Nicolle Bennett & Sifiso Maposa: A Conversation

By     Jul 21, 2014

Field Notes

These articles were originally featured on Field Notes, National Arts Strategies' ArtsJournal blog where we mine, distill and contextualize ideas; provide frameworks that anyone can use; and offer everyone in the field the opportunity to discuss the underlying issues.

This week we will be featuring conversations with leaders working in communities. Nicolle Bennett, is currently working with an arts education and advocacy organization called Feel the Music! She is developing a technology platform for artists, community-based organizations and policymakers to connect in a more meaningful way. Sifiso Maposa is a social entrepreneur working in the culture and creative industries. Based in South Africa, she is creating a digital platform that connects the creative industries of Africa to each other and to global networks. 

Welcome to our conversation on the arts, community, placemaking and how our ideas on these topics, many of which overlap, have culminated into our respective projects that are seeking to create networks or “places” that advocate for the arts and artists. We each thought about and wrote out our initial responses separately, then came together to react and have a dialogue. We welcome additional comments!

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How do you define “community?”

Sifiso: Community to me means a close-knit group bound by geography, values or fate. Community implies sharing and understanding.

Nicolle: For me, community is a place where one feels connected to others; a place where one can develop and contribute as an individual to the collective good (community being different from uniformity). The development of the individual, in my mind, leads to development of the community. I think this definition lies at the heart of what I feel to be the nexus of community development and revitalization - a place that allows full development of the self, which leads to a bond with and interest in others. In our quest for community, we have come to develop “communities”within “communities,”where people with mutual interests are often silo-ed from one another. What better way than through art, an opener, evoker, and connector - to bring us back to the sense of community we are longing for? The very elements that are thought to be needed in order for community-level change to occur, i.e. the building of social capital, coalitions/bridge-building, and a joint capacity for collective action, are natural extensions of our interactions with art. What is art but an expression of humanity, one that leads to a sense of purpose and outcome for the community? And it is hard to have purpose without expression, creativity, and/or innovation.


How do you see the role of cultural entrepreneurs like you in the community?

Sifiso: I see the role of cultural entrepreneurs as very important in communities. I believe that cultural entrepreneurs not only promote innovation but also promote economic growth through the businesses and organizations they work in. We influence young people to see the creative and cultural industry as a viable professional choice. Cultural entrepreneurs inspire originality and creativity in their communities.

Nicolle: As a cultural entrepreneur, I see myself as a connector, a facilitator, and one that considers the big picture; one that recognizes and communicates the value of the arts to others (particularly other sectors), one that recognizes and hopes to connect the arts to what is already happening at the community level - not forming a separate community per se, but facilitating and creating partnerships. One that allows the arts, artists and the members of a community a voice, and connects artists to the people and communities they care about.


Why do you think people are talking about creative place making so much now?

Sifiso: Because people are now realizing the creative potential that already exists in different communities and the importance of leveraging this potential. By getting everyone who is involved in arts and culture their communities, out of the silos they exist in, communities can mobilize for social change. There is a sudden realization that change, participation, support can and should come from within communities.

Nicolle: I think people are longing for a sense of community and connection, and where else can you find that but in creative place-making? Over time, we as a society have shifted from an experiential to an informational culture, and are now heading back to a longing for connection and community; whether through the “sharing movement,”the evolution of the Internet from a network to connections on a more local and human scale, or our focus on relationships, people are finding new ways of sharing and creating more purpose and meaning for ourselves and each other. Place-making, in my view, is a participatory action that needs to occur on all fronts; and can be more collectively empowering when it is focused on process. I see it less as making a separate place for creativity to take place and more as creating space for creativity in social life, along with exchanges of new meanings that can catalyze change.


Talk about the work you’re doing in your community: What was the catalyst for this work? What started you on this journey?

Sifiso: Connecting people within the cultural and creative industries to overcome the ‘silo’effect is the work I do. This initiative connect creative entrepreneurs to opportunities within the continent and globally.  The catalyst was my passion for arts and culture and the big role this industry can play in communities of Africa. What started me on this journey is a combination of my background in online and digital communication as well as a desire to use technology for the benefit of arts and culture in my continent.

Nicolle: I began this journey in graduate school, where I first sought to answer the questions “what does art do, why does it effect me so?”and “what/whether/how can art contribute to social change on a large scale?”As we know, much of the focus on art’s benefits relate to instrumental benefits, or those that can be attributed to factors other than the arts. That has led to a focus in research on art’s intrinsic, or inherent benefits, such as benefits for the individual (empathy, evocative) and the question of how those benefits potentially lead to social/community level benefits (by allowing us to see possibilities, create social capital, and make connections). Creative place-making can be one way to begin to bring back the idea of “aesthetic experience”of art as an extension of human existence and to have an experiential relationship with the community.

