Engaging Creative Community: Sculpting Society by Choice, Not by Chance

July 5th, 2011

Email This Page Email This Page Filed under: — Laura Leone @ 12:11 pm

By Steven Dahlberg, International Centre for Creativity and Imagination

Some creativity topics seem to get people excited and talking – e.g., creative class, creative economy, cultural community development, civic engagement.

But what is it about these concepts that animates people? And how do we tap into more of whatever “it” is to engage more people in their communities?

Sometimes the public conversation about “creative communities” gets boxed into singular, narrow aspects of creativity that emphasize arts and entertainment. “Creative class” discussions sometimes can get overly focused on who is and who isn’t included in the “class” based, say, on their job titles. “Creative economy” and “cultural community development” efforts may not look beyond the economic impact of arts, artists and arts organizations on a community. “Civic engagement” lately has centered attention on how to get baby boomers and older adults involved in volunteering more in their communities.

None of these particular concepts is ill-considered. In fact, they each contribute important ideas to developing creative communities. Yet, taken alone, these can limit what we mean by creativity and who can engage their creativity to impact communities.

Ironically, it is an artist who can help us expand our ideas about creativity and community development.

German artist Joseph Beuys spoke frequently about an “expanded concept of art” in which “everyone is an artist.” He believed that “creativity is the key to change and evolution and that it cannot be restricted to a narrow group of specialists called artists.” Rather, Beuys told an audience in 1974 at The New School for Social Research in New York:

I’m not here to speak about the particular problems of artists, but about the whole question of potential, the possibility that everybody can do his own particular kind of art and work for the new social organization. Creativity is national income.

In a similar vein, we can explore an expanded concept of creativity. Creativity is both a process – originating in people’s thinking – for imagining something and working to produce it; and an outcome. In creative community building work, this means that creativity is used to imagine and create the realities that citizens want to see; and that the presence of more creativity in general is a desired goal.

Creativity engages people. It helps focus community building on strengths and passions, rather than on deficits and negatives. Beuys described this engagement as the energy of warmth, freedom and love that both produces more creativity and is the result of people’s creativity.

Creativity isn’t just about art, either. It’s about individual people’s capacity to develop their imagination and express their innovative ideas. It’s about thinking and seeing in new ways. It’s about removing the judgments and criticisms that block people from applying more of their creative thinking.

Creative expression, of course, might be through art. But it might also be in starting or managing a business, in building social relationships, in engaging volunteerism, in learning and teaching, and in inventing new forms of self-governance.

There are many definitions of creativity. At a recent “Creativity Networking” gathering in Willimantic, Conn., community participants answered the question, “Creativity: What is it?” with several definitions, including:

  • The essence of a person.
  • The birth of new things or new ideas.
  • A new lens with which to see.
  • Expression.
  • Writing, music, art.
  • Looking in new ways, with a new purpose.
  • Having divergent, unusual ideas.
  • Producing a fresh outcome.
  • Building happiness and peace.
  • The voice inside; finding the self within.
  • Connecting things.
  • Going to a new place together.
  • Magical … elusive … copious.


These definitions begin to open the possibilities for the many different ways in which people can explore their own creativity, and then express it in meaningful ways within their organizations and communities.

Beuys constantly encouraged such a worldview. In expanded notion of “art,” Beuys said that thinking, feeling and action are all artistic, creative processes. By combining these processes of regeneration, we shape – indeed, we sculpt – society as a creative work of art. He called this process of creation Social Sculpture.

Beuys wanted people to look beyond his created objects and sculptures to something much broader and more universal.

My objects are to be seen as stimulants for the transformation of the idea of sculpture, or of art in general. They should provoke thoughts about what sculpture CAN be and how the concept of sculpting can be extended to the invisible materials used by everyone:

Thinking Forms – how we mould our thoughts or

Spoken Forms – how we shape our thoughts into words or

SOCIAL SCULPTURE – how we mould and shape the world in which we live: Sculpture as an evolutionary process; everyone an artist.

Beuys often used materials and substances to help people understand the creative, changing nature of their actions. For instance, he would use fat and its capacity to be transformed by heat to talk about how our direct involvement in our community “heats” up the process of engagement and allows new things to be created out of this fluid, chaotic movement.

One can see evidence of this in efforts such as participatory public art projects. In Connecticut, I collaborated with a visual artist to engage educators in designing and painting lamppost banners, made from recycled vinyl billboards. This project was not about developing individuals’ artistic skills. Rather, it was about getting people involved in a community project through art – no matter their skills and background. Many people created designs so that each side of each banner had a unique design. The people who painted the banners were likely different than those who designed them. This created a highly collaborative project, and contrasts with other approaches to public art projects in which one artist creates one piece of art for the public at large to enjoy.

