Yesterday, I was at a community art center with my small activism/community art class. It's a historic building in a neighborhood that used to be the center of the city's black bourgeoisie and is now straddling gentrification and decay. The center was originally a WPA project -- it may be the only WPA community art center still running -- and it's housed in an old greystone building that was remodeled inside in Bauhaus style. The center has a new art director, and he showed us around -- it was a wonderful view because we got a sense of a vibrant past, renewed energy and aspirations in the present, but a long way to go. It wasn't a slick presentation; instead it reminded the students of the real problems faced by struggling community organizations. They've got great new computers for graphic design classes, but they need $75,000 to fix the roof so water won't gush down onto them. (The third floor room, a space where they could hold dance classes or concerts, already has quantities of water leaking into it.) They can't hold afterschool classes because they don't have a van to take students home, and in that neighborhood it's a necessity for safety reasons. So they have Saturday classes, exhibitions in a downstairs gallery space, and evening poetry slams.

I find myself wondering if there is as little contact as there seems to be between the people I know who do something I might call "activist art" and organizations like this one. When I first told one friend about the course he seemed surprised that I used the term "community" in the title. The word has been a controversial one in leftist circles of late (it often gets used to distasteful ideological ends--implying coercive consensus, or unreflective identity politics).

But then later he asked me why my course doesn't deal much with anything outside the US and wondered if it was because global art (i.e. non-US art) doesn't get the label "activist." I'm not sure about that, but I am sure it's true of community art centers. Activism seems to be defined as going to protests, making interventions with the hope of media attention.

The first day of class we screened a short film about a related group of creative activist projects -- projects that I think are really good and interesting ones. But what I found really weird about it was an odd repetition of the word "white." (People saying it, or writing it, or a camera just lingering on it.) Mostly, it was there because it was being used to critique the global financial establishment. But still -- the word kept coming up, and, at the same time, there were hardly any people of color in the film. Is activism a white, middle-class, American phenomenon? The community art center hopes to affirm kids' self-esteem and teach them skills, while activism tends to be against something (and it's not that I'm against that). But it's also for something: a more creative, joyful, and caring, and less destructive and wasteful, way of living.

So: maybe there are some coalitions to be built.

Speaking of coalitions, tomorrow night I will find myself having dinner with movers and shakers of the world of arts and humanities to talk about ideas for a new art research institute that will involve collaboration among different local institutions. I can't tell whether this is a small endeavor -- a lecture series? -- or a big one that will involve raising millions of endowment dollars. I heard one of these people give a talk once in which he said the great thing about the internet was that it was going to be possible to restrict access to museum collections only to specialists, and let everybody else get their art through computers.

Somehow I don't suppose he'd be interested in community art centers.


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