What's in a Name?

by Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard

© Copyright Adams & Goldbard 1982, 1996

Artists and activists around the world
are working for cultural democracy -- even in this unfriendly age.
The authors consider the problem of how to describe this work.



It goes without saying that the movement for cultural democracy is world-wide. With or without official encouragement, artists all over the world -- in rich nations and poor, capitalist and socialist, industrialized and agrarian -- have been working on the same kinds of community cultural projects. For most of the world, this has led to an active international exchange and an increasing consciousness of shared opportunities and problems.

The United States has been peculiarly isolated from this exchange. With official cultural policymakers attending to the establishment forms and institutions they promote, you have to look between the lines for discussion of neighborhood arts issues. If the term "cultural democracy" is used at all outside of neighborhood arts circles, it's invoked as a "domestic enemy," as National Council on the Arts member Theodore Bikel put it in considering a 1980 proposal that the National Endowment for the Arts should make grants in support of community arts agencies. (NAPNOC 1980a, 1)

With little chance for international exchange, community cultural workers in the U.S. have had to grapple alone with even such basic questions as nomenclature. A favorite topic of our correspondents is naming: what do we call our work, how do we describe it to others? "Neighborhood arts" doesn't sound exactly right to people who work in rural communities or don't see themselves as tied to a particular neighborhood. "Community arts" might be a little better, but that title has been pre-empted by the local arts councils. Some neighborhood arts people characterize their work as "alternative," and while accurate, that term denotes only opposition, so fails to take into account the affirmative, culture-building aspects of our work.

This is not a petty question of labelling, but of naming in a more fundamental sense. The fact of naming -- recognizing the need for a self-chosen description of the work of the neighborhood artist -- is what's most important. With it will come the understanding that neighborhood arts work is not something to do while you're practicing to make it in the big time, but a vocation in and of itself, with its own aims, values, and ethics. This understanding is held by many dedicated neighborhood artists. But for others, this idea will come as news: Neighborhood arts work has dignity and deserves respect, in and of itself, and not as a means to "graduate" into the world of the establishment arts.

What Is Animation?

In the international sphere, where serious discussion of cultural development work has been carried on for some time, the word used to describe this profession is "animation."

Animation and its variants -- "community animation theater," for instance -- have lately begun to be used by North American arts workers, borrowing from Europe and the Third World, where the term is in common usage. Animation is derived from the French animation socio-culturel and refers to the work of the work of the animateur, a community worker who helps people to build and participate in community life, to articulate their own grievances and aspirations in a public context, and often, to make art from the material of their daily lives.

Not everyone is thrilled with the term: British arts worker Su Braden prefers "community artist," saying that animation "is evidence of the persistence of the paternalistic attitude still held by many artists and arts funding bodies" because the root word animer implies a "moribund situation, ready for the 'animateur' to administer the kiss of life." (Braden 1978, 186)

Moreover, animation has come to take on less specific meaning as it has been more widely applied. French classified ads, for instance, might now call for an animateur for a shopping center or an insurance office, meaning, roughly, a public relations agent. And in one of its first uses in more official U.S. circles -- by Partners for Livable Places, [formerly] funded by the National Endowment for the Arts' Design Arts program to provide technical assistance to planners and architects -- the term takes on a disturbingly non-human meaning: "Animation is the term describe how creative zoning, imaginative street planning, public art, good architectural design, mixed-use development, and festivals and celebrations make cities prosperous and exciting places to live." (Partners 1981, 13)

Working for Cultural Democracy

Needless to say, animation work was going on long before the term came into use. The concept of animation socio-culturel became current when researchers and policy-makers began taking community cultural work seriously and debating its importance to society.

One force in this continuing dialogue has been the Council of Europe, a regional association of European governments. Its Council for Cultural Cooperation (CCC) is the principal body through which research projects and international symposia on animation have been carried out. After a lot of fighting the CCC came in 1973 to a working definition of animation, as follows:

Animation may be defined as that stimulus to the mental, physical and emotional life of people in an area which moves them to undertake a range of experiences through which they find a greater degree of self-realisation, self-expression and awareness of belonging to a community over the development of which they can exercise an influence. In urban societies today this stimulus seldom arises spontaneously from the circumstances of daily life, but has to be contrived as something additional to the environment. (Simpson 1978, 131-132)

This cautious and tortured prose attempts to bridge the gap between community cultural workers, who see themselves as helping to transform consciousness so that people can act to change the culture and the society, and bureaucrats who see animation as a kind of activity-boosterism which should present no threat to the status quo.

