WolfBrown, which is one of the best arts consulting outfits out there, approached me this week with a request for examples of “excellent, new, or unusual” arts participation programs offered by nonprofits that involve adults creating or performing. Thinking that this could be a useful exercise in crowdsourcing, I offered to post the request here so that Createquity readers could weigh in. If you think of any case studies that meet the criteria, please email the details to Jennifer Novak-Leonard at jennifer@wolfbrown.com and/or respond in the comments here.

Below is the text of the request:

I’m writing to you ask if you might be willing to recommend any excellent, new or unusual examples of “active arts participation” programs offered by nonprofit arts groups (any discipline).

WolfBrown has been commissioned by The James Irvine Foundation to prepare a white paper on active participation, planned for release later this summer.  In this case, “active” means that the participant is involved to some extent in creative expression (i.e., creating or performing).  We’ve been asked to focus on participatory arts experiences for adults, not so much on arts education programs (e.g., lessons and classes) or audience engagement activities such as lectures and workshops.

Our research has uncovered many artists and arts groups who’ve been active in this area for years, but we’re looking for new and interesting examples, particularly involving arts groups for whom “active participation” has not been a priority, historically.  We’re also interested in identifying artists who are creating new work that engages audience members in some form of active expression.

Any suggestions, leads or links would be most appreciated.

  • Sarah Anton

    Two recent shows (not really audience participation projects) that come right to mind are: Nichole Canuso’ s TAKES from the Live Arts Festival in Philly last year: http://www.livearts-fringe.org/details.cfm?id=12748 and The Barn Raising that EMPAC did this past fall http://empac.rpi.edu/events/2010/fall/filament/installations/allraisethisbarn/. An older one might be http://www.unsilentnight.com/

    I might also add the Artist Rebuttal Book http://artisticrebuttal.tumblr.com/ and Knight Arts Random acts of Culture http://www.knightarts.org/random-acts-of-culture

  • I discovered a very interesting and relevant example with Houston Grand Opera (HGO) during my thesis research. A subsidiary of HGO, called HGOco, as a program called “Song of Houston: Our Stories. In Music and Words”. Based on what I have seen, it is a very unique approach to engaging one’s community and making an opera company a valuable asset to everyone there.

  • Hello! I’m emailing Jennifer as well, but I thought I’d comment here: my organization, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, works with the homeless, undocumented immigrants, and people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as teachers and high-schoolers and various other NYC populations to create original, interactive theatre productions based on their lives and tour them, free of charge, to theaters and community centers around the city. We form “popular theatre troupes” with communities that don’t often have access to either attending or participating in theatre, train together using games and exercises, and then hold “forums” or theatrical brainstorming events at every performance, around the questions of discrimination presented in the plays. Does this fit what you are looking for? We’d be happy to be a case-study!

  • Will Moss

    Two recent examples from here in Maine come immediately to mind.
    First, a community chorus I sing in, Midcoast Community Chorus http://mccsings.org/ which routinely engages over 100 singers — adults, teens and older children — in two concerts a year, was invited by a local music presenting organization, Bay Chamber Concerts http://www.baychamberconcerts.org/ to participate in a concert starring the Paul Winter Consort, singing selections from Winter’s Missa Gaia. http://www.baychamberconcerts.org/PAS1011PaulWinter.php

    I believe this is the first time Bay Chamber Concerts has invited an amateur choral group to perform in one of their concerts. And next year, they will be doing it again. Bay Chamber Concerts is presenting the Down East Singers, another amateur choral group from this area http://downeastsingers.art.officelive.com/AboutUs1.aspx to perform Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

    And speaking of Down East Singers, for their Memorial Day concert, they created Maine’s first [and, as far as we know, only] Mentor’s orchestra to accompany the singers in several of the pieces by Mozart as well as a modern choral composition. The Mozart Mentor’s Orchestra consisted of music teachers, each one performing along with their top student [the youngest of which turned 10 years old during the preparation for the concerts].

  • Michael Cichon

    When I first got to Chicago, I had the opportunity to work with a new theatre that had an excellent idea for an out-reach program. Youth & Senior Theatre Ensemble Project (YSTEP) brought together two groups of people that have increasingly lost touch with one another; youths and seniors. We worked with the local YMCA and some local senior activity centers to recruit our participants. We mixed and matched in twos or threes (most from outside their normal demographic) and had them interview each other, learn their stories and interests. From those ideas the group decided on a theme for a show. Through group interviews a story board and dialogue came into life. We had two groups and had two very distinct shows. It was a really incredible process and great to see. We also tried to make sure that those first groups (the twos and threes) stayed in touch for at least six months.

