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RAC Founder & Manager

Carmelle Nickens

      In 2012-2013, the foundation was laid for the Rural Arts® Collaborative Arts (RAC) Arts Education Project. As a former educator with an extensive background in non-profit working with after-school arts programs that were designed to extend the art education experience for students, it was clear to me that there was a need to focus on developing a project that would work alongside existing arts curriculum in the classroom. Many school districts in rural Southwestern PA were experiencing budget cuts and the first programs to go were the art classes. In many schools, art class went from every day to once a week. In several districts, art was offered only one semester during the academic year.

      But as any educator knows, the arts enhance learning abilities in math, science, and other disciplines, and are an excellent foundation for fostering and developing the learning process: The “hands-on” experience fosters the 10 primary skills that are essential for learning across the board: Creativity, Confidence, Problem Solving, Perseverance, Focus, Non-verbal Communication, Receiving Constructive Feedback, Collaboration, Dedication and Accountability Washington Post, Strauss 2013.

     After a year of conversations and planning with the Fayette County Cultural Trust (FCCT) and funding from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the RURAL ARTS® COLLABORATIVE (RAC) Arts Education Project was formed. The premise behind the RAC project approach was to recruit Teaching Artists to work in school districts in Southwestern PA counties, with the intent to infuse a diverse arts education approach into existing curriculum, enhance social and cognitive learning for students, and contribute to sustained partnerships amongst educators, artists and students in rural schools, particularly in those schools who were experiencing cut-backs or entire elimination of their arts programs.

      The “Teaching Artist” concept is not new and has been very successful as an enhancement to existing arts curriculum for many years. This term applies to professional artists in all artistic fields. Teaching Artists have worked in schools and in communities for many decades. Teaching Artistry as a field really began in the 1980s. In response to the arts education cutbacks in schools in the Reagan Administration, arts organizations began to provide services directly to schools, and artists became key deliverers of those services.

   Each residency is designed to be a full academic year placement, working with a lead art teacher or a team of teachers in those residencies who prefer a cross-curricular approach. The RAC model utilizes a Project-based Learning approach, requiring a final outcome in the form of a public art piece, installation, or a performance or video to create some lasting form of art that will be part of the students, school and community in some way.

     In 2017, RAC was introduced into northern West Virginia schools through Oglebay Institute as our fiscal agent just as FCCT is the fiscal agent in PA. Again, often in rural counties and schools, the arts programs are minimal at best, and this is an opportunity to expose students to a more robust arts education curriculum that they may not necessarily have had the opportunity to experience.

Because of the success and positive impact on students over the past 6 years, the Fayette County Cultural Trust, Oglebay Institute and the Rural Arts Collaborative continue to work together to share RAC project experiences, themes, and project outcomes, and identify new rural schools whose students can benefit from this project.

     Recently the RAC model received federal trademark approval which will allow us to offer this model project to rural schools all over the country. With our most recent project successes in PA, WV and OH which resulted in: a Japanese watercolor installation in PA which was juried and hung for a year at the Pittsburgh International Airport; an installation project in WV that was presented at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival; a photographic magazine that was created in OH entitled “The All American Town" (The Zine) (which has been featured in the Washington Post), we know that this type of attention will continue to thrust RAC forward and help to serve other students in rural schools.

     FCCT and Oglebay Institute have been the forces to build a strong home for the RAC on that original foundation, and the project continues to flourish in Southwestern PA, Northern WV and Eastern OH rural schools. With continuing support from the Benedum Foundation, and additional funding at this point from Chevron, Community Foundation of Fayette County, EQT, the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation and Shepherd University, we are continuing our mission to serve students in rural schools and communities, and provide them with an arts education experience that will impact their lives academically, behaviorally, cognitively and developmentally to hopefully foster success in their future lives and careers. We are ever grateful to our funders, supporters and educators for believing in this project that has made a difference for so many rural students in our region.

Carmelle Nickens

Founder - Rural Arts® Collaborative