Date: Tue, 9 Apr 1996 16:35:04 CDT

Sender: H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing &


Subject: Re: PAPER: "How Do the Arts Build Communities?"

Posted by Randy Stoecker <rstoeck@pop3.UTOLEDO.EDU>

I want to try and develop a few thoughts on Thomas Tresser's paper, "How Do the Arts Build Communities?" For me, the paper links together much of what we have been discussing in this seminar: the relevance of social movement theory, the debate over the role of community development corporations, the role of spatial vs. identity-based community organizing, and the question of how oppressed communities can best empower themselves.

Thomas Tresser makes an important (and, I think, accurate) assertion, that "personal participation in the arts, especially in a neighborhood setting, as part of an ongoing community arts program that uses local artists and is grass roots responsive to folks, can excite, empower, energize and educate." He cites as examples the art and song of the union movement and Civil Rights movement.

Our earlier discussions, focused on Bob Fisher's work and the relevance of New Social Movement theory, is very much a part of what Thomas Tresser is arguing for. Art, at least when it is of, by, and for a community, becomes part of that community's culture. The art gives substance and voice to the community's beliefs, values, and dreams. New social movement theory, and especially the version developed by U.S. theorists following a social constructionist approach (see Larana et al., 1995), explains the importance of culture in a social movement. Social movements are organized around an idea, and the successful ones are based in strong communities (Stoecker, 1995). Strong communities are strongly expressive. Think of the music of the Civil Rights movement, the body art of the counter-culture, the literature of the women's movement. Art does indeed help build both identity communities and geographic communities. Art can in fact help give spatial rootedness to identity communities (something which is apparently more of an issue for me than the other participants of the seminar) by identifying a place with a community. Good community-based art becomes a gathering point--a "free space" (Evans and Boyte, 1986) that community members feel a sense of ownership of and responsibility for. It helps them lay claim to a space, and empowers them to define it, defend it, and build from it.


Because I see community art as a specific form of culture around which community members can mobilize, I am concerned when Thomas Tresser says "Having the process nurtured, managed and brokered by a community development corporation is a bold and logical choice for such an approach to community building." I am not so sure, and wonder if we should think of art as part of community organizing rather than community development. As he mentions, his discussion is not meant to provide the exhaustive list of what community art is good for, but I am still concerned that, by emphasizing physical development, buildings end up more important than community. CDCs can help fund art, they can help commission materials and procure space for it. But I wonder if art that is to be developed and owned by the community is better initiated and led through community-based organizing efforts. As Tresser partly notes, CDCs are often staffed by outsiders, and they are certainly funded by outsiders. They are not organizations that maximize participation. I don't want to repeat here my arguments regarding the internal contradictions of CDCs that make them sensitive to neighborhood physical development needs, but unsuitable organizations for community empowerment (see Stoecker, 1996)--only note that I see it as an issue.

I perhaps also see art in oppressed communities having more of a political purpose than Thomas Tresser seems to, which may also be why I am reluctant to put the management of community-based art in the hands of CDCs. Should art just be about development, as Tresser seems to imply, or should it be about resistance and mobilization? Should it be created and discussed as a form of political expression? I contrast, for example, the many examples of explicitly politicized community art portrayed and discussed in Z Magazine, or in Third Force magazine, with the seemingly depoliticized community art that Tresser describes. Even the previous descriptions I have encountered of Peoples Housing cultural projects made them seem more consciously political than Tresser presents them.

[Ed: Tom Tresser is making available photographs of some of the Peoples Housing projects, and they'll be put on-line as images accompanying the paper later in the spring. -- W. Plotkin, COMM-ORG]

None of this means that art shouldn't be centrally about building community relationships and developing individual capacity, especially in urban spaces where relationships have been ripped apart by community reinvestment and people have been cast aside as expendable externalities. It only means that the ultimate purpose is not just to make change inside the community, but to make change outside the community that ends oppression and exploitation. And is that a different way of looking at community art than Tresser describes?

Evans, Sara, and Harry Boyte. 1986. Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America. New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

Larana, Enrique, et al. (eds.) 1995. New Social Movements. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Stoecker, Randy. 1995. "Community, Movement, Organization: The Problem of Identity Convergence in Collective Action. " The Sociological Quarterly 36:111-130.

Stoecker, Randy. 1996. The Community Development Corporation Model of Urban Redevelopment: A Political Economy Critique and an Alternative. Appearing on Comm-Org at


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Randy Stoecker

Associate Professor of Sociology,

Research Associate in Urban Affairs

Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Social Work

University of Toledo

Toledo, OH 43606

phone 419-530-4975

fax 419-530-8406