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Beyond Play: Art, Access, and Community Vitality

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

A conversation between art and community, and the effects of Dwelling Place’s Community Arts programs.
A Dwelling Place tour to the Grand Rapids Public Museum gathers to hear opening remarks about the Toys! Exhibit

A Dwelling Place tour to the Grand Rapids Public Museum gathers to hear opening remarks about the Toys! Exhibit

Thanks, MCACA!

The grant funding for Dwelling Place’s Community Arts Series comes from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA). The MCACA’s mission is “to encourage, initiate and facilitate an enriched artistic, cultural and creative environment in Michigan.” These funds are essential to Dwelling Place arts programming, which included dozens of events and activities in 2018 and 2019. Read about some of the other Community Arts Series activities here:

Grand Rapids Public Museum tour attendees enjoy the giant doll house as part of the Toys! exhibit.

Grand Rapids Public Museum tour attendees enjoy the giant doll house as part of the Toys! exhibit.

Dwelling Place residents enjoy an outdoor painting activity to beautify their community garden downtown.

Dwelling Place residents enjoy an outdoor painting activity to beautify their community garden downtown.

“Play is important... it’s not frivolous, it’s not just for kids, it’s crucial for development, it’s why humans are a creative species and it’s what pushes us to do new things,” says Alex Forist, the Exhibition Curator of The Grand Rapids Public Museum Toys! Exhibit. Dwelling Place adopts Forist’s position on play and applies it to art: all people should have access to artistic and cultural experiences. Like play, art is not frivolous or childish, and it’s an essential part of every thriving community. 

In late July, as part of Dwelling Place’s Community Arts Series, residents, staff, and community members travelled as a group to tour the Toys! exhibition at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. As they toured the exhibition, they were transported to a world where play rules supreme. On their way through the timeline of toys, tour attendees found their younger selves along the way. Dwelling Place resident Patrick Laundra says that the exhibit evoked feelings of nostalgia: “It brought back some memories of times where I played with those toys,” he remarked. Daniel Drent, Dwelling Place resident, agrees, adding that the visit was "...a fun chance to look back on the toys of my childhood and share memoreis and laughs with the other folks that attended [the tour]."

There are several hands-on components to this exhibit: from a locked and loaded arcade to large versions of favorite games like Operation, Battleship, and Slinky staircases, there are plenty of active components to keep everyone in the family entertained. Younger Dwelling Place participants on the tour Ariella (7) and Reyana (9) took advantage of some of the building toys with staff - “We built the biggest barn ever!” said Ariella after a manic engineering project with the big play blocks available to children of all ages on the exhibition floor.

Often times, as the GRPM plans exhibitions, they bid on a national travelling show to get it to come to town. But Toys! was designed, built, and implemented by the museum staff themselves. In this way, they’re adding their part to a larger artistic and educational conversation. Forist narrows in on the in-house accessibility measures that the GRPM takes to ensure enjoyment for people who experience the museum. “All of our exhibit spaces meet ADA requirements for physical accessibility, but we try and go above and beyond the letter of the law with things like stools so kids can reach games, tables that wheelchairs can fit at, comfortable seating, few flooring transitions, etc.” Additionally, almost every part of the exhibition can be enjoyed by people with visual impairments. But despite these accessibility measures, there’s still a problem that feels inherent to museum-going, and it happens long before patrons walk through an exhibit: who has access to arts and cultural experiences?

In general, people with access to the arts are those with privilege. Whether this privilege is class-related, racially-mediated, or ability-oriented, the structural disparity detracts from the richness of arts and cultural conversations. As such, those institutions who control cultural narratives must take measures to ensure that their programs meet folks who would otherwise be left out. Many of the residents that Dwelling Place serves are affected by these privilege disparities, and our Community Arts Series is the intervention designed to bridge the opportunity gaps that exist in low-income communities. 

Access to the arts is important because being a part of the artistic discourse means being a part of a larger cultural conversation. Art can be used as a mirror which reflects back the self and society that one wishes to see; by engaging in art, one is not only crafting one’s dreams but also crafting one’s voice.

Aside from the benefits of arts on community engagement, people also benefit physiologically from engaging in art. Art at any level can be therapeutic for people who experience stress (which, believe it or not, encompasses all people). According to a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, “Older adults who both created art and attended arts events reported higher cognitive functioning and lower rates of both hypertension and limitations to their physical functioning than did adults who neither created nor attended art,” according to a 2017 study. If physical health increases with art, then an entire community's health increases when ability to access the arts also increases.

Dwelling Place engages residents and people in the community to be a part of the artistic conversations happening in their communities. As a supplement to events like the Grand Rapids Public Museum tour, Dwelling Place staff coordinate regular painting activities, from beautification of Pekich Park to make-and-take workshops at residential communities. Activities are funded through a grant from the MEDC and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Through Community Arts Series activities and events, Dwelling Place encourages communities to thrive by providing access to the arts.

With a mission to improve the lives of people by creating quality affordable housing, providing essential support services and serving as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization, Dwelling Place serves families and people in 4 counties across West Michigan. Dwelling Place is powered by volunteers and numerous staff persons, guest writers create our Rapidian content. Thanks to Spencer for his contribution of this piece. Spencer is the summer Community Arts Coordinator, musician, photographer, summer gardener and all around swell guy.

8/14 edit: formatting



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