Diversity and Democracy

The Case for Civic Imagination in Undergraduate Arts Education

What if we spoke to students about why we make art as much as how we make art? What if arts programs concerned themselves with fostering socially and personally responsible citizen artists as much as skilled and talented craftsmen and women? What if arts faculty exposed students to applied arts in and with communities, schools, prisons, and hospitals—and what if we emphasized that success doesn’t have to mean leaving where you come from?

As an arts educator, I have been considering these questions with increasing urgency for ten years. My interest in the intersection of arts and civic engagement was initially triggered by my discovery of the Animating Democracy Initiative (ADI) back in 2002 (http://animatingdemocracy.org). While small shifts in undergraduate arts education have occurred since then, widespread change would involve nothing short of a paradigm shift toward developing civic imagination as a critical skill for student artists.

Leaders in Cultivating Civic Imagination

An increasing number of colleges and universities are institutionalizing opportunities for students to cultivate civic imagination. The following are only a few leaders in this area:

—Kate Collins

Defining Civic Imagination

What exactly is civic imagination? More pertinent, what does the concept of civic imagination offer the realm of arts and arts education? In search of answers and inspiration, I looked to the artists and educators who depict civic imagination as central to their work.

An important description of the arts’ potential offered by ADI provides resonant clues about what civic imagination might be and what it can offer. ADI does not use the specific terminology of civic imagination, but its writers eloquently remind us that


The arts in general can express difficult ideas through metaphor; transcend the obvious to imagine solutions; communicate beyond the limits of language; serve as a herald to raise awareness about an issue; gather diverse publics for interaction at a common physical site; and transcend established social and political boundaries. (Schaffer-Bacon, Yuen, and Korza 1999, 23)

Perhaps then, for arts educators, cultivating civic imagination involves an intentional effort to foster and employ these abilities in arts students for the sake of the public good.

Inspired and Inspiring Examples

The idea of cultivating civic imagination in the arts is exemplified in practice by the work of Sojourn Theatre Artistic Director and ADI participating artist Michael Rohd. Rohd’s company is currently collaborating with a New York-based ensemble theater company called the TEAM (Theater of the Emerging American Moment) on a major undertaking named Town Hall Nation: A National Act of Civic Imagination (http://www.townhallnation.org). The project uses theater as a vehicle “to respond to the paucity of opportunities for ideologically diverse people to make democracy function together” (Town Hall Nation 2011), positioning cultivation of civic imagination as a priority not only for artists, but for the public at large.

In the midst of a polarizing presidential election, Sojourn Theatre and the TEAM are convinced of theater’s capacity to contribute something meaningful to public discourse. They have initiated a nationwide effort to expand the conversation by encouraging others to create their own theatrical works with the same goals. Many other professional artists and arts companies are engaged in similar dynamic arts-based civic dialogue initiatives. One can’t help but wonder, what if we presented artistic endeavors like these to arts students as aspirational models along with Broadway and the film industry, museums and galleries?

Max Stephenson, public policy scholar and professor at Virginia Tech, writing with graduate student Katherine Fox Lanham, makes clear that others beyond the arts recognize the importance of artists’ civic imagination. Describing their research in a struggling region, Stephenson and Fox Lanham say,

The Dan River region of Virginia has witnessed a rapid collapse of its traditional economic base. . . . and suffers deep racial and socio-economic divides which contribute to a dearth of civic dialogue among its citizens and communities. . . . The artists of this region represent an underutilized asset for changing this status quo, for quickening the public’s imagination about its potential collective future. (2007, 83)

Stephenson and Fox Lanham’s observations underscore the value of cultivating civic imagination among artists: “If artists are to play a role in the dynamics of such processes they must first understand their potential to do so. And that requires that they reflect on their concept of the aesthetic and embrace its public character” (2007, 91).

Expanding a Pivotal Role

The idea of artists as catalysts or provocateurs in society is not new, nor is the notion that artists play important roles in the civic realm: shaping history; molding cities, towns, and nations. The powerful role of music during the Civil Rights Movement and the critical awareness inspired by visual and performing artists at the height of the AIDS epidemic exemplify the profound civic impact the arts have had in the United States over many decades. The history of connections between the arts and the civic realm is long and rich, and it continues today. But this connection remains largely underexplored in undergraduate arts education. It is vital that we change this.

Fortunately, a few innovative colleges and universities around the nation are instituting unique undergraduate degree programs, minors, and centers that lay the foundation for cultivating civic imagination among students (see box for notable examples). A sprinkling of colleges and universities are offering individual undergraduate courses that show great promise, but the greater concentration of these efforts to date remains at the graduate level.

I first attempted to develop an arts-based civic engagement course in 2004 at Arizona State University, an effort I resurrected in 2008 and 2009 at Bowling Green State University. My course, called the Citizen Artist, was designed primarily for undergraduates. Students from each iteration have contacted me after graduation to communicate how significant the course was in shaping their views of the arts and, for some, their career paths. These student responses have confirmed for me the importance of integrating civic learning with arts education at the undergraduate level, where arts programs play a pivotal role in shaping students’ notions of what it means to be an artist. Cultivating civic imagination at this stage can have a profound impact.

Many assert that the creation of art, in and of itself, is a civic act (Schaffer-Bacon, Yuen, and Korza 1999, 23). But unless and until undergraduate arts educators become more intentional in fostering this awareness for their students—in cultivating their civic imaginations and arming them with the skills and knowledge to act on their new capacities—the tremendous civic potential of the arts and artists will remain underrealized. While not every university can or should start a comprehensive program, courses that address the civic and social impact of the arts are vital. And while not every student will become a socially engaged artist, every student should be challenged to expand his or her notions of what it means to be an artist and an engaged citizen of the world. Fostering civic imagination is a powerful means to do just that.

Works Cited

Schaffer-Bacon, Barbara, Cheryl Yuen, and Pam Korza. 1999. Animating Democracy: The Artistic Imagination as a Force in Civic Dialogue. Washington, DC: Americans for the Arts.

Stephenson, Max, and Katherine Fox Lanham. 2007. “Aesthetic Imagination, Civic Imagination, and the Role of the Arts in Community Change and Development.” International Journal of the Arts in Society 1(3): 83–92.

Town Hall Nation. 2011. www.townhallnation.org.

Kate Collins is a doctoral student in art education at the Ohio State University.


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