Building Community Connections Through Arts & Culture

By MAGGIE DUNN

 “Artists are the Research & Development group for humanity,” Georgia Guthrie, Executive Director of The Hacktory, said at the start of our conversation, quoting Zach Lieberman, a media artist and programmer. It’s an idea she has taken to heart. The Hacktory, founded in 2007 to provide formal instruction on technical topics and a space where people can use sophisticated digital tools, derives its name from two root words: “hack” – to find a new (sometimes inelegant) solution to a problem and “factory” – a place where products are made, or art, in reference to Andy Warhol’s Factory.

When Georgia started attending the Hacktory’s first course, Microcontrollers for Artists and Makers, which taught people the technical skills behind working with small computers on a single integrated circuit that can be used in all sorts of devices, she noticed a lot of hobbyists coming in and out. Artists came less frequently. The cost of the classes proved to be one barrier for interested artists but another was their self-perceptions. Georgia would hear a refrain “oh, I’m an artist.” Translation: “I’m not a tech person.” She called their bluff.

Believing that it is critical for artists to work with technology as a medium like any other, Georgia, whose volunteer work with the Hacktory eventually landed her as Executive Director, won a grant from the Knight Foundation to create a special residency for artists. The Unknown Territory Residency (so-called because arts and tech is still a new frontier) allows Philadelphia-based artists who are established in visual or performance art to experiment with programming or technology over a 6-month period. Through the residency and on-going classes, Georgia has found that creating an environment where artists feel welcome is crucial to getting them in the door. In turn, welcoming artists into the world of tech has helped the Hacktory expand its programming to engage younger students in after school workshops in machines, digital programming and electronics, including a joint course with Fleisher Art Memorial.

At Fleisher Art Memorial, Executive Director Liz Grimaldi says creating a welcoming environment has been key to Fleisher’s success in making art education accessible to all Philadelphia residents, regardless of economic means or artistic experience. Providing that welcome is as critical today as it was when Samuel S. Fleisher, the son of German Jewish immigrants and vice-president of a successful wool company, started the Graphic Sketch Club to offer free art education to neighborhood children in 1898. Since then, the Graphic Sketch Club evolved into the Fleisher Art Memorial, which continues Fleisher’s vision of making art accessible to everyone, including a long history of serving South Philadelphia’s immigrant communities.

To guide their efforts in connecting with the growing populations of Southeast Asian and Mexican families in South Philadelphia, Fleisher staff engaged in multiple listening sessions with community members and developed an internal community engagement mantra: “Come to Us. Show Us. Welcome Us.” This resulted in initiatives such as ColorWheels, a mobile art studio that brings a teaching artist and lesson into a neighborhood. Once community members discover Fleisher and art-making, staff work to ensure that the experience onsite is as warm and welcoming as its initiatives offsite. Faculty members receive professional development in arts-based community engagement and Fleisher has added multi-lingual staff and faculty, with the capacity to talk with new families in Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Khmer, and Spanish.

Liz reflected on increased enrollment in classes, “Fleisher is a community space. In one of our free classes, you might have a person of considerable privilege who feels comfortable here, making art next to a person who has just arrived in Philadelphia as a result of displacement, is learning English, navigating new policies, and who values art as a way to process emotions, next to a person who has just graduated, has three roommates and needs studio space. Here, they’re all artists. More than ever, we need spaces where people of different perspectives can find common ground.” Not surprisingly, the art produced at Fleisher is reflecting the current political climate. “We have our Annual Adult Student Exhibit up right now and you can definitely sense political urgency through some of the art,” she said.

The change in tone in Fleisher’s student art show is not surprising to Michelle Freeman, Executive Director of Witty Gritty, a business that creates purpose-driven experiences through marketing, community engagement and event production, and who has seen a significant rise in social practice art, where artists are engaging directly with residents to give their opinions and concerns a visual voice.  For example, when Flying Kite Magazine, now locally produced by Witty Gritty, started their neighborhood program “On the Ground” in 2012-2013, they took over temporary residency in four different neighborhood storefronts over the course of the year and hired local artists in each community to make the space feel welcoming.  One result of the program was a joint show. “We worked with the Painted Bride to have all of the artists in the neighborhoods come together to show a joint exhibit for a month. We saw a lot of interaction between artists that would never have talked to each other.” Moreover, connecting neighborhood-based artists also helped connect local residents.

Now Witty Gritty is working with Temple Contemporary, the art gallery at Tyler School of Art, on social media and community engagement for the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra. Through this initiative, recently profiled on philly.com, hundreds of broken instruments have been retrieved from closets in Philadelphia School District Schools to be catalogued, analyzed and put up for adoption in Temple Contemporary. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, David Lang will develop a symphony using the instruments in their broken state to be performed one time in October. Money raised from the symphony will be used to make instrument repairs, return fixed instruments to the schools and provide education about instrument repair to local music teachers – helping to improve music education in Philadelphia.

For Michelle, one of the biggest challenges facing community arts is the tendency to talk about art as the actor. Referencing Erica Hawthorne of Small but Might Arts, Michelle said her philosophy is that “people will say a mural on a wall is life changing, when it is really the artist that was the mechanism for the change.” Valuing artists and the skills they bring to the community process is critical to advancing community based art. Georgia couldn’t agree more. As she said in the beginning of our conversation, “Artists are the ones that will help us see what’s possible.”

Attend these upcoming events to see the critical work of these organizations first hand:

Junkbot Jam and Joust
A robot-themed fundraiser for The Hacktory
Saturday, April 15th, Friends Meeting House, 15th and Cherry

Building Philadelphia’s Community Art Spaces
Panel discussion about Arts & Community Making, moderated by Liz Grimaldi
Saturday, April 8th, El Corazon Cultural Center, 2600 N 5th Street

Symphony for a Broken Orchestra
October 2017
Tickets released this Spring! Sign up online for advanced notice.