A Visual Experiment

ISSUE 2 • May 2023

A visual experiment. Images of beakers.

A visual essay to get you thinking about what facilitates and what limits who gets to enter, belong, and contribute in the field of arts and culture.

By Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf

To get you thinking, try this experiment.

Take a look: We asked people of all ages to illustrate the idea of opportunity structures, explaining that they were “what allows/prevents you from being the creative person–artist, musician, writer, inventor—that you want to be.”

First, this 3rd grader’s portrays the thrill of having an entire box of pastels. It is a portrait of the joy and possibility that opportunity structures can release.

Where and how do you create that energy with and for the people that you serve?

Image of visual experiment

Here, an eighth grader draws a cartoon for a book writing machine that would make him an automatic author. But while his machine has a mechanical ink tank, and a pipeline for plot, he’s absolutely clear that some of the opportunities he needs are life lessons and crowds of readers.

Drawing by a high schooler with the text book here

So ask yourself, “What human opportunities are you building and making widely and equitably available: who gets audiences, mentors, role models, teachers, and coaches?

When asked about what allows him to be creative, this high schooler diagrammed how his city’s investment in a linked infrastructure of creative youth development organizations facilitated his becoming an artist.

Drawing by a high schooler.
This diagram was part of a study of The Open Door Program for high school students at the Rhode Island School of Design. It first appeared in Wolf, D. & Holochwost, S. (2009). Building creative capital.

Opportunity structures are more powerful when they are networked.

So, how do you or your organization create connected and sustained pathways to creative work? How are you building a creativity zone with links across ages and places?

Here, we see a visualization created by both an adult and student working together to picture how many people have ideas about different ways that would let more and more people climb up to imagining and making and performing.

Drawing by a high schooler.

How do you – or how does your organization listen for new ideas about building opportunities?

Now, think about the work you do.

For a day, keep two lists: 

  1. Where have you, your organization, and/or your program(s) built opportunity structures that facilitate who can apply, enter, belong, contribute, and be recognized?
  2. Where do you still have work to do?

For a bonus challenge, try your hand at visualizing your organization as a road map, a board game, or a landscape of dreams or a giant doodle. Note where opportunity structures are strong. Identify places where they could exist but are missing. Identify where there are obstacles to entry, promotion, belonging, and flourishing. Lean into visualizing opportunity at your organization, you’ll be surprised what all you discover!

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