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RURI Thoughts

Published onDec 24, 2019
RURI Thoughts

The RURI workshop was an important first step in acknowledging and integrating the skill-sets of artists, designers, scientists, and social scientists to address cultural and environmental challenges we face along the Mississippi River watershed in the 21st century. Much more than object-makers, we artists have the ability to humanize these challenges through storytelling and calls to action. As artists, we can creatively mobilize communities on-the-ground, while providing opportunities to bridge the gap between current modes of research and science with the expertise and needs of communities affected by climate change. Artists can translate these different languages, as well as create possibilities for creative community engagement to aid in strengthening networks between populations of people along this vast watershed.

As the Community Arts Specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, I often travel between disparate worlds: the university and its scholars; rural, urban, and suburban Iowa communities; and the contemporary art world and its institutions. As an artist and as an extension specialist, I employ art as a creative strategy to increase networks and build community by forging opportunities for artists to become active partners in broader civic projects and by inviting non-artists to directly participate in the creative process. Art functions as a method of engagement for engaging community members. Too often, we view art as contributing only to a community’s cultural or financial standing, rather than on its ability to aid in network building, which is the most crucial aspect in community vitality.

Arts engagement shifts beyond traditional public art, with its focus on object and outcome to a focus first on the engagement process and then on outcome. Arts engagement moves beyond outreach, which is a traditional top-down model of delivering knowledge from an institution to a community. Outreach is not co-creation, whereas ethical and effective engagement posits that community members are experts regarding particular histories and needs in their communities, and that partnerships are strongest when this expertise is valued.

These strategies are evident in the work of artists Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker in their collaborative project, The Water Bar and Public Studio. Housed in Minneapolis, The Water Bar “serve[s] water to build relationships that transform culture.” By creating opportunities and space for community members to come together to discuss how water functions in their lives, these artists underscore the necessity of connecting individuals and organizations first to build and increase social trust and understanding. Only then can civic issues be inclusively and sustainably addressed.

Engagement work is slow. It can be tedious and is often messy. In a time where climate change is occurring rapidly and with often devastating effects, the work of coalition-building through effective community engagement can be disregarded. It is evident that coalition-building is one of the necessary and missing ingredients to designing strong strategies to address these challenges moving forward.


This event is supported by the National Science Foundation, Award #1929601. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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