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Using Art to Inspire and Engage Communities

CCA LiveE | Sunday December 11th, 2011 | 0 Comments

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

Skoghall Konsthall in Flames by Alfredo Jaar

By Louise Derrick

I grew up in a small southern town that once enjoyed a prosperous textile industry. However the industry relocated to cheaper pastures long ago, and so many people in my hometown and similar southern towns no longer have jobs, and haven’t for some time.  The towns often lack cultural activity and a sense of community. Unfortunately, new ideas especially by “people from off ” (people from somewhere else) are often dismissed with words like “hi-falutin”.

Maybe that’s why I found this story compelling:

The workers in the Swedish town of Skoghall had employment in their local paper mill but the town was little more than a dormitory for the paper mill. The workers never saw the fruits of their labour.

A Chilean artist, Alfredo Jaar, was commissioned by the town – which had no history of art – to position it as progressive and contemporary. He convinced the community to get paper from the paper mill and built a full size concert hall, made entirely of paper. On the first night, he hosted young emerging artists from Stockholm and an opera performance. 24 hours later, he did something he had planned at the outset: he burned it to the ground.

Many people were upset because they were attached to this beautiful new structure. In response, Jaar said, “(…) it is my hope that the extremely short life of the Skoghall Konsthall will make visible the void in which we would live if there were no art.” He wanted to jolt the community into creating a place for themselves, to show them what could be. He said, “I am hoping that this combination of creativity and ephemeral existence will perhaps help define the importance of contemporary art in our lives.”

As an artist who has returned home “from off,” I find the Swedish story inspiring. Two years ago I moved home and rented a studio in the Croft Building, a historic building in the center of Aiken, South Carolina. The female inhabitants of the Croft Building are affectionately dubbed “the crazy ladies of the Croft building.” I had been living in NYC for 7 years and had to be re-introduced to certain perceptions back at home. There were raised eyebrows about this new renter that had moved in from NYC.

Reluctantly, I agreed to join the “crazy ladies” in showcasing our work in an Open House. There was so much interest, we arranged a temporary gallery in an unleased building nearby.

Since the Open House, I’ve seen sewing circles grow, art class enrollment go up, and strong interest in “what’s happening” in our building. Creating brings people together and many times is a catalyst for dialogue. My belief is that art, as seen in the mill town of Skoghall and in rural South Carolina, has the power to transform a community. We did not burn any building down (nor do I plan on it) but I keep the Skoghall story as inspiration for change no matter how small or large.


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