Jul 19, 2017

Rethinking the Project: Melissa Kim on In/Out

by: Melissa Kim

We’ve teamed up again with Moore College of Art & Design for the third annual In/Out: A Summer Symposium on Scales, Impact and Inclusion in Socially-Engaged Art. On Friday, July 21 and Saturday, July 22, experience keynote addresses, site visits around Philadelphia, an in-depth panel discussion between students and community arts organizations, and a funder discussion. This is our third year co-hosting In/Out, and we asked Melissa Kim of LISC Philadelphia to look back on what the symposium has meant to her.

“What brings you to this work?” Maori Holmes asked that question to the engagement curators in the Closing Panel of the 2016 In/Out Symposium. It speaks to the many points of entry for socially engaged art and what makes it so powerful. Like many who attended the In/Out Symposium, I am drawn to this work through social justice. For me, a community developer, I am particularly interested in socially engaged art’s capacity to lift up voices and visions of individuals and communities, shift perceptions and perspectives, build social connections, provide skills and pathways to jobs, transform neglected spaces, and generally bring creative approaches to addressing persistent social challenges.

What about the art? This is a question that underlay many of the conversations in both the 2015 and 2016 symposia and that speaks to the inherent tension between the instrumental and the intrinsic dimensions of the work. For me, the most significant insights into this question came from Walidah Imarisha—poet, educator, activist and keynote speaker at In/Out 2015—when she compared the art of visionary science fiction and community organizing: they “are not just linked, but one and the same, as both are about collectively visioning the future and pulling those visions out of the dream world into reality.” And from Rise Wilson, Director of Philanthropy for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and In/Out 2016 keynote speaker: the “beauty of our work is really in the relationships that it creates, the structures that it interrupts and builds, and that’s our project.” This is not to say that aesthetics do not play a distinct role (because they do), but for many, the distinctions are just not that relevant. Consider Southwest Roots, Neighborhood Time Exchange, and Southeast by Southeast, and multiple projects by The Village of Arts and Humanities—collaborations between artists, community partners, and community-based or social service agencies. These Philadelphia-based projects capture the social outcomes that are typically the domain of community developers, organizers, and activists—and do so in a way that conjures and creates beauty.

Thinking about the field, these projects and others presented at the 2015 and 2016 symposia signal some exciting progress: there is a body of work from which to draw; institutions and foundations are paying more and more attention to these kinds of initiatives; and when we talk about this work, conversations have moved beyond defining or defending socially engaged art as a practice, toward understanding how to do this work better.

We are setting ourselves up for failure. I suspect we need not bigger projects, but to rethink what the project is.


For me, In/Out 2015 and 2016 were largely about case studies and proofs of concept. So: I find it timely that the themes of In/Out 2017 will be Scales, Impact, and Inclusion. Now is the time to reflect on our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and risks, so we can scale up the best parts of the work.

How could we appropriately scale our work to more efficaciously address persistent challenges and underlying systems of inequality? When we position any single project against these, the enormity of the problem will always outmatch the resources available to bring about the impact we seek. We are setting ourselves up for failure. I suspect we need not bigger projects, but to rethink what the project is. As Rick Lowe, artist and founder of Project Row Houses, explained during his In/Out 2015 keynote address, his projects “are not about the manifestation of an object, but the relationship possibilities, which can exist only in time, and once a relationship is formed, there is the possibility that something else can evolve over time.” This “something else,” which exists beyond an object, traditional project scope or grant term, is a key. How could we think about projects so they are excellent not just as singular works, but as part of an ecosystem, where each collaborator of socially engaged art is connected, building upon and replenishing another?

What is the impact we seek, the real impact? Those of us who are concerned with social outcomes continue to rely on old metrics and methods for assessing our work (e.g., number of jobs created, number of participants, revenue earned, media mentions). Measuring in this way re-inscribes the divides between the instrumental and intrinsic values of the work, for it fails to adequately capture the dimensions of human existence that matter most to us.

We need to develop new ways to understand and explain the value of this work and measure success. This requires a re-centering of what we measure, so that it is defined by the whole person and all the conditions that enable a full life, and not just by longstanding, often sector-specific, institutional frameworks. Seeing the work, its challenges and possibilities, from a human-centered point of view opens up the possibility that the communities we are working with—and their specific conditions and aspirations—define the issues, the responses, the resources, and the terms of success. Approaching socially engaged art in this way is a key to inclusion and to social justice.

To reimagine longstanding structures, models, and ways of working is no small task, but it’s attainable. This symposium is an ideal forum for these re-imaginings because it is designed to cross disciplines, explore possibilities, foster mutual learning and support—with an appreciation that these are generative activities, leading to not just ideas, but action.


Melissa Kim is responsible for LISC Philadelphia’s Commercial Corridor, Community Safety, and Creative Placemaking programs. Before joining LISC, Melissa managed the Pearl Street Project at Asian Arts Initiative and directed community economic development programs at The Village of Arts and Humanities and the North 5th Street Revitalization Project. Melissa serves as an Adjunct Professor of Planning and Community Development at Temple University. She holds a Master of Science in Community and Regional Planning and Juris Doctorate from Temple University, and a Bachelor of Arts from Amherst College.

Support for this reflection was provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Last updated: Jul 19, 2017

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