New Arts and Social Change Research Center Challenges Artistic Minds

Posted: January 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm, Last Updated: July 31, 2012 at 10:45 am

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By Catherine Probst

Resources in the Provisions library can spark new ideas, create new visions and inspire individuals to act. Photo by Evan Cantwell

In this socially and politically charged world in which we live, art has the potential to challenge some of society’s deepest assumptions. Driven by the power of artistic creation and expression, art can spark new ideas, create new visions and, most important, inspire individuals to act.

This is what educators in Mason’s School of Art hope to accomplish by joining forces with the Provisions Research Center for Art and Social Change. As an independent, nonprofit organization and the first research center in the School of Art, Provisions provides resources for questioning, inspiring and investigating the intersection of arts and social change.

The centerpiece of Provisions is an extensive library, which is housed in the Art and Design Building. The library offers students, researchers and the community a unique collection of more than 6,000 books, periodicals and videos focusing on 36 social change sectors, referred to as Meridians. Topics range from conflict transformation to youth activism and include everything in between.

“The impact of Provisions on the lives of students is huge because it will provide them with the connections and breadth of reach to make them more aware of what is happening in the world,” says Peter Winant, associate director in the School of Art.

“By using these resources to create artwork that addresses a particular social issue, an artist is able to speak to a person’s mind and heart in a way that a policy paper or piece of legislation cannot.”

An Artistic Partnership

Photo by Evan Cantwell

Provisions was founded nearly 10 years ago by Don Russell, executive director of the center, and Gaylord Neely, president of the Gaea Foundation. The center offers exhibitions, public art, residencies, screenings, workshops, lectures and publications. Provisions also builds partnerships and collaborations with artistic, educational and philanthropic organizations.

An opportunity to partner with Mason presented itself several years ago when Winant and Tom Ashcraft, associate professor of sculpture, began discussing ways to boost the curriculum of Mason’s arts programs. They reached out to Russell, who was already a fixture in the Washington, D.C., art scene. At the time, Russell, who is now part of Mason’s research faculty, was exploring ways to embed Provisions into an educational institution.

Mason’s School of Art seemed a natural fit, and thus began a relationship between the two.

“We felt strongly that by embedding the research center and library into the curriculum of Mason’s art programs it would dramatically enrich and enhance the intrinsic core of what art education is all about,” says Russell. “The great thing about the Provisions Library is that students, from freshmen all the way up to the graduate level, have access to its resources.”

 Students Artists Become Activists

Since fall 2011, when Provisions first made its home with the School of Art, hundreds of students from across the university have found their way to the library in search of resources on a particular issue. The library materials span a global history from the late 18th-century’s Industrial Revolution to contemporary social issues.

Students have sought out information on animal rights, the environment, politics, the conflict in Sudan and civil rights, and work and class, to name a few topics.

“The presence of the library on Mason’s campus allows students the opportunity to ask questions about social issues and use the answers to create artwork that speaks to these issues,” says Ashcraft.

One of the unique aspects of the collection, notes Russell, is that it is arranged by author, not by subject. This allows an individual who may be looking for one particular resource to explore a myriad of subjects all on the same shelf.

“The collection is invaluable to students who are working on particular projects and just need some guidance on where to go next and other topics to explore,” says Elizabeth Van Bergen, a senior art history major.

Contributing to Social Change

Since its creation, Provisions has worked with hundreds of artists around the country who are committed to making a difference in society through their artwork. Provisions provides these artists with the resources and, in many cases, the funding to see their project through to fruition.

In one such project, Provisions partnered with the Floating Lab Collective, a group of Washington, D.C., area-based artists, including some students and faculty in the School of Art.

“The Medellin Project” involved the artists traveling to Medellin, Colombia, in summer 2011 and creating a mobile sound recording studio to help foster the talents of hip-hop artists in neighborhoods of Medellin.

In the future, Russell, Winant and Aschraft hope to embark on projects with students from other academic departments and also invite students from other colleges and universities to use the collection.

“This generation of students is very committed to social change and making their voices heard,” says Russell. “We just hope Provisions can help them ask more thought-provoking questions that help add to the dialogue of social change.”

Write to Colleen Kearney Rich at ckearney@gmu.edu

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