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Real-World Art Education: Maryland Institute College of Art

Baltimore Urban Farming class at work in Participation Park

Baltimore Urban Farming class at work in Participation Park

Real Food Farm mobile farmers market opens for business

Real Food Farm mobile farmers market opens for business

Community Arts Partnership (CAP) interns assist visitors at the printmaking table at CAPfest 2010

Community Arts Partnership (CAP) interns assist visitors at the printmaking table at CAPfest 2010

Baltimore Urban Farming class at work in Participation Park

Photo gallery (4 images)
MA in Community Arts (MACA) students work with community residents

MA in Community Arts (MACA) students work with community residents

For students at the Maryland Institute College of Art, changing the world for the better is more than a "someday" dream-it's a deeply hands-on, here-and-now commitment, part of learning to be a better artist and person. As part of our look at real-world art education, we spoke with Karen Stults, director of the Office of Community Engagement at MICA, an institution on the leading edge of the emerging field of community arts.

How does MICA define community and social engagement? What's driving interest in this direction, and when and why did it become a focus at the college?

At MICA, we view working in community and social engagement as pursuing issue-oriented initiatives that have the potential to transform communities. The work is purposeful and outcome-focused, not simply volunteerism.

More than a dozen years ago, MICA's trustees made community engagement and Baltimore revitalization a strategic priority of the college. At the same time, students have increasingly wanted to be outside the college "bubble" and have pushed for engaged projects.

This type of project-based learning provides opportunities for professional, urban and partnership development throughout the region. Community engagement is interwoven into virtually every facet of the college-from curricula and extracurricular activities to vice presidents chairing local cultural and economic development boards.

What form has it taken within the school curriculum?

Nearly all academic programs offer community and social engagement opportunities. The M.A. and M.F.A. in Community Arts, M.A. in Social Design and M.F.A. in Curatorial Practice graduate programs are dedicated to this cause as is the Concentration in Sustainability and Social Practice on the undergraduate level. Last year, more than 50 undergraduate courses were dedicated to partnering with communities to problem solve real-world issues. MICA also offers the Community Art Collaborative (CAC), an AmeriCorps-funded program that places community artists in year-long residencies with nonprofits, schools and community centers in Baltimore City, and Community Arts Partnership (CAP), a similar program on the undergraduate level.

Tell us about a few of the student projects.

Common issues explored in student projects have been public health education, urban development, historic preservation and the empowerment of communities. I'll highlight two examples from the past year.

Loss and Consequences: The Drunk Driving Project, a two-semester partnership between MICA, Urbanite magazine and the Maryland State Highway Administration, engaged MICA students in creating work aimed at influencing attitudes and behavior for the greater good of society. Hundreds of students and/or student teams participated in the launch, citywide traveling exhibition and statewide highway safety campaigns. I think the success of this awareness program can be recognized in part from the interest we've received from the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Addiction Services and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

MICA's Center for Design Practice (CDP)-a multi-disciplinary studio that collaborates with outside organizations enabling students to use design to make an impact on society-helped Real Food Farm-an urban agricultural enterprise developed by Baltimore's Civic Works-mobilize its healthy food offerings for Baltimore's Clifton Park neighborhood. Those communities house about 27,500 low-income residents with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Looking to create a design that would increase public awareness of Real Food Farm's produce, entice shoppers and be easily useable, students developed a new visual identity for the farm's website, stationery, advertisements, reusable shopping bags, and most significantly, a former Washington Post delivery truck converted into a mobile farmers market. CDP recently received a Sappi Ideas That Matter grant of $15,000 to continue its work with Real Food Farm.

What tangible impact have MICA students had on the Baltimore community?

Economically, the college has been impactful through opening buildings in transitioning neighborhoods. The energy of our students working there has helped to turn these areas into vibrant cultural destinations. MICA has been an early and continued anchor for the Station North Arts & Entertainment District, the first state-designated arts district in the city, through Studio Center activity and student projects taking place on the thoroughfare of North Avenue. Most recently, our graduate students in social design and community arts who live and work in the new MICA PLACE building in East Baltimore have begun transformational work, partnering with nearby nonprofits, organizations and after-school programs.

To give an example of our activity through last year's numbers, Community Art Collaborative (CAC) members served approximately 1,000 K-12 students in after-school programs through the facilitation of about 200 community art projects, including workshops and discussion groups. CAC members also engaged 323 volunteers in sustained service to the program's host organizations, which run the gamut from the Refugee Youth Project to House of Ruth Maryland.

So you can see, students are making a positive impact throughout the city. A poignant example is a CAP partnership with the pediatric oncology unit at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins that enables interns with an interest in art therapy to work with hospitalized children and their families.

How does community and social engagement make better artists and designers?

Community and social engagement encourages artists and designers to look outside themselves and focus on outcome-based problem solving. Art and design can be used as tools for change. Being able to ask questions, conduct research and work in teams are great, transferrable life skills to have, especially in today's job market.

What are MICA's goals for the future in this area?

The Office of Community Engagement is seeking to provide tools and resources for students, faculty and staff; support a culture of engagement on the MICA campus; and maintain and enhance MICA's role as a national leader in community engaged art, design and education. The sky is the limit. However, one objective we're currently pursuing is collecting data so we can map our initiatives and partnerships.

On a citywide level, we've launched Baltimore Art + Justice Project, the first project of its kind in the United States to identify, amplify and connect arts-based practitioners advancing the cause of social justice in a particular city. This project is being conducted with support from a citywide advisory committee and Open Society Foundations and in partnership with Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts that seeks to answer a similar set of questions on a national scale through its Arts & Social Change Mapping Initiative.

I'd like to emphasize two other aspects of community and social engagement at MICA: research and global impact. MICA was the first art college to establish a vice provost position responsible for research, so we have a culture of detailed inquiry and contemplative work here. The college was the driving force behind this fall's publication of the Community Arts Journal: Cultural Practice, Research & Higher Education, the only online journal of its kind dedicated to the community arts field, as well as the national Community Arts Convening held here in March 2011.

And through active international recruiting, exchanges, programming, class projects and Fulbright couching, MICA not only works to revitalize Baltimore but strives to positively affect communities around the world. One exciting class example, funded in part by the Office of Community Engagement, is a transitional shelter project to aid in Haiti disaster relief. After conducting comprehensive research-including a visit to the country-the students are constructing a prototype that addresses the need for housing as well as broader issues faced by cultures in transition, such as encouraging economic growth and allowing for situational change.


Joyce Lovelace is American Craft's contributing editor.


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