Social Work and the Arts

August 5, 2014

Guest blogger Susana Bautista, Ph.D., interim deputy director of USC Pacific Asia Museum, comments on Social Work and the Arts. 

On July 13, 2014, I traveled to Michigan to talk about how art museums are doing social work, and how they can be terrific partners for not only social workers, but also academic schools and students. I was part of a delegation from the USC School of Social Work, representing USC Pacific Asia Museum specifically and university art museums in general. My colleagues were professors at the USC School of Social Work and the School of Cinematic Arts, and participating at the conference were also the Schools of Social Work at the University of Michigan, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Washington, and New York University, as well as museum educators and students. The goals of this symposium were to define the scope of intersection between social work and the arts, identify problems and communities that can benefit from this partnership, and examine the historical and current context of this work. There are many forms of artistic practice that can be considered social work, such as agitprop art, and socially conscious or social justice art, however, I will focus the rest of this post on how art museums conduct social work.

museumThe current issue of Museum magazine has an article called “Museums for Social Justice”, in which David Fleming talks about the “socially responsible museum” and its commitment to education. Museums today are committed to increasing access to their collections, exhibitions, and programs, and in particular to underserved audiences in their immediate communities. They have free family days, bring busses of schoolchildren, and provide materials in multiple languages. Education departments also offer programs for the disabled, most prominently the Alzheimer’s and dementia programs that MoMA started eight years ago.

But these are programs offered by professional museum educators, not social workers, which is an important distinction. The distinction is important because the aesthetics of the space of museums and the neutrality of educators may affect people in an entirely different way than within a clinic or community organization. Often museums consult with social workers when creating programs, or reach out to them to help spread the world, but not to interact with museum visitors. Except in the very unusual case of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, who hired a trained social worker to run their community programs and still work with a student intern in social work.

The lesson for me, from this conference, was that practitioners of social work can take greater advantage of working with art museums – their spaces and their objects – and collaborating with museum educators, to more effectively serve their needs using alternative methods. And that museums can also take greater advantage of social workers to provide a fresh way to interact with and reach out to their visitors. And finally, university museums can act as a training ground for students of social work by collaborating with departments of social work. I am excited to report that we are hosting our first class from the USC School of Social Work. Visiting stuSONY DSCdents from China will be discussing social work and immigration, centered on our current exhibition The Other Side: Chinese and Mexican Immigration to America. There are so many possibilities when you open up your institution to collaboration, especially outside your traditional domain, and we are excited to begin this journey.