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  • Learning from Examples of Civic Responsibility:What Community-Based Art Centers Teach Us about Arts Education
  • Jessica Hoffmann Davis (bio)


Throughout the United States, beyond school walls, there struggles and soars a sprawling field of community art centers dedicated to education.1 Most frequently clustered on either coast in bustling urban communities, these centers provide arts training that enriches or exceeds what is offered in schools. They serve artists who need space for work or performance, students who crave instruction and direction, and the broader community that enjoys attendant cultural enrichment. At the core, they create safe havens for arts learning that has been marginalized elsewhere.

Unfettered by the demands and constraints of school administrations, these self-designed centers have been of considerable interest to arts education researchers over the last twenty years.2 Largely conceived and staffed by artists, they demonstrate artful alternatives to mainstream education: creative visions of teaching, learning, and assessment. Moreover, the positive impact these centers have had on students considered at risk across a number of variables has caught the attention of researchers looking for better ways to serve our youth.3

The location of these centers beyond school walls, like their operation beyond the hours of the school day, would naturally seem to cast them as positive opportunities for extending arts learning that goes on in school. But with school art curricula scarce or in danger of elimination, supplementary options can seem threatening to school arts specialists. Administrators have regarded the opportunities that outside artists and centers provide as sufficient substitutes for a school-based course of sequential instruction in the arts. While vital funding sources encourage and sustain collaboration, a tension persists between the autonomy of outsider arts centers and the integrity [End Page 82] of insider school arts programs. For students disenfranchised from schools, the "otherness" of centers has a certain cachet. For centers unable to afford their own space, school classrooms in after-school hours offer a home base for their offerings and easy access for students. The back and forth across school walls raises opportunities and concerns that have resulted in a range of creative solutions.4 But my interest here is not in the cross-wall meeting of services, but rather in the differences in arts learning on either side of school walls. In the pages that follow, I pose the question, What can schools learn from the arts education provided in the community?

In addressing this question, I first mark the differences between arts learning in schools and in the community as a need for justification versus an opportunity for demonstration. I then describe the research from which my thinking and discussion draw and offer a brief overview of the history of community art centers as inspired by and illustrative of civic responsibility. With an eye to what educators and advocates can learn from these community-based efforts, I focus next on three common objections to prioritizing the arts in our schools: value, measurement, and autonomy. Each objection is introduced from a school-based perspective and then reconsidered in light of community-based attitudes and activities.5 In conclusion, I delineate the insights derived from a consideration of community arts education as stimulus for the redirection of educational objectives and advocacy rationales for arts learning in schools.

Justification vs. Demonstration

In its struggle for recognition and place in school settings, arts education has sought justification in terms of its potential to serve the broader educational scene. We ask of classes that provide mounting skills in visual arts, music, or theater, "Yes, but what else does arts learning do? Can it improve student skills in reading, mathematics, or any other subjects that are more traditionally valued?" Such demands may seem unfair. When has math ever been defended for its ability to improve arts performance? Beyond a sense of injustice, claims for arts learning's causal impact on measurable extraneous outcomes (such as improvements in test scores in nonarts academic subjects) are at best most difficult to prove.6

In community centers where art is the chosen heart of the matter, students come specifically to study the arts and to benefit from their enhancement of more generalized experience...


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pp. 82-95
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