Will the Emerging Field of "Social Practice" Shake Up the Arts Funding Landscape?

One of the great things about following philanthropy in the arts is uncovering new movements, trends, andfor lack of a better term"buzzwords." Sometimes these buzzwords simply swap in a different name for something that already exists. Other times the buzzword represents a new genre created out of whole cloth. And other times the buzzword ever-so-subtly merges preexisting approaches such that the end result is eerily familiar, yet simultaneously unique.

Such is the case with "social practice."

Social practice has been defined by the Los Angeles Times as "art that requires the engagement and participation of its audience." Now, if your initial reaction is, "How's that any different than a creative writing workshop or an interactive art exhibit?" we won't fault you for your perfectly valid response. But the concept of social practice has some seemingly innocuous quirks that make it stand apart, while simultaneously borrowing from other movements and genres.

To see what we mean, let's turn to Rick Lowe. He's an artist who took approximately two dozen derelict houses in Houston and, over the course of two decades, transformed them into a thriving cultural center that offers exhibition, artist residencies, and more. His efforts have been characterized as "social practice art" and as nifty bonus, it netted him a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.

Now, if Lowe's work sounds a bit like "creative placemaking," well, that's because it does sound a bit like creative placemaking. Both movements aim to transform spaces by integrating the arts, although Lowe's approach also has a strong element of social activism — a distinguishing characteristic of the form. Social art projects tend to tackle issues like pollution, homelessness, and drug abuse.

My point isn't to split hairs around definition and semantics but rather to underscore the emerging buzz around social practice art. And by "buzz" I also mean "money." SPArt, a grant-making organization based in LA, recently awarded three $10,000 grants that they themselves characterize as social practice art. Winning projects include an art-making workshop with former inmates, an interactive broadcast at an LA swap, and a collective that will create a "new space for women to learn and create."

The big question moving forward isn't whether social art projectsor whatever you'd like to call themwill proliferate. As this astute piece in Art News makes plain, the movement is gaining momentum and shows no signs of abating. Rather, the more pressing issue is whether larger, richer foundations will climb aboard and funnel money toward arts organizations that roll out more collaborative and interactive programming. Conversely, it will also be interesting to see if arts organizations, looking for a piece of the social practice funding pie, will radically alter their programming or adroitly place existing programs under the social practice rubric.

We'll keep you posted. But you already knew that.