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Kari Couture's Socially Engaged Art

Dec. 7, 2011
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Kari Couture, who has had her works exhibited internationally and her political drawings and prints included in several books on socially engaged art (including Paper Politics and Reproduce & Revolt), is devoted to community art education. “Art helps us understand each other, function socially in healthy ways and feel part of something,” she says. “I don't think anybody can learn anything else until they know these things.” I met Couture in 2005, when she was placing professional artists in school residencies as part of her duties as program coordinator for Artists Working in Education.

How did you start in community service?

After graduating from MIAD, I spent a year with Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program. I was placed with Milwaukee Public Theatre. It was invaluable professional training. I learned so much about nonprofit operations, community development and diversity issues. I wish Public Allies was a requirement for everyone because it teaches empathy and the idea that hands-on experience helps you think more.

You played a role in building RedLine Milwaukee Community Art Studio.

I was the co-creator, with Kim Weiss, of the print shop at RedLine. We'd both had the dream to open a community-focused print shop because once you leave school there is no place to go to make prints. We wanted an all-ages place with classes, workshops and studio time for experienced printmakers. The print shop was set up in hopes of its being a cooperative—everybody pays a fee to use it, and those fees go directly and entirely to supplies and equipment. We envisioned it as the heart of RedLine because it's where outreach happens as people come in and use it. The best way to understand art is to make art. It's hard to relate to an artist's messy studio until you've made your own mess. Seeing someone's art—when you've made your own, you can relate, you can understand the time involved and the value.

You also manage
the MPS Partnership for the Arts and Partnership for the Humanities programs.

The programs were initiated by former MPS board member Jennifer Morales and current Vice President Peter Blewett. Funding is available from the city property tax levy for arts groups to partner with the school district. Programming must be open to all residents and must occur outside school hours, so students can participate. Some programs serve families, but a majority serve the K-12 population—between 30,000-40,000 students from 115 different schools, MPS and non-MPS. Part of what we look for are programs that serve kids who don't otherwise have access. First and foremost, we are not trying to replace art and music teachers in the regular school curriculum. We see it as an opportunity to foster a sense of value for the arts, so art will be seen as essential to a well-rounded education. I would challenge anybody who thinks the arts don't matter to see these programs in action; once you do, you can't walk away. Call me. I'll take anybody to see it for themselves.


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