HUBweek Change Maker: Kate Gilbert

Executive Director, Now + There

Kate Gilbert is the Executive Director of Now + There, a public art curatorial organization dedicated to supporting artists and helping to define Boston’s public art identity. She held roles at the Boston Society of Architects and Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy before founding Now + There in 2014. Since then, the organization has commissioned dozens of public artworks across the Greater Boston area, and recently graduated the first cohort from its Public Art Accelerator. Gilbert is also an artist herself, working in diverse media and often in the public realm.

What is your background? How did you find your way to working in public art?

Back in 2013, I saw a picture of James Wines’ Ghost Parking Lot and it unlocked a rush of childhood memories. For the first seven years of my life, I lived in Hamden, Connecticut, a suburb of New Haven, and I would see Wine’s work, older model cars covered in asphalt looking like they were both rising up and being swallowed under by the parking lot of our grocery store. When I saw the photo, it all made sense — my fascination with asphalt as a material and my desire for the unusual in everyday contexts.

A similar memory jog occurred in 2010 when Jonathan Lippencot published Large Scale, a history of the Lippencott sculpture production center. Also in the New Haven area, the factory’s grounds became an unofficial sculpture park and the site of family walks. My dad tells me I saw versions of Oldenburg’s Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks there. I can’t remember it, but I do know that I am inexplicably drawn to very, very large sculpture. (And it’s never big enough.)

We lived modestly in Hamden. My dad was a newspaper reporter. We drove an old car with a hole in floor. We grew vegetables in the backyard and I truly believed in Mr. Rogers’ utopia. It was the 70s, and while I could sense that things in the world were messy, it seemed like art and being genuinely connected as good neighbors was all one needed to live a happy life.

I still believe in all of that, and I want kids today to have access to the same kind of inspiration in their neighborhoods. I want to imprint in the recesses of their brains an appreciation for the different, the weird, the grotesque, and the magical, and for the place they inhabit. I want to share the mind-blowing experiences that result from seeing a work of art in an unexpected place.

From my formative experiences with public art in Hamden, to an undergraduate degree in painting at Connecticut College concentrating on itinerant cultures, my 15+ years in non-profit management in Boston (Revolving Museum, Boston Society of Architects, and Greenway Conservancy), a late-in-life MFA (SMFA/Tufts), to today running Now + There, the path to creating more public art in Boston made no sense while I was on it. But today, it seems inevitable.

You are an artist yourself, working in an incredibly diverse range of media. It seems as though your work also engages heavily with the public realm, and fosters different types of interactions. Can you tell me more about your practice?

My artistic practice strives to facilitate independent thinking, provide platforms for meditative reflection, and offer authentic alternatives to destructive behaviors.

What does that mean? Basically, I use art as a means of making sense of this consumptive, chaotic, me-centered world we live in and then use it as a mechanism for sharing alternatives. My tools, or media, change depending on the investigation and who I’m trying to reach.

For instance, I used paint and audio interviews for an installation in Downtown Crossing that measured people’s threshold for being present, asking if they would rather go backward or forward in time. (Less than 2% of people chose “neither,” the intended suggestion.) For Interdependence, I employed wearables like a fanny pack that unfolds to create an inflatable 3D line drawing, a barrier around the body, in recognition of the push/pull of guarding one’s centeredness while remaining a productive, connected member of society.

In recent years, I’ve been grappling with the rise of gentrification and homelessness in my Leather District/Chinatown neighborhood. I’ve employed a wearable tent dress in performance and video and chronicled a development parcel every year since 2013. For the past three years, I’ve been taking (some might call it stealing) broken bits of sidewalk and road and with gold leaf and modeling turf, turning them into miniature worlds in my Sidewalk Series. These microcosms of our earth, complete with the suggestion of minable natural resources, are familiar and appealing as landscapes yet off-putting. At their core, they are made from man-made substances that smother the earth. Ultimately, I sell them and liken my actions to privatizing public space.

These days my artwork is mostly object-based. The socially-engaged aspect of my practice has morphed into Now + There.

Can you tell us more about Now + There and its mission, and about your role as director specifically?

