Mandala Art Gallery:
Community-Student Partnership

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Change Agent by Synapse Learning Design

The Clear Creek-Amana Community School District (CCA) in east central Iowa is a typical midwestern rural school district. It has about 1,600 students and covers a geographic area of over 160 square miles. Except for the several small communities comprising the district, the land is quilted with corn and soybean fields. The sleepiest of the towns, however, is home to a unique student-centered project.

Oxford used to be the largest town in the county, boasting five hotels and a bustling railroad-dependent economy. But a big fire and the decline of the railroad reduced the once-strong Oxford economy into a single main street of mostly empty storefronts and crumbling buildings. Until recently, if you asked any of the Clear Creek-Amana High School students if there was anything to do in Oxford, you’d get a resounding, "No!"

Now, many point to the Mandala Community Art Gallery, a student-run business in one of the formerly run-down storefronts along the main street. The gallery came about through the creative thinking of some community volunteers, the students’ enthusiasm, and a lot of elbow grease.

School-to-career project plan

The idea originated with the district’s school-to-career coordinator, Andrew Epstein. He wondered why the arts were so often left out of the picture when it came to career development. "That’s nice, but you need to have a real career," was the standard response when parents, teachers, and counselors were confronted with a student interested in the arts.

 The gallery came about through the creative thinking of community volunteers, the students’ enthusiasm, and a lot of elbow grease.

While recruiting some local artisans to provide job-shadowing opportunities, it became clear to Epstein that quite a few artists lived or worked in the school district, and even had studios in Oxford. He also knew that art teacher Mary Pat Hansen-Karstens’ classes were perennial favorites with students. That’s when the idea for a gallery began to take hold.

One of the goals of the district’s state-funded school-to-career plan was to increase the number of student entrepreneurial projects. Epstein thought that opening a gallery in Oxford could not only help to further the goals of the grant, but also help maintain the character of the town and spur some local economic development.

Meeting with the art teacher and several local artists, Epstein and friends landed on the plan of starting an art gallery run by high-school students where the work of local artisans would be sold. CCA students would also show their work and organize small exhibits that would help enhance local arts appreciation. In order to attract student help and interest from the nearby University of Iowa, space would be made available for shows curated by graduate students.

An initial meeting for students brought out nearly forty enthusiastic participants. They were eager to make the space their own, adding a café to the gallery plan to provide a much needed meeting place for young people. And they suggested adding a permanent exhibit on the history of Oxford, creating an attraction for local residents. Finally, they agreed upon a name: the Mandala Community Art Gallery, using the Sanskrit word for "circle" to capture a sense of giving and receiving within the community.

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