At the point when this definition was accepted by the CCC, Europe was in the midst of a debate on the proper role and direction of public cultural policy. Research had shown that regardless of the techniques used or the large sums of money invested, efforts to build establishment arts audiences never succeeded in involving more than the few well-to-do, educated people already interested in concerts and galleries. It became necessary to distinguish between this concern with "democratizing" established arts institutions' programs and appeal, through audience development on the one hand and promoting cultural democracy on the other.

These contrasting themes -- democratizing existing arts programs and promoting cultural democracy -- underlie most cultural policy debate around the world today.

Here's how Augustin Girard (a French cultural official active in UNESCO) has explained the first concept:

Two assumptions are implicit in the idea of the democratization of culture; first, that only high culture of sacrosanct value is worthwhile; secondly, that once the (undifferentiated) public and the works are brought face to face, cultural development will follow. These axioms entail as a corollary that priority should be given to professional writers and artists and to decentralization of the major cultural assets. (Girard 1972, 53-54)

Girard notes that this policy "results in the creation of vast 'machines,' whose 'operators' acquire excessive influence and whose fixed costs eventually dictate the nature of their artistic output; we have seen this with opera houses throughout the world and with a great many national theatres." (Girard 1972, 54)

The alternative policy is to build cultural democracy. Francis Jeanson describes this in another UNESCO-published essay "On the Notion of the 'Non-Public'" (by which he means those who don't form part of the audience for establishment culture):

[Cultural democracy] points to a culture in the process of becoming, as opposed to one that is stagnant, already there, ready-made, a sort of sacred heritage which it is only a matter of conserving and transmitting. It even rejects -- or at any rate goes way beyond -- the naive idea of a more just, more "egalitarian" division of the cultural heritage, so far as the non-public distinguishes itself precisely by its more or less marked indifference to "cultural values," which do not seem to it to bear the slightest relation to its actual problems of existence.

But, all the same, it doesn't go so far as to condemn out of hand a cultural past on which it is itself dependent and whence it draws its deepest motivations. On the contrary, its aim is to arrange things in such a way that culture becomes today for everybody what culture was for a small number of privileged people at every stage of history where it succeeded in reinventing for the benefit of the living the legacy inherited from the dead...(Jeanson 1970, 97)

Policy Imitates Art

Needless to say, these European social theorists and bureaucrats were not creating from whole cloth a new way of looking at culture: they were observing the failures of their own governments' programs, and beginning to articulate some of the characteristics a new and potentially more successful policy should have.

But if the policy of "democratization" was to be abandoned, what forms of cultural action should take its place? To answer these questions, the policymakers and critics looked to the grass-roots experiments in which artists and other community workers were already engaged.

These encompassed a wide variety of projects. Some animateurs worked as "town artists." A typical town artist might work in a "new town" setting, employed by a development corporation or city council to help local people create amenities and arts projects where they have not had the time or impetus to evolve gradually. A town artist might be a sculptor/community organizer, for instance, who lives in a house and uses a studio provided by the community, and over a period of years helps people design and build playgrounds, public squares, decorative elements for buildings, floats for local pageants, and so on.

Or an artist/organizer -- a theater worker, for instance -- might work with a tenants' group in public housing in an older community, helping to create theater that raises issues of concern and involves tenants in cultural activities with their neighbors. A resident company might evolve from this beginning.

Some animation projects undertaken by groups of organizers and community members focus on facilities which combine resources for cultural participation -- perhaps a library, meeting rooms, theater and workshop space, a bar or restaurant -- with community services like a day-care center or clinic, and places for gardening and amateur sport activities. The facilities give concrete expression to the integration of arts activities with daily life.

The idea of animation has not been restricted to arts work. Animation projects may focus on sports, after-school activities for children, adult education, health care, or city planning and public housing. Literacy education has been a big focus of animation work; learning to read means acquiring tools that can enable people to understand and act in their lives where before they had felt themselves only to be acted upon.

Animation International

In practice, animation projects today run the gamut of possibilities. The Regional Cultural Action Center in Lomé, Togo trains animateurs who then return to work in their home countries throughout Africa, where the need for trained cultural workers and administrators is seen as acute. In independent countries of the Third World, programs of local cultural development are often enthusiastically supported by government because they help to advance the aims of public policy by building literacy and developing indigenous cultural enterprises. As the RCAC's director Jacob Sou explained to us, a student might in the course of training prepare a project that involved designing a model cultural ministry and a program of cultural action. When training is completed the student may well go to work back home, translating this project into action. (NAPNOC 1980b, 5-7)

The international popular theater movement provides many examples of animation work supported by government: the new Cuban theater; post-revolutionary Nicaraguan theater, with its educational aims; Sistren, an animation theater company of women who met while employed as street cleaners under a job training and creation program in Jamaica.

