Arts and Place at the University of California

Shannon Jackson, Associate Vice Chancellor

How do the arts contribute to our sense of place?  How does our sense of place evolve as neighbors, as city inhabitants, and as citizens in a fast-changing world?  Versions of these questions have been on the minds of many of us who care both about the arts and about the future of our public sphere. Indeed, throughout my career as a scholar, teacher, and convener, I have found myself asking and answering versions of this question in myriad ways. I am thus excited to share the news that our students and colleagues will have more chances to explore the topic, thanks to a grant from UCOP’s Multi-Campus Research Programs and Initiatives (UC MRPI announcement). The UC MRPI is a competitive grant that encourages campuses throughout the UC to work together on key puzzles and tangible solutions facing our state and the world. Working in coalition with co-PIs from UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Merced, UC Berkeley’s proposal “Art + CA: UC Place Based Arts + Design” was one of 16 projects selected for UCOP funding. Chosen from 179 applications, ours is the only project exclusively focused on the arts; it is also a project that stands to contribute to a wider dialogue on the vital role of our public university to the state of California.

But how do we understand the social role of the arts? And what does it mean to contribute to a sense of place? Sometimes the arts are mobilized to provide essential glue amongst community participants who crave connection. Other times the arts are celebrated as a vehicle of economic development. Still other times, the arts provide provocative occasions for public debate and self-reflexive critique.  As varied as these artistic effects might be, they all contribute to the discourse of “place-making” in the U.S. cultural sector and in international sites around the world. Several years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts made place-making a cornerstone of its mission and grant program.  (Our Town at NEA 2019 Grant Recipients) Such initiatives followed and propelled more initiatives from city leaders and foundations who supported the arts as vital ingredients in making (and keeping) the identity of cities and regions. New experiments in public art emerged along with investments (sometimes even financial) in the urban and economic plans of cities. Meanwhile, universities and colleges took heed, creating new classes and educational programs around creative place-making and developing a research culture that kept track of its ethics, equity, and innovation. Here at UC Berkeley, programs like the Arts Research Center and the Global Urban Humanities have been central forces in promoting and assessing place-based artistic work. Indeed, the Arts + Design Initiative (A+D) was formed in part to gather and feature this kind of publicly-focused creativity throughout our campus and in the region. A+D and our allied units offer the university as a place to gather and reflect on place-making. And further, A+D foregrounds the role of the arts in helping our own university contribute a sense of place to our community members; the arts are a bridge between the “place” of the campus and the “place” of the wider Bay Area region.

With a two-year planning grant from the UC MRPI program, my colleagues, students, and I will have the chance to take stock of these relationships, to study best practices, and to foster new kinds of place-based art experiments.  As A+D plans the 2019/2020, look out for course grants, public programs, and symposia that foster the dialogue around the university’s role in creative-placemaking. We will be thinking about connections to our East Bay cities—building from our recent dialogue on cultural planning in Oakland and Berkeley.  We will also be hosting conversations with the arts and cultural leaders of the City of Richmond -- and planning symposia with our UC campus partners. Along the way, it is striking to realize how much our Arts Passport and Creative Careers program serve as key vehicles for campus and student engagement with the ‘place’ of our region.  Moreover, thanks to this boost from UCOP, we will be able to make “place-making” and Cities a key funding theme in the A+D’s Creative Discovery Grant program for next year.

It is a thrill to imagine new possibilities.  Lead co-P.I. and UC-Santa Barbara professor, Kim Yasuda summarized our aspirations. “We hope that this planning initiative will help us to identify collective goals and economies of scale through a variety of platforms. Through the mapping of our work, we create the ‘connective tissue’ necessary to amplify our UC artists and the valuable role that they play in UC research and public life.” We look forward to working with our entire community to understand the connective role of the arts—and to build more connections to and amongst all members of our campus and our wider community.

Read UCSB's press release here.