Between 2018 and 2020, Creative Forces Community Connection Projects (CCPs) took place near Creative Forces clinical sites to create community arts engagement opportunities for military-connected populations—servicemembers, veterans, family members, and caregivers. While each of these projects was unique to the population and community they served, one key theme emerged from all of them: the critical importance of partnerships, especially as they relate to outreach and creating more inclusive programming. Partnerships proved to be a way to build capacity, reach more participants, and create sustainable models to serve the population.
Audience-building and participant outreach are often high on the list of challenges for arts organizations. However, working with the military brings a new set of challenges: a whole different language and vernacular, perceived stigma of participating in the arts, and military cultural competency. The time it takes to forge trusting relationships with participants, while critical, is also challenging for arts providers already stretching their capacity to create, manage, and sustain high-quality programming.
Examining a few examples of the partnerships CCPs created can be useful for others looking to do this work.
Partnering with a VA Hospital: Art Spark Texas & Straz Center, Tampa, FL
Art Spark Texas, one of two Community Connections projects in Texas, has been building relationships for more than a decade with its local Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. They understood how critical it is to show up and meet people where they are—specifically, in their case, in the lobby of their local VA hospital—to ensure potential participants know the faces of the people offering programming. By working directly with the VA and really showing up, in person, regularly, Art Spark built a strong relationship with both the VA and the family members and servicemembers who came through the building. The benefits of being connected with the VA can include much more access to the population, as long as there is a clear commitment—a two-way street.
Art Spark also became “vendorized”—a form of registering with the VA that has allowed Art Spark to connect more deeply with the VA and participants who may come through the hospital. While every VA has a different process for this, in their case, Art Spark recognized that having it in place would be a key step in connecting with their targeted audience. Through this process, Art Spark provided some classes directly on-site at the VA. Participants could apply some of their VA benefits to classes and it expanded knowledge of and access to arts opportunities with Art Spark that could last beyond the class at the VA.
In Tampa, Florida, the Straz Center’s work with their local VAs provides another example of how partnering with VAs can be mutually beneficial and sustainably support programming for veterans. A key focus of the Straz Center’s Community Connections Project centered on the Veterans’ Creative Arts Showcase, a free event through the VA that was held at the Straz Center and showcased a range of works from Tampa Bay-area Veterans: from painting, drawing, and sculpture to spoken word, music, and dance performances. The Straz Center connected with the James A. Haley VA and Bay Pines VA about this opportunity, and provided curation, hosting, marketing, and production for the VAs and their participants. This was the first time the two VA hospitals had come together for the arts showcase, and it was as a direct result of the Straz’s commitment to partnerships.
This experience helped Straz Center to further develop their understanding of the structure and processes of VAs, which increased their military cultural competency and ability to be even more agile in their partnerships. The Straz was also able to connect to more artists in the veteran community and demonstrate the value of arts spaces as conveners. The partners all benefit from the enhanced communication, which opens the door to the deeper gain: providing more creative opportunities for local military-connected participants.
One CCP program lead emphasized, “What we’re trying to do is get veterans involved in ALL of our programming. We go to them first and meet them where they are to create trust and a bridge to walk across to come to us.”
Partnering with a Clinic/Creative Arts Therapist (CAT): Creative Discoveries Open Studio
A different clinic to community relationship can be seen in CCP site Jacksonville-Onslow Council for the Arts (JAX Arts) in North Carolina, where the clinical creative arts therapist (CAT) on base regularly attends the council’s community open studio, called Creative Discoveries Open Studio, and is part of their planning committee. This has resulted in a natural and trusting flow from clinic to community and this consistent communication over time has made a big difference in building a strong relationship.
By including the CAT in program planning as well as facilitation, the arts council has significantly deepened both its outreach potential and its own military cultural competency. Specifically, the CAT provides information on the open studio directly to her patients. Because she also attends herself, it provides a natural bridge and warm handoff from the clinical to a community environment for service members, providing a level of familiarity and comfort that can help mitigate hesitation when entering a new space. JAX Arts has also worked tirelessly to center participants (called “members”) in all of its programming, drawing on the expertise of their CAT and their own openness with participants. They regularly invite honest feedback and either take action on it or explain why they are not able to do so. This openness in communication allows members to feel heard and for programming to be created with them, instead of just for them. Their partnership with the CAT informs these practices, and it also encourages more participation—a win-win.
Their partnership with the CAT informs these practices, and it also encourages more participation—a win-win.
Their partnership with the CAT informs these practices, and it also encourages more participation—a win-win.Centering participants also manifests in the studio as the resident artist provides a framework for open studio sessions, but always offers the option to create in any way that feels right. She opens the space to members to engage with their own creativity, and to do this, the space also has to feel welcoming.
“We know that we all have something to learn and share with each other in our CAT-to-community conversation...We had to come in with a lack of preconceived notion and build for the needs of the community. [That’s why it’s so important to] be thoughtful about who your partners are.”
Partnering with other community organizations
Returning to Texas, Austin’s Texas Folklife and Art Spark Texas provide an excellent example of peer mentorship. While their CCPs were always separate and distinct, both organizations remained open to regular meetings together to share challenges, ideas, and plans for their projects. As noted, Art Spark had a long, decade-plus history working with the VA, while Texas Folklife was brand new to this work. As a result, Art Spark was able to share their experience from working with the VA and participants who might come through the VA, including great insights on the best times to hold classes, how to access the right contacts at the VA facility, and how to let the local community know about their programming (being present in person and strategic locations for flyers were at top of that list).
On the other side of the equation, Texas Folklife had expertise in technology and podcasting, and were able to share with Art Spark new possibilities for storytelling and avenues for their collaborative efforts, including partnering on a final showcase. Art Spark Texas and Texas Folklife provide an excellent example of how drawing upon each other’s strengths as arts organizations can create exciting and vibrant programming for new populations within the target demographic.
With the move to virtual programming during the pandemic, CCPs looked to one another for support and ideas. For example, CCP project leads in North Carolina and Florida created a solid support team, meeting every other week for the full year to share challenges, ideas, and draw from each other’s varied expertise. Their shared wisdom and mutual mentorship led to rich, robust, and collaborative programming, such as appearances at each other’s virtual events and inviting participants from both states to join. Through their ongoing partnership, Florida and North Carolina shared techniques for online engagement and helped one another with outreach along the way.
Partnering, either locally or online across states, is a powerful way to consolidate information and help create rapport, trust, and knowledge-sharing which can lead to increased capacity across the board.
Building a learning community has always been at the core of Creative Forces, and the Community Connections projects showcase how critical it is for communities doing this work to invest in their own networks, partnerships, and support systems to most effectively support the military-connected populations they serve. There are so many more partnerships yet to be explored, such as with chambers of commerce, libraries, and more. Community groups and leaders who have strong relationships and communication streams can provide valuable, active support to one another in building up both individual projects and better serving their targeted populations. Strong ties between clinic, VA, and community, as well as within and between communities, fuels an organization’s ability to more effectively serve a wider circle of military-connected participants through the arts.