Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Seeking Clarity about the Complementary Nature of Social Work and the Arts

When we talk about museums or cultural institutions as vehicles of social and civic change, what does that really mean? Last week I had a conversation that changed my perspective on this question.

I was with two close friends who work in social service organizations focusing on homelessness and criminal justice respectively. We all work for nonprofits. We all care about making a difference in our community. And we each have specific interests in increasing access, connection, and empowerment of marginalized people.

But when you switch from the "why" to the "what" of our work, the similarities end. Here are some of the big differences we noticed:
  • Their work involves life-or-death situations. Museum work is mostly non-contact. The consequences of risk-taking and experimentation are incredibly different.
  • There is infinite demand for their services, whereas we struggle to generate demand for ours. There will never be enough meals for hungry people or mental health facilities for those who need them. Meanwhile, arts industry leaders worry about "oversupply" of organizations in the face of dwindling demand. 
  • Social service providers often find themselves working in a reactive stance to unexpected incidents. Arts organizations can operate on their own timelines and internal values. Those that want to be more relevant often have to push themselves to be work responsively to events outside their domain.
These differences made me realize that even as we talk about arts organizations as vehicles for civic engagement or social change, we have the opportunity (and the necessity) to think of our work in a distinct way. This may sound obvious, but the rhetoric about cultural organizations working in the social sphere often ignores our inherent differences. We champion a historic house museum for hosting a soup kitchen, a children's museum for tackling family wellness in low-income housing, or an arts organization for writing poems with convicts. We talk about these projects as if they were analogous to the work being done by a social service agency, and we wonder where the line between cultural and social work blurs.

This is the wrong analogy and the wrong question. Instead of asking whether we are focusing too little or too much of our attention on social work, we should be asking HOW we can approach the work of community development in a distinctive way.

Looking back at the bulleted list above, every one of the differences between arts organizations and social service organizations presents an opportunity for us to do really interesting, specific work. We CAN take risks with more flexibility than social service agencies. We CAN devote some of our resources to reaching communities with incredible demands. We CAN develop programs that are visionary and unusual because we are not wading in crises to which we must respond.

When the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum hosts a monthly soup kitchen, they are doing it to open up conversations about social justice around food. When the Boston Children's Museum initiated the GoKids wellness program, they did it to empower families to co-create meaningful shared experiences that emphasize health. When my museum brings together homeless and non-homeless volunteers to restore a historic cemetery, we do it to encourage people in our community to look at history and each other with respect. I admire all of these projects, and I also acknowledge that they achieve different goals by different means than social service agencies do.

Cultural organizations have the luxury to do work that supports community development in ways that are more creative, experimental, and yes--supplemental--than social service organizations. The very fact that the work we do is "extra" shouldn't be a downside. We're doing it because we have the unique capacity to do so. We're doing it because we care. We're doing it because that's what "adding value" means.

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