unexpected dialogue

Today I took my students to an alternative "art" space. I put art in quotes because the people who run this space do all kinds of other things besides what's recognizable as art. Let's call it Space X (names changed to protect the innocent). We had a long and interesting discussion about what goes on there. My students were asked to think up new ideas of projects or events that could use Space X. The students immediately hit upon the issue of relations with the immediate geographic community (as opposed to a larger arts and intellectual community, dispersed throughout the city, that makes use of the space). The neighborhood Space X is in, like many neighborhoods, is undergoing gentrification in a pretty intensive way. Some of the events and workshops they hold attract local people; some don't. In the middle of the discussion an older African-American woman (the group inside was mostly, but not all, white) knocked on the door and asked why it was always closed and why there was never anyone in there, which was interesting, because the impression I get from the organizers is of a vibrant space where there's always something going on. But her perception was that she walks by every day, during the day, and there's never anyone there. And it's a storefront space, so she expects it to be open. Open to what? She went on to say that her son had been in prison for sixteen years and she wanted to talk to someone about it because he was about to get out. One of our hosts, Marianne, told her that Space X would be open to the public on Friday evening and that she could come back then.

I wonder: is this a missed opportunity? A missed chance to have some dialogue with someone in the community -- under a different definition of community? To see what it is she thinks Space X is actually for? It's not necessarily the responsibility of the organizers to invite her in and have a talk with her about her son, or whatever. Maybe she was confused about what the organization could offer. It's not a counseling service or a community organizing headquarters or a job program. Now, I'm sure things would have been different if my class hadn't been there -- our hosts would have invited her in for a chat. Then again, Space X doesn't keep regular hours, so if my class hadn't been there, nobody would have been there. But when we open up the definition of art to include all kinds of things, why not unexpected dialogue? And how can we allow that to happen?


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