This is a short overview of my full article for the Arts Policy Library.

Informal Arts is a series of case studies on the little-researched topic of adult participation in informal arts. By following twelve groups ranging from a quilting guild to a hip-hop collective, this 431-page report delves into the social and artistic value created by people actually making art.

The study found that:

  • The informal arts bridge differences. People from all walks of life participated, and people of different ages, genders, occupations, and incomes worked together artistically. The authors say that this was possible because the barriers to participation were so low.
  • The informal arts build capacity for community building. Participants reported getting better at giving and receiving criticism through their artistic activity, and some became more involved in their communities.
  • The informal arts benefit the formal arts, and vice-versa. Informal groups can be incubators for new artistic directions, and formal institutions provide training and inspiration.
  • Informal arts groups are present in many areas of Chicago, including areas like the Southside that aren’t traditionally known for artistic activity. However, even within those communities, not many people know about those groups.

I think that this report is pretty amazing in detail, and eye-opening in revealing how and why people participate in the arts. It was particularly surprising that none of the case-study groups met in a formal arts institution; they met in churches, libraries, parks, or private homes. The demographics recorded in the report defy the stereotypes of who participates in amateur arts groups.

The lesson for the arts and policy sectors to take away are:

  • The arts don’t just have an economic impact. Adults (not just children) creating art has an intrinsic value, too.
  • Formal arts institutions are not the only sources for art.
  • In a world of social media, the pro-am revolution, and “the long tail,” the number of people wanting to create art is not going to decrease, and the extent to which they want to participate will probably increase.
  • Formal arts organizations should become more involved in the informal arts if they want to thrive in the future.  They can do this by:
  1. Enabling informal arts groups to do what they do, or
  2. Directly engaging in the informal arts through sponsorship and partnership.