Without a doubt, your community is already host to a wonderful array of artistic and cultural initiatives that serve powerful social purposes. Those existing initiatives may be further fueled or expanded through USDAC mobilization, or you may choose to develop new initiatives.

The following examples are meant to suggest a range of possibilities based on projects we’ve seen work. You’ll see that there is a focus on “mirror projects”—projects that create a portrait of a community, allowing the community to see itself. If you open a Field Office, your project need not be a mirror project, though such projects can provide a useful base of reflection for later issue-based projects.

Low-Threshold Projects

Can be created with very little money or specialized expertise.

Examples: People’s Portrait Project, Story Circles, Town Artists Registry, Cultural Barters,

People’s Portrait Project: This is a composite community self-portrait made up of diverse individuals’ photos and captions. The images are curated by a community-based team into a manageable-sized exhibit (e.g., 100 images), which can be shown online or printed, mounted, and shown in a community center, gallery, or library. The basic idea is this:

  1. A specified number of community members of all ages, backgrounds, and occupations will participate. Each will generate a specific number of digital photographs and upload them to a website for viewing. For example, if 30 community members take part and each generates 20 images of the community from his/her own perspective, that’s a body of 600 images to choose from.

  2. Each participant agrees to capture and share a specified number of images of anything that he/she wants to call attention to: beloved sites, images of local challenges, people at work or play, even self-portraits. Each participant is empowered to select one image that will definitely be part of the final exhibit. Each participant is directed to upload the images to a designated site, adding a caption to each image that describes what it is and why it was chosen.

  3. A curation team representing different neighborhoods, backgrounds, interests, etc., is selected to review the photographs and captions. Starting with the participants’ own designated images, a body of photographs is chosen to represent the richness, diversity, and interest of the community according to preset criteria. If there are 30 participants, for instance, and the exhibit is to include 100 images, the curation team choses 70 more.

  4. A community self-portrait like this can travel to different venues in the community, be the subject of an online discussion about local life and culture, or be a focal point for a Town Meeting, for instance. It’s a user-friendly way to mirror a community back to itself and stimulate dialogue.

Story Circles: Citizen Artists could host a day of story circles in public space. A story circle is a small group of individuals sitting in a circle, sharing stories—usually from their own experience or imagination—focusing on a common theme. As stories are layered, complexity and richness emerges, and so do underlying commonalities. The sum of any story circle is a multidimensional exploration of its theme. Read complete guidelines here.

People’s Museum: Many people collect something—matchbooks, stamps, shells, postcards, insects, beer bottles—and most enjoy the opportunity to share their collections and expertise. Turn a public space in your community into a “people’s museum” for a day. Divide the space into booths or tables, ask collectors to sign up for a space, give people parameters about what can be displayed (you may not want pornography or roadkill displays at a family-friendly event, for instance), and fill the space, first-come, first served. At the appointed hours, the doors are thrown open to the public. You can sell refreshments to offset costs, have a table of USDAC information, rope off an area for some hands-on creative activity for those who want a break from looking at collections.

Public Show and Tell: Along the lines of both Story Circles and the People’s Museum, Public Show and Tell is a recontextualizing of the great kindergarten activity, made public and relevant to people of all ages. Perhaps this is a recurring series with a theme each time, or perhaps there is no theme. Individuals bring an object that’s important to them and share the story of that thing with the circle.  

Town Artist Registry: Does your community have an abundance of artists who are willing to place their gifts at the service of the community? Musicians who are willing to play for local events? Sculptors who will help design and execute creative floats for holiday parades? Theater makers who can make something special out of a ho-hum local pageant? Designers who are willing to help revitalize a neighborhood’s streetscape with banners and signs?

Consider inviting artists to become part of a registry that can be searched by local organizations and businesses looking for artistic collaborators. Partners might be willing to barter artistic services for other types of help, or build fundraising into the collaboration so that an artist’s fee is one outcome. An artist who performs exciting and effective community service also creates a powerful promotional example of his or her work, so there may be benefits that show up later, rather than an immediate quid pro quo.

