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What We Learned: We the Many

by Alana Horton and Crystal Celeste Price

A collage of colorful photos showing community members engaged in arts activites
From L to R, clockwise: Dancers at La Luz Centro Cultural's Gran Festival; an in-progress shot of Art on the Prairies' mural; opening night at For the Love of the Art's Creativity Center; a young participant at Sacred Pipe Resource Center; Sisseton Arts Council hosts their theater in the Park series; Latinx Youth Theater participants perform on stage.

From 2019-24, we supported six partners as they created unique artist residencies with their communities. Here’s what we learned along the way.

Esta historia está disponible en español. Para leer en español, ir a la versión traducida

We the Many was a program of Arts Midwest that supported communities in creating artist residency experiences. It encouraged the exchange of voices, cultures, and ideas relevant to each community.

Throughout two phases, Arts Midwest partnered with six communities across the Midwest. Community partners received funding to guide and develop artist residencies in their local areas.

Our Partners

Phase 1: 2019-2023

In the first phase of We the Many, our partners collaborated with immigrant artists and artists of color to set up artist residencies. Our organizational partners each received $45,000 in grants, along with guidance for selecting artists, and extra support and training for establishing artistic residencies. They later received another grant of $28,000 to continue programming after the initial residencies.

Phase II: 2022-2024

Our focus in Phase 2 was on culturally embedded organizations doing critical work in their communities. Our organizational partners each received $100,000 in grants to support their projects. Throughout the program, community partners, artists, community leaders, and Arts Midwest staff participated in leading capacity building support sessions.

Read the We The Many Phase 2 Program Report

This report dives into the program’s process, impact, and lessons learned during We the Many’s second phase. It sheds light on the successes, challenges, and resiliency of creative community work.

Read More

Several dozen people standing in front of a storefront in front of orange, yellow, and black balloons, with a person dressed in a sun costume kneeling in front.
Photo Credit: Daveed Holmes

By The Numbers

  • $519,000


  • 517

    Community Activities

  • 3,809

    Community Members Engaged

Lessons Learned and Unlearned

Shifting Power and Leadership Creates Meaningful Ownership

From the beginning, We the Many was set up to embed decision making and resources in our community partners. These partners led all planning about the shape of their artist residencies.

This was a new dynamic for Arts Midwest. One of our longstanding programs, World Fest, offers rural communities week-long international artist residencies. But these artists are typically selected by Arts Midwest, not community partners. Through We the Many, we were able to experiment with a new model of community-driven programming.

In designing this program, Arts Midwest took on the role of a “mirror,” reflecting each community’s strengths while providing support. We sought to build trust, collaboration, and creativity, and give our partners agency to achieve their goals.

In shifting the residency design process to our partners, we found that they felt deeply connected to and proud of their work.

A short documentary created by Honeywell Arts + Entertainment about their We the Many programming in local schools, celebrating and exploring culture and language through theater.

“I think we have become more self-sufficient in our community, recognizing the resources we have available to us through our artists and partnerships.”

– Sisseton Arts Council, observed from Phase One

With Flexibility Comes Both Challenges and Opportunities

To implement this community-driven design approach, We the Many offered a considerable amount of flexibility to our partners. It provided support and resources but did not prescribe specific residency project activities, art mediums, or themes. This approach centered trust-based partnership, and acknowledged that every community has unique strengths, needs and priorities.

The openness generated mixed feedback.

Some participants found it challenging, expressing a preference for more structure. Others had greater capacity for program design – or came with project ideas that were already in development.

There are many reasons for these differences.

Our Phase 1 partners joined us for piloting and experimentation. They supported Arts Midwest in shaping this program – together – and they stuck with it in the midst of COVID lockdown, testing new-to-all-of-us ways of bringing communities together over Zoom.

Our Phase 2 partners were operating in a different time, and we were able to bring new ways of working to those partnerships. This included larger, less restricted grants; structured coaching with Voices for Racial Justice; and culturally embedded leadership as BIPOC-led organizational partners.

It’s evident that embracing flexibility can lead to new ideas, partnerships, and programming approaches. But it’s also clear that programs like this one – intentionally unstructured – require more of our partners’ time and resources. We continue to explore a balance between structure and flexibility that works best for all our partners.

A short video created by Art on the Prairie about the creation of a community mural, which was a capstone to their We the Many storytelling project. The mural, painted by Des Moines artists Jimmy Navarro and Katie Jensen, depicts a prairie landscape, rolling hills and the Raccoon River Valley in a style reminiscent of stained glass.

There’s No Substitute for In-Person Connections

In the world of artist residencies, building relationships is crucial. In We the Many, this work happened on different levels: between Arts Midwest and our partners, between partners and the artists they worked with, and between those artists and each community.

