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Getting the Picture: An Artistic Community Partnership

As a librarian who doesn’t work in a traditional library setting, I am always on the lookout for novel ways to bring books to unexpected places. Thanks to an all-hands-on-deck operation, we recently welcomed hundreds of children and families to connect with a children’s literacy-based art exhibition at a community hub that inspired many young readers to craft stories of their own. Here’s a look at who partnered in the effort, and some ideas about how you might seek these opportunities in your own community.

First, it helps to have a sense of the place.  The Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Campus (THEARC) brings together more than a dozen non-profit partners that offer social and cultural programs to children and families living east of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC.  Within its three buildings — which sit on almost 17 acres that include a farm and playground — kids can learn to dance, play an instrument, visit a medical clinic, and even go to school.  Grown-ups can take classes, too, learn culinary skills, and enjoy performances in one of two professional theaters. In short, THEARC is an innovative community anchor, a true third space.

Flyer created to publicize the exhibition.

Next, there’s the exhibit in question.  In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature (NCCIL) curated the largest ever collection of original CSK award-winning artwork.  The touring exhibition, titled OUR VOICE: CELEBRATING THE CORETTA SCOTT KING ILLUSTRATOR AWARDS, includes pieces by literary luminaries like Ashley Bryan, Jerry Pinkney, Pat Cummings, and John Steptoe.  NCCIL Curator Debbie Lillick also had the foresight to acquire copies of each of the CSK-winning book titles whose artwork was featured in the exhibit — a librarian’s dream pairing! OUR VOICE had a window of availability that overlapped with the American Library Association’s Annual Conference, also in Washington, DC, and this perfect storm of timing and opportunity meant the show would be available to not only THEARC’s community but also to librarians visiting from around the country. 

Finally came the literacy collaboration.  Eight of the resident partners agreed to host almost 75 pieces of artwork, divvying up the treasures by theme and interest.  Christopher Myers’s Firebird went to the Washington School for Ballet, for example, while Levine School of Music hosted an oil on illustration board spread by Frank Morrison from Little Melba and Her Big Trombone.  Artwork was hung and mounted, and the corresponding picture books set out for reading nearby.  Welcome desk staff from THEARC escorted visitors through the partner spaces, connecting the artwork to the community programming offered at the campus.


Books were available for reading alongside the artwork, like Gordon C. James’s Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, displayed within the ArtReach Gallery, at left.  Images were accompanied by an informational placard about the artistic medium, while QR codes as with John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale, below, linked visitors to audio transcripts about each book from TeachingBooks.Net.  Both photos by this author.  

Image of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale with QR code





The resident partners also include two museums that offer art programming at THEARC — the GW’s ArtReach and The Phillips Collection’s Phillips@THEARC — and, serendipitously, one of the pieces in the exhibition enjoys a long and storied connection at The Phillips: Bryan Collier’s Uptown.  Art museum educator Donna Jonté shares: 

“Since it was published in 2000, we’ve read Uptown to elementary school students in the galleries and in the studio, connecting it to the Great Migration and the art of the city. We’ve integrated it with poetry, math, history, music, and visual art. We hold it up as an exemplar of compelling content, poetic text, stunning collage, and artful book design. 

When the OUR VOICE exhibition arrived at Phillips@THEARC and we saw the original collage from Uptown, we were awe-struck first, then delighted: the exhibition coincided with a workshop series devoted to preserving family history through art.  Layered with Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, Uptown gave us the foundation for the workshop—a journey and a celebration of family—and the inspiration for the artwork—mixed-media collage.”

Phillips educator Avis Brock arranged for each participating family to receive a copy of Uptown to keep, and collages created during the workshop series are on display in the Living Room Gallery at Phillips@THEARC through the end of August.

ArtReach GW display

In addition to the books from which its featured artwork was drawn, ArtReach offered visitors information about both the Coretta Scott King Book Award and additional art programs available to the community.  Photo by this author, with thanks to Aselin Lands, Director of ArtReach GW and The Community Gallery at THEARC.

Art, books, and an incredible space in which to share them — this unusual literary partnership succeeded thanks to the innovative efforts of many. 

How can you arrange similar programs in your community?  

  • Scan the newspaper and social media for interesting exhibitions in your local museums or public spaces.  Curate a library display based on an outdoor summer concert series, or volunteer to provide a themed storytime before Shakespeare in the park.
  • Think outside the box — and outside the library — when it comes to community spaces, book collections, and potential partners.  Can you curate a health and wellness picture book bin for the waiting room of a medical clinic, or share your book knowledge to connect local cultural institutions with books that reflect their mission?
  • This is a milestone year for the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.  Consider a display to commemorate the 50th anniversary, or perhaps an art-based program inspired by Illustrator Award recipients, like they do at The Phillips Collection.

What creative ways have you shared books in your community?  In what unexpected spaces have you highlighted literacy? Share your stories in the comments below!  And, pssst, Orlando, Los Angeles, and Muskegon, MI: the OUR VOICE exhibit is coming your way next!

Kit Ballenger is a youth services librarian in the Washington, DC area.  She creates book lists for NPR’s children’s podcast, Wow in the World, volunteers at the Library of Congress Young Readers Center, and counsels children, families, and educational institutions to help them find the next good-fit book. Kit serves on the ALSC Building Partnerships Committee. You can find her online @KitonLit.

This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: III. Programming Skills and V. Outreach and Advocacy.

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