In the middle of “Public Dialogue #1,” a thin grey man in the audience stood up and asked for help on procuring clearance and funding for an artistic endeavor. “Try asking around the South Side Community Arts Center,” a panelist remarked—“He just said that he already did,” someone interjected. Eventually, to murmurs of laughter, he revealed that his project was to paintball the exterior of a house on 51st and Greenwood. Ridiculous as it seemed, the exchange served as a broad caricature of the uneasy relationship between art and community development, the focus of Thursday’s two-hour discussion at the Washington Park Arts Incubator.
Around thirty people packed the small, airy room, finished half of the fruit platter, and engaged in a vigorous debate with the panelists congregated on stage. Faheem Majeed is a professional artist who served as Executive Director of the South Side Community Art Center from 2005 until 2011. Brandon Johnson is a policy economist working to bolster the Washington Park community’s quality of life. Edgar Arceneaux started an artist-driven neighborhood redevelopment effort in Los Angeles.
These worthies then proceeded to tackle broad and thorny questions: How can artists catalyze the regeneration of neighborhoods in decline? How do we educate the public about art, and artists about financial literacy? Does the entry of affluent artists pose a threat to the existing community?
To a person, the panelists saw art as a force that could bind a community together. Underpinning the discussion were certain prescriptivist assumptions: the group saw art as ethically bound to enhance the community. But, as Majeed quipped, “an artist is different from a service provider”; perhaps the artist had a greater responsibility to the aesthetic quality of the work instead of its social consequences. He then asked the other panelists for their definitions of art. Johnson defined art as inextricable from experience, a stimulation of an audience’s creative thinking. Arceneaux defined art as a “not a destination” but a process that needed spaces for public interaction. Curiously, the role of the University of Chicago in community development went unmentioned.
The audience was active throughout the discussion. One enthusiastic lady in the front row passionately acclaimed local figure Margaret Burroughs for her service to the community. Another challenged Arceneaux’s casual use of “we” when he spoke of “assisting the community”—which points to the trickiness of balancing stakeholders in the issue of society and art. Both the name and the content of the event suggest that there are conversations yet to come.