Common Sense and Common Ground

By William Cleveland

(This story appeared in High Performance #61, Spring 1993.)

At a time when many of America’s most valued cultural institutions are at risk, new relationships are being developed among artists and their communities. Through their struggles to save their threatened institutions, arts advocates have learned the true dimensions of the challenge facing them.

Many now recognize that traditional “art for art’s sake” arguments will not work in an era of diminishing resources and shifting priorities. As a result, arts supporters are beginning to articulate how the arts contribute to the challenges facing the broader community. “Art for art’s sake” is giving way to a more elemental assertion that the health of the community requires a strong creative presence at every level.

Of course this is not a new idea. Over the past two decades some of this country’s finest artists and arts organizations have been quietly establishing a remarkable record of innovation and success in institutional and community settings. These unlikely partnerships have been established in factories, jails, condominiums, corporate offices, senior centers, special schools and many other non-traditional sites. This work not only challenges traditional ideas about the arts in America, it also provides successful models from which the larger cultural community can and must learn. It is my intention in this article to contribute to that learning process. In it, I share some basic skills that have helped me and other artists survive and flourish as artists working in institutional and community settings. These strategies should not be taken as a formula for success in this work. It might be more useful to regard them as descriptive of a way of working that will give artists an opportunity to succeed in the most tentative and unpredictable environments.


One of the first points I make to artists considering work in community centers, prisons, mental hospitals, senior centers or other community or social institutions is that no two sites are alike. I tell them that it’s dangerous to generalize about communities or institutions or to assume that the way things work in one place will apply to any other. I warn them that they will encounter a different reality in each place they work.

Nevertheless, when you converse with artists who have worked in these “other places,” as I did writing the book Art in Other Places: Artists at Work in America’s Community and Social Institutions, you can’t help but become aware that there is a common ground that they all occupy, regardless of their particular constituency. The basic ingredients of this shared territory are a commitment to excellence and plain old common sense.

The best way for me to share this information is to assume that you, the reader, and the institutional or community site you are approaching are virgins. That is, neither have had a prior institutional arts experience. I will take you through the experience chronologically and introduce useful information when appropriate. My focus here will be on “inside” skills that might be characterized as diplomatic or bureaucratic rather than artistic. Other important areas such as funding and external political strategies are also not addressed here but should be considered central to the success of these endeavors.


Of the many paths that lead artists to work in “other places,” a site visit is probably the most common. I often recommend a visit as a painless way for artists to satisfy their curiosity and, more importantly, to check out their own reaction to what is often a very alien environment.

By suggesting a visit, I don’t mean just showing up and assuming someone is going to be able to accommodate you. The best way to find out what is going on inside a hospital, prison or a community program is to call or write, asking for a tour. Most will be more than happy to show you around.

As a result of a visit, some people experience a strong negative reaction to institutional environments. That is to be expected. There are many discomforting things found in these places. One of the purposes of your visit is to measure your expectations against reality and, quite simply, to find out if you can handle it. Most of these places are not horrible and depressing. They will, though, be very different from what you are accustomed to, and there is often an intensity that can seem overwhelming. And then there are some institutions that are in bad shape. It is best to find out how you are going to react to these conditions before you consider further involvement.

When you visit use your artist’s eyes and ears to filter and evaluate your impressions. What do you see? What do you feel from the place? Is it open or closed physically, emotionally, spiritually? How does the staff interact? Do they take the time to speak to you? How do they communicate to the clients? Are they tired, hassled, burned out? Are they alive, energetic, friendly? Consider the facilities. Are they clean? Do they seem efficient, controlled? How about the clients, or patients. Are they healthy, alive, active? Make these and other observations. This may seem a lot to ask of a simple, often closely supervised jaunt around a facility. It can and should be done, though, if not on this visit then on subsequent ones.


Okay, you have made your visits and you have decided to introduce yourself formally to the site you have your eye on. You feel you’ve learned enough about the facility, staff and clients to begin talking to the powers-that-be about doing an incredible project. You shove your portfolio or tapes and resume under your arm and put your hat on and away you go. Right? Wrong! You have quite a few questions to answer and lot of work to do before you are ready for that.

To begin with, who is it you are going to see? Do you have an appointment? How much time have you with them? Five, ten minutes? And most importantly, what are you going to tell them? Specifically what is it you are asking them to let you do? And who are you? Are you qualified? Finally, how do you look? Here are a few more basic things to consider before you charge out the door.


