Last October in Oklahoma City, about 100 people from states in the surrounding region spent a day together imagining the future of our communities. One of the highlights came when heather ahtone of the nearby college town Norman, told us all a story about a moment when, as she said, the arts community met a civic need in a creative way.
heather is assistant curator at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma in Norman and she told us that her city, like lots of other places, is growing quickly – so fast that traffic has gotten a lot worse in the center. City planners decided to encourage more people to start riding bikes to get around, improving the quality of life for everyone. And suddenly, a whole lot of people needed places to put all of those bikes.
What happened next? The Norman Public Arts Board offered to create spaces to park those bikes by inviting everyone to suggest fun and artistic bike racks. They encouraged residents to send in ideas and the arts board, working with a local fabricator, brought many of those ideas to life as community-inspired and co-created bike racks for everyone to enjoy.
Here’s what’s important about this story. The arts board responded with its offer to contribute to a community identified plan to make Norman more healthy, equitable, and vibrant. Healthy because…exercise and clean air. Vibrant because…much more interesting and colorful than the typical bike rack. Equitable because…bikes can be inexpensive to buy and cost much less than a car to operate, and the racks are sponsored in part by a car dealer.
The arts board promoted the bike rack plans in a way that encouraged everyone to get involved. This visible, tangible, practical initiative was made more fun and memorable by adding citizen-inspired, co-created art. And importantly, it’s not an initiative that is about the art. It’s about community goals, with the arts adding significant value to the effort.
The arts have the power to contribute to creating the kind of places—rural, urban, and suburban—where we all want to live in the future. That’s why Independent Sector member Americans for the Arts is looking for many more examples like the Norman Bike Racks in its New Community Visions Initiative.
Representatives of the initiative are traveling the country for a year to ask: “What will our shared future look like? And how can the arts—our music, dance, museums, festivals, murals, artists, theatres, and more—contribute to community building and development of healthy, equitable, and vibrant places?”
Leaders of the initiative and local partners are convening these meetings, including the one Oklahoma City, to understand where local leaders are engaging the arts as part of community solutions now, and to envision a future for places that will be more healthy, vibrant, and equitable. The project is designed to learn more about how to support and encourage this sort of community collaboration and partnership between the arts and other sectors, or what we’re calling Arts And… (or #ArtsAnd), as in the Arts And…transportation example from Norman.
It’s a conversation that requires input and participation from people from throughout communities. So, when we say people from all over, we mean people from all parts of the community—not just the people who work in and advocate for the arts. They’re participating in this initiative, via regional meetings, events at conferences, and with a downloadable toolkit that anyone can use at home, at school, at work, or anywhere people gather. We’ve just been to four of the eight regional meetings on our tour and we’re heading to four more before our annual convention in June. By the time we’re done, we’ll have heard from people in every state in the country.
As Americans for the Arts’ Clay Lord told the people gathered in Oklahoma, “We want to know how the arts work in communities. We have a theory of change: arts can sit at the intersection of arts and community life, but we want to know more about how it happens and how it could happen better. Our goal is for Americans for the Arts to take lessons from these meetings to develop tools, systems, and services which can make it easier for arts to be at the table for these community initiatives.”
Let us know what you think. #communityvisions #ArtsAnd
The New Community Visions Initiative is ongoing, with four more convenings happening in 2016. For more information, visit AmericansForTheArts.org/CommunityVisions.