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How Do the Arts Build Communities?

Thomas Tresser
Arts Partners
1150 N. Lake Shore Drive
Suite 13D
Chicago, IL 60611
Voice: 312-280-1160
"Connecting Arts, Business and Community"
(c) Copyright, Thomas Tresser, January 1996. All rights reserved.

There is a growing interest in the intersection of community development and cultural programming. Two national studies have recently been published addressing this subject. "Culture Builds Communities" is a study published by Partners for Livable Communities [1] and "Community Development and the Arts" has been published by the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild as part of a major Ford Foundation initiative.[2]

The National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies has recently established the Institute for Community Development and is collecting over 2,000 case studies of arts at work in solving community problems and building neighborhoods.[3]

This paper is an essay designed to give an overview of how the arts can be used in a community development setting, especially as part of a community development corporation (CDC). I have recently left the position of Director of Cultural Development for Peoples Housing, a 15 year-old nonprofit community development corporation which has developed 19 low-income properties in north Rogers Park, Chicago. My responsibility at Peoples Housing was to create a Community Arts Program that combined grass roots programming with youth development and economic development. I was there for three years and this essay reflects my experience developing programs there as well as research in this field.

A community arts program can help in community building in several arenas:


The arena of human development is where an arts program can have the greatest impact on community development. The power of the arts is to unleash a person's creativity, to give him/her a voice, to open up a channel for a person to succeed and thrive in hitherto unknown and unpredictable ways.

The reason for this is that human beings possess multiple intelligences. Educator Howard Gardner, working at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education over the past 15 years, has identified seven different types of intelligences that we all have:

  1. Language - facility with words.
  2. Math & Logic - reasoning & problem solving.
  3. Music - the world of sound.
  4. Spatial Reasoning - visual relationships.
  5. Movement - kinesthetic ability.
  6. Interpersonal - understanding others.
  7. Intrapersonal - understanding yourself.[4]

Most public education teaches to, recognizes, and rewards only two (Language and Math/Logic) out of all the types of intelligences that a young person possesses.

It is a common experience for teachers who use the arts in the classroom to report that even the most unresponsive students come alive and show great success when they get a chance to work on an art project.

There has been a great deal of research and reporting on the effects of arts programs in the traditional school setting. The Roosevelt Middle School in Milwaukee adopted an arts-rich curriculum in 1984. As a result of introducing the arts into many aspects of the school, dramatic changes occurred. The percentage of students meeting reading level standards jumped from less than 30% to 80%. By 1989 60% of the students met the math competency standard, up from 10% from 1983. Average daily attendance rose from 85% to 92%. The percentage of failing students fell from 16% to 6%. Behavior problems declined, before the arts program over 50% of the students had been suspended--after the arts program was in place, less than 10% were suspended![5]

Working with an artists can be fun, stimulating, challenging and exhilarating. Not all artists are good teachers, of course. But many of the arts disciplines are people-intensive undertakings. To put on a play or a dance requires collaboration team work, listening, discipline, good commmunication skills, and involves a wide range of practical tasks -- such as measuring items for the construction of scenery, the ability to quickly absorb and follow a complex set of directions, the writing of press releases, and the ability to speak in front of the public-- to name a few. (Of course, no one person masters all these skills at any one time, they are illustrative of the skills needed for collaborative work.)

All working artists are resourceful and experienced in solving problems and visualizing solutions. Even if the artist may not possess academic credentials to teach English or even teach his own discipline, he or she has the ability to bring creative and often unorthodox solutions to problems and tasks.

Therefore, when we create a community arts program that offers people chances to interact with artists, to take classes, to participate in collaborative projects, and to practice their own skills, we are putting our constituents in touch with a powerful personal development resource.

A key point here is that to maximize the possibilities for personal interaction between our artists and non-artist neighbors, we should strive to employ artists who live in or close by our neighborhoods whenever possible. These artists are our neighbors and will become known and respected in the neighborhood. They will become role models for our young people and once they start to interact with our constituents, I believe they will involve themselves in the life of the community outside the boundaries and interests of the arts programs.