The FEAST (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics): Perhaps you already incorporated this idea into your Town Hall. People come together to break bread, paying on a sliding scale for their meal. Community-based art projects are proposed and voted upon. The project with the most votes receives the proceeds from the dinner. Build community and fund projects at the same time. See how it’s played out in Brooklyn, here: www.feastinbklyn.org

Cultural Barters: Every group has some kind of culture. Citizen Artists could work with an array of groups to surface their “cultures” and put together an event over a day or week based on cultural barter. This asks the community to expand definitions of art and culture and bring unlikely players into public “cultural exchange.” A martial arts group performs, followed by kindergartners who all know the same song, followed by a street theater group, followed by poems by politicians, followed by a senior center musical presentation, followed by an action-demonstration by the local fishing group, and a rap album release, all in a public space built out of barrels of hay moved through a choreography of tractors. Barters could take place at the same time every day, for a week. Or an entire day could be devoted to these encounters. What happens when we put our myriad work/play/traditional/invented cultures on display in an interactive exchange? See how Odin Teatret, a theater group in Denmark defines their Festuge (Festival Week) and Barters. http://www.odinteatret.dk/events.aspx

ArtBursts: Perhaps there are a number of local campaigns or movements that Citizen Artists are excited about bolstering through creative practice. After inventorying skills, the group could put together a list of events or causes that they want to support by injecting well-planned artistic and cultural actions, and proceed to plan out a series of Art Bursts.

Artist-Led Projects

Work best when facilitated by a practicing artist.

Theater Mirror: Citizen Artists could conduct an array of interviews on a theme or themes of choice and then work with a theater group or collaborative playwright/director/performer team, to construct a theatrical portrait of the community.

PlaceMeant Project: This name was used by the Ukiah Players Theater in northern California to describe a place-based performance project. Step one was collecting oral histories pertaining to specific sites in the community. Step two, working with a playwright to craft stories or monologues encapsulating the meaning of each place. Step three, a traveling theatrical performance, where performers and audience moved through the town together, stopping here and there to hear a story about a place while standing on the very spot. Build in step four—an invitation to audience members to contribute their very own stories about the same places—and you begin to see a richly layered portrait in stories of your own community in all its diversity.

Community Choreography: Through a process of interviews, workshops, and/or other public events, Citizen Artists could collect movement phrases. Working with a choreographer these phrases may be developed into a larger dance piece, by and for the community, to be performed in public space, perhaps accompanied by original live music.

Cultural Action Clinic: Perhaps there are so many people brimming with ideas for projects, that the most useful thing is to set up a Cultural Action Clinic. A space in which there are all kinds of artists and cultural practitioners and city planners, etc. to workshop project ideas and bring them to the next level. There could be one-on-one sessions, there could be group sessions, etc. Anyone who is wondering how to do a public mural, how to host a gathering in public space, how to find collaborators, how to [fill in the blank] could come and get the advice, encouragement, and resources that can bring their ideas closer to reality. This could also work for people who don’t have project ideas, per se, but just want to enact the role of Citizen Artist. See the Citizen Artist Pledge in Appendix A. Volunteers could be on hand in order to develop individual actions and action plans for each would-be Citizen Artist.

Resource-Required Projects

Still low-infrastructure, but may require funding.

Community Cookbook: Ask elders in the community to tell you about traditional dishes they ate as children, foods that bring back memories of heritage and connection. (Make it an intergenerational project by training and empowering teenagers to collect elders’ stories.) Document them as they describe and prepare a selected dish. Use the photos, oral history, and recipe to craft a cookbook sold to benefit USDAC activities in your community.

Pop-Up Cultural Center: Take an unused or underutilized space and transform it into a thriving cultural center -- a site for workshops, performances, gallery display, public talks, etc. Even if temporary—a day, a week, a month—such a vibrant reclaiming of space can have lasting effects, bringing communities together and seeding a vision of what’s possible.

Little Free Libraries: This wildly simple idea has had wild success around the world in recent years. Little Free Libraries are just what they sound like. In cities across the country, boxes and little homes for books are being built and installed in public spaces. Anyone can leave or take books, fostering the exchange of ideas and the cultivation of a literacy and a culture of reading. More here: www.littlefreelibraries.org.

Campaigns and Advocacy Projects

Making policy the project...

Creating a Cultural Policy: Read all about it here.

Hotel Tax for Arts: Citizen Artists could work with city and state politicians to pass new legislation in order to bring in increased revenue for non-profit arts work in the community. Sometimes called a “bed tax” or “transient occupancy tax,” this is a small tax on every hotel/motel bed, generating a fund to support cultural activities that attract tourism. Here’s San Francisco’s version: http://www.sfgfta.org/about/history_and_purpose.php

Arts Education: Perhaps your local public schools, like so many around the country, have slashed their funding for arts programming. Effective citizen-led campaigns can change that story. Arts Education Advocacy toolkits abound. Here’s one to start with: http://www.kennedy-center.org/education/kcaaen/resources/ArtsEducationAdvocacyToolkit.pdf