Thursday, March 1, 2012

ART/CITY: Jonathan Green

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium "ART/CITY" on March 16, 2012. Participants have been invited to respond to the prompt “in relation to the arts and civic life, the question I am wrestling with right now is…” in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Jonathan Green, Executive Director of UCR ARTSblock.

 “In relation to the arts and civic life, the question I am wrestling with right now is…”

 …how to continue to move artistic inquiry into a central position as an essential component of civic investigation and discourse in Riverside California, a city where 17% of the population have less than a high school education, only 22% have a Bachelor’s degree, where the medium income is $31,000, and where 59% of the freshman class at University of California, Riverside, are the first in their family to attend college.

UCR has recently brought together its three premier art institutions to create a new cultural complex, UCR ARTSblock, whose mission is to provide a cultural presence, educational resource, community center and intellectual meeting ground for the university and the community.

ARTSblock is committed to simultaneously working on the cutting edge of contemporary artistic disciplines including art, dance, performance, music, theater, film, photography, media, literature, and spoken word, and at the same time allowing community practitioners, university students and faculty, and internationally recognized artists, to present and engage in these disciplines. The challenge is to move away from a model where the community just participates as audience toward a more inclusive model where the community participates as vital and equal partners and presenters: to create a site that is both a major cultural presence and a deeply inclusive institution.

It is the architecture that provides the first force for integration with the community. The architecture of ARTSblock, in general, and of the new Culver Center, in particular, allows engagement to coalesce in a defined place: the compelling renovation of an ornate, 1895 department store. In its very physical existence, Culver provides the gravitational pull: its history and reuse provokes inquiry and speculation.

The Culver Center of the Arts gala opening events of a year ago provides one model for operations: it was built around three days of programming that supported significant community performances in parallel with vanguard presentations.  For example the spectacular Mt. Rubidoux SDA Gospel Choir and American Idol finalist Tori Kelly were on the same program as the Riverside Philharmonic and the Riverside Lyric Opera. Dance presentations featured children from Riverside’s jazz and hip-hop Bre Studio together with eminent choreographer Susan Rose’s most sophisticated explorations of movement and space.

Other projects during this first year have moved toward similar amalgamations of vanguard work and local participation: the weekly screening program brings to Culver local filmmakers as well as festival winners from around the world. A summer video workshop for disadvantaged teens transformed 30 teenagers into actors, directors and cinematographers, culminating in a screening of their work open to the entire community. An exhibition by Jeff Foye and Gordon Winiemko invited community participation in making a documentary video on the foreclosure crisis. Margarita Cabrera’s installation Pulse y Martillo, focused on the intersection of indigenous Mexican Folk art and the creation of fair working conditions and the protection of immigrant rights. Her exhibition included an extraordinary sound performance by undocumented Riverside students and workers, a panel discussion with undocumented students and activists, and the screening of two related films Los Invisibles and Maquilapolis. These events drew both participants and audience from a broad swatch of the Riverside and university community.

The conflict and the challenge at the basis of ARTSblock programing is very real. It is the sustained clash between the high modern desire for singular, broadly, even internationally, recognized elite artists, and the new modern obligation to relevance, context, and local production. At our best we synthesize and ratify both and raise the level of empowerment and thoughtful engagement for a community that is not historically a functioning arts environment nor a constituency for vanguard art.

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