Prepare: Consider the questions above and those that follow before you find yourself sitting in a busy program administrator’s waiting room, waiting and waiting. Although it may not turn out to be the case, you should anticipate sitting across the table from a middle-aged, overworked, underpaid, burned out, at-one-time idealist bureaucrat who has a latent fear of artists and art. You should be prepared to convince him or her that it will be in their self-interest to commit a portion of the facility’s already overburdened resources to you and your project. Thus prepared, you will have a less than fifty-fifty chance of making your case successfully. Without this groundwork you probably won’t even last five minutes.

Research: Through your site visit and from other sources—the library, a university, a friend or even the book, Art in Other Places—you should have learned something about the history and current status of the site you are approaching. The most valuable piece of information you can take with you on your interview is a sense of the place. What are its problems, achievements and needs? With this information you can develop a program that is responsive to the institution’s point of view.

Self-Interest: Keep in mind that self-interest drives the bureaucracy. Bring a brief narrative description and an outline of your project that simply and clearly states what it is you want to do and how it can contribute to the administrator’s mission. Notice I say “administrator’s mission” and not necessarily the overall mission of the facility. You hope these are one and the same, but this may not be the case. Also, make sure that whatever you have proposed aligns with your goals as well.

Impressions: If self-interest is the number one driving force of the administrative life of a program site, impression is a close second. By impression, I mean the way things appear, rather than the more objective, and seemingly reliable, “the way things are.” While it is true that administrators and program staff generally communicate in bottom-line concrete terms about their work and the services they provide, many institutional decisions and attitudes have their basis in subjective impression. Some say that in the bureaucracy, impression is reality. While that statement is subject for debate I say assume that it is true and you have a better chance of making a good first impression.

To do that, it is important the artist recognize many people have a very narrow, stereotypical idea of what an “artist” is. The image of the sloppy, wild-eyed, undisciplined, bohemian artist still lives in the minds of many. Some artists and the media help to feed this impression. To the average person this image is considered romantic or comical. To the administrator or program director responsible for clients who are “crazy,” “incontinent” or “violence prone,” whose universe is dominated by federal and state rules and regulations, law suits and union negotiations, there is a distinct possibility that you will be seen as a nuisance or a threat. Add to this the real anger some hold toward the high-profile, elitist art world and you can see that artists have their work cut out for them.

This situation, of course, will not always be the case, but it is best to be prepared. To mitigate a possibly negative reaction, use common sense. Dress conservatively. Be yourself, but try to stay away from the “image.” Communicate clearly and succinctly. Don’t edit out your passion, but temper it with the concrete. Show examples of your work. Show your knowledge of your field, and of the administrator’s field. Ask questions. You are talking professional to professional. Command respect. If you are sent packing, so be it. If you generate interest, you have begun on the right foot. If you feel these few suggestions may cramp your style, then maybe this type of work is not for you.


I’m going to jump forward now and assume that your proposal has been accepted and you are ready to begin establishing your program. Ideally, you have been able to build to this point in stages. By that I mean both you and the site have had the opportunity to establish a relationship through increasing increments of commitment, beginning with a one-time workshop or a short residency and building to a project lasting a year or more. Unfortunately, this does not often happen. Regardless of how you start out, here are a few things you can do that will help you build a solid base for your program.

Introductions: Some advise starting at the top and working down when making introductions. I say, start at the bottom and you will learn more on your way up. Begin with the bottom-line program and maintenance staff. In many institutions these people are called “line staff.” Tell the line staff who you are and what you’re going to be doing. Introduce yourself as a newcomer and inquire if you can ask their advice when you have questions. Then get them to tell you something about what they do. Listen hard. Assume that some time in the future the success or failure of your project will depend upon their cooperation and skill. This may sound dramatic but it will probably prove true.

As you meet your fellow workers, try to imagine what it’s like for them in their jobs. Get an organizational chart and a description of the various job titles and responsibilities. Compare what you read with what you are hearing. Once again, call upon you artist’s sensibilities to construct a picture of the formal and informal relationships that hold the site together or threaten to tear it apart.

