The VTArtWorks Initiative partners Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts with Virginia Tech’s University Libraries, Moss Arts Center, the Institute for Creativity, Art, and Technology (ICAT) internally, and CoLab Cooperative, a web development firm in Ithaca, NY <>, to design, construct, and evaluate an online crowdsourced, peer-to-peer , collaborative resource (now called CriticalConnecXtions) for grass roots arts-making partnerships to strengthen civic relationships, identify assets, and activate those assets for locally-rooted economic development and social health. This co-creative endeavor is an ongoing collaboration with working practitioners in the field often referred to as community cultural development.

CriticalConnecXtions integrates two important synergistic activities — dialogue and knowledge exchange — to encourage communication and documentation among artists and non-artists, collaborators and allies, individuals, organizations, and institutions.

Our goal is to create a space where artists and non-artists engaged on the front line in their communities can communicate with and learn from one another, advancing themselves and the field. This goal includes breaking down barriers that separate academy from community, artists from non-artists, sector from sector, reaching beyond the barriers of race, class, gender, geography, discipline, and cultural difference. This goal is entirely consistent with the emergence of community scholarship and community archives that are driving priorities for the future of libraries, here at Virginia Tech and across the country.

The Initiative has found that, whereas there are some online “top down” development platform models in which a small number of highly-credentialed experts offer recommended theories and “best practices,” this growing field, often described alternately as “creative place-making,” “community cultural development,” and “arts and civic practice,” lacks access to vitally necessary peer-to-peer communication and knowledge exchange.

Further, since the tool we are constructing exists within the digital environment, CriticalConnecXtions is a platform for individuals and organizations to manage their digital identify and engage effectively as digitalcitizens.

At the intersection of the arts and activism for social justice, grassroots artmakers tackle the thorny, persistent and ever mutable ideas of identity, and how identity is held within the framework of community.

CriticalConnecXtions is a space for these critically informative dialogues to take place while simultaneously providing a way to archive these exchanges and the knowledge they build. This resource is designed to encourage a transition from simply conveying information to sparking knowledge with the goal of creating wisdom. This data-information-knowledge-wisdom hierarchy has become a guiding principle of the Initiative.

CriticalConnecXtions has emerged out of a nearly 6-year national conversation starting in December, 2013, amongst an ever-expanding list of committed stakeholders including urban and rural practitioners, and many organizations. These leaders form the Initiative’s core stakeholder group, our primary source for research, from which we have found our user testing groups, and our Steering Committee. These relationships include Alternate ROOTS, Appalshop/Roadside Theater, the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), the Center for the Study of Art and Community, Carpetbag Theatre, Art of the Rural, US Department of Arts and Culture, the New River Valley Regional Commission, the National Performance Network/Visual Arts Network, and the Center for Performance and Civic Practice. We continue to increase stakeholders throughout our early development stages, to ensure the ongoing design of CriticalConnecXtions is made co-creatively, in collaboration with as full a range of users as possible.

Over the course of our collaboration, the CoLab Cooperative has proven itself as a partner, aligned with our intentions and values, and thorough in their practices. In the critically important research and concept development phase, CoLab recognized and connected to the deep challenges the project presents, meeting them with creativity and impressive acumen. Our initial launch in the summer of 2017, a simple, closed alpha iteration of the resource, allowed for testing with our first test user group, the Talking Band, a New York-based theatre ensemble, and their Marcellus Shale Project (MSP). The MSP offered artistic strategies for responding to the issues that fracking raises in communities across the U.S. including Telluride, Colorado; St. Albans, West Virginia; Richmond, Virginia; Yellow Springs, Ohio; and Blacksburg, Virginia. This test case informed our research, provided basic practical problems to solve, and prepared us for advancing to our next test user groups.

