Cultivating Partnerships at the Intersection of Arts and Civic Engagement

Washington University in St. Louis, Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement

May 31, 2019

Art has the power to bring together differing points of view, cultivating intellectual debate and dialogue that at times feels absent in our current political climate.  As longstanding community institutions, arts organizations can spark both civic inquiry and action.  However, higher education institutions don’t always help our students make these connections, limiting our civic engagement efforts to more traditional pathways.  What if we could bring students together with St. Louis area arts organization? How could they partner to drive a mission of civic and community engagement in the region?

In 2018, we launched our Arts as Civic Engagement program (ACE). After a successful pilot, we are excited to share and invite other institutions of higher education to think creatively about other how to marry civic engagement with more creative disciplines.

ACE Lead Educator, Roseann Weiss, a 30 year veteran in the St. Louis arts community, shares her reflections:

Having spent many years working with arts organizations and artists who are deeply rooted in our community, I am honored to pilot Arts as Civic Engagement at the Gephardt Institute with Stefani Weeden-Smith. The arts are an intrinsic part of our everyday lives, including our civic lives. Arts as Civic Engagement gives us an opportunity to envision a space for students in residence, the Gephardt Institute, arts organizations, and community participants to form true collaborations.

Because we are working in the arts and the realm of community, innovation, and creativity, we view these partnerships in a slightly different way than other programs might. We view all of these members as elemental partners in thought and action – partners who share knowledge and learn from each other. All bring something important to the table of civic engagement. We not only envision connecting the residents to the organizations and through the organizations to communities; we also hope to connect the organizations to each other and to the Gephardt Institute. In other words, we seek to create a powerful cohort of arts-based civic engagement.

As lead educator, I act as the conduit to making these connections and meet weekly with the residents as well as with the organizations to brainstorm and test concepts. In our full cohort meeting, the organizations expressed enthusiasm for Arts as Civic Engagement and specifically for the opportunity to share ideas and to tap into the resources of the Gephardt Institute. Each hoped to continue to grow and build this cohort.

Each resident was given an important and specific project to advance the mission of each organization to engage with communities.

Jacque Randolph worked with the Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Streets program that is bridging an urban north county community with a more rural one. They are working with Normandy High School and have found that Jacque’s point of view, as a Drama student not so far from her high school days, is a valuable asset. She was included as a member of the team in all of their site visits.

Rachel Roberts at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) moved the needle on that institution’s One-Mile Radius initiative by contacting and cultivating members of faith-based organizations within that radius around the museum. In her short time there, she invited ministers and their congregations to CAM for special events and tours, and made contacts with Muslim and Jewish organizations.

At The Griot Museum of Black History and Culture, ZeCora Smith supported the museum’s team of volunteers who are working to build the museum’s capacity and strategize for its future. She worked to attract a new and younger activist audience to the Griot through her organization of the “Civil Unrest in Review” exhibition and programming.

Each of these residents became important to their institutions in the complex work of lasting relationship-building with community. Each moved that work forward.

With Arts as Civic Engagement is in its pilot year, we have our plan – our blueprints. We are, in addition, learning as we are building the program. Like anything new and exciting, we change and tweak as we continue. In this pilot year, we may sometimes be “building the plane as we fly.” I believe that we are soaring.

For more about Arts as Civic Engagement, visit

Authors: Roseann Weiss, Arts as Civic Engagement Lead Educator; Theresa Kouo, Assistant Director for Civic & Community Engagement

Institution: Washington University in St. Louis, Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement

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