Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago: SPACE (School Partnership for Art and Civic Engagement)

Marissa Reyes

Director, Learning and Public Programs, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

220 E. Chicago Ave. Chicago, IL 60611 United States

Chicago, United States

American Alliance of Museums EdCom Award for Innovation in Museum Education 2018


This is What Democracy Looks Like: Youth Civic Engagement Through Contemporary Art




At the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA), we are dedicated to supporting young people who are engaged in the social and civic lives of their communities. We encourage them to dream big and get inspired—by artworks on view, by artists they meet, and by their peers. Our youth programs are based on the belief that young people are visionaries who can inspire radical change and on the premise that our various platforms will empower them to tackle the pressing issues of today.

In 2016, we piloted a new initiative called SPACE or School Partnership for Art and Civic Engagement. The program was the outcome of 18 months of research into how the MCA can best impact student learning using contemporary art and the resources of the museum. We wanted to deepen our ability to impact under-resourced schools while addressing an important - and at the time - new development in Illinois schools: the subject of civics as a state mandated high school graduation requirement. The legislation calls for a stand-alone civics class — not just a section of a history or government course — and it would involve discussions of current events and controversial issues, community service, and simulations of the democratic process. This overhaul of civics education in Illinois was a particularly exciting opportunity for the MCA to contribute a promising approach to high school level civics education, aimed at helping youth become thoughtful, informed, involved, and responsible citizens.


SPACE artist’s studio exterior at Curie Metro High School._Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

SPACE is a multiyear creative partnership with Chicago public high schools that uses contemporary art to address local civic issues and mobilize youth and community action.  With the arts as catalyst and communication tool, students engage with their peers using contemporary artistic strategies to explore and respond to local community issues. The MCA leverages one of its greatest resources – the living artist – to activate artistic and civic learning. SPACE embeds artists and their studio practice inside the school for a full school year. Unused or under-utilized spaces are transformed into creative hubs for artistic and civic exchange. Artists whose practice address social issues engage the school, co-develop and co-teach art and civic curriculum, while maintaining their individual studio practice inside the school. SPACE is designed as a sustainable partnership that follows a three-year cycle per school. Year 1 focuses on the active embedding of the resident artist and curriculum planning. Years 2 and 3 involves full implementation of an interdisciplinary course-credited curriculum, with the artist as co-instructor in the art and civics classrooms. During full implementation, both the art and civics students research and identify relevant community issues. They analyze different ways people affect change in their community. Using multiple artistic strategies, they develop their own action plans to create change in their community.
By way of example, during school year 2017-18 SPACE established studios to integrate local artists Samantha Hill and Damon Locks in Curie Metropolitan High School and Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, respectively. There, they partnered with teachers and students to develop curricula on contemporary art and civic engagement. Students' projects responded to the question: How can we make our voices heard and amplify the voices of our community through contemporary art? For one project, titled Curie Postcard Project, students designed and mass-produced thousands of postcards in response to civic issues that they care deeply about—including immigration policy, domestic abuse, gun violence, and gender equality.


As part of their final project, Curie Metro High School students host a parade to the post office to mail 1,200 student-designed postcards on civic topics of their choosing._Photo: Braxton Black, © MCA Chicago

Some 114 freshman AP Government students collaborated with Hill and Curie teachers Daniel Jimenez and Douglas Mann to engage several hundred peers, teachers, and Chicagoans by hosting postcard-writing parties at local business and community centers. They mailed 1,200 postcards to political leaders after a performative parade to the post office, a mile-long procession that drew media attention from TV and radio outlets. The 250 parade participants, including Curie's marching band, cheerleaders, students, and adult allies, marched peacefully, carrying handmade banners and decorations to celebrate freedom of expression and raising their voices for a more just future. When asked by a TV news anchor about the impact of the parade, student Victor Gurrola shared, "I feel our goal of just getting people to notice us and hear what we're saying has been accomplished"; Another student echoed his sentiments: "I think that the parade . . . showed that teenagers using art can take action for specific issues. It doesn't matter who you are, taking action is the first step on fixing social and civic issues."For the project SPACE Sounds at Goode, 100 junior and senior civics and art students worked with Locks and teachers Andrew Breen and Maria Scandariato to create sound pieces that document student, school, and community perspectives on issues such as gun violence, homelessness, and gender inequality. "Where does it start?" by senior Illari Green explores the root causes of racism and its history in America through interviews with family members and friends and clips from Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, all overlaid with contemporary music samples. The project's thirty-five pieces were then edited into a radio broadcast.

SPACE students embody the power of young people to transform their communities. It's thrilling to witness what today's youth can achieve when given space to dream and act.


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