In 2018 Appalshop/Roadside Theater’s Performing Our Future (POF) project engaged with the Initiative as our second test user group, significantly ramping up the demands on CriticalConnecXtions, as we built out features and functionalities for an inaugural public launch. After two years of work that started in late 2015, POF had successfully brought Appalshop/Roadside’s community cultural development practices together with asset based economic development strategies in Letcher County, Kentucky. In 2018 POF began implementing an expansion beyond its own home base, partnering and exchanging with similar culture hubs in other communities around the country struggling with serious economic and social challenges. POF’s expansion beyond Letcher County coincides well with our development needs, bringing multiple contexts of ongoing local work in communities such as Uniontown, Alabama, West Baltimore, Maryland, and Sauk and Milwaukee Counties, Wisconsin.

Beyond the constellation of POF’s collaboration, the VTArtWorks Initiative is developing relationships with many other ongoing local work, including the communities of Alternate ROOTS, the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production in Utica, MS, The Outpost in Winona, MN, the Appalachian Foodshed Partnership in southwest Virginia, Complex Movements in Detroit, MI, CultureWorks in West Baltimore, MD, and NPN/VAN’s Leveraging A Network for Equity (LANE) program.

Writer/activist Arlene Goldbard describes this emerging field that CriticalConnecXtions serves as “the work of artist-organizers and other community members collaborating to express identity, concerns and aspirations through the arts and communications media” (New Creative Community, 2006). The field’s practitioners reflect the diversity of American civic life as a shared tradition deeply connected to historic approaches to community organizing, building collective cultural capacity, and working collaboratively for social, economic, and environmental justice.

Project Outcomes

Over this year, as we progressed towards a public launch of the CriticalConnecXtions platform, we have faced the inevitable challenge of balancing the time it takes to build a robust foundation with the urgency of having a product that puts our vision into action. As part of this process we have regularly consulted with our partners and stakeholders in order to be confident that the tool that we are working together to build is something that meets the needs of this quickly evolving/developing field of practice as it has become, rather than as it was when we began this construction process back in 2016.

In late Spring 2019 the VTArtWorks Initiative effected a “soft launch” of criticalConnecXtions as a public resource, by opening it to the full community of the Performing Our Future project and to the participants of the Rural Generation Summit held in Jackson, MS, May 22-25. In doing so, we accomplished our project’s intention of constructing a Minimum Viable Product in use by at least two different communities of people.

We have also prepared ourselves to add other communities over the next year. We are in conversation with Art of the Rural, Alternate ROOTS, and the Appalachian Foodshed Partnership as our next user groups.

Our partners at the Performing Our Future have suggested a face to face gathering of key users in late Winter/early Spring 2020, convened by the VTArtWorks Initiative at Virginia Tech. The VTArtWorks Initiative is gratified by POF’s suggestion, endorsing the Initiative as a leader and an attractive host for a national gathering of this emerging field.

External grant applications (please include Co-PIs, funding agency, request amount, duration of the project proposed, and current status): The Initiative submitted a grant proposal to the Our Town Knowledge Building program of the National Endowment for the Arts in August of 2018. The proposal was turned down. We plan a conversation with the NEA program staff to determine how we might improve our next application. However, this is the third proposal to the NEA that has been rejected and we need to learn more about the mis-match before we apply again.

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation invited us to submit for a Phase Two grant in the Fund for National Projects program. We were most encouraged by this invitation. However, as we were preparing the application, the program officer informed us that the Foundation had terminated the Fund for National Projects program, making their invitation null. We were disappointed by this turn of events.

The Intiative will continue to seek funding from all possible sources.

Current funded grants (please include Co-PIs, funding agency, grant amount, FY19 grant expenditures, and end date): The Initiative is concluding its Doris Duke Charitable Foundation funded project (August 1, 2016 through July 30, 2018 and extended through July 30, 2019). The Doris Duke awarded $198,065 to the Initiative. We are currently preparing an end-of-project report with an accurate accounting of project expenditures to Doris Duke, due in September. At this time, the overall cost of the project looks to be in the vicinity of $430,000.