Exposure to and participation in arts projects also gives people a voice to speak out and express themselves. Participating in arts projects puts people in touch with their heritage and helps give definition to community identity. This has a direct impact on community pride and solidarity.

We know that union organizers have used song and graphic arts to help bring people together. The union and civil rights movements turned to song and hymns many times to give voice to their struggles.

The arts speak to the spirit. We can experience the entire spectrum of human emotion and diversity through the arts. The arts work on our imaginations and fire up our creative engines. The arts show us how to change the world around us by allowing us to change our inner world. The arts create beauty and order where there appears to be none. The creative act can reveal and bring into light contrasts and contradictions in ways that speak powerfully and directly to a wide range of audiences, across boundaries of language and education.

Making art and experiencing art is an act of hope and renewal. Participating in a community arts program may not directly put bread in the mouth, but is provides a rich and nourishing spiritual meal that is often underrated.

Talking about the nationally recognized community arts program he has built at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in Pittsburgh, Manchester Craftsmen's Guild William Strickland says "This isn't art just to have a nice day. This is a way of saving kid's lives, oftentimes quite literally." He has also elaborated on the power of the arts for our at-risk youth: "They're all with spiritual cancer. They're all dying, every one of them...This is an alternative to dying for a lot of these kids. They don't see anything like this in their lives, in school, or in the communities where they live. Where people say you're something. And they're looking at beautiful things...and they're looking at people who are excited about that...The idea of the program is to get them addicted to living like this, so they want to live like this for the rest of their lives."[6]

Mr. Strickland has built an amazing $5 million arts center in the poorest section of Pittsburgh. They offer classes in photography and pottery and ceramics, as well as program a state-of-the-art jazz recital hall. They operate a culinary arts training program that has spawned a catering and food service business that does over $1.5 million in business annually. They operate a jazz school and a training program in sound engineering. They are building a new greenhouse facility which will combine gardening and commercial production of flowers and plants with the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. 80% of the students who finished programs at Manchester went on to college, compared with only 20% of all Pittsburgh high-school graduates.

The power of the arts is not just for kids, but opportunities and options for the young people in north Rogers Park is an especially pressing issue. In the case of north Rogers Park, where Peoples Housing operates, the Gale Academy, our elementary school, is in session year-round, so there are approximately 200 young people at liberty at any given time of the year. Our area is especially lacking in recreation facilities and so poverty, combined with aggressive gang recruiting, and a lack of positive activities for the young people create a too familiar pattern of no-where-to-go, no-chance, no-options scenario for the young.

Community-based arts activities and training projects are alternatives to gang affiliation which open new vistas for young people whose limited incomes and often stressful family situations have permitted them extremely constrained access to cultural opportunities and exercise.

This experience is more applicable to more young people at various stages of development and inclination than even sports and athletics. Corporate commercial culture would have young people emulate millionaire basketball stars in an effort to get them to purchase over- priced athletic shoes and gear and reinforces a violent, male-dominated, competitive and unrealistic set of expectations for youth. There is much merit in after-school athletic programs. However, I believe participation in the arts is a more inclusive way to reach kids and will serve them better in the longer run.

In summary, I claim 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.

Combining accessible and neighborhood public spaces with the creativity of local artists and the needs and talents of our neighbors is a powerful catalyst for human development and neighborhood building. 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 would describe the arts as part of a community's spiritual infrastructure, as important to the life of the community as its churches or shared ethnic heritage. And like the physical infrastructure of a community, the spiritual infrastructure needs attention, maintenance, resources, and advocacy.


Many of our CDCs are involved in designing and building or re-building physical places. We hire outside architects, general contractors and laborers.

Very little of this work is done by community residents. This is a tremendous amount of capital that we are creating for our projects. Peoples Housing, where I worked from 1993 to 1995, generated over $20 million in rehab related work over the past 15 years.

We should be exploring the ways we can create a community design component to our work. We should be soliciting design ideas from our residents and potential residents about the configuration of the projects, the interior design, the exterior look, the landscaping, and the painting schemes.

