The Storyline Project is a great example of effective and inexpensive collaboration with valuable community outcomes.
Launched in summer 2009, the project had roots in an impromptu collaborative effort from the previous year. Charlottesville Parks & Recreation came to Piedmont Council for the Arts (PCA) for help painting a school bus to transport youth to recreation centers around town. Aware of our limited capacity, we reached out to another nonprofit, The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, for help.
Though similarly small, The Bridge had experience working with local artists on public art projects. With their expertise, PCA’s commitment to managing the project, and our shared enthusiasm for the possibilities, a new partnership was born.
Together, we coordinated a team of local artists and Parks & Rec summer camp students for the exciting challenge of painting what became known as the Fun Bus.
The following year, Parks & Rec approached PCA about designing another arts project for their summer camp program. They agreed to provide campers and logistics coordination if PCA could provide artists and hands-on project oversight.
Almost simultaneously, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression came to us with the idea of designing a youth arts program for their First Amendment Monument, also called the Community Chalkboard and located on the downtown pedestrian mall in front of City Hall.
In response, we proposed that PCA and The Bridge work together for a second year of Parks & Rec programming, this time joining up with the designer of the monument to create a project that would culminate in a youth-made mural on the Community Chalkboard. We jumped into program development, with many of the details and partnership dynamics already in place.
The Storyline Project leads 30-40 summer campers, mostly upper-elementary and middle school students from low-income households, on a walking tour of our city. The students are joined by artists, designers, storytellers, historians, and scientists as they walk through parks and neighborhoods, learning about the past and imagining the future of the place we call home.
They sketch in handmade notebooks, photograph interesting things they see, and interview people they meet along the way. After three half-day sessions of exploring the city through a creative lens, they work together on a chalkboard mural that illustrates the themes of their walk. Each partner organization has a clearly defined role in bringing the project to fruition, and the students lead the way creatively.
Here’s a sample of the chalkboard mural:
Although simple in program design, Storyline’s outcomes are complex and far-reaching.
The students gain an awareness of and appreciation for creative professions, a deeper understanding of local history, and a sense of ownership in downtown neighborhoods. The areas explored are often rife with issues related to racial tensions and socioeconomic disparity, and Storyline provides an outlet for exploring and interacting in public space. The project also opens students up to new experiences.
In 2011, the Storyline route traversed trails in natural areas just a short distance from downtown. For many of the students, it was the first time they’d ever been to a river or forest. The students also learn about the creative process. They put hours into designing and creating a collaborative mural only to see it washed away by rain a few days later. They accept this fleetingness as part of the project, similar to the changes we experience in life and in our community.
The value of Storyline lies in the exchange of ideas — the collaboration itself rather than in the finished piece.
For the past three summers, Storyline has evolved and improved. As a process-oriented and collaborative project, it is inexpensive to produce, requiring an investment of little more than staff time for each partner.
Its sustainability comes in part from lessons learned in the Fun Bus project: the need to articulate partner roles and responsibilities, the focus on process as opposed to product, and the willingness to let students’ visions lead the way in aesthetic decisions.
But Storyline originated because small, nimble arts organizations were willing to say yes to new program ideas, a city department reached out for help, and artists got involved as volunteers.
Because its simple structure leaves room for student interpretation and response, Storyline has incredible artistic outcomes.