Listen: In these first few days you will probably hear many stories. Once again, listen hard. You are hearing the institutional memory. Many of these stories will contain snatches of what I call the “prevailing winds.” In the wind, you may hear something about staff morale, the director’s expectations or an impending crisis. Listen, and you will learn something about the prevailing work ethic and program philosophy. Over time, the stories you gather will tell you much of what you need to know in order to survive in your new home.

It’s important for you to recognize that during your introductory tour your fellow workers are meeting you, too! Think of this as your second round of interviews. The very fact that you are taking the time to talk and not asking for something is a plus. For many of those you are talking to, though, their bottom line will be quite simple: Can you be trusted and how much extra work is your program going to mean?

Generate Trust: Opinions about your trustworthiness will be formed as a result of the way you operate in the early going. The hard part for you will be to realize that your professionalism and years of training will not legitimize you. The majority have no idea what an artist does. If they do know, in the context of their work they probably place little value on it. Your credibility will be based upon the respect you pay to their turf. For the first few months you are the student, and your fellow staff members are your teachers. The more questions you ask of your co-workers, the more you validate their knowledge and the more they will learn to trust you. If they perceive that you are going off half-cocked, they will bury you.

Face Reality: Any new program means more work for others. The staff will know this. They also know that you need them more than they need you. I have always felt the best approach in this situation is to meet it head on. Speak to the people whose services you will be using the most. Try to learn what works and more importantly what ticks them off about their job. At some point, communicate your awareness of what it means for a new program to be coming in and indicate your willingness to do anything that will make their job easier.


Now that you have set the stage it’s time for you to begin doing what you came to do. As I said before, you have been the student. By this time you are probably itching to move into familiar subject matter and establish your own identity in this unfamiliar place. As with earlier pioneers, you are feeling your territorial imperative. That’s good! Insecurity is a powerful motivating force. It would be helpful to remember though, that the valley you have moved into has already been settled. At this point you are a squatter. Here are a few things to keep in mind while you are setting up shop in your new neighborhood.

Perspective: Here it is. You and your students are cogs in the institutional wheel. You can’t get where you want to go unless you learn to work the wheel. Your students know that. They will want you to know it as well. Your goal is to end up in a classroom with your students, unencumbered, so that you can teach. The folks who are in charge of the machinery that turns the wheel grant you that privilege, not your students. This is a hard perspective to keep. But try.

Often, with visions of organizational charts, job descriptions and institutional protocols swimming in you head, it is hard to keep in mind why you came to this place. Don’t lose your vision! At times, you may need to think like a bureaucrat but you must learn to shed that skin once you hit the classroom. Your power comes from your art and your ability to teach. You and your students can transcend the institutional wheel through the knowledge and skills you have come to share. For you to be successful, the passion and excellence you embody must have a forum, a place to shine. If you find yourself regularly compromising your own standards, question what you are doing.

Assess: Now, the students. Who are they? Where are they? What do they want? What do they need? In the vernacular of the bureaucracy it is time to do a needs assessment. Depending on the size of your potential student population there are a number of approaches. Become a cultural anthropologist. Find out what the “clients” of your facility think and know about the arts. The reactions will probably range from puzzlement, to anger, to “expert” criticism. Also, find out what is already going on. If you are barging in on someone else’s turf engage them as potential partners, not adversaries.

Respect: Regardless of what you find, it is important to recognize that you are joining an already existing culture, not establishing one. If you see yourself as a cultural missionary or a benevolent fixer of ravaged souls, you are probably barking up the wrong tree. Respect the people you are working with until they give you reason not to. It is crucial that you remain open and nonjudgmental about what you learn from, and about, your prospective students and staff. If you are not, they will know it and probably freeze you out. There is great power in neutrality. By neutrality I do not mean being numb, or uncaring.

Think Small, Slow, Less: Yes, it’s true. In most institutions, small or large, it does take five to ten times longer to get anything done. I know, as an artist, you are used to being in control and setting your own pace. You will probably not have that luxury working in an institution. You must learn to be patient without losing your creative edge. This is one of the ultimate tests for a highly motivated, independent artist working in an institution. Try to think of it as another rhythm. As you learn the ropes, the beat will quicken, a little. In the beginning, the snail’s pace is to your advantage. You may be starting to feel at home, but you are not. For your own protection, you need to steel yourself to thinking “small, slow and less.” Your first class or project must be designed for success. It is your debut. If you trip over your gown, your fall may be a long one.