Liz Leyh is a sculptor who work[ed] as a town artist under the auspices of Inter-Action, a big community arts program centered in London. One of Liz's projects in the Milton Keynes new town was a seventy-foot-long concrete painted giraffe, a play sculpture, built over a period of six weeks by some two hundred children and adults from the neighborhood.

Video artist George King was another Inter-Action town artist. One of the projects George worked on was "Sweet Sixteen," in which a group of community arts workers used the device of interviewing residents concerning their own stories of life at sixteen years of age to help create publications, theatrical presentations and video programs and gave old and young the opportunity to collaborate and interact.

The Cultural Commonwealth

All these projects share certain characteristics:

Because of these common characteristics, animation projects are supported by agencies or organizations that take some responsibility for the cultural commonwealth. Government (and intergovernmental agencies like UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) are most supportive in the Third World countries which take cultural development as a priority.

Government agencies in Europe have also established programs of training and support for animateurs. [The February 1982 issue of] Theaterwork contains an article on "Community Animation Theatre" in Canada and the Third World, focusing on a workshop that was held [in May1981]. The authors describe the differing economic situations facing various participants: "The Canadians had to worry about the survival of their theatre groups and had to compete with large theatre organizations for funding and audiences. In the third world, funding was either assured (in countries with supportive governments) or impossible." (Mwansa and Kidd 1982, 23)

In some countries, non-governmental organizations have supported animation projects; for instance, several foundations and religious groups have provided grants in the United Kingdom. Unions have been involved in animation projects throughout Europe, but their role has been to plan and participate since in such cases government support is generally adequate.

Finally, some support for animation projects has come from earned income. Especially in projects which revolve around neighborhood facilities, people have been able to earn money from bars and restaurants to support community programs.

Public Support in the U.S.

The biggest obstacle to the development of animation-type projects in the U.S. has been the lack of public funding.

Public arts agencies here generally support individual artists through fellowships or the traditional artist-in-residence model. Even in residency programs, artists are more often chosen for their slides or reviews than their commitment to or experience in community work. Those chosen are generally supported for a period of weeks or months -- almost never for more than a year -- and often the artists selected are assigned to unfamiliar communities. The conventional residency model is based on the notion that when the artist and public are brought into mere proximity, the public will be edified by the encounter. Committed neighborhood artists are sometimes able to transcend these constraints -- but to succeed despite the exigencies of government support can hardly be considered the best situation.

Similarly, most public arts agencies still see their first purpose as supporting establishment cultural institutions and programs of "democratization," rather than cultural democracy. They don't design their programs with larger cultural goals in mind. Neighborhood arts groups have so far not been able to count on ongoing support for their community work. Like individual artists who are funded through residency programs, they may be able to receive project grants, generally for a year or less at a time. And like some resident artists, they may be able to transcend, through hard work and imagination, the insensitive constraints these support programs place on their work.

It seems unlikely that the Reagan Administration will inaugurate programs of federal support for animation projects, under that name or any other. But this does seem an appropriate time for neighborhood arts people to turn their attention to state and local public agencies -- in the arts, recreation, education, housing, planning, and so on -- in hopes of building understanding of neighborhood arts as the sort of cultural action they should be supporting.

The Vocation of Neighborhood Arts

Part of this effort will be to offer an understandable explanation of the goals and purposes of neighborhood arts work, and of community animation as a vocation. To offer such an explanation we need a lot more dialogue within the movement. Which one of us hasn't had to rely on expressive shrugs and grimaces when faced with explaining neighborhood arts work to a new person?

One issue is accountability. This is a question that is of great interest to animateurs around the world. J.M. Moeckli in a CCC essay, "The Deontology of Animateurs," put it thusly:

There can only be animation in a group or in a community; the mandate of the animateur concerns a given community (a district, block of flats, the young or the elderly in a given town, the readers of a library, etc.) or a smaller and better defined group (a group of young people, a company of amateur actors, etc.). His moral contract is concluded with this community or this group, within which he is active; he is answerable to the group... This can be the unit in which cultural democracy is exercised.

In practice, neither the group nor the community signs the formal contract...; although they are the true employer of the animateur, he is recruited, paid, kept where he is or sent elsewhere and given notice by a third party ...

