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Essay: Engaging Through Art and Design

By Karen Stults, director of community engagement

Posted 01.01.11

We will be building not only a better student, but also a better Baltimore and a better world. 

Karen Stults, MICA's director of community engagement

At a recent lunch with author and Rhodes Scholar Wes Moore, Baltimore City agency directors, and local youth, the conversation quickly turned to questions of collaboration, communication, and respect. Here was a room full of people who care deeply about the health and well-being of Baltimore-and the people who call this city home. Strikingly, there was a palpable sense of agreement that viable solutions to our city's most persistent problems do exist. The larger obstacle, it seems clear, is the lack of a cohesive strategy for connecting the dots across neighborhoods, agencies, and issues.

As a top-tier college of art and design that attracts students from across the globe, MICA is in a unique and enviable position. It is able to leverage the physical resources of its campus and the creative capital of its student body in ways that strengthen the fabric of the local community. It is able to develop community-centered models for arts integration that can be replicated in other cities, states, and around the world. It is able to partner with academic peers, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations to explore design-based solutions for a range of social and economic concerns.

MICA's decade-long commitment to these efforts has made it a leader in the field. It has inspired the creation, in 1999, of the Community Arts Partnership and, in 2004, of the Community Art Collaborative. Both programs place visual artists in community settings and are notable as national models. MICA's MA in Community Arts degree was pioneering when it was established in 2004, and it continues to be one of the only programs of its kind in the nation. Building on this momentum, new degree programs are being created at MICA that continue to position the College and its student body to push the envelope on art- and design-based engagement with the broader community.

With the creation in September of an Office of Community Engagement at MICA, the College is taking its position of leadership to the next level. It is acknowledging the critical role that community engagement has to play in the education of art and design students, and the considerable assets that a national college of art and design can bring to bear to create vibrant and sustainable communities.

The defining challenge-and opportunity-will be in connecting the dots.

In the short term, this means making the most of the lessons we've learned. We will start by identifying the assets and challenges with which we enter the conversation, and by working toward a shared vision and vocabulary within the MICA community so that there is a collective understanding of what we are building. We will pay attention to outcomes, establishing a level of accountability for impact, so that we know when our work bears fruit and when it does not. We will create a pool of flexible programming dollars so that we can support innovation and encourage new ideas. These actions will prepare us for more great work ahead-that of engaging across sectors in ways that not only enrich the academic experience of our students, but also strengthen the civic infrastructure.

MICA's commitment to this effort speaks volumes. It means we are raising the bar on community engagement and service learning for ourselves and for the field. We are applying a level of rigor to our work and committing ourselves to a higher standard of accountability. It positions us to do what we do well even better.

With the overarching support of an Office of Community Engagement, we can spend more time in dialogue with our partners, making sure that our work is respectful of community values and responsive to community needs. In doing so, we will be shaping not only a better student, but also a better Baltimore and a better world.

 

Photo by Jim Burger '82