Animating Democracy Lab

Detailed Background on the Animating Democracy Lab

During the four-year Initiative phase of Animating Democracy, the Animating Democracy Lab supported 36 arts- and humanities-based civic dialogue projects that demonstrated opportunity to advance the creation and presentation of arts-based civic dialogue work. Selected projects sponsored by arts and cultural institutions received financial and advisory support. These projects served as a laboratory for experimentation and innovation, selected to create a diverse collection that, individually and collectively, would advance field learning about the philosophical, practical, and social dimensions of this work. Lab Projects were implemented following individual timelines during the period 2000 to 2004.

As part of the Lab design, project leaders came together periodically to share and build knowledge that would help the projects meet their full potential for success and extend their learning to the broader field. In addition, the Initiative facilitated advisory assistance by actively linking participants to practitioners, scholars, or others who could provide valuable expertise.


How was the Animating Democracy LAB designed?

Animating Democracy provided financial support and resource connections to selected arts-based civic dialogue projects. Arts-based civic dialogue projects were those in which the primary intent of dialogue was to focus on a civic issue. Multiple perspectives on an issue were presented as a basis for discussion, either through the artwork itself or as a deliberate aspect of the dialogue.

The Lab comprised a spectrum of complementary projects. Lab projects were selected with an intent to encompass a diversity of disciplines, artistic and civic interests, and approaches to arts-based civic dialogue work. Projects were supported in all single-discipline forms and fields, including: visual arts, dance, music, theater, literature, media arts, public art, and the humanities, as well as interdisciplinary fields. Lab projects generally evolved over a period of up to two years, however some were shorter or longer in duration.

ADI invested in projects that offered a laboratory for experimentation and learning. Projects were selected, in part, based on the opportunity they provided to study and deepen the field knowledge of principles and best practices of arts-based civic dialogue work. The Initiative sought projects that could help test initial assumptions and explore various questions about this work.


What activity did the Lab support?

Through the Lab, Animating Democracy aimed to support creation, presentation, and/or exhibition of new work or enduring work of the past. It selected artistic or humanistic projects that sought to advance:


  • Artistic/humanistic practice in relation to civic dialogue; and/or
  • Experimentation and innovation in approaches to dialogue; and/or
  • Strategies for building institutional capacity to successfully support art-based civic dialogue work.


Artistic/humanistic practice in relation to civic dialogue - The intersection of artistic imagination or humanist knowledge with the civic realm offers fertile ground for both aesthetic and programmatic innovation. Projects might, for example, support an artist's investigation of form, content, or process in the creation or adaptation of work as a stimulus for civic dialogue; experiment with cross-disciplinary efforts, new programming approaches to revitalize works of the past, or collaborations that demonstrate new ways to advance aesthetic interest of artists, curators, or presenters.

Experimentation and innovation in approaches to dialogue - Opportunities exist for arts and cultural organizations to experiment with varied approaches to achieving dialogue that make a difference in addressing complex, cross-cutting, and contested civic concerns. Meaningful civic dialogue is observed to be purposeful, to center on an issue of relevance to the project's defined public(s), and to consider multiple and often conflicting perspectives on the issue. Projects might, for example, explore the artmaking process toward opening up dialogue; adapt conventional facilitation methods; create partnerships which draw on the expertise of civic dialogue organizations; or employ artistic methods to stimulate or enhance discussion.

Strategies for building institutional capacity to successfully support arts-based civic dialogue work - Many arts and cultural institutions find that arts-based civic dialogue challenges traditional staff structures, resource allocation, and assumptions about audience development, public education, and outreach. Projects might, for example: address agency-wide understanding and commitment to arts-based civic dialogue work; redefine staff roles and responsibilities; reconsider approaches to marketing, education, and outreach; seek to improve partnership skills; or test new approaches to evaluation of this work.


What didn’t the Lab support?

The Lab was designed to support specifically defined arts or humanities-based projects. The Lab was not designed to support a full season of programming, ongoing efforts, or undefined projects in which artists or artistic/humanistic components were not yet identified, the issue were vaguely defined or unclear, or location for the project was not yet known.

