Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sense of Community I: Strong and Weak Ties

The Thriving Arts Report, as well as Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class and most other publications on the subject, regard a sense of community as one of the bedrocks of an artistic community—which, as that sentence clearly reveals, is a tautology. You need community to have a community.

What is generally meant is that a general community builds and supports specific communities: New York City is one community, but it is composed of smaller component communities: the New York Biking community, or the New York arts scene, or the community of people interested in astrology in New York City. Because the city supports the concept of community, it is easy to create specific sub-communities at whim. In a small town with a strong general sense of community, it is much easier to start an arts community, because it builds on that community.

It is important to define our terms, or else they become so vague as to be uselessly philosophical. Here, community is the sum of ties between people. When you have a town in which people’s ties are to each other, it can be said to have a community.

In Irvine, for instance, I personally have a few ties to other people in the city, but I literally have no ties to anyone else on my street. I have been once or twice to a block party, and I helped the woman across the street try and sell something on E-Bay, but other than that I have no ties to anyone on the street.

In New York City, I live in a part of Brooklyn called Williamsburg—also known as Hipsterburg, thanks to the particular community that lives there. I can’t pretend that I know too many of my neighbors who were strangers, but on the other hand I have plenty of friends who live in that part of town. As a matter of fact, I live there now because of the numbers of my friends who live there. It is nice to be looking at moving into a building where a fellow theater-person lives, knowing that my former roommate is around the corner and one block away and my other friends are two blocks in the other direction. When I was in Alaska, I met for the first time the ex-boyfriend of a good friend of mine who also lived one block away from this location.

So in order to build a community, there needs to be an attempt to build ties. Community-tied activities are the way to do this (for instance, I went to a quite successful Annual Cupcake Cook-off in Williamsburg).

The question is, what quality of ties are to be built? There is a distinction created by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and re-used in Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class between “strong ties” and “weak ties.” According to both, the new generation has shifted to favor more weak ties as opposed to a few strong ties. The difference between them is that Putnam sees this as something corrosive, and Florida sees this as simply part of the new economic transition into the Creative Class-dominated economy.

One of the failures of the attempt to create arts communities, which I mentioned in my last post (Needed: Secretary General), is the negative side of the “Champion” effect. An arts community is created around a “Champion,” who fights day and night for the arts community. And then they leave or die, and then the movement is done.

This is, perversely, an example of how strong ties may weaken an arts communities. After all, there is a rather high threshold to cross before one can be said to have a “strong tie.” If an arts community is based on strong ties, it will drive out those without the time or inclination to form strong ties. Thus, a champion will invest large amounts of time and effort into forging strong ties around himself. The community becomes defined by those strong ties, and when the champion leaves, those strong ties leave with them.

On the other hand, a large network of weak ties is more stable, because removing any one person only removes a bunch of the weak ties. Of course, if the network of weak ties is too small, then you’ll have a small and dispassionate community. But it is easier to build a small network of weak ties into a large network of weak ties.

In other words, it is much more sustainable to have an arts community in which everyone in the community is invested a little bit than to have an arts communities in which a few people have invested a lot. This, I think, is what the Thriving Arts Report means when it says that the strength of arts communities are not based on the strength of their organizations, but are actually structured like social movements. If you look at the life of a social movement, you’ll see that most of the members of a social movement are in fact only loosely affiliated with the social movement. They enter and leave fluidly. The movement does not demand so much of their time or attention, except at crucial junctures.

For instance, suppose you have a small network of people who start an open-mic night. Every week, people are invited to come sit in a café and read some bits of poetry. Each week, more people are present, and some person who come have a bit of poetry—their own or pre-existing, it doesn’t matter—and they read. Six or seven weeks into this, there are maybe twenty or so regulars, ten of which consistently bring poetry. The originator of the poetry reading stays for a period of time, but after six weeks is forced to leave. Let’s be charitable and say that she is leaving because her grandmother in another city is very sick. Because of the low requirement of resources, and the easily repeatable nature of the evening, the people decide to still show up the next week and read their poetry. The originator may be gone, but the poetry club has a pretty good chance of surviving.

Now let’s look at another champion who wants to create a theater community. She wants it to be a Professional theater, so she goes to the bank and to the local stores and to the municipal government, spends her time filling out grants, and eventually lands $5,000 to do a first production. She attracts a number of people who are interested in acting or crewing, and they do a big production—let’s say The Elves and the Shoemaker. This champion has strong ties to the people who have been helping her run this $5,000 theater, but she still has very little tie to the audience—she won’t until the first production.

Five or six productions later, this theater company has a regular audience of maybe 150-250. The woman herself is forced to leave (once again, let’s be charitable and say it’s another sick grandmother). Suddenly there’s a power vacuum. Are the actors going to step up to be the managing director of a theater company? Did she train someone to do the complicated jobs of hiring, balancing a budget, applying for grants? Certainly, no matter how much her audience appreciates her work, none of them can come in because the structure she created is a complicated one that requires training and knowledge to run.

The poetry group can operate like a movement: it can continue itself. But the theater company can’t operate like a movement. So not only is the Thriving Arts Report right that the strength of an arts community is based on its ability to survive as a social movement, it should further say that the complexity of an organization can hurt its chances to survive.

Obviously, in a more robust community, it is possible to keep a complex arts organization moving, because it will have a broader base of trained administrators and artist professionals to draw from. But if the community audience is not full of professional artists, it will still have a wide gulf between itself and its audience.

So if we’re going to create a Sense of Community, the arts programs should be structured in such a way that any member of the community could perpetuate it, requiring nothing more than the desire to keep it going.

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