How can an artist combine his or her art practice with giving back to the community and, at the same time, make a living? It’s a question many artists face, and it's one answered by few organizations.One organization that does provide an answer is the Center for Community Arts Partnerships (CCAP) at Columbia College Chicago.
The Center brings together artists, educators, students, funders, schools, and community-based organizations to create innovative arts programming that builds stronger schools and communities and improves student success. According to Joanne Vena, Director of School Partnerships at CCAP and a printmaking artist, the organization has been transforming the lives of Chicago’s young people since its inception in 1998.
Vena addressed the following questions about CCAP. Though the organization is limited to artists affiliated with Columbia College Chicago, it serves as a sustainable model for any arts partnership. —CAR Literary Researcher Rob Duffer
CCAP’s mission states that it serves as "an international model of what can be achieved through innovative collaboration between college, public schools, and communities.” This mutually beneficial exchange—artists learning how to teach and communities/schools getting taught by artists—seems like a win-win scenario, yet it's very hard to make happen. How did CCAP grow to become a leader in the field?
Columbia College Chicago supported CCAP as a place to incubate the idea of what a partnership should look like, feel like, and offer all the partners. This work was done with the support of several key departments—Fiction Writing and Theatre, just to name two— and several key community organizations—Free Street Theatre and Street Level Youth Media, among others—to ensure that this could be a form of artist/community practice that had “legs” and that it would be transportable to other colleges and other organizations. If you can bring a system of practice to other places, then you have a definable model!
The Center has continued to grow in so many directions that were once considered non-traditional for an art college. As we started to work deeply in schools and communities, we discovered more and more ways that the arts can encourage the healthy growth and development of young people in the places where they live.
Eventually, having CCAP staff as Columbia College representatives sitting at the service-learning table, the parent involvement table, the school improvement table, the college readiness table, and the community school policy table made our work visible to a lot of people locally and nationally. At CCAP we believe in documentation. We create books, present at conferences, and train educators to support the practices of arts partnerships that we endorse.
How, in your opinion, can arts educators go about creating such mutually beneficial partnerships?
There needs to be a strong willingness of any arts educator—teacher or teaching artist—to build a relationship that is respectful and knowledge-rich so that each partner feels that they are contributing and learning at the same time. Everyone has life history and personal stories that can contribute to the development of a new lesson, a unit of study, a special event, or a public work of art (just to name a few of the ways that our artists and teachers work together).
In your experience, what do artists gain from the arts education experience and what might students gain?
As artists embark on their path (post-college or high school), they are always communicating to others who they are as artists and what their artwork is about. I think that artists gain a huge amount of honest reflection on their work and practices as artists when they get involved with a group of young people. Youth will cut right through the rhetoric to describe what they see and understand about the making of art and how it is or is not meaningful to them. I think artists also gain a huge amount of personal growth as they provide their talents and expertise to a larger group of learners in a context where they must be learning collaboratively from each other to complete the work—it could be a play, a book of poetry, a mural or a body of work for exhibit.
The young people I have worked with have always felt that their work with an artist is like entering new territory where their voices are heard respectfully, where their ideas are considered and oftentimes encouraged, and where they can build something new that does not have a right or wrong answer. It is pure learning for the students, where they are constructing new realities and new adventures through art making.
What advice would you give to artists who want to either a) teach, or b) involve themselves in the broader community through arts education?
This is fresh in my mind since I went back to teaching last summer because I wanted to get to know our young people as creators and critical thinkers. Teaching young people is exhilarating and will tap all parts of your creativity and your problem-solving skills.
If you are interested in this field and are approached to teach, ask your employer if you can be an observer for a day or two just to see how others teach and what you can absorb from the environment. Never be afraid to ask for help—the students love to help. Reach out to a community center that you value to share your talents. You never know where it may lead. Be a clear communicator with the people you collaborate with to be sure everyone knows what they need to do to and what you will do for them.
Enjoy the part of the teaching where young people get to think and reflect. New ideas are often born from the conversations that happen before, in between, and after the action of making the arts.
Finally: Always create a Plan A, and then have a Plan B ready just in case!
Joanne Vena has served as Director of School Partnerships at CCAP for the last nine years. Prior to coming to Columbia College, she was the Arts Education Program Officer for the Illinois Arts Council. She is a practicing artist with a first love of printmaking.