“Community arts development is about building places where the scale is small enough so that people can relate to their neighbors as whole people.” —Robert E. Gard, To Change the Face & Heart of America


This piece is written having freshly reread “the purple book," Americans for the Arts’ reprinting of selected writings and speeches of Robert E. Gard alongside modern takes on the spirit and role of community arts development. Also having recently returned from this year’s Grantmakers in the Arts conference, the words of artists and thinkers at that conference have influenced this reflection.

Early in the book, Robert E. Gard refers to the poetic nostalgia his father felt for the tall grasses of Kansas, grasses he helped to destroy as a farmer. This nostalgia reminds me of the nostalgia many people now feel as they watch, sometimes with a sense of helplessness, the built environment of their communities alter without public input, as economic pressures, both progressive and regressive, leave their mark on homes, industries and place. How, in this time of rapid and sometimes overwhelming change, can the arts alter the face and heart of America?

Let us first consider the face and heart of America today.

The Face of America

The physical landscape of America is evolving, as storefronts lay vacant, big box stores close shop, and the “death” of retail continues. A growing interest in the urban core (versus the move towards suburbanization of previous decades) is displacing long-standing communities of color, increasing housing costs, and outpacing the financial reality of most Americans. The near future reality of automation may bring driverless cars, changing the face of our roadways. The now reality of climate change is altering our communities through unpredictable, catastrophic weather and fires.

By 2055, America will not have a single racial or ethnic majority, with Asians becoming the biggest source of new immigrants to the country. Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in American history. According to the Pew Research Center, “More Americans say immigrants strengthen the country than say they burden it, and most say the US’s increasing ethnic diversity makes it a better place to live.” And yet…

The Heart of America

Angry, betrayed, and activated, American hearts are at odds with each other. DACA recipients fear deportation, miners fear a lifetime of unemployment, black people continue to fear a police force that rarely treats them humanely, white men fear “being replaced.” How can empathy live in all that fear? How can we, as Gard asked, see each other as “whole people”? How small does our community need to be to broker moments of vulnerability and connection? How do we move past fear/anger and into love?

Creativity is an act of vulnerability. Through our story circles, ruedas, and county fair/church/car ride sing-a-longs, we create room for collective vulnerability. We crack open opportunities to see each other’s beauty and flaws, and to revel in our uniqueness and wholeness. This is the complexity of the work Gard offered us—the need to uplift the singular and plural in American cultural life. That through this work, we engage in a timeless act of renewal, of presence and of seeing. I think of The Mirrored Casket, a collaborative piece developed by De Andrea Nichols, which was carried through the streets of Ferguson during the city’s uprising. It called on us to see ourselves in the reality of that place and moment—what was our role and who would be next? Will we allow ourselves to be seen in its mirrors? Can we sit with ourselves in that reflection?

As America enters a new era, we are called to reflect. In our world, that reflection is on the art and cultural history of this country. What art can be called “American”? What creativity has been born of this land and under this ownership? Native Indian art precedes “America” and would be lessened by an “American” label. So, what have we got? Jazz, American folk music, the blues, and hip hop. Three out of four of those have come from the black experience. And yet, our arts institutions continue to lack staff and board diversity, have only recently begun to showcase artists of color, and culturally specific white institutions overwhelmingly dominate the funding landscape.

So, what does racial equity have to do with art? In his plenary speech at this year’s Grantmakers in the Arts conference, Jeff Chang noted that culture precedes social change. Perhaps this moment is an opportunity to investigate what white supremacy has had to do with the American cultural narrative. What stories do our cultural institutions tell to citizens?

Our filter bubbles and gated communities (both suburban and barbed) divide us. In this intentional division, it is our responsibility to seek that which is different, to engage with what is uncomfortable, and to soften to our own tenderness in order to grow, together, into the promise of America. This America has not yet existed but the potential is there. As my dear friend, phenomenal dancer and courageous woman Brigid Baker once said, “Our job is not to change minds but to soften hearts.” The arts have the power to do this, but we must continue to take a deep long look at what “arts” and for whom. 

“To Change the Face & Heart of America” by Robert E. Gard is available for purchase in the Americans for the Arts bookstore.