Glenna Avila with a restored section of her mural, L.A. Freeway Kids, photo courtesy of the Mural Conservancy Los Angeles. Photo © 2012 Isabel Rojas-Williams
Members of the Community Arts Partnership founded by Glenna Avila at Cal Arts.
Glenna Avila, photo courtesy of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles.
Community Arts Practice: The First Arts Practice in the World
March 1, 2016
by Glenna Avila
The longest history of arts practice in the entire world is held by community arts and public arts. The very first visual artwork created on earth was made by prehistoric people who painted on the walls of their caves. These cave paintings or murals, which have a lot to do with the creation of community, existed long before we had museums, symphonies, universities, operas, galleries, literature, or printed materials. People who did not label themselves as artists and perhaps didn’t even have a concept for what art was or could be, thought of experimenting with rocks and sticks and different minerals from the land to draw images of animals on the walls of their dwellings. Since the beginning of time on earth, humans have invented innovative ways to tell their stories and share creativity with their communities.
Many, if not most, cultures have included community arts practices at the center of their cultural traditions. Some Native American communities do not have a word in their languages for “art.” Art is not separated from life. The community creates an art that is a part of everything they need for survival: blankets, pottery, tools, clothing, jewelry, dwellings and sacred items. The fact that these items incorporated elements of design and aesthetics later qualified these utilitarian objects as art. Were indigenous peoples from around the world the inventors of these elements of art and design that have stood the test of time? What role did communities play in the development of prehistoric art? How do we currently define community and community arts practices?
Community can be defined in many different ways. Merriam-Webster states that the first known use of the word ‘community’ was in the 14th century, but we know that communities have existed since humans have inhabited the earth. Does something exist only when it has been articulated or defined? Commonly, community can be defined as a neighborhood or a group with shared interests. There are multiple layers and a person can be a member of many different communities at once. There’s the community in which you work, the community in which you live, spiritual communities, and communities such as clubs and other groups with common interests.
In community arts, community tends to be about the neighborhood in which one lives or creates art and how an artist impacts that particular community through their art, their teaching, and their actions and interactions. The Watts Towers Arts Center in Los Angeles is a great example of a community of artists coming together to form a community center focused on the arts, in which artists can teach the youth and adults in the community, the community can gather around common interests, and artists can perform and exhibit their work in the public realm. The Watts Towers themselves are an example of how the vision and creativity of one man, Simon Rodia, became a symbol and source of inspiration for an entire community.
There are many vibrant examples of community art spaces and art centers that offer artists and communities a place to come together around the arts. In Los Angeles, we have Plaza de la Raza, Self-Help Graphics and Art, and Center for the Arts Eagle Rock, to name a few, and along with the Watts Towers Arts Center, these are all partners within the CalArts Community Arts Partnership (CAP). Other great examples of community arts practice in Los Angeles are the Los Angeles Poverty Department or LAPD, who work with homeless people on Skid Row to produce theater and performance by creating a place of recovery and transformation, and Cornerstone Theater Company which has perfected the practice of working with many communities to give voice to many diverse populations. Individual artists, including Kim Abeles, Edgar Arceneaux, and Tim Rollins, have engaged in community arts practices as well.
For the past twenty-five years, the CAP program has built long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships with community centers, youth and arts organizations, public schools and social service agencies, to collaboratively design and implement youth arts education programs in the visual, performing, literary, and media arts. CAP intentionally places equal emphasis on the words “Community,” “Arts,” and “Partnership.” It is through the arts that CAP enables CalArts students, faculty and alumni to come together collaboratively in teams to develop both community and partnership through the arts.
What signifies a community arts practice for me is that the artist is embedded in, or is an important part of, whatever community they work with. At the same time, I believe that the practice of working with the community likewise needs to be embedded in artists’ work. In other words, you can’t have one without the other. You couldn’t be a community-based arts practitioner if you weren’t working with the community. In a way, the community arts practitioner has a dual purpose and role. The artist needs to define what it is they want to create as an artist and at the same time, work collaboratively with a particular community to listen to ideas and input, speak in a language that is accessible to the community, engage and recruit people, gain their trust, and develop projects that are authentic and meaningful to the communities in which they are created.
Community arts practice is right for someone who values the abilities of communities to work directly with artists and ends up with a product that is most likely much bigger and better than what an individual could do on their own. A question I would ask about community arts practice is this: Is the engagement a surface intervention or does it go much deeper and fundamentally impact and change the community in which it is created? For me, the latter is the ultimate end game that art created within a community context should strive to achieve.
Glenna Avila is an artist, educator, and arts administrator and is dedicated to the arts, young people, and communities, which she considers a component of her arts practice. She is currently the Wallis Annenberg Director of Youth Programs and the Artistic Director of the Community Arts Partnership (CAP) program at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). She was the Founding Director of the CAP program and has worked to bring it to national attention since 1991. Before coming to CalArts, she worked for 14 years with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs as Director of several community art centers. She received her MA in Art from the University of New Mexico and her BA in Art from UCLA, and has exhibited her work throughout the United States.