New strategies emerge for strengthening neighborhood arts culture

Art revival
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The arthouse in Homewood is hard to miss. It’s the house on Hamilton Avenue adorned with mosaics, from the stars against a field of blue covering one of its sides to the swirls of hearts and other images around words and phrases like “yes” and “you are beautiful” that greet visitors to its porch.

Inside, it is vibrant and alive, filled with art and the neighborhood artists who created it —the children of Homewood.

ARThouse evolved from artist Vanessa German’s front porch, where she liked to paint and sculpt. When her work attracted curious children, she began giving them art supplies and allowed them to work alongside her. The informal project soon outgrew her porch. The rising number of budding artists needed their own space. They found it in the house on Hamilton with help from people in the neighborhood who donated their time to paint, clean and repair the house, and donated supplies and dollars to support it.

The popular creative space offers an example of the role art can play in strengthening the social fabric of neighborhoods, such as Homewood, where a legacy of art, like most everything else, has suffered from lingering poverty and disenfranchisement.

That role as well as artists, arts groups and ideas from those neighborhoods are getting more attention from foundations and other arts funders. And new grant-​making strategies are emerging to grow the neighborhood art culture from within, in contrast to past approaches to do so with outside artists and organizations and with little local input.

Lessons of the past

Recent shifts in thinking about the role of art in underserved neighborhoods and how best to realize its potential have roots in past practices that proved wanting. The history of art and community development is complicated and not without tension, particularly between neighborhoods and outside organizations that have attempted to remake them as places more amenable to economic development with approaches conceived by people who didn’t live there.

Part of the big picture is the failed neighborhood revitalization strategies of the past, these top-​down approaches where it was often just bricks and mortar and thinking of the arts as a resource to animate neighborhoods,” says David Pankratz, research and policy director at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts in Minneapolis, offers a more damning assessment. She argues in a report for Americans for the Arts that arts and cultural organizations — whether intentionally or not — have contributed to economic and cultural displacement in neighborhoods by not including the people who lived there.

Arts organizations,” she says, “have been complicit in strategies to build cultural districts and remake neighborhoods without doing sufficient work to build the inter-​community connections that would make these efforts inclusive of existing residents.”

In recent years, a more inclusive community-​driven approach to neighborhood arts has gained wider recognition and interest, particularly in Pittsburgh, where it has become part of efforts to explore the potential of art in local youth development.

Community-​driven arts

Engaging the neighborhood in strategies for using art to improve the residents’ lives is not a new idea in the U.S. In Houston, Texas, for example, the Project Row Houses founded by artists as a community creative enclave in 1993 today includes 40 units in one of the city’s oldest African American neighborhoods that have been transformed into art studios, community galleries and affordable housing.

In Pittsburgh, Homewood has emerged as an incubator for experiments in using the arts to transform communities and in engaging resident artists and others in the process. While Homewood has high rates of crime, poverty, and vacant and abandoned housing, it also has a deep history of art. Native sons and daughters include acclaimed photographer Teenie Harris, contemporary artist Tina Brewer and Mary Caldwell Dawson, founder of the National Negro Opera. Its longstanding anchor institutions include the Coliseum and African American Music Institute.

What’s exciting now is this community-​backed effort,” says Alisha Wormsley, artistic director of the Homewood Artist Residency. “Ensuring that the community has placeholders in this transformation — that it’s not about people coming into the community.”

The artist residency program, which began as a project out of The Warhol, receives financial support from several foundations and has expanded to include an art program for students at Westinghouse High School, where Wormsley is the resident artist. “Homewood has this rich history of art and culture. We’re just tapping into something that had been there for decades.”

One homegrown arts initiative, the Lighthouse Project based out of the Homewood YMCA, began in 2009 as an afterschool program in Westinghouse High School to supplement the school’s under-​resourced arts education by offering students instruction in digital media, filmmaking, recording and visual arts. Students who participated had a graduation rate of 90 percent compared to the 72 percent overall four-​year graduation rate at Westinghouse.

