Why Create Cross-Cultural Art Experiences? A Recap

By Lauren Glass '13

Why is bringing culturally diverse art to a community important? And how do you get the community engaged in it?

These are the questions that had leaders from Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and Cityfolk talking at last Tuesday’s Creative Cultural Exchange discussion at ArtStreet.

Each of the presenters agreed that art is an important element in building community because arts events physically bring people together in one place, allowing them to share in a part of their collective culture. That ability to bring together disparate groups becomes especially important in culturally diverse areas like Dayton.

Kathleen Alter, executive director of Cityfolk, said that the purpose of Cityfolk’s art is to reflect the diversity which exists in Dayton. This allows different groups to come together, growing in understanding of one another’s culture, building a stronger sense of community ties, and leaving with a positive impression of the city and its people.

Ronita Hawes-Saunders, executive director of DCDC, added that art is not only useful to bring people together, but it’s also an important channel through which history, culture, and self-expression are taught. It challenges people to think beyond themselves, beyond their own experience, and beyond what is considered to be the social norm.

While Cityfolk and DCDC have been successful presenting art that reaches these goals, there are still increasing challenges approaching. More and more corporations leaving Dayton means a loss of corporate support for the arts in the area, and getting adequate revenue is already difficult for arts non-profits. Attracting a larger audience to events is necessary, and the leaders of Cityfolk and DCDC are constantly trying to identify problems and possible solutions in order to overcome this challenge.

One solution, which DCDC has been applying, is to partner with universities and invest in the students by holding programs which expose them to the art of dance. Education and exposure to the arts is paramount in growing an appreciation for it among society, Ronita said. Through engaging students in this way, arts organizations can discover what the students are interested in and design programming that students will want to be involved in for the future.

Although it’s necessary to cultivate an appreciation for art in order to ensure its continuance in society, perhaps art today needs a higher purpose than art for art’s sake, suggested Kathleen: “We’ll always have an audience that loves art, but we need to do more than put on a good show to build a bigger audience.”

Paying attention to social relevance and how the art is presented, then, becomes a significant part of creating art experiences for audiences. Art needs to bend and flow with the changes in society. “We aren’t just looking at what’s been done, what worked in the past, we’re looking at what hasn’t been done and then working to provide that experience to the community,” said Ronita.

But despite cultivating an interest in art and striving for social relevance in their work, there is still one other challenge facing these two companies when it comes to filling the seats: getting people to come downtown for a show. “Dayton as a city has been perceived as a negative and that’s been a huge block,” said Jean Howat Berry, education and outreach manager of Cityfolk.

Input from the audience at the discussion revealed a sense that patrons are more likely to flock to areas where they can hit up an entire evening’s worth of entertainment, including shopping and food, not just a dance performance or a concert. Many people don’t think that’s available to them in downtown Dayton. This may be the most difficult challenge to building an audience that these two arts non-profits hold.

Many people would agree that diverse art experiences are important to have in a community, and would also agree as to why they are important. But as the discussion on Tuesday showed, that’s not always enough to draw those people to arts events. The question remains: what would it take to make you come to a cross-cultural arts event in Dayton?

Lauren Glass is a senior at the University of Dayton, where she is studying journalism. Currently working as a social media assistant for ArtStreet, she enjoys music, writing, and photography.

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