My continued quest to study, communicate and apply art’s value, coupled with my interest in and work within the social sector, led me to my current work at Feel the Music!, a music education organization focused on providing free, professional participatory workshops to vulnerable populations (those affected by illness and/or marginalized by age or socioeconomic status). This organization, begun by an artist in response to 9/11, originally began with an idea to organize a concert to benefit families, friends, survivors and first responders. What resulted, though, was a response from the community to participate themselves - and to keep participating. This not only eventually resulted in multiple workshops and community partnerships, which continue to this day, but the bringing in of other social services for those who needed them - it simultaneously created individual healing while benefitting, extending to and expanding the capacity of the surrounding community, and to this new community that had been created as a result of 9/11. The great work of this organization continues to extend to hundreds of children, families and seniors in the New York City area, while seeking to advocate for the role of the arts in creating community and positive change.


 What is the driving force? What continues to motivate the work?

Sifiso: The driving force is purpose, desire and a passion to connect people with opportunities that lead to social and economic change for them and their communities. My motivation is seeing the cultural sector becoming an important art of public policies and conversations about development.

Nicolle: I am hoping to further research, define, and communicate the value of what we do to even more populations; expanding the partnerships that we currently hold within the community, which is the sole way that we operate. In the course of this work, in speaking with community partners and with our teaching artists, there seem to exist many disconnects - between community members, between organizations, between funders and those they are looking to serve, and for artists looking for outlets to contribute, to have a say, to do more in the community, and/or to mentor but are not sure how (and who also have to make a living). Also, in talking to professionals at organizations such as the World Policy Institute and Roosevelt Institute, there is a hunger for innovation and the involvement of the arts as these organizations look to solve policy problems in new ways. This prompted me to begin to think about, for my project, the creation of a network that allows artists to connect with those making decisions - to be involved in prevention, to be a voice, to be integral to the community; to become connected both with what is currently happening in the community and with a source of action. Ultimately, to create a network that stimulates existing communities (rather than creating separation).


Who is it for? Who benefits from this work?

Sifiso: It is for young people in the creative industries across different communities in Africa, creative practitioners and organizations in Africa and abroad. Individuals, families and communities will benefit from this work.

Nicolle: Who benefits, from both the work I am doing in my community and the work I hope to expand upon with this project? Individuals, who are seeking an expressive outlet, to be evoked, to be distracted, to be expressive, and/or to be respected; artists who are looking to do more, along with community-based organizations that need better connections with those making decisions that affect them. Technology, through its new sense of locality, creates a place where even more creative exchanges can occur and connections can be made. I see creative place-making as not only physical space, but virtual, as we grapple with and move away from the information age and (hopefully) back to a sense of community.


What is the role of cultural entrepreneurs like you in the cultural sector?

Sifiso: To create innovative ways to tackle challenges faced in the different contexts we find ourselves in. To influence communities positively and to highlight the importance of this sector.

Nicolle: I see my role in the cultural sector again, as a connector; connecting fields as well as arts institutions, which are also important, to this work, which is often completely separated from the museums, the large theaters, etc. There is often a large rift between large arts institutions and the small arts organizations in communities; not only in the amount of funding received but in the amount of connection to the community. I see my job as a cultural entrepreneur as both an advocate for the positive impact of the arts and as a facilitator to get artists and others involved.


When you hear the terms “cultural sector”or “arts and culture field”do you feel that includes you? Why or why not?

Sifiso: Yes, I feel that includes me. Although I am more of a facilitator for arts and culture projects, I think I would fall under this sector as my work is dedicated to making a difference and contributing to the arts and culture field.

Nicolle: Oddly enough, my instinctual answer was no - not because, in reality, I am not working in the cultural sector, but because I’m so interested in the social aspects of the arts and the mutually beneficial relationship between the sectors (and have worked in the social sector for so long) that I ultimately labeled myself within the “social sector.”It’s an interesting question that demonstrates the ingrained divides between sectors that I previously mentioned.


 Finally, fill in the blank: Creative/cultural work makes communities _______.

Sifiso: Stronger

“Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected”–William Plomer

Nicolle: Creative/cultural work makes communities, communities. The humanity inherent in any cultural work is the essence of community.