Design: At this point you are probably rethinking your plans. You know your subject. You know what works. If you are considering a change, don’t alter the heart of what you came here to do. Your program should be geared to your needs as well as your students’. Although you are a novice and a stranger outside of your classroom, when you are in class you are in your element. Make the best of it. Any modifications you make should relate to pace or schedule, not content or quality. These are your standards, your credentials. Don’t compromise them.

Educate: Once you start, you may feel some pressure for quick results or “large numbers” (i.e., art shows, concerts, large class sizes). Resist with all your might. A way to avoid this is to present your program design ahead of time as a plan or curriculum. If you are lucky, the powers-that-be will buy into it, right off. It will help to remind them that you are not a baby sitter, therapist, English teacher or custodian. Later, when someone presses you to build a booth for the county fair or produce a mural in the next two weeks, your approved plan may help you avoid being dumped on or taken advantage of. But if you are pressed don’t be surprised. Remember, most of the people you are working with will have only the vaguest idea of what you are doing there. Keep in mind that your definition of quality will probably not be shared by many of the people who have invited you here. It would be unreasonable on your part to expect otherwise. Your requests for adequate preparation time or proper materials, may in fact give rise to resentment. It is up to you to educate your co-workers as well as your students.


Once you have established your program as a regular and consistent activity, its survival and growth are almost totally dependent on how well you communicate. There are many methods of communication used in institutional and community environments. The following are some traditional and non-traditional modes of communication common to organizations.

Conversation: Understandably, information, reliable and otherwise, is most often shared through informal conversation. As I mentioned before, you can learn a lot from the stories and complaints of workers and clients. Taken with a grain of salt, lunchroom or coffee break chatter will probably be one of your best sources of information. Join in. Conversation is a good way to transform yourself from “the art person” into a human being and inform people about your program. These informal situations can also be good places ask questions or test the water with new ideas.

Rumor: Rumors are an integral part of community and institutional life. For staff and clients, who are far removed from the place where decisions are made, they can be both informative and entertaining. They can also be dangerous. There is usually some element of truth in every rumor. Good management will be aware of the current story making the rounds and will act to quell or clarify. Poor managers will be oblivious or ignore what is often a good indicator of problems, real or perceived. The source and nature of rumors will also tell you a lot about the morale of the place you are working. Most importantly, when you hear a rumor that involves or impacts you or your program, don’t panic. Quietly go to those you trust and try to find out what is really going on.

Meetings: If you are asked to attend a meeting you may be beginning to make your presence felt. Being invited to meetings is a sign of bureaucratic recognition. The best meetings are short and informative. The worst go on forever. If you can, try to avoid the latter. Meetings are often very good places to learn what is going on in the institutional world surrounding your classroom. Once again, listen and learn. As you do, pay attention to the way people relate during the meeting. You can learn a lot watching the interpersonal dynamics occurring among the participants. Before you decide to take an active role in a discussion, have some idea what it is you want to accomplish by doing so. If you have a problem, be prepared to offer a solution. You will probably be one of your best sources of information. Join in.

Memos: As alien and distasteful as it may seem to some, the memorandum is often the most effective way to pass on information in an organizational setting. Judiciously used, memos can be a particularly useful tool for “outsiders” or “program types” who are assumed to be bureaucratically unsophisticated. Memos are often used to reiterate or clarify an agreement made in a meeting or informal conversation. A written reminder can come in handy when you find your verbal requests being ignored. Memos will catch the attention of the reader and provide a record of your efforts. They can also be used to keep higher-ups informed about the progress of your program, or to point out future problems and recommended solutions. Finally, when you receive a memo, read it, don’t trash it, then follow up.

Events: For various reasons institutions often want to create a product or event of some sort. Conferences, community meetings, publications, videos, staff retreats and holiday celebrations are but a few examples. Activities such as these are significant because they are visible and leave a lasting impression. There is nothing that you can do that holds a greater potential for positive payoff or devastating failure than participation in a special project of this type. Think long and hard before you accept a major role in a high-profile institutional event. If you do, try to make sure you have some degree of control over your part of the project and do a good job. Remember, because you are an artist you will be expected to perform miracles.