We should be setting up apprentice programs to train young people in construction techniques and design basics and require our architects to use graduates as apprentices on our projects. We might even collaborate with a design or architecture school to accept graduate apprentices into their programs with scholarships. We could offer such students work/study assignments in our shops helping us draft concept drawings or continue apprenticeships with our chosen architect.

This could apply to our grounds and exterior spaces, as well. We could explore gardening and landscaping programs that add beauty, value, and a distinctive identity to our properties.

It may even be possible to theme a building, say along musical lines. We might create "Duke Ellington Gardens" and incorporate a musical theme in the decorations and look of the property. A mural depicting the history of Chicago jazz or a bust of Duke might adorn the lobby. Floors might be named after famous songs. A music practice room might be included in the layout, and donations sought for instruments. Residents could be encouraged to pursue musical instruction and organize choirs, concerts, and other events.

This example would take time and funding to create. The extra work would be beyond the normal duties of a property manager. In the case of Peoples Housing, I, in my capacity as Director of Cultural Development, would work with the developer and property manager on such a project. But it might also be considered a community organizing or resident services project.

If such a themed building created solidarity and neighborliness in the building and was a source of pride in the residents and neighbors, wouldn't it pay off in terms of decreased vacancies and decreased costs for maintenance as folks took better care of the buidling?

At Peoples Housing, we started in this direction with the Tile Project, under the supervision of a ceramist and educator. We have set up a small art studio on the first floor of our headquarters building, and have taught a small group of kids and adults how to glaze tile and create three dimensional sculptured tile. This group installed a mural, entitled, "People of Rogers Park", composed of over 170 hand made tiles in Peoples Housing's office. This group has formed a micro-enterprise called The Tile People and in three months have sold $1,000 of hand made tiles. They are seeking commissions from architects and home remodelers. The group has had three exhibits of their work and given several demonstrations. In all cases young people, some as young as 12 years old, are in leadership and equity positions.

In Philadelphia, the Village of the Arts and Humanities has been using this collaborative approach to transform the Adler Street area since the mid eighties. Under the artistic leadership of Lily Yeh,a professor of painting and Oriental art history at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, the Village is a unique collaboration of artists, local adults and kids that has literally transformed vacant land and abandoned buildings into sculpture gardens, arts classrooms, a crafts building, and even started rehabbing townhouses![7] "The current buzz phrase," Yeh says, "is `art for social change.' Art may or may not change society, but making art is like striking a match, it invites other people to light a match. It invites other people to light the candles of their imaginations, and it begins to illuminate the darkness of despair." [8]

Eloquent words that help to describe the power of the arts. CDCs are sources of an important resource and community asset: We know how to develop, build, and manage spaces. In many of our communities public space is at a premium and there are few, if any, enclosed places where neighbors young and old can meet and recreate themselves year-round.

CDCs can provide a valuable asset for neighborhood development by developing and nurturing public space which promote community safety, safety, and coming together. This is the idea of a public plaza or "town square" which was once a feature of many small towns and neighborhoods. In many countries town or village life revolved around a public square or plaza and for many of our recently arrived neighbors this aspect of community life is difficult to re-establish.

In the case of Peoples Housing, we managed three spaces that were used for a wide variety of community uses. We used spaces in the Howard Theater for performances, dance classes, festivals, rehearsals, weddings, parties, benefits, and teen dances. On the first floor of our headquarters building we created a small art studio for tile classes.

Our fixing up of these spaces and adopting of an open door policy that invited community use and collaborative projects created a wide range of events and a complex network of project organizers and support teams to pull off all the different projects that have taken place in these spaces.

This was done at considerable cost to Peoples Housing. The mandate was to bring the spaces to use and to encourage a wide variety of groups to come up with projects for the spaces. We are charging a minimal rent to incubate and subsidize the risk of trying out the space.

This cost can not be borne indefinitely, but the first year has shown us that some users can afford to pay more and can put on events that will generate income (rap concerts, dance parties). We may work out a system where we can generate sufficient revenue from these types of events on weekend nights to cover the cost of keeping the space open during the week for classes and drop-in activities that do generate income.

