The Community as the Canvas for Sustainability

April 6, 2009

Michelle Knapik, Program Director, Environment


Though our grantees welcome a visit from any Dodge Program Director, there are those moments when we can experience a disconnect – say, for example, when an Executive Director of an arts organization makes a cultural reference that “their” people get, and when the Dodge Environment Program Director’s face registers a blank, and she wishes someone would talk about conservation easements or something else she could understand (this would be me).

But there was something magical about my recent site visits to a theatre company, two visual arts organizations, and three community arts centers.   After the usual exchange about programming, organizational health, board governance issues and financial status, I whipped out the bright “Sustainable Jersey” certification program brochure  and our conversations quickly turned to the bridges between the arts community and the trend toward creating sustainable communities.


Almost everyone flipped open the brochure to see the community action areas, which included the usual suspects related to the three “Es” of economy, equity and environment: Energy Efficiency, Green Design, Land Use & Transportation, etc.   And the nearly unanimous response was, “There is no category for the arts & community.” “That’s where we need you,” I replied.

Of course, there have always been connections between the arts and communities, including public art and community arts education, but there has not been always been a conscious and deliberate connection between arts, the three Es and emerging work on regenerative community design.  For a more complete historical and scholarly paper on this subject go to the Community Arts Network reading room and read Converging Streams: The Community Arts and Sustainable Community Movements by Patricia A. Shifferd and Dorothy Lagerroos.

My site visit conversations brought in historical examples of how the arts have contributed to sustainable communities, as well as recent examples.  Take for example aboriginal theater, where nature provided the stage and scenery, and where community members used masks, song and dance (unscripted) to reflect their world view.  Or the The Living Theater Collective model from the ‘70’s, which is a community-based model for creating “transformative theater” – and might just be a business model worth returning to in these economic times.  Let’s not forget artists who use found and reclaimed materials, including the Philadelphia-based Dumpster Divers and individual artists like Eric Shultz, whose Whisper in the Woods sculpture (pictured above) speaks to all kinds of connections.  There are also artists who have associated themselves with building construction and deconstruction specialists.  This cadre of artists is creating value-added art from salvaged building materials.

One rather unique collaboration in New Jersey is Greening: Natural Connections, Growing Community, greening-buttonwhich links environmental groups to Passage Theatre.  This year Peter Donaldson performed, Salmonpeople, which is “the story of one man’s head-scratching, self-taught theories on the economics of Mother Nature and the universal question of sustainable living in America.”   The environmental groups, which included D&R Greenway, Isles, NJ Conservation Foundation, and Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, provided theatre goers with opportunities to engage in outdoor activities.  The idea is that when people experience New Jersey’s natural treasures, they will want to help protect them.

Hearing about all of these discrete efforts prompted me to think about a forum to bring artists and sustainable community advocates together.  To me, artists are key contributors to quality of life, which is a cornerstone of the sustainable community movement.  Artists also comprise a big part of the “creative class” whose members bring innovative thinking and solutions to the social, economic and environmental challenges at hand.  So, if you are associated with an arts group that would like to talk to the “Sustainable Jersey” team about “arts & sustainable community” actions and tool kits, please send me an email:  And if you would like to add your experience of the community as the canvas for sustainable development solutions, please post a comment and keep the conversation going.