be made to have the perspective, voices, and choices of people representatives of the originating culture present in the program planning from the beginning. And if for some reason it's not possible to have that perspective part of the program planning, then the problematic nature of not having those perspectives present should be addressed in the program, with participants.

Authenticity is the way to head off cultural appropriation. Asking why we're interested in learning about a culture that isn't present in the program is important - is it because we like the aesthetics of the sugar skulls? Because it checks off of Diversity/Equity/Inclusion box? Because we truly want to connect with the meaning of the cultural practice in our own way? Additionally, distinguishing between the difference of the original culture and work from what we make as a community outside of that culture is important. We aren't making Mexican sugar skulls, we're making our own sugar skulls and learning about what that practice might mean in its original cultural context.

Pedantic a bit? Oh yes, for sure. But worthy of time and attention for excellence in community programming.

Paper clay skulls for Dia de los Muertos.

Shared Power

You'll see this again; the idea of shared power is always present in community art programs I organize.

At The Arts Center, I am the Arts Integration Director, meaning I oversee all of our community education, young artist, and outreach programs. I value shared power in all of these program areas, but in different ways. In community art programs, which are usually under Outreach, shared power means expertise and direction in a project is only present as far as it can create engaging and inspiring conditions for participants to self-discover their own creativity.

Plain and simple, when I find myself wanting folks to engage in a very specific way with a program, I stop myself and ask why? Why is it important that participants do what I expect them to? Does it help them get into it more, does it help me in some way? I try to find as much opportunity to encourage participants to get into a program on their own terms. Communicating that to participants is the same as communicating welcoming, acceptance, and encouragement. Basically the purpose of the work, anyway.

The best exercise for relinquishing power? Progressive painting with preschoolers!

Thanks for reading. I'm always open for discussion, and I look forward to updating this post to be responsive and accountable to standards in excellent community art programming. Feel free to drop a line with questions, comments, suggestions!