  • Cybele Garcia Kohel

    LA Contemporary Dance has some fantastic programs which outreach to their audience and allow them to dance along with them. Check them out at: http://www.lacontemporarydance.org/

  • The Wisdom Arts Lab, a small arts organization in Pasadena, CA, has an occasional open studio for adults. http://web.mac.com/abiraali/WisdomArtsLab/WAL/WAL.html

    Artist Juan Thorp conducts weekly photo competitions on his Facebook group: Found It (Urban Artifacts). People post photos of found items. Everyone votes, and winners are picked weekly.

  • At the Cambridge Arts Council, we recently opened an interactive public art exhibition called Breathe Cambridge…


    Breathe Cambridge: Installation by the Gately Youth Center
    June 20 to August 12, 2011

    Breathe Cambridge is a multi-media gallery installation created by youth from the Gately Youth Center. The installation provides an authentic public art-making experience for Cambridge youth that promotes the positive contributions of young people and connects them to community through creativity.

    The installation is an immersive and interactive experience that invites visitors learn about and participate in this multi-year public art project. Visitors will experience a soundscape that was created by Cambridge teenagers who collaborated with artists, elders, and other community members to collect diverse voices reading original poetry created with a poem template entitled “I Breathe.”

    Visitors are encouraged to learn more about the artistic process, to record their own voices to be added to the sound collage, and to bring the “I Breathe” template back to their workplaces, classrooms, and social gatherings so that the project can change and grow along with the community.

  • Perhaps you can check this article at Culturebot :
    I’m sure the writer and mentioned artists would be happy to help. Also you may want to contact Debra Singer Director of The Kitchen http://www.thekitchen.org
    good luck

  • I’m one of the leaders of an organization called The Parley, and encouraging arts consumers to create is one of our most important goals.

    One of the ways we work on this issue is an event called One Hour Magazine, where attendees have an hour to create, in the medium of their choice (most frequently mixed-media collage), as much art as possible in the course of an hour. We encourage writers to sketch, painters to try haiku, people who claim no traditional art skills to try something they’ve never tried before. Although typically we have one or two locally recognized artists in attendance as friends of the organization, they don’t lead or direct attendees in any way–they’re just another person in the room trying to expand their boundaries.

    It’s a lot of fun, and in our experience people come away from it with a renewed sense of whimsy for both their day jobs and their personal creative work.

  • In January we commissioned a study by two students at Claremont Graduate University’s Masters degree program in Arts Administration, Maria Paredes and Heather Pittman, on the subject “Building Audiences by Bridging the Pro-Am Divide.” I have sent a copy of their complete report to Jennifer (and would be happy to share it with anyone who emails me).

    Prompting this, in part, was WolfBrown research and the announcement last August by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK that they were creating a major initiative to engage the amateur theatre community there, including selecting the best amateur Shakespeare production to appear on their professional stage.

    Here is a brief excerpt from our researchers’ conclusion regarding two Orange County arts organizations’ forays into this area:

    “Pacific Chorale was able to tap into a stream of relationship building that accidentally transformed into a stream of revenue with its Choral Festivals. The goal was to give community singers an experience with the Chorale on stage at the Segerstrom [concert hall]. The response has been overwhelming year after year. Pacific Symphony is making their foray into participatory programs with the All We Do Is Play initiative. Participants, all ages and skill levels, were invited to create their own piano experience with OC Can You Play? Twenty pianos around Orange County became hubs of audience-driven content and experience that Pacific Symphony facilitated through public awareness and social media.”

  • Hannah Miller

    There is a phenomenon amongst the niche theatrical art of puppetry called the Puppet Slam that is growing in popularity throughout North America. Puppet Slam events fall somewhere between cabaret theatre and open mic nights, and are generally organized and presented by experienced puppeteers. Most are designed around the concept of inspiring new work to be developed in the field of puppetry. Often organizers source artists from other disciplines (graphic artists, writers, dancers, sculptors) as well as members of the general public who do not consider themselves artists or performers to actively participate by developing and presenting short works of puppet theatre live to audiences. Many Puppet Slam participants go on to develop their short works into plays and films. At Puppet Slams, I have seen everything from the general public: from enthusiastic but amateurish dabbling into the art to profound and elegant experiments. Puppet Slams are significantly raising public awareness of puppetry as an art via the concept of active participation–many times audience members at one Slam become the performers at the next. There is more comprehensive information on this topic, including an index of 50+ recurring North American Puppet Slam events, available at http://puppetslam.com.