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The Art of Learning

Maggie CavalloMaggie Cavallo’s testimony before the Boston Arts & Culture Transition Committee at a public hearing this winter became a turning point for the lifelong supporter of the arts.

Before coming to HGSE last fall, the curator was often critical about the lack of support for the contemporary art scene in Boston. However, like many, she had never given much thought to government as an outlet for her voice.

“Being in the Arts in Education Program made me feel more of a responsibility to participate in practice and be an active voice,” she says. “I don’t think I have a right to criticize if I’m not actively participating in the discussion on the governmental level.”

The shift coincided with Cavallo’s first semester at HGSE and the recent Boston mayoral race. When the city elected a new mayor – Marty Walsh – for the first time in 20 years, Cavallo saw it as an opportunity for change in the city, particularly for contemporary artists facing challenges ranging from lack of affordable studio space to limited commercial opportunities in the city. As a result of these challenges, Boston struggles to retain and sustain artist communities, she says.

Of course, that’s only part of the problem. In her Boston Arts & Culture testimony, Cavallo highlighted the necessity for risk-taking in the mayor’s office when it comes to the arts and pitched a course she developed in doctoral student Edward Clapp’s module, Fostering Creativity and Innovation through Education: Applying Theory to Practice, called “Art School 617.” The course was a series of monthly lessons designed for cabinet-level staff of the mayor’s office, meant to orient them to how art operates within our society, and what the city of Boston can do to promote and take advantage if that. “If you have a city with a healthy arts infrastructure then the quality of life increases,” she says.

The testimony was met with applause and garnered the attention of Boston arts journal, Big, Red & Shiny.

With a background in the sociology of the arts, Cavallo came to the Ed School as a non-traditional educator. Much of her time has been spent working as the curator of education for the Gallery and Visiting Artist Program at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass. After exploring degrees in museum studies and the like, she focused on drawing more connections between education and contemporary art communities at the Ed School.

“As [doctoral student] Edward Clapp pointed out to me, art is educational in that it is transformative,” she says. “It’s not an accident that I got here, but it’s just not the traditional path.”

Being at HGSE has expanded the way she thinks, she says, particularly about social entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership, and advocacy. Due to her experience testifying and her HGSE coursework — particularly Professor Fernando Reimers’ Educational Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship in Comparative Perspective — Cavallo is now focusing her efforts on launching Alter, an organization dedicated to bridging the gaps among contemporary art communities, the city of Boston, and educators.

“Alter will identify areas of weakness within our city’s artistic infrastructure and design unique teaching and learning experiences with and through contemporary art to solve them,” she says. In many cases this entails programming experiences that invite arts appreciation and value, partnering with local innovators and investors in arts-related projects, and creating commercial start-ups, all aimed at improving the health of the city’s arts ecosystem. “Art is about learning at the end of the day – that’s it,” she says.