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Putting Creativity to Work on Impossible Challenges

The following is a summary of key learnings and resources from a virtual conversation held as part of the ArtsEngage Learning Community in January 2021. The focus of this session was Putting Creativity to Work on Impossible Challenges. Find more resources from the Learning Community here.

As the ArtsEngage team has researched and tried to support arts-based community engagement work over the last several years, we have often discussed the essential nature of this work for the times we live in. We believe that providing individuals with the opportunity to both see and create art is beautiful and important in and of itself, but it is also vitally important in awakening creativity, problem solving, and resilience in all of us. These tools are essential to addressing complex social issues, including but not limited to climate change, systemic racism and discrimination, and now the pandemic.

So we went looking for projects that used art to address social problems, and we came across the wonderful Marty Pottenger. Through her organization Art At Work, Marty partners with communities, organizations, unions, and municipal governments to put creativity to work addressing non-arts-based challenges like racial discrimination, high staff turnover, labor management tensions, workforce morale, and community resilience. 

The ArtsEngage Learning Community and the ability to collaborate digitally across borders allowed us to work with Marty to craft this webinar, during which Marty both shared her work, and provided opportunities for participants to put new ideas to work in their own contexts.

As an initial provocation, Marty presented an introduction to her work and the lessons she has learned over the years, both as artist-in-residence for the city of Portland, Maine, and in forty years of projects across the United States.

“[Creativity is] vital and  inherent to who we are as humans, though it rarely gets acknowledged or considered when assessing resources.”

Taking part in a creative process can open new ways of thinking and relating to others. This is something Marty has observed in the tens of thousands of people she has worked with over the years. Based on her observations, she shared her list of  the 5 unique “powers” that she has seen creativity awaken in people:

The Unique Impacts of Creative Engagement List:

  1. Flexible thinking 
  2. Capacity to collaborate
  3. Reality-based hope
  4. Ability to hold contradictions
  5. Courage to take the risks necessary to affect change

These powers are even more essential than ever as we collectively face the opportunity to craft a more equitable and sustainable world as we emerge from the pandemic. 

Marty then took us on a whirlwind tour of some of her past projects, to provide a snapshot of her approach. These project included but were not limited to:

ABUNDANCE: America and Money - A 4-year national performance, based on interviews with 30 multi-millionaires and 30 minimum wage workers. Resulting in a touring show that engaged over 5000 people in civic dialogue on money.

Home land security - A community arts performance project commissioned by the Center for Cultural Exchange to reflect on the impact of 9/11, and a resulting Border Patrol sweep, on the city of Portland, Maine.

Thin Blue Lines: A poetry project designed to address historic low morale among police officers in Portland, Maine. Officers worked one-on-one with a poet to tell their experiences through poetry, resulting in a calendar of poems that was available to the public.

Public Works: Printmaking workshops and story circles with Public Services employees after a series of racial discrimination lawsuits. The stories undermined the idea of a “white” identity by focusing on heritage (Greek, Italian, Russian, French, etc.). Participants then carved prints, creating a ‘dictionary of rubber stamps’ used to tell their life stories. Final images were displayed throughout their work spaces.

Radio Calls and The Weeping City: Performances and dialogues following the police shooting of an armed Southern Sudanese man in Portland, Maine. Both police officers and African-born students developed performances, which were then performed together for high school students.

Hearts, Minds, and Homes -Over 200 city-wide listening exchanges about homelessness and gentrification between social work graduate students and local citizens, followed by an all day, city-wide community meeting.

After Marty’s whirlwind tour, participants were invited into breakout rooms to reflect on two questions:

  • What could be different in your community?
  • How could art support that change?

Notes from these breakout rooms were collected on Jamboard sticky notes, which were then “harvested” into one big Jamboard - a collection of ideas on community issues and how art might address those issues!

Jamboard with a collection of sticky notes with ideas from breakout rooms

We encourage you to ask yourself these questions! You may even want to organize your colleagues for an in-house read of this post followed by a listening exchange. 

Marty's Seven Tips:

  1. Identify leaders in the community you are working with. Who do people go to for help? Often those are the leaders you should be listening to!
  2. Think about the culture of the institution, organization, or community who you are working with. Then consider what art form and processes would fit with that culture. (paramilitary, union, social service, etc;)
  3. Consider your goals for the project right at the beginning - and remember that you can have both covert and overt goals! You may have goals that would not be well served by disclosing them at the start.
  4. Evaluation can be a doorway: In Marty’s experience, when people really examine what they want to achieve, even those who would never have considered an arts project may come to the realization that they have no other way to achieve their goals. By looking from an evaluation perspective (What needs to change? How can you achieve that change?), they may see that a creative process may be worth the risk. 
  5. Marty has had success in engaging someone who is extremely busy, critical of the likelihood of success of the project or skeptical of an arts process, by asking the question, “If you had a magic wand, what’s one thing you would change about the way things are here?” After asking that question, you simply listen to the answer.

After a few Q&As with Marty (which are available in the video above), we put this idea of the importance of listening into action. Participants were placed in groups of 2-3 and asked to take turns sharing their hopes, fears, and inspirations from the session. When not speaking, group members were asked to deeply listen to each other. The responses to this section made clear the power of listening and being listened to:

“Thank you for creating that listening space as a closer. It really linked theory to practice and I was astonished at how quickly people spoke their truth when they knew they were just going to be listened to.”

We wrapped the meeting with some open time to reflect and continue the conversation. The ArtsEngage team left inspired by both Marty and the participants! We want to thank everyone who shared their thoughts and feelings, and hope to continue to convene such inspiring conversations in the future.

Some feedback on what participants felt and learned:

“to look at things breaking as an opportunity to fix them, to listen rather than focusing on being heard, to meet people where they are and address what matters to them in a relatable way”

“dedication, persistence, patience and to listen”

“I was reminded of the power of the arts to effect change and impact existing beliefs”

“In a time when a dominant narrative is around isolation and social distancing, I truly appreciate this time to come together and share challenges, ideas and possibilities. The commonalities and synergies across disciplines and geographies is extraordinary!”

Resources from the Session:

Further Resources:


Community Engagement Resources from Doug Borwick

Doug Borwick is a US-based artist, arts administrator, and leading advocate for community engagement in the arts.

Nurturing Local Culture: Stories from Creative People and Places

The following is a summary of key learnings and resources from a virtual con

Turning Engagement Patterns Upside Down


Power Up

"This think-piece by Chrissie Tiller unearths and explores some of the complexities and challenges of sharing power, drawing on thinking


Why - community engagement with youth and community Choreographer Keira Martin


Case Study: The Ontario Shebang


Julius Ebreo - Leader, Producer, Director

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