A Network for Artists and Community Groups
by Joe Matuzak
Arts Wire (www.artswire.org) is a program of the New York Foundation for the Arts. Its twin missions are to provide the arts community with a communications network for artists and community-based cultural groups, and to improve communications within the arts community. Arts Wire began full-scale operations in July 1992, after a three-year planning process. It now reaches over 700 subscribers and thousands more through its popular web site. It is thought to be the largest arts network online.

I want to start by noting that I've put this essay in the first person for two reasons: to acknowledge that communities are made up of individuals with individual voices (which I believe to be a source of their strength), and to explain the occasionally cranky tone of my remarks. It's certainly not that I don't believe that discussions like this one are important--to the contrary. But I do tend to bridle at the seemingly ubiquitous notion that everything in cyberspace is an "interactive marketplace," suggesting that the primary problem to be solved is the creation of better ways of facilitating business transactions online.

Arts Wire's community may be different from many other online communities in that it has a tremendously high number of members who communicate off-line, who know or occasionally see one other, or at least have a reasonably high likelihood of coming into physical contact. (This is obviously a big generalization that is more true for online services than, say, a specialized listserv.) In large part this is because the arts community itself is small and hosts numerous, "real-life" conferences. People in a specialized field tend to maintain contact with one another.

Our community-building efforts have also been characterized by numerous off-line proselytizing and support efforts. Arts Wire has been involved in a number of initiatives to initiate specific segments of the arts community--such as Native American- or Chicago's neighborhood arts groups--into the online world. Some of these initiatives have been wonderful. Others have been largely unsatisfying because of the necessary distance participants had to travel to acquire computer literacy in an environment lacking much support for this journey. Far too often a session aimed at teaching teleliteracy instead became an opportunity for organizational troubleshooting.

But, of course, this is precisely what real community is about, isn't it? It's about helping start your neighbor's car or shoveling the snow, about resolving immediate and distracting problems in order to focus on the larger issues. Doing that ensures that trust is built, which allows for the possibility that consensus might form.

I confess that many of my personal notions of community spring from the city in which I grew up. Flint, Michigan, is a factory town riddled with labyrinthine contradictions. Flint has always had a wide disparity between haves and have-nots. For many years, the city boasted the highest per-capita income among those working and the most per-capita millionaires. More recently, Flint has seen the country's highest unemployment rate and an astonishing incidence of violence. More than half the city's schoolchildren live below the poverty level and many come from single-parent families. (Michael Moore's "Roger & Me" is an indictment of General Motors' lack of support for the Flint-community that helped build it.) I definitely see this sorry reality reflected in the American arts community today. While I don't want to make overly-direct or facile comparisons between Flint and what it is that we do online, I do find certain underlying connections inescapable.

The quality and direction of any community is based on both the willingness and ability of its members to participate. How many people vote? How many of that group cast what you might consider to be an informed ballot? How many people think of themselves not so much as a member of a community, but simply as someone who happens to live in a particular place (and accepts no responsibility for it, based on that residency)?

In most communities, there are inequalities of resources and differences of interests. We judge the strength of a community by its ability to work toward common goals and to take care of its members. This suggests a variety of issues by which we might evaluate a community: Does the community worry about the weak? Does the community worry about crimes against itself? Does the community worry about worrying about the community? Does the community simply choose not worry? Does the community stone its own?

Each of these situations clearly has its online equivalent. But don't mistake my intentions. I'm not going to raise the tired old issue of whether or not online community exists, or whether or not it is valuable, useful, or simply the product of alien invasion. I tend to find these matters interesting, but largely a question of semantics. I am saying that online community not only exists, but is beset with the crack houses, the abandoned cars, and the lack of purpose and connection that characterize communities in real life.

I do believe, as a matter of faith, that our situation will "improve," at least in technological terms. But unless changes take place on a deeper level there is no reason to believe that the underlying dynamics of distracted, occasional, and/or ineffective participation will change just because it is happening online. There's no magic in simply creating something online. A community remains comprised of people and it is the quality of their interactions and activities that define its strength.

Now, I don't want to paint a totally bleak picture of online community. In fact, I am constantly amazed by the development of basic and important relationships that takes place online, and the kind of community strengths that show up in surprising ways. Arts Wire has certainly had its successes, some of them inspirational. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, some Arts Wire members banded together to help pay to get the Oklahoma City Arts Council online, and contributions from around the country to helped offset the cancellation of a fundraiser that was to have taken place the night of the bombing. Two days after an online query about emergency funds for artists with AIDS, a photographer in the Midwest received a check from a supportive fund in New York. These may be small examples, but they speak to me about the nature of community and how it should work.

At the heart of the concept of community, I think, is the willingness to share in the belief that you yourself will ultimately benefit if others would only adopt the same stance. And this is a profoundly human, rather than a technical, matter.

Joe Matuzak (www.artswire.org/~jmatuzak) is the Director of Arts Wire. A former board member of the National Association of Artists Organizations, he is a poet whose first collection of poems, "Eating Fire," will soon be published by Ridgeway Press, and a Visiting Lecturer in the graduate Arts Administration Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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