Arts & Civic Dialogue National Scan

In 1996, the Ford Foundation awarded a grant to Americans for the Arts to profile a representative selection of artists and arts and cultural organizations whose work, through its aesthetics and processes, engages the public in dialogue on key issues.

This study's resulting report published in 1999, Animating Democracy: The Artistic Imagination as a Force in Civic Dialogue (PDF), mapped activity of the last couple decades of the twentieth century, identified issues and trends, and suggested opportunities for leaders in the field, policy makers, and funders to work together to strengthen activity in this lively arena. The study revealed pivotal and innovating roles that the arts can play in the renewal of civic dialogue as well as challenges faced by arts and cultural organizations as they engage in this work. The study led to the development of the four-year Animating Democracy Initiative to support this arena of activity.

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Animating Democracy Initiative

In 1999, Americans for the Arts launched the four-year Animating Democracy Initiative to foster artistic activity that encourages civic dialogue on important contemporary issues. With The Ford Foundation’s initial investment, Animating Democracy’s core activities included an informational web site, publications, field convenings, and the Lab.

At the center of the Initiative, the Animating Democracy Lab provided grants and advisory support to 36 cultural organizations across the country to implement projects that experimented with or deepened existing approaches to arts- and humanities-based civic dialogue. Investigation through these diverse projects, individually and collectively, aimed to advance field learning about the philosophical, practical, and social dimensions of this work. As part of the Lab design, project leaders came together in Learning Exchanges to share and build knowledge and extend their learning to the broader field.

For a detailed summary of the Initiative and its results, click here. 
For information about publications resulting from the Initiative, click here

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National Exchange on Art & Civic Dialogue

Americans for the Arts held the Animating Democracy National Exchange on Art and Civic Dialogue in October, 2003 in Flint, Michigan on the campus of the Flint Cultural Center.

Supported by the Ford Foundation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Ruth Mott Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, this national conference shared the learnings and findings of the initial four years of Animating Democracy. Over 200 artists, cultural and civic leaders, and community organizers attended from across the United States as well as from Japan, Paraguay, and Australia. The Exchange offered a multifaceted exploration of the philosophical, practical, and aesthetic aspects of arts and humanities activity that intends to stimulate civic dialogue on important contemporary issues. It was cited by Linda Frye Burnham as "one of the signal arts events of the last decade" in her Community Arts Network article, "Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About."

Visit the National Exchange page for more information including notes from 14 outstanding sessions and the transcript of an inspiring presentation by featured speaker Grace Lee Boggs, activist, philosopher, and cultural worker from Detroit.

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Critical Perspectives

The Critical Perspectives initiative sought to expand who has voice and authority in critical writing about civically engaged art.  It aimed to deepen understanding of arts-based civic dialogue work through the engagement of three to four writers who each wrote about a project from his/her unique vantage point.  Three projects were the focus of Critical Perspectives, employing the unique capacities of theater, visual art, and historic preservation to reach people and stimulate them to talk together in new ways about issues that matter in their communities.  The Critical Perspectives book, resulting from the project, is a collection of reflective, critical, and creative essays exploring art, civic dialogue, and reflective critical writing.

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The Exemplar Program

The Exemplar Program provided two years of support (2005-2007), totaling $150,000 to each of 12 small to midsized arts and cultural organizations nationwide. These organizations, many BIPoC-led and others that demonstrated a commitment to diversity are generally more reflective of the shifting demographics of their communities than are larger mainstream arts organizations. They use artistic and cultural expression as the primary catalyst for engagement around civic, social, and community issues. The organizations were recognized for outstanding cultural work in their communities and in the field, based on their participation in the Animating Democracy program of Americans for the Arts and the Working Capital Fund. Supported by the Ford Foundation, the Exemplar Program aimed to foster a holistic and integrated approach to organizational health, institutional growth, civic engagement, and aesthetic investigation. It also supported the learning interests of Exemplar participants and facilitated collective and collaborative learning that included and benefited the broader field.

For essays from the Exemplar Program, including Ron Chew’s “Community-based Arts Organizations: A New Center of Gravity,” click here.  

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