The Arts and Civic Space: An Experiment in Community Education
by Frances McCue — 2007
While the arts are being elbowed out of school curricula, new community-based education venues for the arts are emerging in cities across the country. This article describes Richard Hugo House, an arts center for creative writing in Seattle, which attracts people of different ages and sociocultural backgrounds who participate in not only writing studios, but in a wide range of activities such as literary readings and plays. Hugo House also maintains a gallery, a café, and a “zine” library, an underground collection of almost 16,000 homemade magazines from around the world. It has come to function as a civic space for the arts that fosters in participants not only a range of real-life skills, but also a sense of democratic values.
This essay explores the theoretical underpinnings of a community learning place for the arts and includes some observations about how people of different backgrounds, ages, and skill levels engage with an art form and how the art becomes a pivot of dialogue for a larger community.
In this particular civic arts space, I am identifying traits that make the learning environment a vibrant and inspiring one. For example, at Richard Hugo House, we are able to ask: “What do people need as they are learning to write? What does anyone coming to an artistic enterprise need? How does she sustain her work and improve her craft?” and we can trace the responses to these questions through the experiences of particular students and their teachers.
Good teaching in this informal setting is idealistic and pragmatic: it gives voice to more stories, and more stories help us see the “what ifs” of the world. Teaching at Hugo House facilitates more than it instructs—it’s a process theory approach and our observations are grounded similarly—in action research. While good teaching lets more people be the tellers of their stories, it also helps to hone and craft them, making both the story and the telling of it culturally urgent. That, at its best, is highly democratic.
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