Handbook Introduction and Overview

In classrooms and studios all over the world—in museum galleries and public parks, at community events and in conversations among friends—people use art to explore and expresscivic ideas. Sometimes this happens when people engage with artworks that are explicitly designed to evoke civic themes, such as a public sculpture that celebrates the power of community or a painting that captures the cruelty of political oppression. Sometimes it happens when artworks inspire us to reflect on our own civic lives, even if such reflection may not have been the main intent of the work, for example the way a landscape painting might provoke us to think about our responsibility for climate change, or a family portrait might invite us to reflect on gender roles. Whatever the spark, the materials developed by the Arts as Civic Commons project—familiarly called ArtC—aim to amplify the power of arts experiences to provoke inquiry into the forces that shape civic life. These forces include the values, social conventions, power dynamics, institutions and systems that shape how we live together—and how we aspire to live together—at every level of community life, from the local to the global.

This ArtC Handbook offers a flexible set of teaching materials that can be used in a variety of settings and with learners from late primary/middle school through adults. The heart of the handbook is a collection of shortto medium-length activities. Many of them can be done in 20-30 minutes; several of them can be stretched out over several meetings or class periods. Most of the activities involve looking at and discussing an artwork. They are designed with flexibility in mind: they can be used in person or online, and they are suitable for use in school, museums, galleries, or anywhere else people of any age gather to look at or make art. The shorter activities are called thinking routines; the longer ones are called thinking arcs. In addition to these two types of activities the handbook also includes a range of supporting materials, such as links to short instructional videos, guidelines for facilitating the activities, and real-life examples of the activities being used by young people and adults. At the end of this Introduction we offer a fuller overview of the contents of the handbook, along with some suggestions about how to get started. But first we say a few words about some of the big questions educators often ask about ArtC.

What does ArtC mean by ‘civic commons’?

The word ‘civic’ often calls to mind the responsibilities of citizenship and suggests an understanding of how government works. Accordingly, civic engagement is taken to refer to activities that occur in these realms, like voting, community service, and political activism. These are all important areas of civic activity, but civic engagement can also include less outwardly visible actions that are expressed through reflection, inquiry, and dialogue. So, for example, civic engagement can include activities such as reflecting on one’s role in a community, investigating belief systems that shape how we see and treat other people, dialoguing with others to explore diverse civic experiences and points of view, considering issues of justice and fairness, and interrogating the structures and systems that shape how we interact with other people and how we live within the natural world. Sometimes these inquiries lead to overt civicaction, sometimes they lead to thoughtful dialogue with others and shifts in self- understanding. ArtC believes that all of these things count as civic engagement and that art can be a common ground for people to come together to participate in them. Artists themselves occupy this ground when they create art that expresses civic themes, provokes civic inquiry or inspires civic action. Viewing art is also part of this common ground when arts experiences invite us to exchange diverse perspectives and prompt us to investigate, discuss, challenge and reimagine the forces that shape our civic lives. The phrase ‘Arts as Civic Commons’ refers to this broad and fertile swath of common ground.

Are there certain dimensions of civic life that ArtC focuses on specifically?

As the foregoing section suggests, the civic common ground created by arts experiences is potentially vast. To make the territory more navigable, ArtC uses a framework that focuses on three dimensions of civic life: Identities, systems, and visions. Identities has to do with the way we perceive ourselves and the way the world perceives us, and how these two sources of perception affect our civic behavior. Systems has to do with the obvious and not-so-obvious procedures, structures and policies that shape the way we interact with other people and communities. Visions has to do with imagining how civic life could be different, and in particular, how it could be better—more just, more beautiful, more inclusive. Part One of this handbook describes these three civic dimensions in more detail.

Are there certain kinds of art that ArtC focuses on specifically?

The ArtC project began with a focus on contemporary visual art, recognizing that the term ‘visual’ is a stretch because many artists today are working in multiple media and across disciplines. We chose a focus on the contemporary for a few reasons. One is that it reflects the times in which young people currently live. In other words, contemporary art lives in the ‘now,’ just as students do. Also, many contemporary artists are actively interested in the intersect between art and civic engagement. Specifically—and reflecting the three dimensions of the ArtC framework just mentioned—many works of contemporary art explore artists’ own social identities, the systems that affect their communities, and their visions for the future. In doing so, these artworks also encourage us to examine these civic dimensions in our own lives. While the examples in this handbook are mainly works of contemporary visual art, we wholeheartedly believe that ArtC materials can be used with many different kinds of art—including different art forms and art from different time periods.

An overview of the Handbook

The Handbook consists of four parts. Part One describes the ArtC framework. It includes a short essay on each of the three framework elements—identities, systems, and visions—as well as a link to a brief animated video about the framework.

Part Two is the lengthiest section of the handbook and it’s where most of the ArtC activities and their related resources can be found. There are nine activities in all. Five of them are called thinking routines. These generally have 3-4 steps and can be done in 20-50 minutes. Three of them are called thinking arcs. These are similar to thinking routines, with the difference that they take a little longer and generally have one or two extra steps. All of the thinking routines and thinking arcs have facilitator guidelines that offer suggestions for how to use them. Several of the activities also have pictures of practice—real-life stories of educators using the routine or arc in various settings. Several also include short videos that explain how the routine or arc works. The last activity is really a set of short artmaking activities that can be done independently or in connection with the other ArtC activities. These mini-activities focus on thinking through civic ideas with one’s hands.

Part Three offers additional resources. Most ArtC activities involve looking closely at a work of art. Many also involve some sort of dialogue among participants. Some activities also have an artmaking step. Accordingly, three of the resources in Part three correspond to these areas. Viewing Moves offers a variety of techniques for close looking. Dialogue Moves suggests techniques for supporting thoughtful, respectful dialogue. Making Moves suggests materials and techniques that invite learners to think with their hands. These three resources can augment ArtC activities, and the facilitator guidelines for the various activities point out places where, if desired. But they can also be used independently of ArtC to encourage close looking, thoughtful dialogue, or thinking-through-making in any learning context. A fourth resource in this section is Suggested Digital Tools, which includes ideas and techniques for doing ArtC activities online—synchronously as well as asynchronously.

Finally, Part Four, Art Resources, offers a small set of art images that can be used with ArtC activities. A few of these images are also featured in some of the pictures of practice and videos associated with the activities. But educators are strongly encouraged to use artworks of their own choice, and this section also includes some suggestions for finding artworks on your own.

Getting started

The ArtC materials have been designed to be used flexibly; educators can pick and choose the activities they are interested in, and there’s no prescribed way to work through the materials. That said, there are a couple of natural paths. One is to watch the ArtC Framework video, read the essays in Part One in order to familiarize yourself with some of ArtC’s core ideas, and then use the Civic in 3D thinking arc to introduce the three dimensions of the ArtC framework to students. Another way to begin is simply to select an activity and dive in. Several educators have successfully started with one of the shorter thinking routines, such as See Think Me We, Lenses for Dialogue, or Values, Identities, Actions. Whatever way you choose to begin, we recommend browsing the Facilitator Guidelines associated with an activity before you start teaching it.