Guest Column with Dean Merlino

March 13 / 105

Dean Merlino, Coordinator of Teaching and Learning in the Community Cultural Development Graduate Program at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships in the Faculty of the VCA and MCM.
Dean Merlino, Coordinator of Teaching and Learning in the Community Cultural Development Graduate Program at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships in the Faculty of the VCA and MCM.

Community Cultural Development (community arts) has long defined the space where social engagement and cultural practice meet.

The field can trace its roots back to the public art initiatives in New Deal America, the Leninist trains of the Russian Civil War, the artisan revivalism of William Morris, and even back to locally devised morality plays of the Renaissance. The fundamental premises of community-based arts are a) participation in art-making and indeed culture-making is open to all and not exclusive to a professionalised caste, and b) such practices can or should be performed collectively, like other significant social or cultural rituals. It eschews the cult of the observer in Western art making by valuing participation.

When exercised in a social setting, these premises help to strengthen communal bonds, aid in collective identity formation and provide individuals with a deeper sense of belonging.  These two notions can appear politically charged when applied to settings of social disparity.  Cultural participation and storytelling encourages marginal communities to make statements about their validity within a social space that may not allow room for such voices.  Yet, not all community practice is driven by such motivations.  Indeed, practitioners believe communal engagement through art-making produces social and personal benefits irrespective of underlying social or political needs, and contemporary research would certainly bear this out.

Community arts underwent its own renaissance in the 1960s as many young artists, befitting the tenor of the age, reinvigorated the social capacity of artistic practice.  Governments and local councils subsequently embraced it, recognising its instrumental capacity to contribute to improving democratic values like social cohesion and youth engagement.  Community-based arts have garnered much political and financial support in Western democracies in recent decades.  A further validation of the practice came in the 1990s as universities in the USA, UK, Canada and Europe formalised training for the practice.

In 2005 the then Faculty of the VCA (now the Faculty of the VCA and MCM) launched the first Community Cultural Development Program in Australia, which is now part of the Centre for Cultural Partnerships. The Centre is pioneering teaching and research in community practice in Australia. A key component of my role as Coordinator of Teaching and Learning is to reflect on the pedagogic methods required in the provision of undergraduate and graduate training in what is a diverse practice-based and communal endeavour.

Classes comprise practitioners from the traditional, contemporary and emerging arts, the new craft movement, urban design and architecture, art and music therapy, facilitators and arts centre managers, and government agencies.  The graduate program also attracts professionals from fields as diverse as community development, international aid and mental health; that is, those who recognise the value of artistic and storytelling methods for their own communication and social engagement strategies. The complexity and hybridity of the classroom reflects the multiplicity of the social space of practice.  By embracing this, we are developing new methods of pedagogy which translate into new modes of community engagement. In this way, we not only train students to practice in the present, but also to develop tools to transform the practice of the future.

Dean Merlino is the Coordinator of Teaching and Learning in the Community Cultural Development Graduate Program at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships in the Faculty of the VCA and MCM.

http://vca.unimelb.edu.au/ccp

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