The Monthly interviews Erin Muirhead McCarty from the Community Art Centre in Cambridge Massachusetts – Part 1 – About the Community Art Centre

Could you tell The Monthly’s readers a little about the history of the Community Art Centre?

The Community Art Centre started in 1937. The location of the centre is in one of the most underserved neighbourhoods in Cambridge. There is a public housing development called Newtowne Court, which is directly across the street from our centre. It’s one of the oldest in the country. Back in the 30’s there was a group of parents who saw the need for their children to participate in high-quality arts programming and to reap the benefit of having exposure to the arts; to have access to arts rich experiences. They weren’t getting this in school so the parents gathered the community to start this arts organisation.
The focus has always been on serving low income families. The most historically excluded people in Cambridge, this was an offering only for them. And that has meant different things over time.
In the beginning this was likely white immigrant families and now the population is largely Black, Brown, still fairly recent immigrants. Many come from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Eritrea all around the world really. Since its inception the organisation has always served those who were generally overlooked.

How did you end up working at the Community Art Centre?

It’s interesting. The pull of this place is quite magnetic. I think for me when I saw that they were looking for a new Executive Director it tapped into so many things which were important to me. Service has always been important to me, the arts have always been important to me. I grew up in a family where both those elements were critical to our lives.

My father was in Social Services, my mother is an artist, I went to school for Fine Arts, and so the arts and service would be the two things which would be a priority in my life. I think I met the Community Art Centre at a time when it needed me as much as I needed it; we sort of found each other. And I really loved the people. Once I started meeting people on the board, the staff members, I felt that this was where I should be.

It was a very critical juncture because I started during Covid and it was a challenging time, it is still a challenging time, but the people here are so dedicated. This place really does have a magnetic pull, people who are involved with the Art Centre, stay involved. Many of the board members who interviewed me, taught here, or were programme managers, or they interned here, so they stay involved for years, for decades. There is a real sense of solidarity and community here.

What are the underlying ideas which inform the practice of the Community Art Centre?

Well, we really want to provide access and exposure to the arts. In many circles, the arts are thought of as a luxury that are afforded only to people who have the finances and the leisure time to engage in such artistic experiences.

That simply cannot be true because the arts are so critical to human development. Creativity is critical to human development. Therefore, having the time and space to pour into the arts is important. We make sure that young people have the time and space and the support from the adults around them to be able to develop their own creative voice and their own artistic practice.

Not every person who comes through these doors will go on to become an artist but there is something entrepreneurial about being an artist, there is something very powerful about finding your own voice and that, down the line, manifests in high levels of civic engagement and civic involvement. Our programmes help build confidence, leadership, and critical thinking skills.

Studies have shown that young people exposed to the arts-rich environments have higher participation levels in voting and in being active in social justice causes. Many of our young artists by the time they hit our teen programmes are starting to engage in important issues of social justice and civic action and those themes are evident in our public art murals. Our arts programmes often tackle topical issues, even complex issues around the question of identity. That is true for both our public art programme and our teen media programme. We also run the longest running youth film festival in the country, the Do It Your Damn Self!! Film Festival and many issues are covered in the films we show as part of the festival.

We use the term the transformative power of the arts to affect social changes. It sounds like this is almost identical to your approach?

We are, as an arts organisation, very concerned about the process. Wherever the end result takes us then that is where it lands. I think it is important for young people, especially for young people who are under represented, often excluded, to be able to find their voice and to know that their voice is powerful. Whether their messages carry through in poetry, or theatre, or dance, visual arts, media or film, to understand the things they have to say and their observations are valued.

We don’t start where the end is and fill in the gaps. We let young people lead in all of these areas and we go wherever that takes us.

Do you work with professional artists, allowing them to transfer their skills to the children?

Everyone who works here is an artist in their own right.; all of our programme managers, all of our teachers, some teachers have theatre backgrounds, some are strong visual artists, our teen media programme manager is an incredibly talented illustrator and does animation and film as well. Our teen public arts manager is an incredibly talented artist. Our students learn a lot from the staff we have on board here.

We also try to expand our repertoire and expose our young people to different perspectives, we bring in outside artists to work with young people on projects. We are just about to engage on a large, long-term public arts project with the City of Cambridge. We will be working on a permanent installation in The Port neighbourhood, which is where we are situated.

This area is prone to flooding so the City is doing some flooding mitigation and as part of that stream of funding, they have put aside some money for arts projects. We are working with the local Arts Council and a Port Infrastructure group and we have put out a call for an Artist in Residence to be part of that project, who will work with our young people.

Part two of this interview is here

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