This week RedLine Contemporary Art Center organized and hosted 48 hours of socially engaged art and conversation, a program bringing together leading arts organizations and artists from around Denver to discuss social engagement through art. In tandem with the Creative Time Summit taking place as part of the Venice Bienniale, the two-day program consisted of panel discussions, workshops and performances to address the questions, What is the role of arts organizations in their local communities? Are we responsible for creating social change through art? How can arts organizations reshape their approach to under-resourced communities to overcome barriers to participation and create equitable access?
I got to attend the Wednesday morning portion, which included talks with members of Creative Strategies for Change, Colorado Black Arts Movement, The Black Actors Guild, the Buck Foundation, PlatteForum, Access Gallery, Divine America, and the RedLine Education Team. Each of the participants talked about what it meant to them and their organizations to be “socially engaged” and what specific projects they have done with social engagement as a mission. Some of the most interesting points that were raised had to do with:
The implications of labeling oneself or being labeled “socially engaged,” and the responsibility that accompanies that label. It’s not the same as just being an active voice in mainstream society; rather it’s a responsibility to give voice to those who don’t have one, or to make certain issues visible.
The idea of “community:” in our society, community denotes lower value (community college, community art), which is interesting because community is something we’re always working to build and strengthen.
The need to draw focus away from an “end goal” or “successful results” in these projects; the kinds of goals we’re working towards– ending racism, giving access to people with disabilities– take decades and decades of work. It’s a constant process.
Related to the last point, it can be difficult for some of these organizations to secure funding without showing visible successful results. In some cases, the key may be in asking a different question and shifting funding.
The value in this sort of engagement lies in just having the conversation; Overall, participants expressed that this sort of opportunity, bringing together like-minded people to meet one another, is an extremely valuable one.
Speakers also discussed the role of art in all of this, hitting on some key ideas about its task and its importance:
Art bridges the gap between people and the relationship they have with things happening in the world.
Art is the final frontier to help us all see what’s going on in the world.
Once art transforms into a solution to a problem, it is deemed dangerous (but this makes it successful).
Successful art does not play by the rules.
Through irony and satire, art brings the arcane and cryptic into plain sight.
Art suspends what we think we know.
Art is anything that goes too far.
Art cannot just be in museums and it cannot just be for art’s sake.
So how, then, can traditional gallery spaces like Helikon take some cues from these non-profit arts organizations in staying socially engaged?
From its creation, Helikon has strived to set itself apart from other traditional fine art galleries by welcoming in a greater public that often don’t consider themselves ‘art gallery people;’ while maintaining a professional, high-end gallery aesthetic, we reject a pretentious attitude that is sometimes associated with spaces like ours. In doing so, we are working to expand assumptions about what art is, where it exists, and who can experience it. We continue this mission in our programming as well, hosting elementary school field trips to engage the youth community on a local and statewide level, and putting on socially conscious exhibitions like ‘Beers for Burma,’ which raised funds for a local non-profit that trains Burmese photographers; ‘Volume,’ which donated all profits to Colorado Public Radio’s OpenAir; and our upcoming exhibition ‘Screenplay,’ which will donate a portion of the profits to local filmmakers and filmgoers.
For us, being socially-engaged also has to do with our status as a business in the RiNo Arts District, as a community of local artists and a space committed to the arts. We are acutely aware of our place and our voice in the neighborhood, and we are committed to being actively involved in its development and future. As active members of RiNo, sitting on the board and attending all meetings that have to do with its development, Helikon takes its role here seriously, and we also feel it’s crucial that we hear the voices of everyone in the neighborhood– we encourage any community members, residents, artists, whether they are official RiNo members or not, to tell us their ideas and concerns so that we can ensure those voices are heard. Much like RedLine stressed the role of participants and the necessity to cater to their needs, we must cater to the needs of those in the neighborhood. The RiNo meetings are always open to the public, and our ears are always open to individuals or businesses who may not be able to attend the meetings.
For more information on the organizations that participated in 48 Hours, visit:
Art From Ashes
Art Students League of Denver
Black Actors Guild
The Buck Foundation
Colorado Black Arts Movement
Creative Strategies for Change
Denver Art Museum
Galleries of Contemporary Art
Lighthouse Writers Workshop
Pop Culture Classroom
Youth on Record