Harnessing art for social change

June 04, 2013

"Art and its values, the sheer experience of it, can open doors to a magical, transformative energy—energy which is profoundly potent, clarifying and affirming for individuals and community."

When Judith Marcuse wrote those words more than a decade ago she herself had spent 30 years opening doors as a pioneer in the field of art for social change (ASC) and a creative force in Canada’s dance and cultural communities.

She opened still more doors in 2008 when she founded the International Centre for Art and Social Change (ICASC), a unique partnership between SFU and Judith Marcuse Projects that supports art for social change in communities around the world.

Now that partnership is advancing the emerging ASC discipline into the mainstream with Marcuse’s leadership of a new five-year research initiative financed by a $2.5-million project grant from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

The university’s contribution to the project, entitled “Arts for Social Change: A Research Partnership in Teaching, Evaluation, and Capacity-Building,” will include $125,000 in funds and another $147,000 in services and facilities.

 “This is the first large scale, systemic project of its kind in Canada” says Marcuse, an SFU education adjunct professor.

“The resources we create will benefit not only artist-researchers but also individuals and organizations in diverse sectors who are already using arts-based practices as well as those who are interested in integrating these approaches in their work for positive change.

“Canadian scholars, practitioners, funders and policymakers have virtually no nationally focused, integrated resources to inform them about effective practices and strategies for teaching and learning, models for evaluation or the creation of inclusive, sustainable partnerships in the ASC field. We hope our work will ultimately fill that need.”

Marcuse’s team of 10 artist-researcher co-investigators will work with a partnering network of practitioners, academic institutions, organizations and community members across Canada to provide local and international resources, knowledge exchange, education and leadership in this rapidly expanding field.

That collaborative process will nurture a growing range of arts-based initiatives that offer new forms of social inquiry as well as initiatives that are both inclusive and responsive to community concerns.

SFU education assistant professor, Lynn Fels, will co-ordinate knowledge mobilization, documenting and disseminating research processes to help smooth the progress of knowledge integration between participants.

The university will facilitate communication between partners and oversee financial management and administration.

“This partnership aligns perfectly with SFU’s strategic vision to be Canada’s leading engaged university and with our strategic research plan’s focus on pedagogy,” says VP Research Mario Pinto.

“Judith and her team are creating a space for inquiry, dialogue, reflection and action on arts for social change that will further develop and promote sustainable, active and creative communities, both at home and abroad.”

For Marcuse, the project culminates a lifetime at the intersection of arts and social change. She grew up in a progressive household in Montreal, the daughter of musician mother and scientist father who ignited a passion for social justice and human rights in her at an early age.

The celebrated dancer, choreographer and producer has maintained that passion through a career that spans more than 40 years and includes hundreds of original dance, theatre, opera, film, television and other works as well as two major Canadian choreography awards and an SFU honorary degree (in 2000).

But today her primary focus in on education and social activism.

“It’s very difficult for young people wanting to get involved in ASC today and there are very few programs in Canada,” she says.

“This SSHRC grant will help us change that. We have developed a six-course program in arts for social change involving four faculties that is waiting in the wings. Our hope is that it will be delivered at SFU but accessible from other institutions.

“The impulse for our research is to nurture knowledge exchange, create and share new resources and develop expertise across professional, institutional and other silos.”

SFU release
JMP release

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