The Artistry of Systemic Change

EmcArts is pleased to share our newest article, which has just been published in the GIA Reader, Vol 28. No 3.

The article, The Artistry of Systemic Change: New Roles Emerging for Teaching Artists – New Ways to Accomplish Social Change is written by Richard Evans, our President, along with pioneering teaching artist Eric Booth. It documents what we have learned so far from our Community Innovation Labs about the role artists can play in community change efforts, as well as outlining five human capabilities that we have found to be central to both social change and the artistic process.

From the article:

After an era of intense specialization of the arts, our understanding of artistry has begun in the past two decades to expand again. Development of the field of “teaching artistry” has led to artists working experientially in educational, lifelong-learning settings and expanding into health care, corrections, and non-arts professional development. Community artistry has developed “social practice,” the work of artists engaging with communities in the cocreation of participatory art for social impact. “Civic practice” then puts the accent of community-based artistic work on the agendas of non-arts partners. The silos separating the participatory work of artists in community, organizational, and educational settings are coming down, revealing a large, flexible, increasingly adept, and interconnecting field.

Artistic practices have fanned out in these ways in part because the power of art to frame realities from different and unexpected angles has begun once again to be more widely understood. Attention is also increasing because this expanded definition of art is proving to be “useful” — a quality that grabs the interest of pragmatically minded America. What we call “art” has of course been applied to social change for millennia, if not beginning in Paleolithic caves then certainly in Greek amphitheaters and medieval pageant wagons. The power of art over the ages lives as much or more in its processes as in its products. The processes of art and the ways audiences make meaningful connections to its products are comprised of complex ways of knowing the world and making meaning that are inaccessible by other means. Artists make worlds, and (when all goes well) others enter those worlds and make new meaning, changing the way they understand the world they live in.

This fundamental nature of the arts has served humanity over our long history. What makes the current situation different is the surge of interest in creative reimagining across all sectors of the economy, and widespread exploration of the contributions artists might make to achieving greater vitality, equity, and inclusiveness within the complex adaptive systems that our communities now consist of. What might it feel like to live in a community that was creatively imagined in all its interwoven parts?

You can read the entire article by clicking here.

Tell us what you think!

In this research work, we stand at the threshold of new understandings and opportunities for significant new artistically infused designs for substantive change in our complex communities. But it is early days — we are still probing and experimenting.

Part of our interest right now is to bring together more examples of the five capabilities in action, experienced both through artistic development and as methods for systemic change work. Perhaps we do not yet have them in full view? Perhaps we have missed something equally fundamental as these?

If you have been involved in work that seems to you to embody one or more of these capabilities in the context we have been describing, please let us know by commenting below. We look forward to an enlightening conversation!


Richard Evans is the President of EmcArts, where he directs program design, research, and strategic partnerships that place a particular emphasis on innovation, adaptive organization change, and effective ways that the arts and culture field can respond to the demands of a new era.

  • Kelly Dylla

    I believe we must put social justice and race at the center of any conversation the arts world has about social change. Social change cannot happen until white artists and administrators explore our white privilege and how we impact – PoC and their communities through community engagement initiatives.

    In the late 1990s I taught in the Bronx without any training in cultural competency or social justice. I didn’t have any idea I was able to move freely in the world because of my whiteness or that my fear of the Bronx was built upon layers of news stories about black crime. Twenty years later, with good training and many, many conversations on the subject, I have a new understanding of my place in systemic change through the arts. I no longer seek opportunities to lead work where I am one of the only white people, especially without a partner that is a PoC. PoC should lead, because their youth need to see PoC leadership. However, I do use my white privilege to speak up so PoC don’t always have to. I work to help my own community begin to have hard discussions about race. (I am on the diversity committee of my daughter’s privileged preschool and I advance these issues through strategic conversations and planting small seeds of action at work).

    Inclusion and diversity is certainly not only about race – ageism, sexism, homophobia, and other gender issues top the list. But without a conversation about racism, the rest is window-dressing.

    I hope my comments are seen as passionate without condemnation or blame. I work through my own fear of rejection to share these words. Please keep responses civil and remember that diversity within the white conversation is what we need, in order to do a better job of asking PoC to be vulnerable and open with us.

  • W.T. George

    I am very grateful for this inspiring work.

    Here in the field much of this understanding is cystalizing with different sets of vocabulary and colored through different perspectives depending on which direction our partners are approching the issue.

    Presently, we here at Touchstone Theatre are partnering with the City of Bethlehem (and over thirty other artistic and civic partners locally and internationally) to envision our community’s future through art and inquiry under the Festival UnBound initiative. This project is aimed for fall of 2019.

    Bethlehem’s greatest challenge is how to harmoniously and with determined resilience, come together heart and mind, to address the issues that divide us or seem intractable.

    Festival UnBound invites “The People” to face this challenge. Its design grows from the concept of art as a practical human activity, one that exists to serve as a means of processing the complications of our lives. Successfully carrying out this Festival will be, in a fundamental way, the result we are looking for: artists catalyzing and channeling the community to come together to fully address local concerns with achieved understandings harvested for collective memory, enchantment and community action.

    We firmly believe, if community is to further the progress of society in its own right – complementing the roles played by individuals and social institutions–a much more expansive conception of community life must be actively embraced and movement in this direction will require qualitatively different approaches to decision-making than those adopted in the past. Festival (un)Bound is one of those “qualitatively different approaches”.