director, arts of citizenship program
university of michigan (1998-2005)

Arts of Citizenship grew out of a yearlong initiative at the University of Michigan on the value of the arts and humanities--and a challenge posed by a skeptical local philanthropist: "What do the arts and humanities have to contribute to community life anyway?"  The program gave an answer different from either the public commentary of faculty or the service work of student volunteers.  It forged projects of cultural co-creation between academic and community partners.  For me, these partnerships were experiments in democratic citizenship; they explored the place of story-telling, meaning-making, and social memory in the creation of 'we the people.'  They were also educational experiments, exploring public life as a medium for innovative teaching, research, and creative practice.

The program was deliberately eclectic.  It developed public history projects and oral history archives, websites and documentaries, museum exhibitions and performances, park designs and K-12 curricula.  I was directly involved in many projects, described in the Past Projects section.  But Arts of Citizenship also offered grants to UM faculty, staff, and students for their own public work.  By 2005, when I left the University of Michigan, it had launched or funded more than fifty cultural, creative, scholarly, and teaching projects in the arts, humanities, and design. (Click here for links to projects sponsored during my tenure as Director; click here for links to grants awarded annually by the program.)

Arts of Citizenship was an initiative of the UM Office of the Vice-President for Research.  It worked across the university, even in schools not focused on the arts, humanities, and design.  It supported curricular experimentation, especially project-based courses that immersed students in public-cultural work and experiential learning.  I developed some of these, described in the Teaching section; my seminar Community Projects In the Arts and Humanities was a platform for many projects.  But many faculty created innovative courses and practica in many UM colleges.

The program grew during a period of ferment for the national movement for academic public engagement. Many liberal-arts and creative-arts faculty, eager to link their academic work with their public lives, were developing the service-learning movement beyond its roots in the social sciences and the helping professions.  At the same time, faculty from all disciplines were moving beyond older models of stand-alone service-learning to forge deeper, longer partnerships with communities.  Arts of Citizenship learned from and contributed to these currents.

In 1998--the same year that the program began--the University of Michigan launched a national consortium, Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, that supported civic engagement in the arts, humanities, and design across higher education. Its founding director, Julie Ellison--a distinguished professor of English at UM--was a key thought-partner and advocate for Arts of Citizenship.  I was a member of IA's National Advisory Board and a supporter of Julie's work. (Click here for more about Imagining America.)

The experience of developing Arts of Citizenship was transformative.   It re-oriented my career, and its commitment to the democratic co-creation of knowledge and culture has informed my work ever since.  In 2005, I left the University of Michigan to serve as the founding Director of the Harward Center For Community Partnerships at Bates College.  The Arts of Citizenship Program itself evolved from away from project-based cultural collaboration toward a focus on the development of graduate students as public scholars and civic professionals. Rechristened the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship, it has become--under the strong leadership of historian Matthew Countryman--a vibrant example of engaged graduate education. 


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