John McKnight, a professor at Northwestern University, has a radical notion about what it takes to fix broken communities. There’s been a long-running debate on this issue. On the one side, there are those who say it takes leaders (read, “elitists”) from the outside to provide funding and expertise for a grand (read, “iconic”) solution that makes life better. On the other side, there are those who believe deregulation is always the answer — that markets have a way of making society work, as though self-regulation will fix everything.
And then there is John McKnight, who developed and argued for what he calls Asset-Based Community Development. McKnight has offered a fundamentally different approach. In the more traditional, 20th century viewpoints, communities tend to be thought of as collections of needs. But in the Asset-Based Community Development approach, communities are thought of as collections of assets. Otis White has a write-up that explains the concept in greater detail.
In his book “Building Communities from the Inside Out,” McKnight offers a series of stories that illustrate the many ways artists have connected with other resources to develop communities. In all, he lists 30 specific examples of the ways artists contribute to the communities they live in. Each of these examples involves a collaboration with community associations, public institutions, local businesses, or individuals. He then lays out an illustration to summarize the ways local artists contribute to their communities:
The point of this post is not to explain why we should all embrace John McKnight’s approach to community development. But it’s a piece of the arts advocacy puzzle few seem to think about, especially as so much attention goes to the economic development argument. Ian David Moss posted his argument earlier this year that those who support creative placemaking are not doing a great job of connecting the dots between placemaking and its purported social or economic benefits. (His follow-up post is also worth a read.)
Even as so many studies take place, our role as artists will remain: to serve as agents of both personal and community-wide development. The works we produce and present tend not to be pure private goods whose benefits can easily be given to some and not to others. Rather, we are assets within the communities where we live and work. We contribute to the development of the people and places around us. As Queen Victoria once remarked, we mix with all classes of society. With or without studies, the stories can be found everywhere, of lives turned around and neighborhoods revitalized. And that’s why public funding for the arts is even more vital during troubled times.