Connecting Iowa communities and the arts

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Leslie Finer, guest columnist

If you are like most people, a significant amount of your free time revolves around the arts: going to a concert with friends, visiting a museum or reading a good book. The arts are an integral part of our lives, and research has shown how truly valuable the arts are. The arts improve academic performance, strengthen the economy, drive tourism and are used by health care institutions to promote healing for patients. The University of Iowa’s Arts Share program provides these important arts experiences in schools and communities across the state.

When school budgets get cut, the arts are often first on the chopping block. Arts Share can help fill in the gaps these cuts leave behind by sharing the UI’s arts resources. Our artists are students and faculty from music, theatre, dance, art, and creative writing. Among our roster of more than 100 individual artists and ensembles are international writers who bring world literature into classrooms; a PanAmerican Steel Band that introduces audiences to the music of Trinidad and Tobago; and a theatre group that helps students break down the language of Shakespeare and then performs the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.

In addition to educating and entertaining, the arts can introduce people to other cultures and encourage diversity. I have worked with Arts Share for more than 15 years (first as a graduate student and artist and then as director), and noticed that after Sept. 11, 2001, more cultural fairs and diversity days were being programmed in schools to promote understanding. We also have artists who have developed programming for specialized populations. UI faculty member Mary Adamek along with her students brought music therapy sessions to adults with dementia and their families, and dance faculty Jessica Anthony worked with girls at the Iowa Juvenile Home on a dance workshop that culminated in a performance.

When an organization contacts Arts Share, we work with them to find programming that fits their needs. A couple years ago, we began working with city leaders in Washington, Iowa. We scheduled several artists for their concert series, sent Writers’ Workshop graduate students to work with their local writers, and found an artist to paint a three-story mural on the back of the public library building. We have continued to work with the city of Washington because our partnership has proved to be mutually beneficial. For our graduate students, it is a great way to get real-world experience, practice for an upcoming recital, and build a résumé, while the communities get to provide opportunities they may not have otherwise.

My job is even more rewarding today as more people have begun to recognize the value the arts bring to their communities. Arts Share collaborates with UI’s Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities, a program that connects UI students, faculty, and staff with communities to promote social, economic, and environmental sustainability. Communities working with the initiative usually include several arts and culture projects, such as public art sculptures, that they think will enhance quality of life for residents.

We also work with the Grant Wood Art Colony at the UI, directed by Maura Pilcher. This program celebrates the life and legacy of Grant Wood and provides three fellowships in painting, printmaking, and interdisciplinary performance to artists that are selected through a national competition each year. Through Arts Share, we are able to connect the fellows to opportunities across Iowa.

The UI recognizes the importance of sharing our arts resources with the rest of the state, and dedicates staff and funding to this effort. So far, Arts Share has reached 84 of Iowa’s 99 counties, and our goal is to reach all 99. If you would like to bring an artist into your school or community for a workshop, reading, or performance, please contact us. We are always looking for new partnerships and ideas for programs.

• Leslie Finer is the director of Arts Share. More information:

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