Between Grace and Fear: The Role of the Arts in a Time of Change
By William Cleveland and Patricia A. Shifferd
This paper stems from the findings of a research project that invited a range of writers, artists, politicians, scientists, community leaders, theologians and social theorists to engage the following question: If a major shift in worldview is taking place, what role might society’s arts and cultural resources (artists, arts institutions and cultural creatives) play?
In 1999 the Clinton administration invested in a wide range of cultural programs to commemorate the dawn of the Third Millennium. By far, the most unique of these was a program that placed composers in residence in American towns and cities called Continental Harmony. Developed by the American Composers Forum, Continental Harmony was a countrywide expression of the burgeoning community arts movement that had been establishing itself in American neighborhoods and cities over the previous two decades. Visiting composers worked with the participating communities to create musical works that explored local history and identity. The resulting compositions were performed by local musicians at communitywide millennium celebrations in all 50 states. The success of the program led the National Endowment for the Arts and other funders to extend the program, culminating in over 100 community celebrations through the end of 2005.
As researchers working to assess the program’s impact from 2000 through 2005, we had a ringside seat for all of the Continental Harmony HJHj proceedings. Although the project more than fulfilled expectations, much of what we found was unexpected. For many of the sites, involvement in Continental Harmony had provided a crucible for building new, often unanticipated community partnerships. Many of the participants we talked to were truly surprised by the vitality and rigor of their collective effort. As a result, they came away a different view of their community’s future capacity and potential, both within and beyond the cultural realm.
Of particular interest was the fact that many of those in the arts, business, educational, human service and public sectors who had worked so hard to make Continental Harmony happen in their communities were first-time arts partners. In site after site we found that while people actively involved in civic affairs perceived the arts as a valuable asset, they did not see them as relevant to their core concerns, be they business interests, sustainability issues or environmental concerns. Reflective of our own views about culture as core element in sustainable community development, we began to refer to this separation as “the disconnect.” Rather than seeing this as a problem, we regarded it as an interesting opportunity.