The best event to undertake is your own. Nothing promotes the value of an artist’s work better than an artist’s work. In the often difficult institutional environment artistic events or products created by your program can provide a breath of fresh air. They will also leave a clear and lasting impression of what your program is all about. For many who live and work in your site, your art program will not exist until they can touch or see it. An exhibition, production or publication may be the only means available to you to truly communicate how the arts translate to their needs. Once you have established yourself “inside,” these activities can also be used to provide a unique bridge between the site and the greater community.


Much of what I have shared in this article has been about developing good working relationships with clients and fellow staff members. Whether you are a visual artist, a performer or a writer, the success or failure of your project or workshop will depend almost entirely upon your ability to earn the trust and respect of these people. As you work to gain acceptance for your program, there are some people who will be particularly important to your project. These are individuals who have the ability to help or hinder your progress.

Line Staff: Line Staff of course is not a person but rather a category of workers. In a prison the line staff are the uniformed correctional officers. In a mental hospital they might be called psychiatric technicians. Nurses and nurse aides fill the line staff role in hospitals and convalescent facilities. The vast majority of social service and community agency managers will tell you that their line staff are their most important workers. Their jobs are often referred to as “being in the trenches.” These are the people who are responsible for the majority of the ongoing activity taking place in your site. They will bear the largest portion of the extra work that will be generated by your program and whose cooperation you need the most. It is vitally important to cultivate a good working relationship with them.

Your Supervisor: You will probably have no say over who supervises you. Actually, if there is someone assigned to look after you, you are ahead of the game. Often, particularly at smaller sites, the supervision of the resident artist is not a major priority. If you do find yourself playing the “lone ranger,” you may end up isolated and uninformed. In some instances this can be a blessing, but having a supervisor in the chain of command is usually preferable. Ideally, a good supervisor will act as your organizational guide and will advocate your interests with the powers that be. In order to do this effectively he or she must know what you are doing and why you are doing it. When you have a problem or a need, present your supervisor with all relevant information and suggest a solution if you have one. Most importantly, your supervisor must feel that it is in his or her self-interest to go to bat for you. Your job will be to convince them of that.

The Benevolent Expert: Within institutions large and small there are basic administrative activities that require specialized knowledge and training such as finance, procurement, maintenance, personnel and contract management. If you are very lucky, it will be someone else’s job to make the bureaucracy respond in your moment of crisis. This seldom happens, though, and left to your own devices the administrative jungles can be very confusing. Often the only way to make sense of it all is to enlist the help of a benevolent expert or two. This is someone who knows his or her way around the bureaucracy and can get things done. Fast. These people are so important that you should be cultivating them from the first day you arrive. Don’t make the mistake of asking for their help at the last minute.

The Arch Enemy: No matter how hard you work or how cooperative you are, there is the possibility that someone in your facility will resent your presence enough to try to disrupt your work. At first there will be a number of people on site who feel that your program is a waste of time. This is to be expected, given the often difficult living and work conditions that exist in many facilities. In time, most will come to appreciate your contribution. Occasionally, though, there will be someone who will go out of their way to make life difficult for you. Regardless of how prepared you are for this, it will probably come as a shock. Don’t panic and, more importantly, don’t take it personally. Feedback from others you trust will help you learn to recognize the difference between staff or clients who are incompetent or overworked and those who are truly out to get you. If the going gets rough, it is even more important not to try to go it alone. No matter how bad it gets, don’t be tempted to respond in kind to your arch enemy. The last laugh will probably not be yours if you do.

The Guardian Angel: One of the best ways to avoid getting in trouble is to have someone on staff who will go out of their way to help and protect you and your program. The ideal guardian angel, as I call them, is a veteran senior staff who really knows the ropes and is willing to share their knowledge and use their influence on your behalf—someone to whom you can go to with the most difficult and sensitive problems. Needless to say, a guardian angel is invaluable. If you are lucky enough to find one, be careful not to abuse their generosity or take them for granted.

This article is meant only as a primer and can in no way adequately prepare you for work in a social institution or community site. Hopefully, if you are working or are considering work in a social institution or community site, there are those in your community who are experienced in this work to whom you can talk. Good luck!

William Cleveland is Director of the Center for the Study of Art & Community. He has pioneered numerous institutional and community arts programs including Artsreach Community Artists, California Arts-In-Corrections and California State Summer School for the Arts. A musician and author, the new edition of Mr. Cleveland’s book, Art in Other Places: Artists at Work in America’s Community and Social Institutions, was recently published by the University of Massachusetts’ Arts Extension Service.