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Social Practice Goes to School
Social Practice Goes to School

Portland State University has a long history of partnering with public and private organizations in the metro region and beyond. Guided by the motto “Let Knowledge Serve the City,” the university builds relationships that address critical social, environmental, and economic issues facing the communities we call home. Some partnerships have flourished for years. Others are nascent, full of potential, and ready to affect positive change.

An exciting recent collaboration partners graduate students from the Art and Social Practice Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in the School of Art and Design and attendees of Portland Public Schools’ (PPS) Martin Luther King Jr. School in Northeast Portland. Launched in 2006, the Art and Social Practice MFA provides aspiring artists opportunities to create site-specific works by engaging and collaborating with the community. According to Associate Professor Harrell Fletcher, Director of the program, the arrangement with King establishes a “civic space” on the NE 6th Ave. campus. At King, graduate students will develop their craft in a PK-8 context, draw inspiration from King students and the neighborhood the school serves, and advance socially engaged art education.

“Social practice” art has existed under various names and forms and in different locations for nearly a century. The concept and many of its practitioners, however, have gained notoriety and received increased critical attention in the US over the past decade. In response to the attention, a handful of universities, including PSU, have added social practice MFA programs to their degree offerings. Social practice artists are often highly collaborative and work across disciplines, blending visual, performing, and language arts, or combinations thereof with elements of activism, journalism, and social, cultural, and environmental themes. Works of social practice, Fletcher notes, are conscious of the context (be it a grocery store, park, school, etc.) in which they are created. These works draw from the community, are participatory, and their frequently public exhibition democratizes the experience of engaging with art.

King School Principal, Eryn Berg explained the context in which Fletcher’s students practice their craft. As Berg explained, King is an Oregon Department of Education “Priority School” (one with high poverty rates and low student achievement) with roughly 400 students, the vast majority (about 90 percent) of whom are African American or Hispanic. Historically, the King Neighborhood has been a majority minority neighborhood; however, as the cost of housing has increased by as much as 133 percent over the past decade, many minority families have left, resulting in a growth rate of populations of color as low as -48 percent in some locations according to data made available by the Coalition for a Livable Future’s Regional Equity Atlas.

King is also designated as a “Turnaround Arts” school. Turnaround Arts is a national, federal initiative providing services and resources to enhance arts education programming in high-poverty, low performing schools across the country, believing arts education is instrumental in addressing social inequities. In 2011, King was selected as one of eight schools in a pilot study assessing if and how the initiative narrows the achievement gap and improves student engagement. At King, students receive arts instruction and the arts are integrated into the school day experience: music lessons resonate in mathematics classes, visual arts inform writing exercises, students enact historical events, foreign language immersion programs reveal the world from other cultural points of view, and now students will have the opportunity to participate in social practice and its inclusive approach to finding art and meaning in the world around us.

According to Fletcher and Berg, the partnership includes plans for PSU graduate students and middle school children at King to collaborate on works of art representative of the diversity, history, and culture of the neighborhood. Portions of the school will then be made into museum-like displays with cases, placards, and banners designed by PSU students. At each step of the process children attending King will participate in learning activities ranging from the use of math in carpentry, to the composition of didactic essays about the works on display at the school.

“The graduate students will work one-on-one with the kids from King,” Fletcher noted. “The King students will select something representative of the neighborhood’s past or present. The PSU students will then create a work of art based on what was selected.”

“Together they’ll turn the school into a living museum,” said Berg. “King, which was once the Highland School, has a long history in the neighborhood. I’ve met people from all over Portland who went to school here. Some have children or even grandchildren who also attended. We want to share that history with the community and do so in a way that incorporates the arts and reflects the cultural heritage of the people who live and have lived here. We’re looking forward to seeing the participating middle school kids thinking about the neighborhood in relation to their own identify and working with the PSU cohort on a project that also gives something back to the community. We think this is going to be an excellent learning opportunity.”

Much has been made of how the arts benefit education. Researchers cite mounting evidence that the arts not only support, but enhance curriculum, improve child learning outcomes in reading, math, and other disciplines, and positively affect student behavior in and out of the classroom (Gullatt, 2008; President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, 2013) . Principal Berg noted that an arts integrated curriculum is an important tool that can be used by educators to increase equity and promote social justice for students of color and students living in poverty.

And as Associate Professor Fletcher explains, “I think part of what social practice does is show us that interesting, significant occurrences are happening all the time. By creating these works in places like schools, artists are cultivating in the population a great appreciation for society and culture and providing examples of how to interact with them in new and exciting ways.”

For more information about the Art and Social Practice MFA and King School partnership, and to learn about social practice in general and view works by Fletcher’s past and current students, visit the program’s homepage at


Gullatt, D. E. (2008). Enhancing student learning through arts integration: Implications for the profession. The High School Journal, 91(4), 12-25.

President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. (2013). Turnaround Arts Initiative Progress Report 2013.

By Shaun McGilllis
Research & Strategic Partnerships
Posted 15 January 2015