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The Promise of the Commons

As defined by On the Commons: “The commons is a new way to express a very old idea—that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good of all.” Put simply, the commons is a community- stewarded resource that can be environmental, digital, or even shared knowledge. On 7 December 2018, HowlRound Theatre Commons hosted a group of artists, activists, and cultural organizers at Emerson College to discuss the promise of the commons and its relevance in the arts and culture sector. This group included members from the Hinterlands and PowerHouse Productions in Detroit, Michigan; the Ethics and the Common Good Project and the Schumacher Center for a New Economics in Amherst, Massachusetts; Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, Massachusetts; independent artists and organizers; and the HowlRound Theatre Commons team in Boston, Massachusetts.

While our December convening was the first official gathering of the Arts, Culture, and Commoning working group, many of us had begun organizing together since 2017. We presented our work and found each other at conferences (like the Common Field Convening in Los Angeles in 2017, the US Department of Art and Cuture's CULTURE/SHIFT 2018 in Albuquerque, and the Creative Commons Global Summit 2018 in Los Angeles, we gathered to watch performances and lectures, and, most importantly, we began to collectively dream of the power of commoning to create new worlds. Slowly our group formed and the work began to take root. What unites us is a strong belief that the commons, when coupled with the power of art and culture, can dramatically impact the challenges of our time.

In honor of World Commons Week 2019, we’d like to share our collective vision and process for this work. And if you also work at the intersection of art, culture, and commoning, we’d love to hear from you.

A group of theatre artists sitting around a conference table with a projector screen in the background.

Arts, Culture, and Commoning Convening. 7 December 2018. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

Who We Are

We are a group of United States–based artists and cultural workers interested in using commons-based approaches to transform the landscape of arts and culture toward equity, abundance, and interdependence as part of a social movement engaged in and in conversation with this urgent moment. Cooperation, collaboration, mutuality, and co-creation bring us together.

We imagine an arts field that brings to life the values and practices of the commons, orienting us toward societal transformation and values-based artistic practice. The commons is a living system that invites people to address their shared needs with minimal reliance on markets. The values and principles that guide the rules of community resource-sharing are based on fairness, inclusion, and responsible stewardship over the long-term.

"A commons is something that belongs to us all, a communally held resource from which no one can be excluded, and for which we are all responsible. ...art, literature, and ideas are a commons." - New Commons Project

The Role of Art in Shifting Culture

It is our belief that art can and must play a significant role in shaping culture. The current moment is urgent and emergent—through accessing the shared power of ritual, stories, images, and sound, we can help ourselves and others learn, grow, and gain profound insights. These creative rituals instill and renew in us a sense of meaning and purpose, connecting us to one another and re-rooting us in our shared humanity.

Art and artists play an important role in helping people process and grieve inevitable collapses of our current systems and institutions in a culture of disempowerment, disconnection, isolation, disembodiment, distraction, and anxiety. Art is a powerful antidote as a force for social cohesion, embodiment, sustainability, and mutuality. Art catalyzes imagination, creativity, and cooperation in any culture, informing the character of social, economic, and political realities. In recognition of the destructive nature of capitalism, we seek to make art that questions the prevailing capitalist framework and looks to the commons for alternative forms.

“Large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions; they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework.” - David Fleming

12 theatre artists in two rows posing for a group photo in front of a wall.

Arts, Culture, and Commoning Convening. 7 December 2018. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

Vision, Mission, Principles, and Process

We propose an alternate vision for the arts and culture field: to develop new ways of sharing resources, collaborating across boundaries, and engaging with larger movements for the liberated exchange of resources needed to live dignified and joyful lives in right relationship with one another and the planet.

Our mission is to activate artists, cultural workers, and organizations toward living the principles of the commons and transform social, economic, and political realities—including the creation of new infrastructures and institutions—to facilitate commoning practices. We are not alone in this work. Other organizations are creating, connecting, and leading the charge for the commons, and it is our intention to work together as a community and network of changemakers.

As our work grows, we will continue to document the initiatives that move us forward and map the many projects, organizations, people, and events that advance our mission. To consolidate this process and set new goals, we will convene an Arts, Culture and Commoning Summit in the 2020–21 season. We will develop strategies with artistic communities, share knowledge generously, and harvest collective wisdom in reimagining the life of artistic work in our culture.

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