The Lab generally was not designed to support service, advocacy, or consulting projects or organizations, unless they could demonstrate regular arts/cultural programming activity. It was designed primarily to bolster the role of arts/cultural presenting or producing organizations in creating civic dialogue.

The Lab did not provide project planning grants, or grants for general organizational long-range planning, or community cultural planning.

The Lab was not designed to support in-school arts education projects or programming. Proposed arts-based civic dialogue projects might engage youth as targeted project participants and/or audience. As with every project reviewed for Lab support that addressed a specific population, we looked to see how the project sought to intersect with broader civic dialogue on the identified issue.

The Lab was not designed as an audience development support program. Although connecting with or building new audiences might result, the Lab was not designed to support projects whose goal was solely audience development or audience education. Education programs of arts or cultural organizations might, however, offer relevant contexts within which to develop issue-based civic dialogue activity.


How did Animating Democracy assist projects selected for the Lab?

Financial Assistance: The Initiative provided financial support to selected projects. Generally assistance to individual projects ranged from $25,000 to $100,000. Funds were primarily intended to support project costs. Administrative and overhead costs directly related to the project could be supported. Funds could not be used exclusively for planning costs, but may support planning along with implementation costs. Funds were disbursed according to project benchmarks mutually agreed upon by the cultural institution and Animating Democracy staff in order to facilitate the project's implementation. Animating Democracy granted a total of $2.5 million in financial support to the projects.


What was required of Lab participants beyond the implementation of their projects?

In order to extend what was learned within individual projects beyond their immediate organizations, Lab participants were expected to participate in periodic Learning Exchanges and to collaborate with Animating Democracy staff and a resource team of associates in efforts to document and evaluate projects.

Learning Exchanges: Lab participants came together in Learning Exchanges during the Lab period. The intent of these gatherings was to enable counterparts in various disciplines to inform each other about their work, explore common questions or problems, and draw on differing perspectives about best practices. Exchanges occurred as projects were evolving, providing a forum for ideas to develop, as well as analysis of principles and practices of arts-based civic dialogue. A small number of artists, curators, arts and cultural institution leaders, and critics, as well as scholars, and civic dialogue leaders were invited to diversify perspectives and enrich discussion. Learning Exchanges promoted a sense of community and encouraged participants to maintain contact in between Exchanges.

Documentation: In order to support and learn from projects, Initiative staff and/or resource team members maintained close personal contact with all Lab projects by phone and through one or more site visits. Each project was or is being documented in a written case study. Case studies are being published and/or disseminated on the Animating Democracy web site. Lab participants were expected to provide certain basic information and written materials, to participate in interviews, and to help coordinate on-site visits and photo or video documentation efforts.

Evaluation: Regular contact with Initiative staff and resource team members provided ongoing feedback that could be useful to Lab projects as they evolved. In addition, each project was expected to participate in a basic level of formal evaluation.


What were the criteria for selection?

In general, individual proposals were evaluated on the merits of the project itself, the institution's capability to implement the project, and how the project could serve the goals of the Animating Democracy. Specific criteria for selection of projects included:

  • Excellence and integrity of aesthetic and programmatic concepts and intents;
  • Potential for the project to promote meaningful civic dialogue on an issue of local, regional, national, or international significance;
  • Well-conceived plans for involvement of artists, partner organizations, scholars, dialogue facilitators, or others to achieve project goals;
  • Clear goals related to the arts or cultural organization's role in civic dialogue work and the relationship of the project to the cultural organization's mission;
  • Degree to which the project may advance aesthetic and programmatic innovation in arts-based civic dialogue;
  • Qualifications and track record of personnel to carry out the project; and
  • Quality of planning, appropriateness, and feasibility of the project work plan/timeline and budget


In addition, selections aimed to create a diverse Lab that reflect a range of:

  • single-discipline and interdisciplinary forms and fields;
  • types and sizes of arts and cultural organizations;
  • new work and enduring work of the past;
  • contemporary civic issues;
  • strategies for the creation and/or presentation of work;
  • strategies for engaging people in dialogue;
  • publics engaged in dialogue;
  • geographic sites; and
  • opportunities to test initial assumptions and explore areas of inquiry that would contribute to field understanding of arts-based civic dialogue work