April 11, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 13

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    Harris School, SSA fuse expertise to look at arts, community development

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    The Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies’ Cultural Policy Center and the School of Social Service Administration will sponsor a one-day conference Saturday, May 4, which will examine the role of the arts in community development. The conference is evidence of practitioners, funding bodies and policy makers’ growing interest in the impact that arts and cultural programs have on communities.

    “This is an area of growing interest for a number of reasons,” explained William Sites, Associate Professor in SSA and a member of the conference planning committee. “Partly because the economic value of the arts is increasingly recognized by city leaders; partly because arts as a tool of revitalization has a personal appeal to funders who find art and culture rewarding; and perhaps also because it’s possible to view the arts (not always correctly) as empowering but non-threatening.”

    The planning committee includes Sites; Christopher Perrius, Associate Director of the Cultural Policy Center; Lawrence Rothfield, Associate Professor in English Language & Literature, Comparative Literature and the College and Faculty Director of the Cultural Policy Center; Penny Johnson, Dean of Students in SSA; and graduate students Mary Bunn and Kristen Cox. The conference was proposed and organized by Perrius and Cox.

    “I came to SSA wanting to fuse my interests in organizational administration, community development and the importance of the arts. When I found out about the Cultural Policy Center and the growing interest in the social impact of the arts, I thought this would be a great opportunity to bring together policy and social work students to learn from people working in the field and to provide the opportunity to engage in discussion around shared interests,” said Cox, a first-year graduate student in SSA.

    The role that arts and cultural programs play in community development also can be seen in new local initiatives. At city hall, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs has launched an initiative titled “Advancing the City’s Civic Agenda Through the Arts,” and recently it released a preliminary statistical survey of arts organizations throughout Chicago.

    “This represents a significant change in the city’s approach to arts funding,” said Rothfield. “Traditionally the city has focused its support for the arts on particular kinds of arts organizations, such as the theaters in the Loop. Now it’s trying to look at neighborhoods first to determine what combination of cultural and social resources can be supported that will serve as a catalyst for change in the community.”

    The conference will open with a presentation by Mark Stern of the University of Pennsylvania on his project called “The Social Impact of the Arts,” which is tracking how various arts and cultural programs are affecting Philadelphia, and a talk on collaborative research by Philip Nyden of Loyola University’s Center for Urban Research and Learning.

    A second panel will look at community development programs focused on Chicago youth and suggest sensible goals for art-based youth programs. Panelists will be Joan Costello, former Faculty Associate in the Chapin Hall Center for Children, and David Schein of Free Street Programs.

    The conference will close with a panel composed of leaders of Chicago arts organizations who will discuss the dynamic between the arts and Chicago neighborhoods and how different policies affect it. Juana Guzman of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum will join Elena Marcheschi and Alaka Wali of Columbia College’s Study of the Informal Arts, and others.

    “Social scientists are just beginning to examine the complex relationship between the arts and communities, so even the threshold questions, such as what counts as community development, are still open to debate,” said Carroll Joynes, Executive Director of the Cultural Policy Center at the Harris School.

    “We hope to raise awareness of the issue on campus and in the city and offer University faculty and students a good understanding of the state of research in this field. In addition, we want to nurture ties between faculty, students, practitioners and arts funding bodies that could lead to further collaboration and research and may offer fulfilling career paths for SSA and Harris School students.”

    “The best recipes for mixing cultural programming into community development plans are under-documented, to say the least,” Perrius added. “Researchers and practitioners can work together to determine the best roles for culture in community development, and the pitfalls and payoffs of collaborative research will be on the table at the conference.”

    Across Chicago there are numerous projects directed at using the arts as a tool to improve neighborhood life, and the initiatives have strong support from Mayor Daley and other local government officials. “There is probably growing interest in part because the notion of community self-definition through cultural expression has increasing legitimacy and appeal among community residents themselves,” Sites explained.

    “All forms of community development, after all are, at some level, about culture. So, some of the reasons may be good ones, but all of them require close examination if community residents and organizers and practitioners who work with them are to be clear about what they hope to gain from community development projects that focus on the arts. And in this respect, these projects, like all community development projects, raise important questions about who, in fact, can speak for the community,” he added.

    The conference will be held from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the School of Social Service Administration Building, 969 E. 60th St. For more information, call 702-4407.