This post is part of our Inside Artist-Municipal Partnerships blog salon.

From 2015 to 2017, the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) planned and implemented Civic Practice, a program exploring government-initiated artist-led work in the community. Civic Practice was co-led by myself and Art in City Hall Program Manager Tu Huynh.

Working with then Creative Time Artistic Director Nato Thompson, Civic Practice began with the formation of a National Task Force that would come together with local government leaders, artists, and community leaders to learn about best practices and experiences regarding how government can be proactive in civic dialogue through the arts.

Three day-long meetings were held, each topic-driven and structured in two parts: 1) morning meetings of dreaming—what would we do if we could do anything?—and 2) afternoon meetings with artists, municipal departments, and community leaders to discuss general ideas for a pilot project to put to work the principles and practices of government-initiated, artist-led work.

The morning meetings were fast paced, filled with solutions and a feeling of joy, as we talked about the way things should be. The afternoons were equally filled with passion, but moved more slowly, with a sense of prudence. There was a feeling of having something tangible at stake as we discussed ideas and real logistics for the pilot project.

In many ways, simply gathering this group of creatives and civic leaders in this type of facilitated discussion was a major breakthrough. Innovation and input came equally from artists and bureaucrats and led to many unexpected, but needed and wanted, conversations. The facilitation made all the difference. Mr. Thompson, the Task Force, and our Philadelphia thought leaders set a tone of depth, caring, and creativity and our government partners reciprocated. The excitement and generosity of everyone floored us.

Three City departments stood out as potential partners for the pilot project: the Department of Public Property, the Free Library of Philadelphia, and Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. Because the project focused on neighborhood change, partnerships naturally grew with City Planning and City Council. In an unplanned coincidence, City Planning was doing the West Philadelphia District Plan, something that happens only every few decades. To identify artist partners for the pilot, the artist selection procedure followed Philadelphia’s Percent for Art commissioning process. Philadelphia-based puppet theatre ensemble Spiral Q’s proposed project, Crank It Up, was selected. It addressed neighborhood change, a.k.a. gentrification, in West Philadelphia and consisted of three parts: 1) “Story Listening” community-engagement activities, 2) the creation of a 60-foot moving scroll called a “crankie,” which interpreted and illustrated Story-Listening discussions, and 3) a series of public performances of the crankie.

While the partnerships formed organically, they were met with some trepidation from all sides. The artists didn’t want to be seen as selling out to the City, and the City didn’t want to inject a potentially volatile unknown into what were already highly contested community meetings.

It was at this moment, we knew, that many similar well-intended endeavors have either fallen apart or taken a negative reactive turn, where miscommunications become compounded. But we had the trust of all sides and we had just heard from our Task Force how they had dealt with their own conflicts. So, we convened discussions, and after just a few meetings everything was fine. All participants were honest and frank about the concerns and intentions, and miraculously, the differences were underscored as assets rather than challenges.

Spiral Q incorporated Story Listening activities into one of City Planning’s community meetings. The process of collecting stories was widely appreciated by the residents (and as qualitative data useful to the city). Many of these stories appeared in the resulting crankie, which was also appreciated and revered by the residents—after all, these were their stories appearing as illustrations. Spiral Q performed the crankie multiple times—in vacant lots (with City permission), at another City Planning meeting, at parks, and in public schools.

As we were discussing Spiral Q’s workshops, City Planning noted that this artist-led activity would likely help them reach more citizens, acknowledging that many of the traditional means of expressing civic feeling—speaking up at town halls, attending community meetings, or writing government officials—are not for everyone. This surprised us, as we thought that the challenge was depth of conversation rather than actual engagement.

The artist-led workshops gave a more casual means of engagement, something akin to a kitchen table discussion, and elicited previously unheard opinions. This gave the City a wider, and then inherently deeper, understanding of the neighborhood, which allowed the respective City agency to respond more appropriately and meaningfully. There was palpable excitement from our government partners in this revelation and opportunity. The pilot and Task Force conversations shed light, too, on problematic past processes that were not collaborative, in which the vision of art was often narrow and only superficially related to the community and that can convey government apathy and ineffectiveness.

Civic Practice no longer exists as a program at OACCE. It was finite, grant-funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and magical in its processes and conversations. However, the findings and experience of Civic Practice have shed light and set a precedent for other methodologies. Throughout Civic Practice, so much seemed possible. Indeed, we are seeing more artists doing civically focused work and recognition from bureaucrats that imaginative artist-led work engages communities in positive ways. We imagined a world where government resources were coupled with the imagination of artists to make a more responsible and interesting world. We are happy that we were able to recognize and cultivate this spirit within our government and artist collaborators.