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Do-Gooder Spotlight: Amber Art and Design

Philadelphia-based Collective Uses Art to Engage and Shape Community

In anticipation of Next City’s event “Collectivity in the City” on March 16th, we’re highlighting the amazing art-as-social practice work of Amber Art and Design.


The members of Amber Art and Design aren’t satisfied with simply putting paint on the wall. A collective of five artists, Amber believes that art can be “a canvas for renewal,” “[a] platform that allows and invites individuals and communities to grow, express and aspire to and through.” Their mission is to see themselves as “community leaders, educators—creative agents for social change.”

Their portfolio gives real meaning to the phrase “art as a social practice,” a trend in the art world that has its origins in the 1950s and 60s. Tom Finkelpearl, who wrote the book What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, defined social practice as “art that’s socially engaged, where the social interaction is at some level the art.” Just as a painter might focus intensely on a bowl of fruit, demonstrating the way light hits or the play between colors, the project of “social practice” is to facilitate the dynamics of community by creating some type of social space or social event – a handball competition, a neighborhood stage for music performances and lectures, an abandoned building turned community center.

The collective's social practice work has many highlights. For "Journey2Home," Amber partnered with Mural Arts and the Bryson Institute at the Attic Youth Center to design a mural around the issue of teen homelessness, which told the stories of the housing-insecure teens who painted the mural itself. For "The Village Table," Amber used their Spaces Residencey at the Village of Art and Humanities in North Philly to collect family recipes from neighbors and putting on a community dinner showing off their culinary creativity and history. Last June, Amber artists Ernel Martinez and Keir Johnston installed their piece "Corner Store (Takeout Stories)" at the Asian Arts Initiative, provoking discussion about the cross-racial tensions between African-Americans community members and the Asian store owners that set up small businesses in predominantly black neighborhoods. The artists set up a makeshift cornerstore and also stood by the installation handing out surveys to passerby so that everyday experiences became part of the exhibit.  

These projects and Amber’s work as a whole speak to the enormous possibility of art that is embedded in community rather than isolated in a gallery. Essentially democratic in its thinking, social practice and the Amber Art and Design collective are showing this city that community-making can be an art in and of itself.

Moderated by Next City Executive Director Ariella Cohen, “Collectivity in the City” will explore alliances between artists and community members facing urban displacement. Click here for more info.

Have an idea for a community art piece in Philadelphia, or know of one that already is in the works? Email or Tweet at Groundswell_PA.