Q: Your work at ARC has directly tried to resolve the “town and gown” divide by putting university resources into developing art and media projects in the region around the Davis campus that address social and environmental issues. Can you explain what led to UCD and your other funders to support this kind of off-campus community engagement with farmers, activists, indigenous groups, youth, and others you have worked with?
A: I think that UCD leaders and our other funders saw the need for a new way of doing “community outreach” and also wanted to find avenues for generating public scholarship and innovative teaching. Since ARC brings all of these components together, the program was pretty easy for a lot of people get behind from the start. I also think it helped that I framed ARC as a strategic collaboration. Nowadays, universities want to be seen as more active and responsive to local communities, scholars want their research to be more relevant to the public, students want opportunities for field-based learning, and taxpayers want to see that their money is making in a difference outside the ivory tower. Community-based programs like ARC are uniquely able to meet these diverse university goals. Communities, on the other hand, want resources to document their cultures, histories, struggles, and strategies for change. They need social animators equipped with facilitation skills and gear to help them identify the stories they want to share and craft them in aesthetically compelling ways. And they need technical support to get their stories out to broad audiences. Faculty and student artists have the unique skill set to meet these needs.
So in discussions with UC Davis administrators and affiliated funders, I pitched ARC as a strategic collaboration. I spelled out how it could give the university a platform for doing innovative campus-community engagement projects while generating media products that support university research, classroom teaching and community development. I spoke about how ARC could provide communities access to university resources (scholars, students, artists) which would entice local groups to participate and how it would pioneer a new venue for media makers to do public projects. I also pointed out how the university could make good on its commitment to serving the broader community though ARC projects. I think the notion of a meeting multiple goals, coupled with the increasing need to demonstrate the universities value to the general public beyond the classroom, really motivated administrators and funders to give ARC some initial seed funding.
Q: Over the last few months SOTA has featured interviews on the theme of what “counts” as research within the arts in the UC system. How you have framed it as research so that it is valued within the academic context?
A: To be honest, I don’t think I’ve been able to successfully frame our work as research within academia. That’s probably, in part, because it hasn’t been my top priority while we have been in our start up phase–we are just beginning our third year! And since I am an academic coordinator and not faculty, focusing on research isn’t actually my job; I’m tasked with creating and implementing a university-community engagement program. But, it’s become crystal clear to me that research is the currency of the university and that for ARC to survive and thrive we need to be actively demonstrating how what we do IS research. So I am moving in that direction. And to that end, I’ve really started spelling out, whenever I can, how ARC’s community arts process is grounded in participatory action research methods and utilizes cultural studies research approaches. I find that just talking about collaborative art-making as research in this way helps non-arts faculty and administrators be more open to viewing what we do as bonefide research. It’s like setting a tone. It maybe ephemeral, but I do feel it contributes to making others rethink art as research.
I also make it a point to work with faculty and graduate students early on in our projects to identify how our community arts process synchs up with their research agenda and publications or exhibition needs. Again, I think this communicates a certain level of gravitas that helps academics themselves view collaborative art-making as research. On the flipside, these conversations also help me think through how their involvement raises the bar on the different ways research will happen through our projects, which in turn helps me articulate how ARC projects are research. Perhaps here I should mention, in case folks don’t know, that ARC is an interdisciplinary program, involving humanists, social scientists and artists. All of us collaborate as a cohort in partnership with a community organization on a media arts project. So while art making is at the core of our work, it isn’t the only type of research that happens. Typically an ARC project results in media productions, articles, exhibitions or broadcasts, and new curriculum. Speaking of products, I also talk about the work that we generate as research and to speak about the different products equally, so that a video screened at a city council meeting and an article in a peer reviewed journal are treated similarly in the way I present them. I don’t necessarily think that flies in an academic context, but I do think it helps build the echo chamber that a lot of us are contributing to that, collectively, will help push forward the idea that art is research worthy of academic value.
Q: In the context of budget cuts to public education (and arts in particular), public universities need to maintain arts programs that benefit their surrounding communities both because the private sector is not doing it and because it helps to illustrate/demonstrate the power of art and public education to voting tax-paying engaged citizens that will advocate for continued funding into the future. As someone with a unique perspective who has a foot inside and outside the academy, can you think of examples you’ve seen that point to ways that the public universities should illustrate/demonstrate their significance to the surrounding society?
A: Well, with my foot inside the academy, I think Syracuse University is an AMAZING example of what can happen when a higher education really dedicates itself to doing scholarship (and i include the arts within scholarship!) by, with, and for the communities around it. Their entire university operates on the vision of “scholarship in action” which is about “forging bold, imaginative, reciprocal, and sustained engagements” with constituent communities locally and around the globe. I highly recommend heading to their website and reading everything their Chancellor Nancy Cantor has posted–she has written quite a bit and always involves arts project the university has done in collaboration with regional stakeholders. I’ve met Nancy and she is incredibly supportive and willing to share knowledge, resources, and best practices…or point you to people around her that can. They are a model to emulate!
Outside the academy, i think one of the more interesting places to look are at various public media outlets–regional PBS and NPR stations. Like public universities, public media has had to increasingly demonstrate it’s value to the tax-paying and membership paying public. And like universities, the public media system has been under a lot of attack in the past few years. One constant criticism is that lack of public in public media; the dearth of connection with or benefit to the those outside the limited public media demographic. And some stations have generated some really interested collaborative, public programs as a result. KCET comes to mind, with their Departures project, which is an on-line community mapping and history project focused on the diverse neighborhoods in LA. A lot of other hyper-local and community co-generated public media work has been done through the J-Lab, and for inspiration I recommend traipsing through their list of Knight Batten award winners.
While this might be a bit farther afield, I also think that the California Council of Humanities offers an excellent example outside of the academy when it comes to an institution articulating it’s significance to the larger society. CCH eloquently speaks to the vital role of arts and humanities in community life. And it’s not just on their website, it’s folded into how they operate as an organization–what they do, who they fund, how they provide support. Every now and again i visit their grant program section to see how they frame the role of the humanities and to who they’ve funded to get inspiration on the diverse ways artists and humanists engage communities through story-based projects.