Socially Engaged Art and Civic Art Practices


Since the 1960’s a proliferation of practices have been born into being that describe different ways of improving physical places through social interventions. The wealth of words like placemaking, placekeeping, public design, public art, and others in our glossary of terms are rubbing up against each other and expanding their definitions. Art itself is no exception. This page discusses relatively new terms in literature called Socially-Engaged Art (SEA), and Civic Art that have expanded definitions of “public art” and encapsulate ways of working that can be exercised by artists and planners to improve the social conditions of their constituents.


Planning with Socially-Engaged/Civic Art

Planners can deploy socially-engaged artists to improve their communities in numerous ways. Often this form of work by socially-engaged artists that is purposefully-driven by non-artists is called Civic Art.

Planners can also create opportunities for socially-engaged artists to create work that is born from their own initiative. They can adopt zoning reforms that clear up restrictions and allow artists to use space in innovative ways. And planners can adopt artist-in-residence programs in their departments, and/or can mentor artists in other municipal agencies, encouraging artists to collaborate with government in their efforts to make art as social change.


A Brief History of Socially Engaged Art

Throughout the mid-20th century, the picture of the artist as a solitary practitioner began to shift. The 1960’s and 70’s saw a surge of artists moving away from traditional audience models, and instead using art as a tool for social impact and collaboration. Termed “community arts”, this practice involves/d “activities created and produced by and with community members that combine significant elements of community access, ownership, authorship, participation and accountability” (Cleveland, 2011). Community arts encouraged not just community representation through art practices, but community ownership of artistic projects.

This impetus to engage art to impact social change has deep roots, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the term “social practice” or “socially engaged art” began to surface. Different from previous artistic disciplines, social engaged art (SEA) is less concerned with developing an aesthetic style, and instead focuses on new processes defining art’s responsibility to the social sphere. As explained by Pablo Helguera in his seminal book Education for Socially Engaged Art, “most artists who produce socially engaged works are interested in creating a kind of collective art that affects the public sphere in a deep and meaningful way” (Helguera, 2011). The processes involved in creating socially engaged art are more participatory than other art practices and prioritize the creative agency of relevant stakeholders as well as the artist.

Although, SEA as a category of art is still a working construct, there are a few identifiable constants amongst these artists. Socially engaged (SE) artists are driven to seek social change or bring to light social issues using their art practice. They do not typically operate through traditional audience models that separate professional artists and the public or audience. Instead, these practitioners engage members of the public in the creation of artworks and focus on these collaborative processes themselves as a substantial outcome of the arts project of interaction, engagement, and co-creation. SEA assumes that artists can help generate dialogue and engagement around important issues, and that the community should be at the table when solving problems that directly affect them. The emphasis on socially-engaged processes is a defining characteristic of this art practice.

Civic Practice

Some artists further distinguish the SEA field to include an art practice that is more embedded in civic institutions. Termed civic practice, this is defined as "arts-based partnership work that is developed in service to the needs of a partner organization or agency that does not have an arts-centered mission" (The Center for Performance and Civic Practice). Rather than leading with a preconveived vision, an "artist employs the assets of his/her [/their] craft in response to the needs of non-arts partners as determined through ongoing relationship-based dialogue. The impulse of what to make comes out of the relationship, not an artist-driven proposal." (Rohd, 2012) As such, artists operating the civic context:

  1. Respond artistically to the needs of their non-arts partners through ongoing collaboration;
  2. Integrate artistic practice into civic institutions where art has not traditionally been used, and
  3. Frame artistic responses as responding to strategic needs.

Socially engaged art and civic practice art not separate practices, but rather points along a spectrum.



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 nimble, able to collaborate iteratively with a wide variety of stakeholders throughout their project.


Funding for this work can come from traditional sources listed in the Funding page, and depending on the program and outcome, may come from municipal programs such as Percent for Art. Additionally, grants for socially-engaged artists are offered through organizations such as A Blade of Grass and Creative Time in NYC.


How SEA Artists Work

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.


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).

Materials and Techniques


Both socially engaged and civic practice artists create artworks through a collaborative and participatory process that seeks to address pressing social and civic issues and to bring about change. Socially engaged art projects tend to focus on the progress made through creating relationships and engaging new players in artistic processes. These projects may not always emphasize the final product of a permanent or even temporary work of art. While the outcomes of these projects are challenging to generalize, there are examples of some documented priorities of SEA projects and links to case examples of projects that strive to advance these priorities.


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In 2017 the Helicon Collaborative released "Mapping the Landscape of Socially Engaged Art," a report highlighting the distinct features of artistic practice that works with and for the benefit of communities. The report is based on a literature review of the field and over 50 interviews with socially engaged artists as well as the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s 2015 Artist as Activist Fellows.


Cleveland, W. (2011). Arts-based Community Development: Mapping the Terrain. Washington, DC: Americans for the Arts. Retrieved April 3, 2020 from

Cunniffe, E. (2016 February 22). City Government the Latest to Embrace Artists-in-Residence. Retrieved April 3, 2020 from

Helguera, P. (2011). Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. New York, NY: Jorge Pinto Books.

Rohd, M. (2012 July 09). The New Work of Building Civic Practice. Retrieved April 3, 2020 from

Stabler, A. (2016). Legislative Art: Laurie Jo Reynolds and the Aesthetics Of Punishment. (PhD dissertation). Retrieved April 3, 2020 from

The Center for Performance and Civic Practice. (n.d.). Retrieved April 3, 2020 from

Thompson, N. (2011). Socially Engaged Contemporary Art: Tactical and Strategic Manifestations. Washington, DC: Americans for the Arts. Retrieved April 3, 2020 from