photo: View from The Tower by me
In September 2018 I had the privileged to visit School of the Art Institude of Chicago (SAIC), and to explore how they have developed outreach-programs for the community of Chicago. I have tried to summarize some of the valuable things I’ve learned in this post. Many thanks for Paul Coffey and SAIC for their support.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) is one of America’s largest accredited independent schools of art and design. The total amount of students is about 4000. In 2017, US News ranked SAIC the fourth best overall graduate program for fine arts in the U.S. Their website states: “Our students translate the most complex ideas into tangible forms—paintings, sculptures, films, performances, books, installations, inventions, buildings, community projects, and, more often than not, a combination of the above. Few schools in the United States provide such a broad range of possibilities.” (SAIC, 2018). I was interested in finding out how they work with local community projects and outreach programs.
Why start an outreach program
During our adventure we met with Paul Coffey. He has held the position of Vice Provost & Dean of Community Engagement at SAIC since 2010. His answer to why outreach programs matter is it should matter for any organization with a considerable size and impact. As organizations grow and formulate their vision; part of that process will include; ‘what will you give back to the community?”.
For an art academy collaboration with the community can be an attempt to prevent being seen as this ‘isolated ivory tower’ that is detached from its environment. Art outreach programs can be part of the everlasting question: “what is the role of the artist in society?”. Those I spoke to at SAIC believe that art can bring people together on ‘the right side of change’. It can contribute to the awareness of future possibilities because it involves experimentation and exploration. It can be a way of supporting the community in a ‘forever-changing-complex world’.
How to start
It’s relatively easy to start with isolated-time-based community projects. However Coffey is critical about these projects. He believes they often do more harm than good to the community. “If you’re going to start into community projects, think long time and be prepared to invest”. At SAIC they began by reflecting upon their core values. They came to the conclusion it was essential for them to make a contribution to the city: “We are urban”. Coffey formulated it as: “ Chicago is a troubled and magnificent city and we (SAIC) want to contribute”.
Once the decision was made he started with setting up an umbrella organization by the name of: “ the office of engagement”. This resulted in a variety of interventions who were all part of their outreach programs. For example: artist in residence, projects for young as well as elderly people of the city. A community is not defined by where the members live; but by their participation. The office of engagement always made sure that they did not dictate the programs. Instead a consortium of local partners always got the vote; for example on who to select for the artist in residence program.
A second important realization for SAIC in this process was that realizing a form of sustainable contribution to community service requires collaboration that goes beyond that what any singular art academy can offer. It requires partnerships within the city that allows for the development of at least a 5 year program. It helps when you can find partners who can offer a wide spread of knowledge and expertise on topics such as ; government, law, finance. The office of engagement if currently proposing an agreement of infinite support from their partners.
How to continue
Once all requirements and resources are in place; the biggest challenge is to stay focused on your ‘values’. For Coffey this was a reason for example to never buy property or expand/upscale their programs. They believed programs should be deeper and more meaningful instead of expanding their area of influence. Quality of quantity. Key-players and role-models are the next essential step in order to make an authentic connection to the community. In order to make that connection at SAIC they decided to start with a ‘community audit’. It is important to understand the needs and desires from the community. For SAIC finding out that people liked drawing classes was not enough reason to organize them. They decided that their program always needed a bigger dimension than artistic self-expression. For example the relation with career opportunities became an important factor in every program they started.
From paper to practice
Once you have everything down on paper, you can expect new challenges. A community is forever in flux. Theory is the easy part, and theory cannot be compared to the reality of practice. Teachers can believe they are committed to contribute. But it’s hard work. Some of them will find out through the process it’s not for them. The process has taught Coffey to stay open-minded. In a community of collaborations you cannot push-over your opinions. You have to be able to take a step down and be patient.
The aspect of safety throughout the process is always important as well as vulnerable. When teachers or community members start feeling alone and not-supported things can go wrong quickly. It takes time to support teachers. Debrief them, allow them to work in teams, and provide support from partner schools. Some teachers receive specific training for example about trauma; because of the complexity of the participants of the program. “You don’t want teachers to feel it’s just them and the students and no one else that understands what is going on”. One teacher says he starts his programs with a ‘temperature check in’. “How do you feel coming into this room and can you rate that in numbers?” This method allows participants to reflect upon themselves and give insight to the teacher.
Challenges for the future
Gentrification is a challenge you can expect when things go well. The Tower is located in an area that is marked for gentrification. Population of the area has gone down in the past, but with its large potential to grow and located within a valuable position in the city. To study at SAIC is exclusive, but with the outreach program they try to bridge the cap by doing ‘materialized things’. Participants of the SAIC outreach programs can get work, and an opportunity to study at SAIC.