Why Should Arts Organizations Focus on Social Bridging?

Teachers and Docents connect at the Portland Art Museum
Teachers and Docents connect at the Portland Art Museum

This post is an excerpt from Karina’s guest blog from this week’s Emerging Leaders Blog Salon on the Americans for the Arts ARTSblog, which explores the question, “What would make where you live a better place or bring it to the next level?”

I live in New York City, a place with seemingly endless cultural opportunities. The problem is that the majority of these cultural experiences are designed to bring me closer to people I showed up with—an activity sociologists call “social bonding.”

That’s all well and good for me, but it’s not going to make my city more livable, more humane, and more just.

Inspired by Nina Simon’s TED Talk, I would argue that what my community needs, and what communities across this divided country need, is more opportunities to connect with people across difference—what sociologists call “social bridging.”

Moreover, I would argue that arts and culture organizations are uniquely poised to become a platform for social bridging in our communities, and that it’s essential that they do so or risk irrelevancy.

Read the full post here.

Below is Nina’s Simon’s inspiring TED Talk.

Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.

  • Hi Karina, I hopped over to read the complete post and will share my response both here and on artsusa.org. The idea that arts orgs are uniquely positioned for social bridging as opposed to social bonding really resonates with me. Certainly in my experience, the arts open me up to new ideas and communities. I want to push back, however, on some of your characterization of the role of technology in all of this. I agree that some of the implementations of technology do burrow us more deeply into the already familiar. I’ve recently read several things that reiterate of Facebook something like…if you don’t know what the product is, then the product is you – and I think that the continuous “sell” based on our behavior in a digital environment (whether as recommendation or straight up advertising) does happen across many social platforms. But, I think social and emerging technologies also have the capacity for supporting or even propelling social bridging. I would point especially to some of the projects I discussed in my recent ArtsFwd.org post on tailoring platforms for community engagement (https://www.artsfwd.org/tailoring-online-media-platforms/). The Brooklyn Museum GO project, as one example, brought all kinds of people together across neighborhoods by leveraging the power of the check in. Would love to hear your thoughts on this – what do you think of the possibilities of emerging media to enhance social bridging?

    • Anna – Great point. I agree that in our highly networked world, technology has the potential to facilitate social bridging by bringing disparate individuals/groups together. I would say that the relevant distinction is whether that technology facilitates an interaction across difference that creates empathy through new understanding, or whether it brings people together in a superficial way. In the example of the GO project, I’m convinced that it brought people together across neighborhoods, but is there evidence that those people did anything but pass by each other? I believe that technology can get people into the same space – real or virtual – but that true social bridging is occurs only when those people engage in vulnerable exchange. Is it possible to do this entirely online? Maybe. Can technology fuel this by bringing people together offline? Absolutely.

  • JKwon

    I’ve attended improvisation performances where fellow improvisers comprise the audience or worse yet, shows that have more performers than audience members. The presenting organizations may brush this off as ignorance, perhaps even feeling smug about their elitist culture. They render themselves irrelevant outside of their intimate circles then wonder why they lack funding and support. If organizations would apply the honesty, flexibility and innovation inherent in the improvised art form to the way they engage with audiences, those concerts could be the perfect place for social bridging, as improvisation is not limited to any specific vocabulary, genre or discipline.

    Portland Art Museum’s adaptations can be taken further; organizations could take to places where people are already gathering to draw them into designated art spaces gradually. I suspect that this pop-up approach will be necessary for casual art consumers who have felt unwelcome to cultural institutions in the past.