It can be seen therefore that the animateur has two employers: the one who engages him and the one for whom he is engaged... It is hardly possible to avoid an eventual conflict. (Moeckli 1978, 146)

While the situation of neighborhood artists in the U.S. is different from that of the paid animateur Moeckli describes, the conflict is the same: by and large, the neighborhood artist's moral contract is not with those who provide the money which supports neighborhood arts work.

This can mean conflicting loyalties and conflicting definitions of role and responsibility. In the establishment arts world, the artist who works in public programs derives authority from funding sources (for instance, there's been much talk at the National Endowment for the Arts lately about the imprimatur of NEA funding) and from reviews, awards, and credentials from prestigious sources. But the neighborhood artist/animateur derives authority from practice, from acquiring and utilizing skills, from being of use, from working with others. From Moeckli's perspective, the animateur's role is to multiply this authority, to help others acquire and utilize their own skills in exercising cultural democracy.

The traditional idea of the artist's accountability is not nearly so complex: the artist is responsible to the patron according to the terms laid down, to a personal vision and inspiration, and to the abstract idea of art, as in "I owe it all to the theater."

We are often called upon to speak to groups of students, and never have we encountered a class of theater students or painting or sculpture students whose formal education even touches on community work. All of these students are trained as if they will work after graduation in a resident theater or as gallery artists in some ideal, imaginary setting. People who choose neighborhood arts work generally do so when they become dissatisfied and disillusioned with the traditional artist's role for which they were prepared.

Neighborhood arts workers in the U.S. have by now acquired ample skills in both practice and teaching. We should be discussing and deciding for ourselves what sort of training people in our line of work need. We should be encouraging students to seek this training to prepare for neighborhood arts work without first enduring the usual fruitless and unsatisfying attempt to fit into the establishment arts model.

This doesn't mean professionalization in the sense that doctors and lawyers are professionals -- credentialed, self-policed, high-status, mystified and mystifying. Animation is less a set of techniques or a job description than it is an outlook, a framework. As G. van Enckevort has written for the CCC, "Animation is the anti-institutionalisation of cultural work." (1975, 78) He has proposed this definition of professionalization:

...a process in which activities previously carried out by volunteers or part-time workers, for a wide variety of reasons and in addition to their usual work, come to be the principal activity of paid full-time workers appointed for that purpose. This development is judged to be a positive one because through it the community discharges an essential responsibility. (van Enckevort 1975, 89)

The question for van Enckevort, as it should be for neighborhood artists in the U.S., is how to achieve this sort of professionalization -- which would allow us to share our theories and experiences, establish needed training programs, come to an agreement on questions of ethics and accountability, and earn the respect to which all dignified work is entitled -- without falling into the trap of seeking privilege and authority at the expense of others.

In another CCC essay, J. Hurstel suggests that training for animateurs should be integrated with action. Essentially, animateurs should be trained through practice. Their training should be permanent and ongoing, in contrast to the idea that at some point, education stops and one emerges as a complete expert. (Hurstel 1975, 97-99)

Thus described, we know many neighborhood arts workers in the U.S. who take their training as animateurs seriously. Our task now is to describe the training and practice which has been going on, to advance the self-definition of the movement -- so that potential supporters could be persuaded to make an investment in neighborhood arts work for its own sake, and to evaluate projects according to the values and purposes upon which they are based.

We doubt that substituting the word animateur for "neighborhood artist" would do much to clear up our irritating problems of nomenclature. But whatever names are used, we think neighborhood artists in the U.S. have much to gain by joining our colleagues around the world in advocating policies of cultural democracy and programs of support for cultural action that will help bring it into being.

Arlene Goldbard and Don Adams are writers and consultants in organizational and cultural development. They established their consulting firm, Adams & Goldbard, in 1978, and have been based in Ukiah, California since 1985.

This article originally appeared in Cultural Democracy (Number 19, February 1982), the newsletter of the Neighborhood Arts Programs National Organizing Committee (now operating as an all-volunteer organization known as the Alliance for Cultural Democracy). A revised version was published as "The Vocation of Animation" in Connections Quarterly (Volume 2, Winter 1983), the journal of the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies.

It is currently available in print in Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture (ISBN 0-9627234-0-1), a collection of 14 Adams & Goldbard essays published in 1990, available exclusively by mail order to DNA Press, P.O, Box 404, Talmage, CA 95481-0404 USA (US $13.95 postpaid).

Return to the Webster's World of Cultural Action Home Page

Return to the overall WWCD Home Page

Webster's World of Cultural Democracy
The World Wide Web center of The Institute for Cultural Democracy (Don Adams, WWCD Project Director)
P.O. Box 404, Talmage, CA 95481-0404 U.S.A.
© Copyright The Institute for Cultural Democracy 1996