Friday, June 20, 2014

East Waco mural and the U.S. Deptartment of Arts and Culture

Here's a nice piece about the East Waco mural and its relationship to the new U.S. Department of Arts and Culture by Waco Tribune arts columnist David Smith.

“Almost every evil in America has an organized foe,” proclaimed Outlook Magazine in 1907. Articles in the issue covering child labor in the South and ways to protect the virtue of young women attending that year’s Jamestown Exposition testified to the fight. Alongside these, there was praise for an organization in Indiana that was contending for the belief that beauty is an essential part of life and that “art should not be for the few, any more than education or freedom is for the few.”

 We live in an organizational society and formal organization has been seen as the key to getting things done since the heady days of the Progressive movement. In his insightful book “The Search for Order, 1877-1920” about this organizational impulse, American historian Robert Wiebe explained that reformers at the turn of the 20th century “prized their organizations not merely as reflections of an ideal but as sources of everyday strength.” This impulse is understandable and perhaps timeless: Participants in any movement against mainstream inertia are liable to feel the deck is stacked against them and draw strength from any way to sense they’re not alone in their fight. Those who wish to make the arts a greater part of civic life are no different.

Earlier this spring, a nationwide coterie of artists and activists formed a new organization provocatively called the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. They conceive of art largely in terms of its ability to influence society in a particular direction. Despite the governmental-sounding label, they describe themselves as a “citizen-powered initiative to cultivate the public interest in art and culture and catalyze art and culture in the public interest.” They emphasize that active participation in the arts by the public as a means to greater civic engagement (a notion borne out by a National Endowment for the Arts study several years ago). Moreover, the ability of individuals to collaborate on a project — in their framework, something artistic — is “a key element of any resilient community.”

Kansas-based artist Dave Loewenstein, who came to Waco last year to help create the East Waco mural on Elm Street, is one of the organization’s first “cultural agents.” Their mission is to visit cities and host “vibrant, arts-infused gatherings” that draw a diverse cross-section of a community. They then discuss how the arts could transform that community and determine ways of reaching such a point together. We stayed in touch after his time here and last week he explained to me that the USDAC also serves artists by helping those who live and work away from traditional centers of the arts and culture to feel more connected to other artists and larger reservoirs of creative energy.

When Loewenstein talks about cultivating greater energy for the arts within a community, he isn’t simply referring to whether “an art program or cultural festival is good entertainment and benefits economic development.” These cultural agents want to create art projects that “actively engage citizens in the shaping, telling and sharing of their own unfolding stories.”

He says the mural he created here in Waco with the help of scores of local volunteers hints at how effective this enterprise can be, but at this stage it remains “a rare example.” There remain “many neighborhoods across the country that lack access to these kinds of opportunities,” he admits. The East Waco mural is indeed a striking visual piece. It’s even more impressive when you know the story behind its creation and how it reflects the ideals that made it possible.

David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and Waco Symphony Association board member, can be reached at


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