Aesthetic Imagination, Civic Imagination, and the Role of the Arts in Community Change and Development

Dr. Max Stephenson, Jr.,
Katherine Fox Lanham
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This paper assays recent scholarship concerning the relationship between aesthetic and civic imagination, linking that discussion to a case example of an effort to use arts-based dialogue to catalyze a regional grassroots-based discussion on how to reposition an economically ailing area of Virginia. Inspired by the Animating Democracy Initiative, a four-year project established in 1999 by Americans for the Arts, the paper chronicles the efforts of those engaged to galvanize area artists toward understanding their role not only in aesthetic but also in civic terms. These efforts recognize the potential of artistic imagination as a pivotal force behind the renewal of civic dialogue. In an important sense, the case examines the evolution not only of a coalition for community change but also of a quest for a shared understanding of identity at multiple analytical scales, not least among the artists involved.

The area in question, the Dan River region of Virginia and North Carolina, has witnessed a rapid collapse of its traditional economic base in textiles, tobacco and furniture production, and suffers from deep racial and socio-economic divides which contribute to a dearth of civic dialogue among its communities. The long history of an industrial-driven economy in these small towns has established a status quo in which the labor pool has become reliant, even dependent, on a small minority of major business owners and leaders to determine community decisions and directions. The artists of this region represent an untapped asset for changing this status quo, for quickening the public’s imagination about its potential collective future. Their expertise in the use of the imagination is called on to help others gain experience and capacity in imagining community vision, direction, goals, and action.

Keywords: Arts-Based Civic Dialogue, Grassroots Leadership, Animating Democracy
Stream: Art in Communities
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Aesthetic Imagination, Civic Imagination, and the Role of the Arts in Community Change and Development

Dr. Max Stephenson, Jr.

Co-Director, Institute for Governance and Accountabilities
School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech

Blacksburg, VA, USA

Dr. Max Stephenson Jr. joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 1989 and has taught nonprofit organization and management and public policy related courses since. He is the co-director of the Institute for Governance and Accountabilities. His current research interests include comparative analysis of nongovernmental organization program/policy implementation structures and the conditions that conduce to effective leadership in networked organizational environments. He received his academic degrees from the University of Virginia. Dr. Stephenson's forthcoming article, "Developing Community Leadership Through the Arts In Southside Virginia: Social Networks, Civic Identity and Civic Change" will be published in Community Development Journal Vol.41, 2 (March, 2006).

Katherine Fox Lanham

Research Assistant, Institute for Governance and Accountabilities
School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech

Blacksburg, VA, USA

Katherine Lanham is a graduate research assistant in the School of Public and International Affairs, working toward a masters in Urban and Regional Planning. She received a BA in Communications and Theatre from Boston College, with additional studies in theatre at Syracuse University in London and in arts management at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Katherine's career spans over 20 years in the arts as a performer, educator and administrator.

Ref: A06P0520