The Arts of Community Engagement

By Mike Emery

On any given day, Houstonians can attend a performance, exhibition or reading at the University of Houston. In fact, UH hosts more than 175,000 visitors to its campus arts events annually. Yes, the arts loom large on campus, but the University strives to enhance the creative landscape of the entire city.

Numerous endeavors go beyond campus stages, studios, galleries and auditoriums. Many of these initiatives do what the arts do best – entertain audiences — but a number of efforts focus on educating, informing and inspiring the public.

A perfect example of UH using its talents to captivate Houstonians is the Houston Shakespeare Festival (HSF) presented by the School of Theatre & Dance at Miller Outdoor Theater each year. One of UH’s most visible community engagement vehicles, HSF celebrated its 40th anniversary this year with milestone performances of “Henry IV, Part 1” and “ The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

“It’s simply not summer in Houston if you don’t see free HSF shows at Miller,” said Jim Johnson, director of UH’s School of Theatre & Dance.

While HSF has become an integral part of the city’s fabric, Johnson added that it does much more than transport audiences to the Bard’s world.

“While we want to entertain audiences, we also want to engage them before the curtain is raised,” he said. “We conduct pre-show discussions for groups and are adding educational activities throughout the year, including film screenings.” Additionally, HSF contributes to the region’s artistic growth through its HSF Conservatory, providing professional theater training to high school students who learn stage skills from veteran actors and theater pros.

Whether it’s a graduate design/build studio installation, like ‘Reframe x Frame’ (left) in Hermann Park, or a Houston Shakespeare Festival production, UH takes culture off campus and into the community.

Blaffer Art Museum also works with Houston–area students through the Young Artists Apprenticeship Program (YA A P). Since 1998, YA AP has offered arts training for Houston high schoolers, complementing other Blaffer programs that bolster public arts education, all under the umbrella of Blaffer’s Art Focus.

“Creative activities are vital parts of people’s lives,” said Katherine Veneman, curator of education at Blaffer Art Museum. “It’s our hope that an exhibition or experience might inspire them to have a deeper understanding of art.”

Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from UH’s creative reach into the community. For 25 years, Houston high school educators have learned about literature through the Common Ground Teachers Institute. Hosted by UH’s Honors College, the summer workshop offers teachers new insights on classic and contemporary texts. Workshop participants emerge refreshed and ready to share new perspectives with their students.

William Monroe, dean of the Honors College, who recently guided Common Ground participants through literary activities, said creative offerings like this are essential for many teachers.

“We see a lot of burn out in our educators. Common Ground lets them become excited again. More than that,” he said, “they can recharge their batteries and be ready when school is back in session.”

Some projects are less literal, aiming instead at physically enhancing the city. A number of initiatives at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, for instance, explore creative ways to enrich Houston. These include the Collaborative Community Design Initiative, which promotes collaboration with civic leaders and proposes innovative urban designs for aging neighborhoods. Another notable project is Professor Patrick Peters’ Graduate Design/Build Studio, which contributes functional structures (designed and constructed by students) to city parks, schools or nonprofit organizations.

Peters’ studio has contributed many special amenities, including a small amphitheater for T.H. Rogers School, a solar shade tree for McReynolds Middle School, a solar-powered classroom for Alief’s community garden and, most recently, a solar-powered education portal for Paul Revere Middle School. Peters’ projects have connected creativity and community outreach for decades. His Graduate Design Build Studio just completed its 21st project.

Meanwhile, new community-oriented programs continue to emerge including the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for Arts’ forthcoming INTERSECTIONS. The project will expand awareness of Muslim cultures on campus and in the community through the work of four artists-in-residence.

INTERSECTIONS uses creativity as a mechanism to communicate across cultures, and that is the beauty of using the arts for community engagement, said Karen Farber, Mitchell Center director.

Finding solutions to problems through innovation is a daily occurrence at UH, but using the arts to do so further connects community and campus in a special way.

“Only the arts can render complex realities in equally complex ways,” Farber said. “Artists work outside silos and across disciplinary boundaries. At UH, we connect artists with subjects in our community and help them to create something transformational for all involved.”


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