By Jennifer Sadler
Dionne Custer Edwards is a writer and arts educator serving K-12 students and teachers at the Wexner Center for the Arts, where she pioneered several innovative K-12 school programs including two high school programs: Pages, a multi-visit writing-based arts program and WorldView: Cultural Intersections in Contemporary Art. In 2006, she received a Fellowship for Emerging Women Leaders in Nonprofit from the Academy of Leadership and Governance at the Jefferson Center for Learning and the Arts. Community-based partnerships and projects in the arts and education are commitments she integrates in her work. She serves on the Board of Trustees for The Wellington School, and also works in partnership through community service with several other local organizations including Ohio Arts Council and GCAC. For her work and leadership in the arts, she was recently awarded a leadership fellowship with Americans for the Arts.
GCAC: Tell us a little about yourself – what you do for a living. Are you from this area?
DCE: I’m originally from Cleveland but I’ve been in Columbus for many years so Columbus is home to me. I’ve grown to love this community. I’ve been active and engaged in the local arts and broader community since graduating from Ohio State. I decided to stay here and try to carve out a creative career here in Columbus.
GCAC: Are you an artist? What drives you to create and who/what are your influences?
DCE: I am an artist—I’m a writer and a musician. I write a lot about the arts and often about what is going on around me. I write about the human condition, what some may consider mundane, but there are rich and interesting bits of life that inspire me in the everyday. It’s fascinating to think about life’s experiences—what moves me, what baffles or intrigues me—and reflect on those experiences creatively.
GCAC: What do you think of the state of arts advocacy in Columbus – do you feel there is enough support and information available?
DCE: There is an active arts community and from what I see, there is a supportive arts community. However, I worry about future generations as arts become less accessible (in schools and in a tough economy). I wonder not only how we will develop new arts audiences that will support the cultural vibrancy of our communities, but also how we envision preparing, developing a creative/innovative workforce, business owners which will drive the social success and economic rhythm of our communities. I wonder who will develop the next brilliantly creative ideas that will problem solve what ails us globally, build stronger communities, a stronger economy, a globally engaged mindset.
Part of the mission of arts advocacy is to disseminate information, educate intentionally about the arts. However, as an arts community, lovers of the arts, and supporters of the arts, we must take this message, advocate beyond ourselves and open up the conversation —invite a broader audience of participants, those that are curious, those that are skeptical to this conversation of the arts and its real impact in our community.
GCAC: What would you like to see improve as far as improving access to info for those who want to do more?
DCE: Arts organizations are going to have to develop new strategies for access, education, and for building new audiences. From attending national conferences on arts administration, arts education, and arts marketing, I hear arts organizations trying new models as they see arts support wane. Arts organizations are facing new challenges in sustainability and some of that can be addressed in a more inclusive approach to how we develop and market arts experiences. This will take time of course, but I believe arts organizations nationally are rethinking arts accessibility and business models because these organizations will have to in order to address sustainability and the reality of the business of arts and cultural offerings.
GCAC: Tell us about your trip in April for the 24th Annual Arts Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. How did you get involved and what experiences did you have while you were there?
DCE: After applying, I was selected to receive one of five one-year fellowships through the Joyce Foundation (Chicago) to pursue national professional development working with Americans for the Arts. D.C. was the culminating event, the last of multiple professional development opportunities that I participated in over the course of a year. While in D.C., I had the chance to attend meetings and workshops on arts advocacy, heard from celebrities on the hill supporting new arts initiatives, and also had the chance to sit in on a briefing at the White House on education. The few days we were there was action packed and was full of high energy. It was a great experience.
GCAC: What are your suggestions for someone who loves the arts but may never have engaged more than just going to see exhibitions and shows? How can an art fan get started with advocacy?
DCE: Supporting arts as a patron or participant is a great place to start. The key is active participation. Do you go to an event and bring someone with you - possibly someone new to the arts? Did you go to an exhibition or show and tell someone - especially if you enjoyed it? Are you a member of an arts organization that you frequently, or occassionally patron? In this economic time, more and more people feel stretched to support various nonprofit causes, and unfortunately arts is often last on the list. But there's still not enough information and education on how the arts are a part of the bigger picture of dynamic education, health, vitality and economy in a city. There is still room to grow as arts organizations nationally rethink arts support socially and economically. That’s some of what we talked about in D.C. with our Ohio members of congress—how arts can be an innovative part of the solution to what ails us in education and the economy. It’s tough because there is such a great need—so many great needs in our communities.
However, for those who want to be more involved or who are curious, it can start with simply getting engaged, participating in programming, showing up to events, volunteering, and of course financial support. I don’t know many art organizations that would turn down even the most modest terms of support—it all adds up. However, I should stress that organizations have different needs and if you care about an organization and think they are a benefit to the vibrancy of our community, you can easily find out what their greatest needs are by a simple phone call or email. Who knows? Maybe you have a great business network, or have some time to volunteer. Every bit of support counts; financial support is important, but there are other ways to contribute as well. I think for anyone who wants to be more involved in the arts, active engagement is a good place to start.
GCAC: Donna Collins (who serves as executive director for both Ohio Citizens for the Arts and the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education) said that you really stepped up during the D.C. trip, and very naturally, as a leader for the students. Do you see yourself as a leader or mentor for those younger than yourself? What do you hope to share?
DCE: Well, that was nice of her to say! Donna was great to work with. I admit I did not expect to fall into a leadership role with my group of savvy college students from northeast Ohio (Baldwin Wallace College), but once I found myself in that position, I just rolled with it. Somehow our group looked to me to be the one to keep everything grounded and keep everyone motivated. And when it got uncomfortable (as some of those advocacy meetings can get), our group relied on me to keep the energy up, to stay focused, and to keep everyone in the group engaged in the process. That’s the thing—we all had a voice that day, I sought to make sure all of those young people had their moment to speak, to share, to make the case for arts in Ohio. We were there during the April threat of a government shutdown so the pressure was high and there were wall to wall suits and tense brows in every direction. But my group knew why we were there and we made the most of our advocacy work—meeting people and participating behind the scenes of our national politics. What a ride!
And to answer your question about young people, I admit, I love working with them—they are great partners and have amazing ideas. Youth energy is inspiring and to be honest, young people are up next, on deck, so I love to share my experiences with young people as they prepare for their own careers and important moments in life. I’ve been an artist and an educator for 14 years now, and this never gets old. I look forward to continuing my work creating and administrating arts and education programs, volunteering in the community, mentoring young people and younger up and coming professionals, and sharing what is brilliant and mysteriously attractive about the arts. The arts, education, and community are my channels of work, some of my life’s passions, and I am committed to this work and excited to share that energy here in our community and beyond.