ART/CITY: Sue Bell Yank

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium “ART/CITY” on March 16, 2012. Participants have been invited to respond to the prompt “in relation to the arts and civic life, the question I am wrestling with right now is…” in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Sue Bell Yank, Assistant Director of Academic Programs, Hammer Museum, UCLA.
In relation to the arts and civic life, the question I am wrestling with right now is whether it’s possible for arts organizations and artists to willfully create the conditions for long-term civic redevelopment and permanent social change on a large scale. I have recently participated as an advisor and evaluator for projects of differently-sized ambitions, primarily focusing on neighborhood revitalization through the arts – Watts House Project in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, The Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, and the UCLA CityLAB visioning project in Westwood, Los Angeles. Each of these arts/research organizations are of limited internal capacity, budget, and scale, but each advocate sweeping civic change in their regions through an activation of arts and culture. Their methods all rely on civic and community partnerships and, to some extent, the deployment of artists in project-based residencies. Through advisory convenings and visionary publications, these organizations have brought together city agencies, business leaders, university representatives, local religious and neighborhood association leaders, and outside arts advisors to pinpoint perceived problems and access broad-based solutions related to neighborhood decline. Though I am optimistic about the possibilities raised by these complex and fascinating conversations, I remain skeptical about their implementation. For me, this cynicism boils down to a few conflicts that persist in the delineation of ongoing partnerships – very different (often either too limited or overblown) understandings of art’s role in civic life, divergent values for the neighborhood and community’s future, lack of resources, and a resulting implementation paralysis. These problematics can quickly destroy even the most well-considered projects, but I am also buoyed by small successes. Partnerships between the Watts House Project and USC have led to completed improvement projects in the neighborhood and laid the groundwork for further friendly relationships between previously skeptical neighborhood stakeholders. The research arising from CityLAB’s visioning project has influenced the workings of the newly formed Business Improvement District, and several neighborhood initiatives like “Westwood Live” and a weekly Farmer’s Market were spurred by conversations in their advisement convenings. I can point to a few other well-known instances where singular arts organizations have had a measurable impact on neighborhood revitalization through leveraging partnerships – Project Row Houses in Houston is a well-known example, and Public Matters LLC is doing amazing work in LA to mitigate food deserts in partnership with USC and UCLA. Progress for these projects is slow and must be realized over a matter of years and decades, and real systematic issues more often than not prevent their sustained effectiveness. Much can be learned through examining these instances of art/civic partnerships and analyzing the relationships, risks, values, agendas, and behaviors that lead to real and lasting change.