Civic Season Report: The Art of Changemaking

Share our story and call for change — ArtsEd4All knows we can do both during Civic Season.

Kate Doak-Keszler
(History) Made By Us

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2022 was the 35th Anniversary showing of the #AIDSQuilt, supported by hundreds of volunteer name readers who honored those lost to AIDS at Golden Gate Park. Image courtesy of ArtsEd4All.

As we count down to Civic Season 2023, Kate Doak-Keszler, Partnerships and Communications Director, and Maggie Gamson, Editorial Intern, are highlighting the stories of individuals and organizations across the U.S. who are joining in this new national celebration.

Art and civic engagement have a long, beautiful, and complex history as a couple. From the protest songs of Bob Dylan to Kendrick Lamar, from the community mural to the protest sign, through theatre, song, spoken word, dance, and practically every other art form there is, art speaks truth to power. Americans past and present have created impactful displays of the ways civic engagement shapes both our shared humanity and our individual lived experiences.

ArtsEd4All, an organization dedicated to providing access to the arts, not only acknowledges the important relationship between art and civic engagement, but nurtures and cultivates it. “Art illuminates history-which to her, is a verb, not a noun,” said poet and activist Nellie Wong in her reading at The Last Hoisan Poets: A Tribute to Hung Liu. One of six events curated by ArtsEd4All, The Last Hoisan Poets was a part of Civic Season 2022. We had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Andi Wong, ArtsEd4All’s project coordinator, about the organization’s work, history, and the importance of art for civic engagement.

Meet ArtsEd4All

In 2006, the Rooftop School started a school-wide study of artist Ruth Asawa. Asawa, a child of Japanese immigrants, grew up on a farm in California. As a teenager, Asawa became one of the 100,000 Japanese Americans placed in internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. She spent 18 months interned at Rohwer, Arkansas. She received a special scholarship from the Japanese American Student Relocation Council in 1943 to attend college the Milwaukee State Teachers College in Wisconsin. Despite her education, she was unable to get hired for requisite teaching practice due to her race, and eventually left Wisconsin without a degree. In a situation that she later would refer to as a “godsend,” Asawa then went on to study at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, one of the most revolutionary arts colleges of the 20th century. Black Mountain had adopted the principles of the Bauhaus, aiming to shape “active citizens of democracy” through “making and working with people.”

The USPS released commemorative Ruth Asawa Forever stamps depicting several of Asawa’s sculptures.

Her education and experience shaped Asawa’s education philosophy — “Art will make people better, more highly skilled in thinking and improving whatever business one goes into, or whatever occupation. It makes a person broader.” She worked hard to give people, especially children, greater opportunities to create. Ruth co-founded the Alvarado Arts Workshop for school children in 1968 — a program that brought working artists into the public schools in San Francisco. The model which started at Alvarado School was very successful, and Asawa went on to found the Rooftop School public art program in 1982.

The program focused on making art education available to children and training parents to support art in classrooms. Nearly two decades later the mission expanded, resulting in the founding of ArtsEd4All, ​a small group of educators on the school art committee that felt that there were so many excellent opportunities for students & families to extend their learning beyond the school day. With a desire to help families enjoy the city's many free arts offerings, ArtsEd4All still prospers with the mission of making art accessible to everyone by connecting artists and communities.

Andi Wong, artist, educator, and activist, served in multiple roles at Rooftop School, including arts coordinator, technology instructor, and outdoor educator. That work was the impetus for her involvement with ArtsEd4All, an informal collective of educators, artists, scientists, civic institutions, and community organizations who enjoy working together to create meaningful arts experiences for all to enjoy.

Where art and civic engagement meet

Multiple studies have found that an individual’s participation in the arts has a statistically significant relationship to levels of civic engagement. From the painters who helped shape a young nation’s perception of itself after the Revolutionary War to the haunting song that demanded acknowledgment of the victims of lynching, art has always been a part of civic life in the U.S. This connection plays a critical role in the mission of ArtsEd4All, where history fuels their work in the present by amplifying voices which have previously been silenced. Wong tells us, “A solid knowledge of the past allows you to make intentional changes…As our country is thinking about its past, and thinking about where it wants to go — even how we determine that — it is really important that we save some time and invite as many people into the practice so we can come up with something that might be useful.”

She reflects for a moment on the importance of understanding where you came from and how that helps create a path toward where you want to go. By expanding our table to invite different voices in, she explains, we can help create a future powered not by a single story, but by the individual stories of thousands. “Every community has its public art,” Wong explains, “looking at indigenous traditions, public works commissioned by civic bodies, the artists working their lifetimes in their communities — thinking about this day and age when everything is moving so quickly and changing so quickly, looking for the things that are stable and spend some time with them, and spend some time in places that are quiet. To think about where you have come from and where you are going, and what it means to live in this country.”

ArtsEd4All + Civic Season

In keeping with their mission, ArtsEd4All hosted a series of public arts programs in conjunction with Civic Season. Wong says that as an educator, “I love the whole idea that we are going to set new rituals, new ideas that we return to each year — there is so much that we don’t know and every time we return to a theme or topic, we learn a little more. Civic Season has marked space and it is a mindful way to learn history.” Other Civic Season events included a viewing of the AIDS quilt, Oakland First Friday to pay tribute to the artists who drive social change, and the screening of a documentary about Gordon Parks whose art inspired a generation of artist-activists.

This Civic Season postcard was filled out by Judy, one of the volunteers who helped read out names at the #AIDSQuilt event. Image courtesy of ArtsEd4All.

None of these projects were outside the scope of ArtsEd4All’s regular programming, but for Wong that was actually an important point. Many organizations across the country are doing important work and Civic Season is a way for them to connect. Wong says the power of Civic Season is knowing “I don’t have to be a museum, I don’t have to be an institution, I don’t have to be an expert, I hope what we do is encouraging in that way. Everyone can offer something and feel good about it.”

Interested in exploring the intersection of art and civic engagement? Check out these Made By Us Partners!

Poster House

For Freedoms

University of Michigan Museums of Art

Dubuque Museum of Art

Smithsonian Arts + Industry Building

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Kate Doak-Keszler
(History) Made By Us

Preservationist by trade, storyteller by nature. History is a roadmap to the future, if you just know how to read it.