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October 2, 2014

Institutionalized Art: The Partnership Between the CSUSB Community-based Art Program and the California Institution for Men

Written by  Isabel Quintero
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Mural Project Group Mural Project Group Photo courtesy of CSUSB Community-based Art Program at the California Institution for Men. Photo by Andrew K. Thompson

The necessity of art is often called into question. Artists are asked, “Why is art important?” As if they must defend their work with a valid and acceptable reason to exist. Professor Annie Buckley from California State University, San Bernardino’s Community-based Art Program, suggests that instead of asking that question, we should ask, “Why is it not important?” She says, “We don’t ask why food is important. We don’t ask why money is important. We just assume that they are. Likewise I just assume that art is important.”

I spoke with Buckley about the wonderful work the Community-based Art Program - which provides internships, fieldwork, and service learning opportunities for students - does at the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino. The partnership arose after Howard Gaines, the Community Resources Manager at the prison, approached Buckley in the Art Department at CSUSB about the possibility of starting an art program at the prison based on the inmates expressed interest for an art program. In 2013 the partnership between the CIM and the Community-based Art Program began. Buckley, who had already developed the internship program for art students to work with other community organizations, went on a tour of CIM, along with a few students, and ultimately decided that a collaboration between the two institutions would benefit both the students, who lead the art classes there, and the men housed there, many of whom are already artists. 

The CSUSB students develop classes based not only around their interests, but also the interests of the inmates. For example, one intern realized that many men had already been collecting artwork in their cells, and created a portfolio and critique seminar. But the most important benefit from this exchange, observes Buckley, is the amount of growth that occurs within the students; learning not only about themselves, and what kind of teachers they are, but about people as well. Since the classes take place in the gym of the CIM, it is a collaborative endeavor between the interns and the inmates. For example, Stan Hunter, an inmate artist, often helps interns with their classes.

Buckley stressed the importance that the partnership between the Community-based Art Program and the CIM is a partnership, and that it is because of the continued interest of the men there that the classes still exist. Earlier in the year, questions about painting a mural began coming up and the finished piece was a collaboration of ideas and styles between the men at the CIM, the interns, and Buckley herself. The end result was a three panel mural of the rebirth of a forest that has been burned down. Because of photography restrictions there are no photos of the finished piece, but below is a photo of the mural in progress.

The interns (paid interns, thanks in part to the generosity of the CSUSB Career Center), Buckley, and the inmates, remind us that the importance of art, perhaps, comes from realizing that we are all creators, no matter what institution we come from.

You can read a bit more about the mural project in Buckley’s book review for Art as Therapy in the Los Angles Review of Books. https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/access-enemy-disparity-access#

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