Socially engaged artists use their art practices to raise awareness around social issues, and often in the context of a community. Although each artist has their own methods, some artists may specialize and become experts on specific social issues, while others respond to the challenges of each new site, community or situation. These distinctions change the ways that one might partner with a social practice artist. While some of these socially engaged artists create artworks that are more symbolic and abstract, others focus on achieving concrete impacts, like changes in the built environment or policy. For example, artist Laura Jo Reynolds' "legislative art" engages government to reform the criminal justice system and a supermax prison in Illinois (Stabler, 2016).Reynolds used her art practice to create a campaign with former and current inmates at Tamms, their families, and other artists to launch Tamms Year Ten, a grassroots legislative campaign that rallied to reform or eventually close the prison.
An artist with a civic practice will typically begin their process in direct collaboration with their non-arts partner. Through a collaborative process, the two bodies may arrive at a project. As practitioner Michael Rohd explains, "The impulse of what to make comes out of the relationship, not an artist-driven proposal" (Rohd, 2012).
Socially engaged artists work in a variety of manners, from independent art practices, to large scale collaborations with organizations. SEA and civic practices are different from more conventional art making in that the process of building and creating a project is equally important to its outcome, and in some circumstances more important. These processes often involve collaboration and stakeholders. In a SEA project, collaborators are often community members, whereas in civic practice, these collaborators may also be civic institutions, community organizations, government agencies, planners or others.
Through these participatory processes, SEA and civic practice artists are equipped with the unique skills to collaborate, facilitate, negotiate, deliver public presentations, advocate, and work with diverse populations (Cunniffee, 2016). These processes range in scale of time, some serving as temporary intervention, and other long-term projects that persist in the same place over many years (Thompson, 2011). Artists who serve in residence in government are often considered practitioners of socially engaged art and civic practice.
SE artists may engage in community participation at different stages in a process. On one end of the spectrum, a social practice artist leads with a concept and later engages a community. Often, these are SE artists who focus on specific social issues, like artist with an embedded civic practice allows creative concepts and approaches to emerge directly from dialogue with a non-arts partner. Artists working in residence within government may often operate in this fashion. Through this type of practice, an artist must remain number, able to collaborate iteratively with a wide variety of stakeholders throughout their project.
Materials & Techniques
Socially engaged artists use a wide variety of artistic mediums and cultural practices, from sculpture to photography to dance to the culinary arts and beyond. These projects may take the form of performances, transformed buildings, political advocacy, interactive events and more -- the scope is broad. Practitioners may blend their artistic practices with activism and community organizing, often creating connections between communities, the social issues that matter to them, and local institutions that help advance social change.