Promoting Civic Inquiry Through Works of Art


Author
Bailey Clark, Associate Director, Center for Leadership & Community Engagement, Rollins College

Published
October 19, 2018


The practice of civic inquiry, or the ability to describe and analyze civic intellectual debates within one’s major or areas of study, is commonplace in the social sciences. As a result, college students studying political science, international relations, economics, and related disciplines, are often perceived to be the most civically engaged. Perhaps unsurprising, research on voter turnout supports this assumption. Results from the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) from Tufts University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, suggests students studying social sciences voted at the highest rates in both the 2012 and 2016 Presidential elections.1 Rollins College, however, is working to engage all students in civic inquiry, regardless of their major. One unique set of programming is effectively engaging students from a variety of majors with a particular focus on the Arts and Humanities. Through its’ partnership with For Freedoms: 50 State Initiative, the largest creative collaboration in U.S. history, the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College is using artwork as a tool to facilitate civic discourse. Similar programs can be implemented on other college campuses to embolden students outside of the Social Sciences to get involved in democracy.

The Cornell Fine Arts Museum (CFAM) at Rollins College is a teaching museum that stimulates transformative encounters with works of art while integrating art learning into daily life for campus and community. This semester, CFAM is hosting multiple events and displaying works of art that connect the arts and contemporary politics. The exhibition was inspired by Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms from 1941 and is meant to “use art to deepen public discussions on civic issues and core values, and to advocate for equality, dialogue, and civic participation. For Freedoms aims to inject anti-partisan, critical thinking that fine art requires into the political landscape through programming, exhibitions, and public artworks.”2 Collections like Fake News serve as launching points for critical reflection and discussion about the state of American democracy.

On a recent tour of the Museum, students from the Democracy Project, a nonpartisan student organization dedicated to democratic engagement, viewed works from artists like Jerome Meadows. Meadows’ work, An Underlying Truth, depicts an American flag that is covering several newspaper clippings. It’s as if the artist is asking viewers to look beneath the surface to search for the facts. The Museum’s description of the exhibition reads, “Artists have always responded to, and reacted against, the barrage of news. These artists recognize the power of the media in shaping public opinion, and encourage viewers to ask questions. Through their work, they offer research, report on current events, and act as fact-checkers of their generations.”3 In addition to an exhibit on fake news, The For Freedoms collection of works includes The Protestors by Pedro Reyes, a series of sculptures depicting protestors of different shapes and sizes. According to the artist, “I envisioned the anonymous protestor as the incarnation of a contemporary hero.”4 During museum tours, students and guests are encouraged to think about issues they are passionate about and what the figures might be protesting. The artist himself frequently participates in activism and museum docents use his story to describe how one person can make a difference in their community.

Another piece of the collection can be found in the Olin Library. Multiple works of literature highlight artists’ interpretations of four basic freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. When students enter the library to conduct research, meet with a study group, or have a cup of coffee at the Bookmark Café, they are welcomed by the images of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms. Student are then encouraged to fill out a card describing what kinds of freedoms they value the most. The completed cards are displayed prominently in the Library.

Ultimately, students across campus will be engaging in civic inquiry as a result of this multifaceted exhibition. It is already generating a buzz around the upcoming midterm elections and could influence voter turnout by encouraging students from all disciplines to get involved in the democratic process.


  1. “2016 National NSLVE Data.” Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, 28 Sept. 2017, https://idhe.tufts.edu/nslve/2016
  2. “About For Freedoms.” For Freedoms, forfreedoms.org/about/.
  3. “Fake News?” Fake News? Some Artistic Responses | 2018 Exhibitions | Cornell Fine Arts Museum | Rollins College | Winter Park, FL, www.rollins.edu/cornell-fine-arts-museum/exhibitions/2018/fake-news.html.
  4. “Pedro Reyes Celebrates Political Protest With Sculpture At The Lisson Gallery London.” OPUMO Magazine, 22 Mar. 2018, www.opumo.com/magazine/pedro-reyes-celebrates-political-protest-sculpture-lisson-gallery-london/.

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