Not many things identify a city like its cuisine or its art. At their best, they bring together vastly different people in a variety of common places—restaurants, museums, farmers’ markets. And in an era of entrenched urban divisions and diminishing public spaces, they can be powerful mediums of connection and unity.
A new wave of artists, farmers, chefs, and patrons is now consciously cultivating ways food and art can connect rather than divide. At a recent forum in Charlottesville, Virginia, New City Arts devoted three days to exploring the relationship among art, food, and community. The conference featured speakers intent on fostering community in what some might consider unlikely ways. Each panel included a person connected to food as well as one in the art world. This event created an opportunity for the two different spheres of cultural activity to exchange ideas and develop a common vocabulary.
During one panel, Lee O'Neill a farmer in Central Virginia, and Laura Zabel, a community arts director from St. Paul, Minnesota, discussed ways community-supported models of agriculture and art can creatively engage city residents. O'Neill and Zabel described how by purchasing a farm or art share prior to production or completion, customers become stakeholders in the process rather than mere consumers. Their stories and work become integrated into their community, and in doing so, they are able to connect with their buyers on a different level.
Another panel featured Kate Daughdrill, an artist who converted several vacant lots in Detroit into an urban farm shared with nearby foreign-born residents. According to UIXDetroit.com, "The farm serves not only as Daughdrill's creative hub, but also as a social hub for the neighborhood. Weekly meals are hosted there for neighbors and all sorts of people have become involved."
In the concluding session, Joanna Taft, an art director in Indianapolis, and Tom Madrecki, an in-home chef in Washington, D.C., explained how they each created hospitable spaces for patron engagement. Taft discussed how exhibits in her art gallery educated audiences by purposely involving them. Madrecki spoke of using his own apartment as a restaurant to bring together strangers over a carefully crafted meal.
While critics decry the loss of public space, many cities are imagining new—and reviving old—forms of community-centered events focused on food and art. These events range from “pop-up” farmers’ markets to Shakespeare plays in parks. In Richmond, Virginia, the RVA Street Art Festival transformed an abandoned bus depot into a neighborhood treasure. With its colorful outdoor murals, the former depot became a magnet for community activity and celebration that featured local food and beverages. In fact, RVA Street Art boasted that “the converted neighborhood eyesore became one of the city’s most shared social media events of the year.”
More notably, perhaps, cities are producing authentic collective activities in physical places at a time when virtual life supposedly rules. Although digital technologies constantly vie for our attention and can perpetuate urban isolation, the act of eating and sharing art in public together forces us out of our digital cocoons.
Cities are remarkable at producing these kinds of shared public spaces. And although urban life can be divisive, the inescapable embodiment found in art and food compels physical connections and community. Rather than thinking of art as superfluous or food as merely utilitarian, we should consider them critical in shaping a city's identity and fueling its dynamism. Whether one is a chef, a painter, or simply a lover of good food and art, cities offer rich opportunities for experiencing such pleasures as well as combining them.
Stephen Assink is the Content Curator for the Common Place blog as well as a research assistant at the Institute for Advanced Studies and Culture.