I have found that a space can generate excitement and cause people to start thinking about different sorts of activities that they would like to see in that space. A place like the Howard Theater can create wonderful energy to get people involved in making things happen that simply would not be the case if those same people were just meeting somewhere and talking in the abstract about things to do or projects to start.

Some of the activities instigated by community members that have taken place in the Howard Theater (Lobby and Upstairs Spaces) include: concerts, private parties, teen dances, weddings, aerobics classes, large community meetings, and fund raisers.

So one idea that we have begun to work out is the position of Space Facilitator. This person is a combination of host, janitor, organizer and trouble shooter. He helps spread the word about the space and activities going on in the Howard Theater, and encourages groups to use it. He is paid to open and close the space for the various events that take place there. He establishes a relationship with the event organizer and gets to mingle with the participants.

Eventually, each public space that we operate would have a Space Facilitator who would be trying to maximize the use of that space by as wide a range of users and for as much of the time as was possible. They would be on site for the events and would be available to pick up on any ideas for new uses and projects that folks might come up with.

CDCs construct buildings and so are in the space creation business. We should pay more attention to the physical design of our projects and build in beauty as much as possible. We should seek to employ neighborhood workers in as many aspects of the design and construction as possible. And we should look at building in community-use spaces in our projects or outside of them.


Nationally, the arts contributes over $36.8 billion to the economy every year. The nonprofit arts industry supports 1.3 million jobs annually. This is 1% of the American workforce--more than is employed by the legal services or building construction industries. [9]

In the New York City-New Jersey metropolitan region the arts had an economic impact of $9.8 billion in 1992.[10]

Much of this impact is due to major downtown institutions, whose staffs are mostly white and whose patrons are mostly upper middle and upper income whites.

The economic impact of the arts at the neighborhood level has not been broken out or studied in depth. We can cite anecdotal evidence and extrapolate from the impact studies we have.

In San Antonio, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center was created in 1980. They have renovated the historic Teatro Guadalupe, an old neighborhood movie theater in the heart of Mexican-American Westside. The GCAC has grown to become a major business as well as a major cultural resource, employing 17 people with an annual budget of $1.5 millon. It has an extensive array of classes, festivals, and cultural enterprises. In addition to holding a large arts and crafts fair every December, GCAC operates the CineFestival and the Inter-American Book Fair and Literary Festival. The median income for families surrounding the GCAC is $10,455. Clearly, the investment made by the Center's founders and leaders in that neighborhood has paid off hugely.

Who else would have grown such a grassroots, responsive, and exciting resource for that neglected community? [11]

On 19th Street in Pilsen, on the near south side of Chicago, the Mexican Fine Arts Center is housed in a refurbished boat-storage facility in Harrison Park. The museum was founded in 1987 with a budget of $900 by Helen Valdez and Carlos Tortolero. They started out their careers as bilingual teachers at Bowen High School on the Southeast Side. They were frustrated by the lack of Mexican cultural education and set out to create a community based institution which combines education and cultural celebration and preservation. Today, the MFACM is a bustling hub of classes, exhibits, and performances. It has a staff of 21 and a budget of $2 million. In 1994 the MFACM embarked on a four year, $4 million expansion plan that will triple the facility's size and enable it to serve thousands of new patrons annually. [12].

The push by locally controlled CDCs to invest and build in their communities is wonderfully echoed by community cultural activists such as Valdez and Tortolero. "It always cracks me up when someone says, 'I really love what you're doing, but you should be downtown,' says Tortolero. "But they don't understand what we're about. We think every community should have [this kind of museum]. As beautiful as Chicago's downtown skyline is--and we should be proud of that and all the tgreat cultural institutions downtown-- Chicago is rooted in its neighborhoods."[13]

The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center in Brooklyn is housed in a 360,000 square foot warehouse built in the 1880s. It is home to 50 artisans who specialize in furniture design and refurbishing, woodworking and the decorative arts. The artisans have formed a co-op to help combine equipment needs, collaborate on large projects and joint marketing. The co-op has led to the creation of the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center Local Development Corporation which is negotiating to purchase the facility from the City of New York and renovate a large portion of the building.[14]

These projects are examples of how neighborhood-based cultural activists created programs and facilities to serve their diverse constituents. Their successes are hard won and were started in spite of or in the face of indifference by the major cultural funders.

