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Community Engagement & College Degrees: Building the Next Generation of Arts Leaders

Sara Bateman

Lately, it seems that every conference I attend, classroom I enter, or art forum I participate in is fixated on the notion of transforming those in the arts field from just merely that of an artist or an administrator to that of a community leader.

While the arts have been recognized for over two decades as a way to revitalize our neighborhoods, it seems like now more than ever before people are reaching out as a way to ignite community engagement and inspire change. But if we are to depend more and more on the arts as a way to transform not only the structural but the psyche of our communities, if we are to elevate from simply artist to organizer, how do we train the next generation who will be stepping into these roles?

Colleges worldwide have the answer through a new breed of degree being offered behind the walls of academia. Or I should say, outside. Breaking artists out of the solo studio experience, placing administrators in the community, and creating programming that reaches beyond the college boundary, colleges are offering an educational experience that focuses on engagement and activism through the arts.

When I began my personal search for the perfect graduate education experience, I was led to the University of Oregon’s Arts Management degree specifically for the reason that it had a community arts component. The program, which grew out of the former Department of Art Education, is built on over three decades of community and cultural arts services, and continues to carry a commitment to a social-cultural orientation to the arts, social justice, and sustainable communities.

My personal experiences in this program have allowed for the foundation of community leader, not simply administrator, to be built. In addition to the practical management learning aspects of the program, it has allowed for experimentation in the theoretical and hands-on approaches coming out of social practice centric programming.

Since I first began looking at universities, new programming focused specifically on community engagement, arts politics, and social practice have emerged. While there are a number of exemplary programs worldwide, the two that caught my recent attention are the Community Arts M.A./M.F.A. at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and the Social Practice M.F.A. at Portland State University. If I were to become a career student, I would choose to get a degree from each.

At MICA, the Community Arts M.A. has been six years in the making and recently added on an M.F.A. option this past year. With a focus on utilizing the art making process as a means of civic and community development, the program offers theory and practice that highlights the relationship between community, art, and the artist.

Students involved in this program learn what it is to become a citizen artist focused on community building and how to use creative expression for community transformation and social change.

Portland State University’s Social Practice M.F.A. is focused on removing the studio walls and engaging the artist with the community. Through this process of art practice, collaboration, and transdisciplinary exploration, students embrace a democratic approach to their process. At the end of each academic year, the work is presented at the Open Engagement conference. This conference, in which MICA has also been a collaborator, presents a free, open-to-all forum where artists, academics, and an interested public can engage in various perspectives on art and social practice through participatory projects, conversations, and events spread across Portland’s neighborhoods.

With a focus on community and civic engagement on the rise in the art world, and colleges implementing programming that examines how we as artists and administrators can best engage the public through art making, I have no doubt that we will continue to see the rise of the art leader in our communities.

For me, my graduate degree at the University of Oregon has opened a whole world of possibilities beyond what I learned in the art studio as an undergrad. It has aided in the development of a skill set based on community engagement and built the foundation that I need to move beyond being simply an arts administrator to being a community leader.

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