How the arts gets us to turn on, tune in, and help out

Between committees on transport and whole debates on tax rates, the details of governance can be mind-numbing. That can cause would-be participants in democracy to be disinterested. That’s why democracy also has to be a culture. We have to have our hearts in the game, or we won’t bother using our brains.

“We’ve had a lot of success taking really boring topics like budgets and taxes and [getting people] interested,” says Evan Weissman, founder of the civic health club Warm Cookies of the Revolution, in Denver, CO. Last year, the group rolled out an interactive art project called “This Machine Has a Soul!” In the exhibition, Warm Cookies uses rube-goldberg machines to  both explain public processes, like participatory budgeting, while also getting residents involved in both of these processes.

Evan is using the power of the arts to build a culture of democracy and civic engagement.

Now you can, too! We worked with awesome partners at Arts & Democracy to create an Arts + Participatory Budgeting toolkit. With examples from around the US and Canada, it shares ideas on how to incorporate arts to make your PB process more engaging and impactful.

Here’s a few ideas:

Use Art to Build Community

Democracy doesn’t automatically mean community. There’s nothing about putting a ballot in a box that connects you with the person who put one in before, or after. That’s why it's important to make time and space for community building in the process, and there are few better ways to do that than through art.

We’ve seen all kinds of creative ideas. Volunteers have organized craft nights to design poster boards, decorate ballot boxes, or even have silkscreening parties. Besides being inherently fun, the group activity will spawn conversation and deeper bonds in the community, creating the kind of civic threadwork the holds a PB process together.

Use Art to Attract New People

Of course, building and maintaining community isn’t just about strengthening the connections of people who are already showing up. It’s about finding ways to invite even more people into that community, and the process. Here again, art provides an answer.

If you’ve ever swapped music recommendations, or discussed your favorite visual artist, you’re aware of the power of art to build new relationships. Striking visuals on promotional or educational materials can be a way to pique the interest of a newcomer to the PB process. The same came be said for open air festivals celebrating the process, videos that show how it works, or engaging art installations like the ones Warm Cookies puts together.

Use Art to Improve Deliberation

Finally, art isn’t just good for getting people into the process, it's good for the process. It sounds counterintuitive until you you’ve seen it in action. Innovative, intuitive graphics can visually organize proposed projects, or lay out each step of the PB Process. Folks like our friends at Theater of the Oppressed NYC have even used the theater to spark creativity during PB idea collection.

These are just handful of ideas that have been used to marry the best of PB and the arts. We’ve done the heavy lifting of finding even more for you in the PB and Arts toolkit. Click the link below to download your copy and get inspired, so you can make your local democracy more artful.