Carnegie Mellon Guest Lecturer Inspires Social Change
Through Art at Laundromats in Poor New York Communities
PITTSBURGH — Artist and social entrepreneur Risë Wilson will discuss her Laundromat Project during a lecture at 4:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 24 in the Kresge Recital Hall in the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University. Her lecture, titled "Innovations in Funding and Access to the Arts," is part of Carnegie Mellon's Institute for Social Innovation lecture series, sponsored by the Grable Foundation.
While people wait for their clothes to dry at two laundromats in Bedford-Stuvyesant and Harlem, N.Y., Wilson engages them in making and discussing art and its social backdrop. "At one level, Risë Wilson is turning laundromats into places where people gather not only to wash clothes but also to take art classes," said Alan Friedman, director of the Institute for Social Innovation, housed in Carnegie Mellon's H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management. "Yet, the Laundromat Project sees art as so much more than just an amenity or nice touch. Art in this context is a forum and force for social change."
In the Laundromat Project (http://www.laundromatproject.org/), Wilson was not seeking a particular audience of art aficionados. She wanted the people of the community - teens, twenty-somethings, parents, and grandparents - to come in and do their laundry, which is when she engages and inspires them through creating and discussing art. The two laundromats serve as studio and gallery space where the new art can be displayed.
In communities with under-funded schools and rampant unemployment like Bedford-Stuvyesant and Harlem, Wilson's art programs also fill an educational void in a manner that is all the more impressive for its self-sufficiency. Wilson reinvests the laundromat profits into arts programming and the community. "From the perspective of social entrepreneurship, the business model that she has created is just brilliant," Friedman said. "Her organization is powerful proof of the role the market can play in realizing a social mission."
Wilson believes art can inspire people to improve their communities. She says, "Before you can make lasting change, you have to know firsthand that there are extraordinary possibilities in even the most mundane and bleak circumstances."
Wilson is one of four 2007-2008 special guests of the Institute for Social Innovation. The institute aims to help nonprofits become financially secure, help for-profits affect social change through their business models and solve social problems through education, research, and local and global partnerships. More about the institute is at http://www.heinz.cmu.edu/isi/isi.pdf.