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From the desk: How First Thursdays and the arts build connections

Sep 3, 2019

The arts and humanities are not only academic disciplines; they are vital expressions of what we value and how we interpret and remake the world around us. Also, when experienced collectively, they can serve as dynamic tools for community-building and belonging.

Ed Comentale
Ed Comentale, director of the IU Bloomington Arts and Humanities CouncilPhoto by Indiana University

Performances, exhibits, scholarly talks and similar events invite people to come together to share in a common meaningful experience. They spark the imagination, inspire curiosity and provide new points of view; and these experiences, when shared, prove vital to any strong and vibrant community. I’ve had the privilege and joy of witnessing such community-building firsthand as director of the Arts and Humanities Council over the past few years.

Our work building community through the arts and humanities began here on campus with what has become our signature event: The First Thursdays Festival. Each month, we gather in the arts plaza with colleagues and friends from across campus to explore and celebrate the creativity, energy and support of the IU Bloomington community.

The plaza has become a space for hearing new voices and telling new stories, learning about our shared interests and unique points of view, for figuring out who we are as a community and how that can change over time. New works and compositions, new student groups, new cross-department collaborations and new friendships have all blossomed because of First Thursdays, and I couldn’t be prouder. We’ll continue this wonderful community tradition in a few short days with the inaugural First Thursday of the semester, and we hope the entire campus will join us.

The council’s work has expanded to include more people and organizations from the Bloomington community. Through programs such as the Granfalloon, we have partnered with arts and community groups throughout the town, and with our Global Remixed festivals, we’ve brought world-renowned authors, musicians, dancers and artists to spaces into the heart of local cultural life.

We’ve also sought to reimagine spaces such as City Hall and local coffee shops as venues for lively discussions on pressing topics related to literature, art, activism, community and more. Along the way, we’ve partnered with the city, local schools, arts organizations, businesses and enthusiastic individuals from all walks of life who share our deep belief in the power of arts and humanities to bring people together and strengthen our community.

More recently, the council’s efforts have reached beyond Bloomington to include communities around the state. Working with IU’s Center for Rural Engagement and many units across campus, we have forged significant relationships with communities in Huntingburg, Salem and Nashville. We have mobilized dozens of departments and hundreds of faculty and students in the arts and humanities to help develop the cultural resources of these unique towns.

With collaborative performances and exhibits, writing and filmmaking workshops, public forums and strategic planning, we are helping the people of southern Indiana create new, more positive visions and dynamic stories about their past, present and futures. In doing so, we have not only brought the transformative power of the arts and humanities to these communities; we have expanded our own ideas about the region in which we live and work.

Shaped by the power and energy of the arts and humanities, our community has proven to be as expansive, eclectic and resilient as ever. As both a scholar and administrator, I have never felt more rewarded by my work and more inspired by the people – faculty, students, staffers, mayors, arts programmers, business leaders, community members and so many more – whom I now call colleagues as well as neighbors.

Ed Comentale is the director of the IU Bloomington Arts and Humanities Council, an associate vice provost for arts and humanities and a professor of English.

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