How Social Practice Art Is Not Community-Based Art

The more I do guest lectures for colleges and universities, the more inspired I become by the next generation of artists.  Many young artists aspire to do good and are already active in the world in those pursuits. Increasingly so. Lacking, though, is an awareness of what’s already at play. What options currently exist and how are different arenas of this work differentiated?

What would seem most beneficial would be an overview of the field. So here is my interpretation, integrating elements of AFTA’s Arts + Social Impact Explorer tool. Hope it’s helpful.

Community-Based Artists
Currency: Development 
Commitment: Institutional mission, giving back, often focused on one group or geography
Common issues: Economic, workforce and community development; affordable housing, food equity, transportation, community safety, city planning; passed-down history, tradition and culture; shared identity; health and wellness; aging; public welfare; prisons and rehabilitation
Duration: Years and years, Decades and decades, One generation to another
Success: Sustainability and Leadership Succession
Metaphor: Gardener

A gardener is experienced in keeping a garden healthy and productive. They are often planting and maintaining a good environment by watering, fertilizing, and even weeding the area.

Social Practice Artists
Currency: Relevancy/Application 
Commitment: Intervention, project-based, often intergroup or crossing borders
Common issues: Peace building, community cohesion, political activation, immigration, diplomacy, military; diversity, access, and inclusion
Metaphor: Chemist 

A chemist is a scientist who researches and experiments with the properties of chemical substances. A chemist will usually work as part of a larger research team, and create useful compounds for use in a wide variety of practical applications..

Duration: As long as it takes, as short as it takes
Success: Project is no longer needed, participants and collaborators are running their own programs, environment of entrepreneurialism and trust, relationships are strengthened between other parties, healthier ecosystem, priorities shifting, spurring enough social change for other things to happen
My 2018 List of Resources for Social Practice Artists

Teaching Artists
Currency: Student Learning 
Commitment: Arts Integration/Academic standards with art-making and social emotional growth
Metaphor: Beekeeper

A beekeeper is, in essence, a manager of bees. He or she maintains and monitors the hives. A beekeeper needs to maintain healthy bees and prepare colonies for production. Beekeepers also need to follow food safety guidelines when harvesting and processing the honey. 

Duration: Academic calendar
Success: Increases in student test scores, results evidenced by pre/post student assessments
ArtsEdge – Kennedy Center
Project AIM
Eric Booth

Arts Educators
Currency: Student Learning 
Commitment: Discipline-specific arts standards, training
Success: Employability, Students’ post-program achievements, where they go with it
Visual arts 
Metaphor: Pilot

The most well-known pilots are those who work for an airline company, flying passengers who are commuting or vacationing. Their primary responsibility is to operate the aircraft, but their day consists of many hours performing other tasks. Pilots check the weather and confirm flight plans before departing.

Other arenas are led by phenomenal Arts Therapists and Movement Analysts who round out this field. What’s most beautiful is when there is a referral process between these actors, or when there’s collaboration.

I’m excited to see how the next generation of socially engaged artists rework these distinctions and move this world. Thoughts?

Photo: Dance Peace project | Credit: Mohamed Radwan


  1. Hi Shawn, The metaphors are lovely! I think so many young artists are totally into doing ALL of the above! The distinctions are important to understand different purposes for but the skills needed cross all of those distinctions. For example, understanding and using best practices in social justice is required for all of the applications, although the skills may be more obviously needed front and center in some more than others. Knowledge and experience in dance techniques, styles and genres, and somatics practices are also important for all, although perhaps more front-and-center in some. etc. Lots of food for thought here!

    • Yes, these were exactly my thoughts as I read it Karen and when I came to your comment I thought yes, this is what I believe. This is so great for discussion though and really useful for thinking our work through.

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