MICA program to merge art, activism in East Baltimore

  • MICA's name will eventually replace St. Wenceslaus on the building facade.
MICA's name will eventually replace St. Wenceslaus on… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
July 26, 2010|By Ed Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

A renovated Catholic school in East Baltimore will soon be the home of more than two dozen graduate-level art students who will collaborate with area residents in what educators see as a pioneering effort to address urban problems with "art-based" solutions.

When complete in September, the $1.3 million MICA PLACE will contain an art gallery, computer lab, studios, seminar space, community meeting rooms and upper-level apartments for 26 graduate students. The facility is the culmination of a decade-long effort by the Maryland Institute College of Art to develop community arts programs that immerse students in "real world" settings from which they can draw inspiration for their work and where they can have an impact on the city.

"The programming that will occur in East Baltimore takes that original, transformational curriculum to the next level in what we hope will become an international model for collegiate civic engagement — immerse your students in the community, listen and learn from the community, and then create projects that make life measurably better for the citizens that live there," said MICA President Fred Lazarus IV.

MICA PLACE, which stands for "Programs Linking Art, Culture and Education," also will add a new dimension to East Baltimore Development Inc., an 88-acre, mixed-use community north of Johns Hopkins that's known for its research-oriented "biopark" for companies that want to be near the medical campus.

MICA's decision to open a satellite in East Baltimore, inside the former St. Wenceslaus School on North Collington Avenue, puts it at the forefront of a relatively new field of arts education that combines art and design with community development. It represents one of the first times that MICA has expanded beyond its main campus in the Mount Royal cultural district, and it marks a long-term commitment by MICA to the East Baltimore revitalization effort.

"We think it adds a strong, vibrant use" to the renewal area, said Christopher Shea, president and chief executive of EBDI. "It's a creative use for the building."

MICA isn't the only school to offer community arts courses. Other institutions that offer them include the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Oregon. But MICA took the lead in 2005, when it became the first art school in the country to offer a master of arts degree in community arts. In 2011, it will be the first arts institute in the country to offer a graduate-level program in the related area of "social design."

Students who enroll in these programs aren't content to paint murals on dilapidated buildings. They want to use their artistic talents to help the community meet needs and solve problems. They may teach photography to senior citizens or coordinate after-school arts programs in public schools or redesign a halfway house for men getting out of prison. Last semester, MICA students looked for evidence of climate change along North Avenue and examined themes of social justice through quilting.

One student who just completed MICA's community arts program is Robert Fitzgerald, a 45-year-old Connecticut native who is graduating this week. For the past year, he has been the "artist in residence" at EBDI, where one of his main projects was helping residents create a community garden. Fitzgerald said he never dreamed that he would be working on an organic vegetable garden, but that's what the residents decided they wanted to do.

Letting solutions come from the residents is the key to any successful community arts program, said Ray Allen, MICA's provost and vice president for academic affairs.

"The idea is not to come in and superimpose a solution on a community," he said. "It's to build trust and work with residents and help them find their own solutions."

MICA has offered community arts courses in East Baltimore for years, administrators say, but MICA PLACE's role as a permanent extension of the college goes further. "It will foster greater communication, trust and solidarity by allowing students and faculty to live and work in the community and interact with its residents on a daily basis," Allen said.

"Community engagement is quickly becoming one of the most distinguishing characteristics of MICA's education, in comparison to its competitors," Allen said. The new building "is not a place that is about offering courses. This is a center for people to come together. It's going to be in flux all the time."

The four-story school was built starting in 1902 for St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic Church, which is on the same block and still an anchor for the area. It remained a school until 1986 and was later converted to 26 apartments for low-income residents by the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. In 1992, Mother Teresa opened a convent on the same block. EBDI subsequently acquired the converted school as part of its revitalization efforts.

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