The Intersection of Arts and Community Development

The new Arts Extension Service course, Creative Community Leadership, has been years in the making and the timing couldn’t be better for AES students to study the intersection of arts and community development and explore activities in their communities like community access, ownership, participation, and accountability through the lens of creativity.

William Cleveland, a pioneer in the cultural community development movement, co-instructor, with Kathryn Bentley, of the new class Creative Community Leadership sat down with AES and gave insight into the new course.

AES: Why Creative Community Leadership now?

William Cleveland: Crisis tends to focus our attention. We are now in a period of time where we don’t have to scan the landscape for the rationale for this course, the questions are staring us in the face. What we need now, however, are guides who can show us how to do arts-based community work not as a quick band-aid approach, but how to deeply position oneself in their community for the long-haul.

AES: What will students take away from the class?

William Cleveland: In this class students will come away with four things:

A baseline awareness and understanding of the history of this work. What it is, is not, and the current landscape of the community arts field. One’s personal journey so students have a clearer understanding of their own motivation and capacities for engaging in this work. Experience and develop an awareness of specific arts-based tools, including civic dialogue, working across sectors, and using art as a bridge or translator for engaging, organizing, or development with an array of sectors including healthcare, social justice, and public safety, education, and more.

"Crisis tends to focus our attention. We are now in a period of time where we don’t have to scan the landscape for the rationale for this course, the questions are staring us in the face. And network development, to first understand one’s own network, then learning how to retool it in service to this work."

AES: What is the role of the arts in this turbulent moment?

William Cleveland: “We are coming apart a bit; some parts are ending, some are falling apart, some areas are neglected but they can be repaired. We need a revolution in thought and deed and need new stories powerful enough to change beliefs and behaviors. Along with experiential opportunities to help people actively rebuild the stories that are important to their lives. We have a broken covenant about equity. We need to think and build together new strategies to address equity. The creative process is a good tool for capturing community attention and engagement in practical ways.

AES: What are some examples that will be used in class?

William Cleveland: I am not a believer in projects that come and go. I focus on those that are embedded with a long history, in particular a 100-year long history. Years ago, I was hired by their two artistic directors to help transition them from a social service organization with a theater to a theater that ran the social services! They did (and do) amazing work, hiring artists as Neighborhood Block Captains to organize, find out their community problems and find their own solutions. This class will also look at the work of Bob Leonard, who teaches community-engaged theater at Virginia Tech. As county planners started to look at their options, Leonard forged a partnership, and with Michael Rohd, founding artistic director of Sojourn Theater, held an event to get the community involved with planning. They created a human-sized board game in a gym. Community member players would land on different issues, address the problem with the opportunities on the board and in the community. This work enabled people to invest in the idea that they could invent their own community, changing not only their imaginations but the power structure as they looked at serious rural problems that included racial, economic, and transportation issues.

AES: What are you most excited about?

William Cleveland: I love bringing interested students into this work and making them part of the ‘family’. When they start, they are not yet sure of the depth and breadth of the community that are joining. It is global! People are using the arts to deal with problems creatively everywhere!

If you are ready to take the next step in your own understanding of community arts leadership, register for AES’ Creative Community Leadership class today! This online class begins on February 1.