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An Invitation: Community Arts University Without Walls

By María Elba Torres Muñoz
August 2011

The focus of my work as professor at Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y El Caribe (Center for Advanced Studies on Puerto Rico & the Caribbean or CEAPRC), San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been to develop socio-economic strategies with marginalized groups from different communities throughout the island to economically stabilize and therefore self-empower our communities. This work has been framed around diverse strategies and specific objectives in collaboration with the communities. The focus is to develop the wherewithal to have their issues heard by policymakers and the broader public. Important to the process is the development of self-managed small cultural arts businesses that assure the traditional artisanal skills important to the culture identity of Puerto Rico. Distinct strategies are designed with each community to develop entrepreneurial endeavors, enabling these cultural community-based enterprises to market their art skills and stimulate economic stability. Therefore it was with great interest and commitment that I welcomed being part of the discussions leading to the planning of Community Arts University Without Walls (CAUWW), a project developed by Marta Moreno Vega with the support of Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

The invitation from Moreno Vega, of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), to participate in a meeting at MICA, to be hosted by Ken Krafchek, was greatly appreciated since it directly connected to the work I have been developing within economically marginalized communities. The team from Puerto Rico included President Miguel Rodríguez López, from the CEAPRC, as well as Ignacio Olazaguisti from the same institution. Student participants from the University of Puerto Rico included Arturo Rios, Giovanni Roberto, Pedro Lugo and Lourdes Santiago. All members of the team had experience in teaching and community work. This fact immediately united us around the objectives of the CAUWW project and the community arts program of MICA.

MICA’s work team had participants from the community arts program that included administrators, professors and students who received us with great enthusiasm. They showed us the newly renovated facilities that MICA has built for its community arts initiative, demonstrating the commitment to working over time within the economically challenged community. That students will reside within community, studying and working on their community projects in the neighborhood, is an important model. We toured the workspaces of the community arts program and we were shown several representative videos of the joint work that has evolved between the community and the program. There was, also, a presentation, which was conducted by the members of the community and the community arts students from MICA. How impressive to have the level of presence within the community that will make a difference to the MICA students and community students.

After our tour, we ate at the Northeast Market, providing the time for more in-depth understanding of the programmatic structure and the historical significance of the community. Students from Puerto Rico met with the MICA students as well as administrators and professors. Separate meetings were very effective. Subsequent to these private meetings, everyone exchanged views on the possibilities of carrying out an academic program at the CEAPRC during the summer session to be held in 2012. Rodriguez López, professors and students showed great interest in having the students and professors from MICA participate in an academic community arts program in Puerto Rico. These discussions led to an understanding of the importance of developing opportunities for students and professors working in the community arts field to have more extensive learning and working opportunities. The idea of the CAUWW project took form before our eyes as we all understood the significance of furthering our goals to transform and work with our communities for self-realization and empowerment.

The meeting with MICA’s President Fred Lazarus also provided greater depth to the need for advancing community arts exchanges and engagement. The discussion about MICA’s program and the possibility of extending that experience for MICA’s students through CAUWW by developing a summer program at the CEAPRC in the summer session of 2012 was further advanced. Additional discussions facilitated by Marta Moreno Vega developed the preliminary steps to making this academic exchange beneficial for each institution. Our meetings identified how CAUWW has the potential to establish a working relationship with CEAPRC, MICA and other universities to establish a program that would provide greater opportunity for students and community artists with limited financial means to attend an intensive program that will accredit their work.

The initial meeting has developed into a working network of scholars, artists, community representatives and organizations to develop the Community Arts University Without Walls initiative that will be based at CEAPRC in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It is clear from our varied in-depth exchanges of ideas that CAUWW will expand to include other universities in the USA, Caribbean and Latin America.

There is no question in my mind that cultural arts work in collaboration with communities has infinite possibilities that will bridge, enhance and expand our work to assist in the empowerment of our communities. Spaces will be developed for creative expressions, economic opportunities will grow for our communities grounded in the cultural values we cherish.

The arts are central to development and are essential in working through political, social and economic strategic opportunities that can stabilize communities at risk. Culture and the arts encompass memory, identity, spirituality, diversity of perspectives, creativity and critical thinking — all factors that are important to successful public policy and economic initiatives. These continue to grow in importance in securing a democratic process to assure a just civil society. The network of scholars, artists and students that has helped in the birthing of CAUWW demonstrates the importance of culture and art in setting forth working patterns that develop new ways of seeing the world and the creation of new projects and institutions to support a vision and work that places culture and art as central.

I am grateful to the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute for the invitation; we await the participants of CAUWW with great enthusiasm for the launch of in Puerto Rico for the summer of 2012.