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An Arts and Military Community Challenge Coin

This week, HowlRound is partnering with New England Foundation for the Arts in advance of our convening—Art in the Service of Understanding: Bridging Artists, Military, Veterans, and Civilian Communities March 10—12. This convening was inspired by artists who created five new performance works with their collaborators in the military, healthcare and presenter communities, funded by NEFA’s National Dance and Theatre Projects. This series asks: How can artists most effectively build relationships of trust as they engage in this work? What do military service members and veterans need to know to encourage them to work with artists? What do artists need to know about trauma in working with military and veterans’ communities?

I’ve gotten to know Nolen Bivens through his significant work with Americans for the Arts on their National Initiative for Arts and Health and the Military. As a retired Brigadier General, US Army, he has provided a key perspective in planning our convening.—Jane Preston, NEFA.


Ask a military service member to turn out their pockets or glance around a military family’s living room, and you might discover a curious item: coins. Singular pieces, or bowls and shadowboxes filled with weighted tokens—some round, some shaped into stars or pentagons or slick rectangles. All are uniquely adorned with insignia or imagery etched and coated in bright coloring.

The tradition of giving and receiving these “Challenge Coins” can be traced back to World War II, when military service members began carrying intricately designed coins symbolizing the historical identity and esprit de corps of the units to which they are assigned. These specialized coins capture the honored symbols, slogans, and revered pride members have in their unit. Today, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines carry challenge coins that identify their affiliation with the unit’s honorable history and mission. At informal gatherings, service members challenge each other to games of “coining,” where a member of the group thumps and displays their coin on a bar to challenge all in the group to display their own coins, and the last one to put up their coin is stuck buying the next round for the group.

This practice, forged over hundreds of years, is deeply rooted in the military community. Over an entire career, an individual can collect an incredible number of these coins which, upon retirement, are often memorialized as coffee table ornaments. These coins are displayed proudly for what they represent: tokens of gratitude for service, memorable events, and affirmations of a job well done.

There are a great number of military traditions just like this, rooted in artistic practice and camaraderie. As military leadership explores innovative ways to address the signature wounds of our latest wars, enhance resiliency, and creatively assist members as they transition, there’s a transformative opportunity for the culture to bridge and expand the community to include Creative Arts Therapists (CAT), artists, and patrons.

While many arts programs and organizations have successfully collaborated and individually offered theatre productions, music programs, craft projects, and writing workshops locally, community-wide art-to-military connectivity and engagement has been largely elusive and not scalable.

With the nation engaged in an unprecedented era of ongoing military conflict, innovative multidisciplinary health and wellness approaches are needed more than ever. The arts community’s proven arsenal of alternative health and wellness therapies and pathways has had limited visibility until recently, though the positive impact the arts make to general public health and healing is confirmed and exhaustive. An Arts and Military Community (Arts-Mil Com) Health and Wellness Ecosystem could help service members and bridge the communities.

The policy, practice, and research recommendations listed in the 2013 Arts, Health, and Well-Being Across the Military Continuum white paper, and the Americans for the Arts’ National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military exemplify promising efforts to offer a new vision for collaborative action across all sectors and art forms, and advance alternative health and wellness goals in the military over the next three to five years. While many arts programs and organizations have successfully collaborated and individually offered theatre productions, music programs, craft projects, and writing workshops locally, community-wide art-to-military connectivity and engagement has been largely elusive and not scalable.

An Arts-Mil Com Health and Wellness Ecosystem would be an excellent way to bridge artists, military, veteran, and civilian communities. It would provide an organic framework and technology services platform through which arts and military communities can collaborate to develop and deliver relevant art therapeutic engagements that individuals can subscribe to via professionally coordinated art health and wellness pathways. A pathway can be any therapeutic arts production, program, project, or workshop that addresses an identified need of the military population.

This organic approach would activate artists, arts organizations, local and states art agencies, academic institutions, businesses, art patrons, and military communities to collaborate for common health and wellness outcomes. Using an online community platform, the visibility and value of arts community resources and military needs is instantly visible, providing military and art community members access to:

  • Therapeutic art resources contributing to multidisciplinary health and wellness treatments
  • A community network that’s committed to fostering the beneficial effects of all art forms
  • Coordinated arts and military community engagement, events, and opportunities
  • Arts community capacity-building and sponsorship opportunities
  • Community-wide arts health and wellness awareness and connectivity
  • National and local thought leadership forums for arts in military health and wellness

Grow Blue Springs is an example where Leader Six has used evisthrive© technology to grow entrepreneurs and build collaborative relationship between entrepreneurs (CATs, artist) and community stakeholders (military and broader arts practitioners) in six months.

Organically offering proven art, health, and wellness pathways via an open, interconnected ecosystem is remarkably efficient in today’s budget-constrained military and community environments. Even more, building, launching, and sustaining an arts community’s capacity that’s intentionally designed to provide added value for those who have sacrificed so much can inspire financial and in-kind support for local arts organizations to create alternative art health and wellness pathways and programs.

The strategy for creating your community’s organic Arts-Mil Com Health and Wellness Ecosystem has three essential steps:

  1. Complete an integrated resource assessment of military community needs and arts community capacity
  2. Plan art, health, and wellness pathways, and grow an Arts and Military Community organic health and wellness Ecosystem consistent with the community’s need
  3. Launch the community-wide Arts-Mil Com Health and Wellness Ecosystem

In the spirit of increasing the presence of the arts in all areas, the partnership of artists, military, veteran, and civilian communities is essential. Military and art communities are uniquely positioned for collaboration and support regarding the signature wounds of the US military’s most recent conflicts. Metaphorically, a “Challenge Coin” has been slammed on the table. Think of the organizations, programs, and resources that make up your own “call-to-action coin.” How will you meet the challenge?

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Thoughts from the curator

This series explores the intersection between art and military service.

Art in the Service of Understanding


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This is profound stuff. Nolen, I wanted to quickly ask you if you or anyone else involved in this work will be in New York next Wednesday? Here at The Segal Center at The Graduate Center CUNY, we are hosting an all day town hall related to the citywide cultural plan that NYC is developing.

In the afternoon session we have an open call for proposals/ideas/concerns related to the plan or the arts and culture community in general, and I think this is an important perspective to bring to the table.

5 minute presentations/talks, nothing fancy, that we can then report back to the official consultants. I haven't heard a mention of veterans yet.

Appreciate your time and attention

Brad Burgess
Artistic Director
The Living Theatre

Americans for the Arts recently released, Arts Deployed: An Action Guide for Community Arts & Military Programming, for local arts organizations and artists interested in bringing creative arts programming to military and Veteran communities, their caregivers, and families.

A collaboration between AFTA’s National Initiative for Arts & Health and the Military (NIAHM) and the Local Arts Advancement (LAA) department, Arts Deployed helps local arts organizations and artists understand their unique roles in serving their military and Veteran communities; details the expansive benefits the arts have on the health and well-being of these communities; and lays the groundwork—step-by-step, from establishing fruitful partnerships with the military and Veteran sector, through funding and promotion—for arts organizations and artists to build their own creative arts initiative for their local military and/or Veteran communities.