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Reflections on studying democracy and the arts

The Reading Room of the Library of Congress, one of the many spaces that students in the Democracy and Arts in Washington, D.C. course toured this January. Photo by Katie Anderson ’20

During Interim, many Oles decide to travel off campus to learn in a new place and culture. While students often take advantage of these programs in order to go abroad, several courses allow students to explore a city in the United States. This past January, the Democracy and Arts in Washington, D.C. course provided such an opportunity for 24 students who traveled to the nation’s capital for an immersion in the world of arts funding and advocacy. 

Led by St. Olaf College Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein and Assistant Director of Academic Civic Engagement Alyssa Melby, the course took students to museums, government offices, performance venues, and other arts facilities to talk to professionals and representatives about arts policy and advocacy.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (center) welcomes a St. Olaf Interim class to her Senate office in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (center) welcomes the Democracy and Arts in Washington, D.C. class to her Senate office.

These opportunities included visits to the offices of Minnesota senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar. The class’s visit with Sen. Klobuchar was part of the senator’s “Minnesota Morning” program, in which Sen. Klobuchar invites Minnesotans to talk with her over coffee on Thursday mornings. In addition, several students in the course had the opportunity to describe their experience of being in D.C. during President Trump’s impeachment trial in an interview for NPR’s All Things Considered, and an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education featured Epstein and his approach to grades for the course. 

Katie Anderson ’20, one of the students in the class, applied an artistic eye as she captured photos of the many spaces and places the St. Olaf group visited throughout the month. Get a glimpse of what the class saw in the album below.

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The course culminated in a policy proposal assignment in which students drafted a new arts policy in an area of interest. Throughout the course, students shared their experiences on an online blog, including end-of-term reflections.

Here are some of their reflections of how their perceptions of arts and democracy changed during the month in D.C. 

“I don’t want a career in the arts, and I certainly don’t want a career in politics, but I think this trip has reaffirmed that I need both in my life. There are too many ugly things in the world not to do something about it, and there are too many beautiful things in the world not to take them all in. After my time in D.C., I feel better equipped to do both in a more evaluative, optimistic, community-oriented way.” — Hannah Summers ’22

An installation in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Photo by Katie Anderson ’20

“Do we keep performing art that perpetuates negative stereotypes of women, men, POC, LGBTQ+? The conversation is important. It’s what comes after that I am concerned with now.” — Alina Villa ’20

“I misjudged and underrated how much art is able to intersect with civic engagement and how artistic citizenship is able to redefine what civic duty means. So many of the institutions and organizations we visited in Washington whole-heartedly believed that civic duty is inextricably combined with the arts.” — Anna Cook ’22

“This month has made this English major question dictionary definitions, especially definitions of words so abstract and complex as ‘art’ and ‘democracy.’ In this sense, combining these words during this course and evaluating each word in the context of the other made for a challenging, complicated, and innovative union.” — Katie Anderson ’20

“I came into this course knowing I wanted to help bring the arts to people, but I didn’t know how to find a niche in that space. It is easy to say that I’m passionate about the arts, but it is so much more powerful to be able to talk about why; to say that I’ve seen the restorative power of the arts in action and want to protect that. I always knew those things were true because I felt them in myself, but the opportunity to see that happen in others and have those stories to tell alongside my own is invaluable. Now I am armed with the perspective and experiences I need to explain why equity in the arts is essential.” — Penelope Musto ’21

The outside of the National Museum of the American Indian. Photo by Katie Anderson ’20

“I am leaving this trip with a call to action in my ears. Our month in Washington D.C. made clear the power that each individual holds in this country. This program reminded me not only of the point of democracy, but also the point of art. Democracy is what gives a voice to each person in this nation, but art is what allows that voice to be heard. The dynamic culture of the arts scene in Washington D.C. reflects the development of personal civic identity that is essential to the success of the democratic system. The residents of Washington D.C. firmly believe in the concept of ‘showing up,’ an idea that is sticking with me as I go back to my community and reflect on how I can show up.” — Holly Beck ’22

“This is what I’ve taken away from Democracy and the Arts in Washington D.C.: For the sake of community, for the sake of artists, and for the sake of art itself, everyone must be given the opportunity to create and enjoy art. This is how art survives.” — Elijah Leer ’22

“I have felt encouraged more than ever about my individual political voice and the importance of showing up. Our first full day in town, we met with a staff member in representative Angie Craig’s office. The next day, we met with Minnesota senator Tina Smith. A number of us went on to meet Amy Klobuchar later in the month. Each time I entered a building on Capitol Hill, I was shocked by just how easy it was to get in and access our representatives. Walking through the hallways and passing by the offices of people whose names I hear or read daily felt surreal; being located in the nation’s capital really lets you be positioned among those who make choices to change the course of history.” — Claire Strother ’22