The economic exchanges generated from neighborhood based arts projects and arts facilities falls into several categories:

  1. Jobs in the program or facility.
  2. Increased use of neighborhood services (staff eating at restaurants, office supplies, lumber, security, etc.)
  3. Volunteers, visitors, and patrons use neighborhood services-- especially restaurants and other shops if available.
  4. The sale of locally made art work or crafts. This can be in local open air markets or local outlets or through export to galleries, mass merchandisers and chain stores located far from the community.
  5. The creation of live performance attractions that attract people from outside the community. This is different from the normal run of performances that the neighborhood-based arts program might usually operate, which is aimed and priced for neighborhood residents.
  6. The creation of cultural ventures that are spin-offs of work being done in the neighborhood arts program. One example is the cassette tape produced by the Community Arts Program at Peoples Housing during the spring of 1995. This is a one-hour compilation of some of the best talent that has performed at the All-Ages Open Mike Shows at the Hoard Theater. The CAP worked with a musician who has a small recording facility in his home a few blocks from the theater. He has recorded young people and adults performing rap, poetry, blues, spirituals and our drumming class. We made 200 copies and are selling them for $6 each. The marketing and distribution of the tape has become a community arts project. This album has been sent to the Presidents of 35 of the major record companies seeking support for a Hoard Street Community Recording Program that will produce a series of albums and create a training program in the recording arts. In summary, I have stated that a neighborhood based arts program can help in the community development process in many ways. Some of these ways are intangible and not immediately measurable, and some of the impacts are dramatic and overpowering.

    This is, by no means, an exhaustive study of the community building impacts of locally controlled and situated arts programs. I am still gathering data and investigating best practices. I viewed my work at Peoples Housing as "a work in progress," with members of the community as collaborators.

    Nevertheless, I feel there is ample evidence to warrant these efforts and my experience on Howard Street tells me that the results can be exciting and unique. I encourage community workers in all disciplines and regions to work with local artists and cultural programs to promote the powerful development of your neighborhoods.


    [1] Culture Builds Communities -- A Guide to Partnership Building and Putting Culture to Work on Social Issues, Kathy Booth for Partners for Livable Communities, Washington, DC, 1995. This is part of their "Arts Builds Communities" Project.

    [2] Community Development and the Arts, Elinor Bowles for the Community Development Corporation-Arts Resource Initiative at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, Pittsburgh, PA, September 1995.

    [3] The Institute for Community Development at NALAA is directed by Randy Cohn, at 202-371-2830.

    [4] Frames Of Mind--The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner, 1983, pp. 73-276. See also: Seven Kinds of Smart--Identifying and Developing Your Many Intelligences, Thomas Armstrong, 1993, pp. 7-12.

    [5] Understanding How the Arts Contribute to an Excellent Education, National Endowment for the Arts Research Paper, OMG, Inc., Fall 1991, p. 48-49.

    [6] "The Art of Saving Kids' Lives," by Vince Sehle, in The Chronicle of PhilanthropyFebruary 23, 1995. P. 6.

    [7] "The Village of the Arts and Humanities," by Gil Ott in High Performance, Winter 1994. P. 33.

    [8] Quoted in "A Village With Heart," by Judith Stein, in Metropolitan Home, July-August 1993, p. 35.

    [9] Jobs, The Arts and The Economy, National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies, 1994.

    [10] The Arts as an Industry, The Port Authority of NY & NJ, October 1993.

    [11] "The Guadalupe Cultural Art Center," by Lynn Gosnell in High Performance, Winter 1994, p. 29.

    [12] Profile of Helen Valdez and Carlos Tortolero by Dale Eastman, in "Chicagoans Of The Year--Seven Who Made A Difference," in Chicago Magazine, January 1995, pp. 50-52.

    [13] Same, p. 50.

    [14] Letter from Dan Dray, Director of Economic Development for the Greenpoint Center, dated November 23, 1993. See also "Co-op Turns Relic Into Profitable Plant," in Custom Woodworking Business, May-June 1993, pp. 41-46.