Gephardt News

New Program Showcases Role of the Arts in Catalyzing Social Change

In the article below, guest writer Robert W. Duffy highlights the work of the Gephardt Institute’s inaugural cohort of Arts as Civic Engagement residents, showing the central role of the arts in uniting people and catalyzing social change. Mr. Duffy is a longtime St. Louis journalist and critic. He joined the staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1973 and worked there, with one brief interruption, for 32 years. He served as reporter, critic, columnist, editorial writer, and news editor during his tenure at the paper. He was a founder of the St. Louis Beacon, an award-winning, trail-blazing online publication, which merged with St. Louis Public Radio in 2013. He was named Media Person of the Year by the St. Louis Press Club in 2014.

Mr. Duffy was a juror for the Pulitzer Prizes for photography in 1978 and 1979. In addition to the Post-Dispatch, his articles have appeared in national magazines such as U.S. News and World Report, Smithsonian, Metropolis, and Modernism, and he has contributed essays or chapters to several books on architectural and urban-design subjects. He is a member of the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Architecture College in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University, and is a 1967 graduate of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences.

There’s no question that art can be intellectually stimulating or entertaining or both. And there’s general agreement that art matters, most of it anyway, and that it contributes to the quality of life in this country, if, and this is a big “if,” IF it doesn’t cause sacred cows to stampede or threaten to tarnish any treasured assumptions about the world.

But can it provide avenues to social justice?

The Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement at Washington University believes it can. The institute has taken on the issue with investments of time and treasure and with the conviction that, indeed, the arts in their various manifestations can stimulate movement toward the goals of social consciousness and social equity.

The institute’s recognition of the complex, strengthening role of the arts in a civil society is given institutional structure in a program called Arts as Civic Engagement.

This year, three talented young Washington University undergraduate students have been given the time and resources to strengthen the role of the arts in society by literally taking the arts to the people, one way or another, thus acting as prime-moving, boots-on-the-ground standard bearers of the arts. Their challenge is to involve segments of the population who are often left out of artistic activity of significant quality and with art as the facilitator create the common ground necessary for frank and genuine conversations.

Jacque Randolph, Rachel Roberts, and ZeCora Smith are the standard bearers. The mission is to carry vivid banners to lead folks’ efforts to coalesce audiences and to enrich lives through the arts. The three are fellows with Arts as Civic Engagement, an initiative of the Gephardt Institute. Based on the deep traditions of the arts as a powerful means of community expression, Arts as Civic Engagement serves as a platform for students to become fully immersed in arts-based community engagement.

In the case of these three young women their jobs are to engage members of the public new to the arts with definitive programs. Each has embarked on a Civic and Community Arts Residency at St. Louis region arts organization, working as an embedded staff member full-time over the summer and part-time during the fall semester. Their impact has been felt already. “It’s a blessing,” says a pastor who preaches in two churches north of the Delmar Divide, the general line of demarcation between black and white St. Louis.

Each member of this trio has a particular point of view and an individual strategy, but, bottom line, they are in concert in pursuit of increasing the public’s embrace of the arts, and encouraging participation in various genres and hearty support of arts programs and products in contemporary society.

There is more. The eventual goal of creating an atmosphere conducive to a societal disposition to social justice has begun. Earlier this year, the institute put its money where its commitment to social justice through the arts is by hiring Roseann Weiss. Weiss’s three plus decades of experience as a gallery director and member of the staffs of organizations such as the Contemporary Art Museum and the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission have brought her invaluable, hands-on experience in arts leadership in nonprofit arts institutions and significant program development activities directed toward community cultural involvement.

That’s a mouthful – agreed. But it boils down to an appreciation of her instinctive and enduring love for art in its many manifestations and her ability to take students of all ages by the hand and to lead them to the visual world she inhabits.

Getting folks to take her hand and the hands of the three students is not always an easy clasping. Age-old slights and prejudices continue to bedevil us. Then there is the nagging problem of the invisible class and racial stumbling blocks that exist at the doors of many institutions. Sometimes the problem is deliberate – the problem of who “owns” art is a knotty one. Then there are real or imagined slights, the result of cultural preferences or cultural antagonisms.

Friends and families and Gephardt Institute staff gathered recently at a reception in the Danforth University Center at which the three scholars were honored. They were on deck to give speeches about their programs.

While responses were positive and complimentary, the event showcased there is more to be done from a diversity and inclusion standpoint.

At the reception, Pastor James put his view in blunt perspective while reflecting on his church that neighbors the Contemporary Art Museum, saying in the past, “The art people walked by us. We didn’t feel welcome.”

Lois Conley, founder and director of the Griot Museum of Black History & Culture, was also in attendance. She said, “There is not a lot of ‘us’ in the museum world.’’ Until recently, however.

Arts as Civic Engagement resident Rachel Roberts (left) made a lasting friend and supporter in Ivan James in her visits to his churches – yes churches. As pastor of the two, he is trying to blend “the seniors” from Samaritan United Methodist Church and Asbury United Methodist Church together. Roberts helped him in this effort.

She began her fascinating exploration of the disparities that exist one mile in all directions from the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) in Grand Center. Her major is anthropology and communication design with a minor in psychological and brain sciences.

