07/03/2013 09:23 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

The Past and the Future of the Citizen Artist

Chicago was the fastest-growing city in the world in the late 19th century, a boom town creating great fortunes in commerce, manufacturing, and transportation. Some of its wealthiest citizens banded together to found the Art Institute of Chicago (1882) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1891). Designed, in part, on the basis of a conceptual distinction between 'fine,' 'high,' or 'serious' art and popular entertainment, the institutions sacralized the arts in temples of culture, far from the hustle, bustle and commerce of everyday life. And--for the first time in America--they associated the arts with wealth, privilege, education, and cultivated taste. The masses of immigrants pouring into Chicago were admitted to those institutions--if they could afford the price--but with the expectation and hope that the arts experience might 'civilize' them. Orchestras and museums like Chicago's were organized in cities across the nation during this period, becoming the template for the large system of nonprofit arts institutions that developed and grew through most of the 20th century.

Across town, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr Gates founded Hull House, Chicago's first settlement, in 1889. Hull House provided a range of social services--public health, education, language, immigration, housing, sanitation, child care, psychological counseling--designed to help poor immigrants adapt to their new home in America. But it was not just a social service agency. Addams was a reformer, considered by J. Edgar Hoover as 'the most dangerous woman in America', and Hull House played a role in struggles for labor, women's rights, political reform, juvenile justice, and peace.

The arts were part of its programming from the very beginning. Hull House encouraged and taught the poor to make art themselves in music, drama, dance, and visual art programs staffed by artists. It quickly replaced reproductions of Old Masters in its art gallery with exhibitions of art by neighborhood residents. The arts at Hull House helped immigrants remain connected to their cultural roots and identities; they helped them understand their new environment and its inequities; they helped them develop the sense of agency and imaginative capacity needed to believe in their own potential and hopes for the future; and they helped build the social bonds and empathy that are the foundation of community and democratic life. Four hundred settlements across the country made the arts central to their work by 1914.

The settlements had enormous influence on American culture. Bennie Goodman took his first clarinet lessons at Hull House; Louis Armstrong studied cornet at the Home for Colored Waifs, a juvenile detention facility in New Orleans. Theater games developed by Viola Spolin, a Hull House social worker, transformed American comedy and have trained new generations of actors.

Artists who staffed the settlements' programs were the first American citizen artists, and their work is the template for the citizen artist movement today. Ideas about the arts that first developed at Hull House drove the arts programs of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression; they survived in community schools of art and music that emerged from settlements across the US; they blossomed in the movements for civil rights and social reform in the 1960s, becoming the spine of what often is referred to as the 'community arts' movement; and they animate the emergence of a new profession, teaching artists, working in communities and schools nationwide today.

The settlement arts tradition embraces the notion that the arts are powerful tools that can serve meaningful social purposes, and it assigns great value to engaging communities in making art that reflects and is relevant to their lives. That is the essence of the citizen artist idea. The settlements are all but gone, and the thousands of artists and programs across the country that embrace the idea are atomized and badly undercapitalized. The broader nonprofit arts model is committed to the ideal of art for arts' sake, the primacy of the professional virtuoso artist, and a business model that makes the arts prohibitively expensive. Despite broad efforts to diversify programming and expand community outreach and education, most nonprofit arts organizations are not yet embracing the principals of the citizen artist, and those that do find them difficult to reconcile with their core practices and assumptions. The future of the citizen artist idea depends on finding a path to reconcile these contrasting ideals and practices and on rebuilding an institutional infrastructure that supports its values.

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