When we were able to return to in-person gatherings and community visits, we were reminded of how valuable it is to connect in shared space.

Community visits played a crucial role for Arts Midwest, offering valuable opportunities for building relationships and gaining perspective on communities and programming.

In fact, partner organizations expressed a desire for even more collaboration and opportunities to meet in person than we provided in this program, especially across We the Many communities. We the Many community partners and artists were able to build connections virtually through the monthly cohort sessions, and at least one in-person gathering could have deepened the connection further.

We’re working on building this feedback into the design of other programs, prioritizing in-person connectivity wherever possible.

Art and Creativity Don’t Happen in Isolation

A central goal of We the Many was to integrate artist residencies into communities in a meaningful way. We found that this integration is most successful when art and creativity are already seen as inseparable from other aspects of community life.

As Dr. Maria Jackson, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, emphasized in American Artscape Magazine, “The arts do not exist in a bubble, in isolation. At their most powerful, the arts are integrated into all aspects of our lives and our civic infrastructure—the mechanisms and relationships we rely on to care for each other.”

Program participants like La Luz Centro Cultural embody this philosophy. La Luz addresses food insecurity, immigration processes, and provides safe havens for children after school, in addition to community art festivals and workshops. Through We the Many, La Luz expanded opportunities to promote and celebrate the presence and importance of Latino culture in their community, as “everything leads back to culture.”

In our selection process, we sought to identify organizations that make creativity an integral part of community expression, healing, and empowerment. Often, these organizations don’t see themselves mainly as “arts organizations” but include arts and creativity in a broader, community-focused mission.

La Luz Centro Cultural had not been on Arts Midwest’s radar before We the Many. But when the understanding of what an arts organization “looks like” shifts, impactful shifts in resource distribution follow.

Looking ahead, we’re working to make sure our programs, grants, and guidelines are more welcoming to organizations like La Luz and more supportive of organizations working at the intersection of the arts and other community needs.

A documentary created by For the Love of the Arts about their We the Many work.

Investment Matters – and Leads to New Opportunities

At the core of We the Many was grants to our partners for artist residencies and operations. Organizations were invited to develop unique and tailored artist residency projects, building off their existing creative and cultural leadership in their communities. This kind of financial support offered organizations the latitude to dream big and create impactful initiatives that make a difference.

Throughout the program, we heard from our partners that this investment allowed them to “level up” in their programming, operations, and community.

Organizations like For the Love of the Arts experienced significant growth and development, opening two new spaces for community members to learn, grow, and thrive. The Iowa Arts Council emphasized the value of We the Many’s investment in their state, saying: “The grant provided the rare opportunity for organizations to imagine and create at a scale that invited community participation and strengthened social fabric.”

Even beyond the program’s end, partners are carrying the work forward. Honeywell Arts & Entertainment built a new program, Honeywell CommUNITY Arts, based off their residency work. They have been embedding artists into Manchester Community Schools. This has allowed students to explore the arts through mediums such as storytelling, creative writing, and visual art.

Whenever possible, we seek to reduce restrictions on our support, knowing the positive impact it has on organizations. We recognize this kind of organizational and community support is like planting seeds that will continue to flourish and bloom for years to come.

“I had a new student from Guatemala participate in the program this year. She was hesitant, but soon plunged in and was so enchanted that she created two different visual art pieces. It was the first time I had seen her happy and fully involved this school year.”

– English Language Learner Teacher, Robert Weber, whose class participated in Honeywell CommUNITY Arts
Two young people dance around a chair as others gather around them, as part of Dia de Los Muertos cultural celebration at La Luz Centro Cultural.
Photo Credit: La Luz Centro Cultural
Youth and community members gather at Dia de Los Muertos cultural celebration held at La Luz Centro Cultural in November of 2022.

Wrapping Up + Gratitude

As We the Many sunsets, we want to express our sincere appreciation for the creativity, collaboration, and community that has unfolded over the years. Our gratitude extends to all our staff members and partners who joined us on this incredible journey through both Phase 1 and Phase 2. We believe that the creative seeds sown through We the Many will keep growing in unexpected and meaningful ways.

We would also like to thank Voices for Racial Justice and Katie Robinson. Katie played a pivotal role in facilitating several monthly cohort virtual gatherings for artists and project collaborators across the region, infusing invaluable perspectives and a crucial racial justice lens into the fabric of our community-building work.

We the Many was a project of Arts Midwest with generous support from the Mellon Foundation and in partnership with the Indiana Arts Commission, Iowa Arts Council, North Dakota Council on the Arts (2022-2024), and South Dakota Arts Council (2019-2021).