All that academic work translated to the wider world. When she looked at this geography of the CAM’s One-Mile Radius Initiative, Roberts was struck by the polka-dotted presence of red pins proclaiming the multitude of churches and religious institutions in the Radius, from the sprawling Jesuit-run St. Louis University to tiny tumble-down store-front places of worship struggling to survive.

Roberts seeks to bring these the people of all these congregations into the fold of art, and she brings special expertise to the One-Mile Radius project formally, and a quiet and gentle warmth personally, to the project. Her schooling helps her to work with CAM in humanizing the arts and involving previously disaffected people in the wonders of the visual world. Through art, there is discussion and understanding.

The art world populations have traditionally been primarily white and middle class, she says. “People were not invited in” until recent constructive efforts at diversifying began to change that situation. “We are building relationships between the many churches and CAM,” Roberts says.

For Pastor James, the involvement of Roberts and the One-Mile Radius project means that for the first time members of his church actually are making art.

“Rachel was a blessing,” he said.

For Roberts, working with CAM means participating in its mission, which is to expand art’s role, making it more visible and more important in neglected parts of the city – and in American culture overall.

Rachel Roberts takes art to churches as a sort of higher-purpose cultural sacrament.

Jacque Randolph (left) brings her audiences into the city streets. Her companion in this work is none other than William Shakespeare.

She said she is fundamentally interested in theater and has a soft spot for the giant that is Shakespeare, his plays and poetry. Randolph is majoring in history with a minor in drama. She is also a costume designer, an interest she inherited from her mother, who, she says, is interested in sewing and crafting.

Randolph’s Arts as Civic Engagement residency is with the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, specifically its Shakespeare in the Streets program. Although she certainly is interested in the magic that transpires on the stage, she recognizes that when everything works, the audience members feel “the considerable impact of theater in general – something that the audience is taking away.” It can happen on the car ride home, or affect what the audience member decided to do over the weekend.

“YOU can create what there is,” she shared. “Start dialogues. Or become aware of something never thought of before, especially about the theater but also by art in general.” Art so often is aggregative, a process of bringing together the real and the ineffable. “Great art moves people by a particular line, by light, in costumes – all propelled by the words.”

She says she appreciates the enduring power of the work of the “dead white guy.” What he created is reflective of the [contemporary] community, and provides vehicles to explore conflict in their community, words that elicit discussions of rifts in the community.

Shakespeare on the streets of St. Louis or on the stage of the Globe Theatre in London “can start a dialogue,” Randolph said. “I’m aware of the points we need to be conscious of – that this is an incredible thing to do, that we have to ditch preconceived notions when we bring Shakespeare to the streets. This is a partnership, working together as a group that belongs to the community first and foremost. We have to recognize their history, their emotions and to use this new platform to expose the feelings in these areas.”

Randolph said Shakespeare in the Streets is a year-long process of community immersion with everyday people, not professionals. Community members take a year or a little less to talk about the community and the world in which we live. Then the playwright takes the community response and blends together into new adaptation. Then there is the rehearsal process, then the show, then celebration, she said.

Photography in comparison with the works of William Shakespeare is a relatively new art form, having been created first in the 1830s. It has many employments, some of which are avant garde and experimental; scientific; documentary; philosophical; and expository. The latter – the photograph’s availability to simplify difficult subjects or to reduce emotions to their basics – is particularly important in presenting social ills, and as such is effective in the pursuit of social justice.

The work of Eric Pan at The Griot Museum, in an exhibition organized by Arts as Civic Engagement resident ZeCora Smith (left), is an interesting contemporary example and is, altogether, an important document of a tragic series of events in the suburban town. The pictures focus on the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and events subsequent to the shooting. While not heavy handed, it is graphic and affecting throughout, and related to the work of African-American photographer, Ernest Withers, who covered the civil rights struggles of the mid-20th century in America. Withers’ work was highly influential in presenting vivid details and outrages, for example, having to do with the Memphis sanitation workers strike and the Little Rock Central High School integration crisis.

Smith knows full well the significance of Ferguson. When she was introduced to the work of Eric Pans, she was deeply moved. “Art,” she said “can speak to hearts and minds of other people” – other people meaning different populations whose concerns may differ. In Smith’s exhibition we have in time and space a portrayal of the shooting death of Brown in Ferguson, and its full tragedy and the myriad mini-stories that surround his shooting are made visible in photographs.

Smith is majoring in Communications Design and African American Studies at Washington University. Her exhibition of photographs by Pan brings together three of her main interests: social justice, aesthetics and design.

The specific topic, Ferguson, is loaded with disagreements and sadness, and the mere mention of it arouses passions and demands for action, stemming from the issues and problems raised by the fatal shooting of Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The show did not aspire to reach a resolution of the shooting – no blame is cast in it – but it brings some clarity to the shooting and its aftermath thanks to its in depth and clear eyed examination through photography.

The show was initiated by gallery director and museum founder Lois Conley, who is responsible also for the maintenance and administration of The Griot.

Art, says ZeCora Smith, “can speak to hearts and minds of others. We all come with our own backgrounds.” In the company of works of art and artistic endeavors, Smith said, “We can get some transformation going.”


In a word, that is pretty much what Arts as Civic Engagement is all about. It’s a program worth watching, with residents who will lead the way to its conclusion. Given the individuals involved in working and supporting it, it is difficult to imagine it will be anything other than a transformative success.

To learn more about the Arts as Civic Engagement program, click here.