Digital art is a focus of the Lighthouse Project in part to address the digital divide or disparity in the knowledge of and access to technology, says James Brown, program director, YMCA Lighthouse Project. Brown points out that people assume kids are tech savvy because they know how to download videos on YouTube, but being tech savvy involves more skill and training. “It means, do you know how to create movies, create your own media, tell your own story,” he says.

The Lighthouse Project was recently awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Heinz Endowments to expand and begin converting the YMCA into a Creative Youth Center in Homewood. As with most nonprofits, funding is a constant challenge for neighborhood artists and organizations. A $1.5 million grant for a neighborhood project is an anomaly.

It’s been difficult to get funding for the arts in Homewood,” says Kilolo Luckett, managing director of the Homewood Artist Residency. “It’s been difficult because those networks aren’t there. Philanthropy sees Homewood as people holding their hands out. A lot of this has to do with access to networks. But those who are able to connect to philanthropic communities have access to some support now.”

Changing perspectives

Neighborhood arts projects rely on a variety of funding sources. In some cases, they’ve turned to non-​traditional means of raising money. The ARThouse, for example, solicits small amounts of money from individual donors through crowd-​sourcing.

Foundations, however, are a chief source of funding for the region’s arts and cultural institutions, programs and artists. And foundations are now exploring new ways to support neighborhood programs. The Heinz Endowments, for example, has increased its grant-​making in African American distressed neighborhoods over the past 10 years, says Justin Laing, senior program officer for arts and culture at the foundation. It has revised its approach to grant making in those neighborhoods and placed greater emphasis on diversifying foundation staff to accommodate different backgrounds and perspectives that have bearing on how the foundation invests its money in support of the arts.

One key initiative to emerge is the Transformative Arts Process (TAP), an experiment in allowing community voices to help shape grantmaking strategies in neighborhoods that traditionally received little arts funding, particularly strategies serving young people in African American communities.

I don’t think we have the funding infrastructure to really take advantage of all the talent we have in this community, to develop art in neighborhoods and to make them richer places to live,” Laing says.

TAP is guided by a committee of community advisors, giving artists, students, parents, art nonprofits and others in underfunded neighborhoods from Hazelwood to Homewood a chance to influence grant making in their communities, build relationships with foundations and better understand the pathways to funding.

One of its first assignments was developing principles for building the field of artists and art organizations within those neighborhoods that would inform future grant making. The principles they came up with include lending support to effective programs over generations, training people and organizations already working in the field and building a sense of community among them. The process has also given the foundation greater insight into neighborhood arts culture and has given resident art groups greater access to an important source of funding.

For James Brown, his seat on the TAP advisory board helped develop his relationship with foundation staff, providing an audience willing to hear his idea of expanding the Lighthouse Project, which they agreed to fund.

Building such relationships is crucial to overcoming the disadvantages many artists and art organizations in underserved neighborhoods face. Many, for example, can’t afford dedicated grant writers yet compete for money against established arts organizations with well-​heeled, professional fundraising staffs.

Neighborhood arts movements also challenge traditional definitions of art. Rap artists in smoky bars, students creating digital memes that spread through Facebook, and people practicing miming when they’re getting ready for church may be art forms in poorer neighborhoods, but not necessarily recognized as such by traditional funding institutions.

If the arts sector is truly to engage in a meaningful way and be effective in helping to build the inter-​community connections needed to mitigate cultural displacement, it will require the re-​thinking of our own long-​held beliefs,” says Majestic Lane, director of external relations and member engagement at the nonprofit Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. “A more expansive definition of ‘art’ and ‘artist’ will be necessary,”

Neighborhood arts culture will continue to exist regardless of funding or the recognition it receives. The question is, at what scale will it be practiced and to what degree can it help transform communities? “If art changes people in prison, and calms your body when you’re painting watercolor, what happens when there’s an art space every six blocks? And you can walk to it and it’s open,” German asks. “How does that change the heartbeat of a neighborhood? What happens when access to those experiences becomes as regular as bus stops, or bars or a corner store?”

Julia Fraser

Julia Fraser is a Pittsburgh Today staff writer and research specialist.

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