In a similar project in Rock Hill, S.C., residents from a senior center joined high school students in painting large installation cubes made from recycled vinyl. This time, participating in community building through art enabled intergenerational conversations to unfold in a fresh way, rather than simply inviting a senior into the classroom to talk to students.

Community development happened in both of these projects not only through the tangible, visual art created by the citizen participants, but in the dialogues and conversations that happened while they were creating. The “warmth” and “heat” of these conversations were quite evident in the interactions between participating painters, as well as those just hanging out around the painting area. Conversations ranged from the importance of arts and education, to politics, families and beyond.

Beuys’ concept of Social Sculpture insists that each person has an innate capacity and desire to express his or her creativity, ideas and imagination. This urge is part of what makes us human. It is not inherently related to one’s job, status or organization, to whether one trained formally in art school – or to whether one is part of the “creative class.”

Many people do not have an opportunity to express their creativity in their jobs – even when it’s explicitly required of them. When I started doing creativity work in Minnesota in the 1990s, I constantly read about 3M as the epitome of creativity and innovation. People referred to them in presentations at innovation conferences. Business magazines touted their superiority in this arena.

Make no mistake – 3M does have lots of innovative products and people, as well as a history that has encouraged creative thinking. Yet, I regularly met employees from 3M who expressed the same frustrations that people from most organizations have – bureaucracy, excessive judgment, narrow role definitions, conflicts between technical and non-technical people, etc.

People generally want to contribute their talents in meaningful ways through their work, their learning and their community engagement. Applying one’s creative thinking, feeling and action offers limitless ways in which to actively participate in and shape the community.

When people have an opportunity to develop and implement their imagination, it tends to tap into their purpose in life. Through creativity, people are able to reconnect with what matters most to them, what they are passionate about, and what best uses their strengths. Sometimes, this includes topics and activities they haven’t considered in many years.

Having a clearer sense of our own purpose helps connect us to other people and discover where our purpose overlaps their purpose. This offers the opportunity to co-create something together that matters, and in the process, become collaborators in making real the community in which we want to live.

Social Sculpture reflects a core idea that was shared by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: from the people, by the people, for the people. This idea has shaped our country’s perceptions about democratic participation in community life ever since. Beuys recognized this three-fold idea of “from, by and for” as a creative process.

If we truly want to encourage more democratic participation, engage more people in expressing their creative selves, and increase the flourishing of our communities, we need to begin explicitly using – by choice, not by chance – the language of creativity in our community and economic development endeavors. Showing empty buildings and talking about such generalities as “redevelopment” is not sufficient. Creativity can help our communities intentionally tap into more people’s voices, embrace what’s most authentic in our localities, and better reflect the collective dreams and visions of these communities.

Now is the time for our communities to imagine what might be … and act to sculpt such a society together.



Beuys, Joseph. “Introduction” (1979) in Joseph Beuys in America: Energy Plan for the Western Man: Writings by and Interviews With the Artist, compiled by Carin Kuoni. Four Walls Eight Windows: 1990.

Bleedorn, Berenice. Education is Everybody’s Business: A Wake-Up Call to Advocates of Educational Change. Rowman & Littlefield: 2005.

Dahlberg, Steven. “Think and Be Heard: Creativity, Aging, and Community Engagement” White Paper from the 2007 MetLife Foundation National Arts Forum Series. Americans for the Arts: 2008.

Ray, Gene (editor). Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy. D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.: 2001.

Tisdall, Caroline. “Beuys in America, or The Energy Plan for the Western Man” in Joseph Beuys in America: Energy Plan for the Western Man: Writings by and Interviews With the Artist, compiled by Carin Kuoni. Four Walls Eight Windows: 1990.


Steven Dahlberg is head of the Connecticut-based International Centre for Creativity and Imagination, which is dedicated to applying creativity to improve the well-being of individuals, organizations and communities. He is currently working with a group of faculty and community practitioners to develop an undergraduate degree program in Creative Community Building at the University of Connecticut, and he co-leads the Imagine Willimantic Communiversity project, which focuses on community learning, creative community development and change. Dahlberg collaborates with artists, scientists, business people, educators and others to help people develop their creativity. He has worked with the Guggenheim Museum, UNESCO, Americans for the Arts, Heinz, the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, General Mills, Yahoo! Research Berkeley, and the University of Connecticut, among other organizations. Dahlberg is a regular contributor to various media and edits the “Applied Imagination” blog. Find out more at www.appliedimagination.org.

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