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Conference to continue a conversation about arts and community development

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2010 - In late January, a panel discussion on how alternative art spaces can empower individuals and benefit neighborhoods drew what can only be described as an overflow crowd to the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. The audience filled a grand stairwell and snaked around a spacious room, forcing this reporter and others to settle for an obstructed (and standing-room-only) view of the panelists.

All of this goes to show that there’s plenty of interest in the issue of the arts and community development, the focus of a three-day conference about to get underway at the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission.

For 13 years, RAC has facilitated the Community Arts Training Institute, which looks to promote partnerships among artists, social workers, educators and community organizers. The idea is to develop arts programs in local communities, such as an ongoing initiative to teach the formerly homeless how to tell their stories through painting, sculpture and other art forms. 

But while major gatherings of artists and community activists have taken place on the coasts, they haven’t before been hosted by a Midwestern city, according to Roseann Weiss, director of community art programs and public art initiatives at the RAC.

The inaugural conference, “At the Crossroads: Community Arts and Development Convening,” hopes to fill that void. It runs Thursday through Saturday and costs $145 to attend. (Registration is still open.) Most of the sessions take place at RAC; the others are at the Moonrise Hotel.

Weiss said she expects 150 people to attend the event, with the majority being local artists, educators and people involved in arts-based community development programs.

“The reason to convene this group is so that people can make connections,” she said. “The work we do is all about collaboration, and we want to make sure that when the conversation about neighborhood revitalization comes up, people naturally think about the arts being a part of that.”

The conference includes a range of workshops, panels, presentations and performances. It begins with a conversation about how to assess community development initiatives already in place in neighborhoods like the Old North Side.

Topics on Friday include how to use photography to document a community and how to make the arts accessible to people with disabilities. Featured presenters include Bill Cleveland, founder and director of the Study of Art and Community in Seattle, and Arlene Goldbard, author of the book New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development.

On Saturday, attendees will be given the chance to create their own conference sessions based on what piqued their interest the day before -- or well before the conference began.

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