Evidence of Impact: Making the Arts Community an Essential Part of Local Emergency Management

By: Kathy Francis, MS, CEM, MDPEMP

Disasters are becoming more frequent, intense, and complex, and require the engagement of all aspects of society. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has embraced the whole community concept throughout all of the phases of emergency management. Communities are becoming more adept at connecting the public and private sectors to address the many challenges of ensuring safe, resilient communities. As we continue to learn, train, and respond together as whole community teams, we greatly improve our services and ability to respond and recover from catastrophe.

As 2017 emerges, reflect upon the breadth of your public-private partnerships. Are you adapting and growing with the lessons learned from recent disasters across the globe? I encourage you to consider involving the arts community in your local emergency management planning, and especially involving them in your public-private partnership efforts during all phases of emergency management.

The American Society for Public Administrators advises that “the size of the gap between organizations’ response to a crisis and citizens’ expectations determine the success or failure of governmental crisis management performance” (Christensen, Laegreid, & Rykkja, 2016, p. 889). Closing the gap, achieving, and managing expectations of all stakeholders is challenging. Communities are beginning to recognize the unique value of the arts community in emergency management, particularly its value in protecting, cultivating, connecting, and restoring cultural prosperity.

Cultural prosperity is critical to long-term recovery efforts. As disaster response actions fade away, critical services are restored, and communities are resettling, who addresses the connection between the old and new communities and the new culture that emerges? Long-term community survivability and resilience must include this cultural recovery component.

Cultural Artifact Recovery

As the disaster relief workers restore the built, essential environment, the Arts instill a sense of hope and optimism, reduce feelings of isolation by strengthening the connection to place, and restore the community identity and spirit. “The power of art to restore some wholeness to psyches and souls shaken by disaster has emerged as the major leitmotif in artist-led recovery efforts” (Spayde, 2013, p. 2). The Arts workers connect people and things from the old to the new environment and create a sense of unity. They help define the culture of neighborhoods, cities, and counties. By doing so, they connect the past manifestations of human achievement, triumphs and challenges, to the new culture – all to be passed on generation to generation.

After the 2010 Haitian Earthquake, the Smithsonian Institute’s undersecretary for history, art, and culture convened an effort to recover works of art from the rubble. Some may think such an effort is “trivial compared with providing food, medical care and other humanitarian needs” (Yerkey, 2011, p. 13). However, evidence of impact reinforces that the rescue of cultural property is “critical, as it ensures a culture’s recovery over the long term” (Yerkey, 2011, p. 13). Through multiple funding sources, the art recovery, repair, restoration coordination, and storage effort progressed for over a year before it was turned back over to the Haitians.

The U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield exists to protect cultural property worldwide during times of armed conflict. President Cori Wegener of Blue Shield shared that “it is shortsighted… to focus exclusively on providing humanitarian assistance and ignore the need to restore a nation’s cultural heritage, which is ‘its soul, its memory and its meaning’” (Yerkey, 2011, p. 13).

Cultural Programming

Consider the role of the Arts in making better cities after crisis. By leveraging the talents of the Arts in disaster response, relief workers can focus on their essential task, while the Arts assist with cultural programming. Evidence of the impact of cultural programming for evacuees was demonstrated in New York City following Hurricane Sandy. The New York City Director of the nonprofit Arts and Democracy project worked with shelter coordinators to create and provide the infrastructure of a “Wellness Center,” which provided “musical performances, film screenings, a knitting circle, arts and writing workshops – and simple conversation and friendship” (Spayde, 2013, p. 30). The wellness center helped to redirect the mindset of the evacuees and remind them of their value, talents, and social interest in their community. They no longer solely defined themselves as Hurricane Sandy victims, but rather as individuals with interests and contributions beyond the storm-ravaged city. The Arts’ effort soothed shaken souls and helped to restore a little wholeness after the disaster.

Cultural Economic Recovery

One of the most memorable stories of inspiration and evidence of impact is the story of the arts community in post-Katrina New Orleans. Almost all of the art galleries survived the disaster with little damage. “Despite the general survival of the arts infrastructure in New Orleans, most people did not predict a swift recovery would follow. After all, arts are a luxury, and so many in New Orleans were in what has come to be known as ‘survival mode’” (Krantz, 2010, p. 9). However, “less than two months after the storm, the New Orleans’ arts community rediscovered itself” (Krantz, 2010, p. 9).

There were many factors leading the successful recovery of the arts in New Orleans, such as quickly establishing a rallying point for arts, culture, and religion with many organized events, existing neighborhood dynamics, and pre-established artist cohorts. Established art galleries in disaster areas often share that victims not only replace their damaged or lost art, but have a renewed appreciation for its value. Many stories unfold in which the local artists transform storm damaged structures into works of art.

As you can imagine, post-Katrina challenges linger for more than a decade. Regardless, they “did not succumb to Hurricane Katrina,” but rather rose “stronger than before, richer in spirit and reputation, the visual arts in New Orleans turned tragedy to resilience” (Krantz, 2010, p. 11).

Cultural Connections in Mitigation

The arts community has the unique ability to tell the story of the community through the physical form. As governments launch mitigation projects to protect the built environment, the sense of history can be lost. By involving the arts community in mitigation efforts, communities can connect the old to the new while improving structural conditions and lessening the impact of a future disaster.

Evidence of impact within a mitigation project can be viewed in Frederick City’s Carroll Creek Park. The “Carroll Creek Park began as a flood control project in late 1970s – an effort to remove downtown Frederick from the 100-year floodplain and restore economic vitality to the historic commercial district. Today, more than $150 million in private investing is underway or planned in new construction, infill development or historic renovation along the Park. Public art is incorporated into the fabric of the park itself, including the Community Bridge; artwork on the Iron Bridge at the Delaplaine comprised of iron trees, scrolling plants, flowers, and the occasional water creature; a bronze-cast drinking fountain under the suspension bridge at the C. Burr Artz Library; 24 water mosaics along the path between Market and Court Streets, and sculptures” throughout the area (https://www.cityoffrederick.com/169/Carroll-Creek-Park).

Across the nation, there is evidence of impact of the Arts in revealing, protecting, restoring, and redefining the community identity. They portray the unique character, physical and social form, as well as the community’s sense of place, and change over time. Simply, they help to tell the historical community story. Consider including the Arts in your public-private partnerships. Together as whole community teams, we greatly improve our services and ability to respond and recover from catastrophe.

 

Resources

Carroll Creek Park. (2017). The City of Frederick Maryland. Retrieved from https://www.cityoffrederick.com/169/Carroll-Creek-Park

Christensen, T., Laegreid, P., & Rykkja, L. H. (2016). Organizing for crisis management: Building governance capacity and legitimacy. Public Administration Review, 76(4), 887-897.

Krantz, S. E. (2010, Summer). When tragedy inspires recovery: Visual arts in post-Katrina New Orleans. Phi Kappa Phi FORUM, 8-11.

Spayde, J. (2013, Spring/Summer). Artful relief. Public Art Review, 24(2)(48), 30-35.

Yerkey, G. G. (2011, April 19). Cultural recovery in Haiti. Christian Century, 13.

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