Now + There is a public art curator that challenges Boston’s cultural identity by taking artistic risks and consistently producing compelling projects. Our mission is to deliver accessible public art projects that advance new definitions of public art, acculturate Boston to the cultural, social, and economic benefits of art, and help define Boston’s essential public art identity.

Remember how I told you public art is never big enough? Well, I think it’s more like, there isn’t enough of it. I want it to fill up my entire vision. Now + There came to be because of that desire — more contemporary art, everywhere. I wanted to take the lessons learned, and the successes earned, at my Greenway Conservancy stint (2007–2012) and bring them to all neighborhoods of Boston, not just the tourist areas.

It just so happened that in 2014, after finishing grad school, while I was going around Boston talking to anyone about this crazy idea — bringing together artists, property owners, and funders to make temporary public art that reflects our values — that the non-profit public art organization UrbanArts Institute was in the process of closing. The then board chair, Nick Capasso, approached me to see if I would consider being their director, without compensation, and lead the organization into a new era. With a little over $1,100 in the bank, no files (they were archived at The Boston Public Library), and no funder database, I created the Now + There brand, rebuilt the board, and in 2015 secured seed funding from the Lewis Family Foundation who believes strong leaders build stronger communities. I was humbled to take on the next chapter of UrbanArts, originally founded by Pamela Worden in 1980 to incorporate the arts into the public sphere and create a sense of vitality and belonging.

Today, I continue to lead Now + There with a dedicated staff, and we’re pushing for more. With strong partners, we’re asking “what if” and “why not” — especially when it comes to bringing more equity to the field and challenging unconscious biases. We demand art that reflects not only our newly global city, but art that represents who we are as Bostonians. Together, with artists, communities, and funders, Now + There is changing a negative cycle in which the factors of too little artistic risk-taking, no critical mass of art, and no native constituency mutually reinforce one another and prevent artists from creating their best, most engaging work. We’re creating a virtuous cycle in which curation, passion, and presence support a thriving public art ecosystem, one in which all neighborhoods of Boston can benefit from the change that is sparked by public art.

Our high-impact public artworks pair nationally-acclaimed artists with local community partners, building collaborations that raise awareness of topical issues and transform underutilized spaces with joy and vibrancy. Our Public Art Accelerator annually supports a cohort of local artists with professional development workshops, curatorial coaching, and funding for their projects.

Over the next five years through strategic partnerships with property owners, other non-profits, and the City of Boston, we’re striving to create 45 temporary public art projects that enliven our city and encourage engagement.

Now + There’s current curatorial theme is “Common Home.” What does it mean to you, and how do you hope artists will interact with and interpret it?

Home is a place we return to, where we put down our burdens, find rest and nourishment. It restores us. But home requires constant upkeep and a set of governing rules coauthored by its inhabitants. (Someone sets the thermostat, another takes out the trash.) Home also exists within invisible, regulatory networks determined by city and state officials. (They decide what colors we paint, or how high we build.)

Eventually, our early experiences within the home shape how we interact with others and determines the level of care we provide to our public spaces. Home is a microcosm of our common public spaces and our most common home, the earth.

Now + There’s 2018 theme “Common Home” came directly from this observation and takes its name from Stephanie Cardon’s work, Unless. Stephanie’s installation offers commentary on the immediate impact of climate change, especially on the poor and disenfranchised, as seen in the aftermath of last year’s devastating hurricanes in Puerto Rico. Opening in the Prudential Mall’s Center Court later this summer Unless includes phrases from the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home and invites us via an SMS text messaging program to take individual actions to reduce our negative impact on the environment.

Once we finalized plans for Liz Glynn: Open House — a 26-piece installation of cast-concrete Louis XIV chairs, sofas, footstools and arches that evoke an extravagant Gilded Age ballroom and asks who has access to public space in increasingly divided along socio-economic lines — and examined the subjects of the six upcoming Accelerator Artist projects, the theme of “Common Home” just clicked.

What do you see as the function of public art generally, and in Boston specifically? How do you see it positively impacting our city?

That’s a loaded question! But simply put, public art has the capacity to change hearts and minds and we need more of that in today’s world. We especially need it in Boston, a city of many fragmented neighborhoods, an inequitable transit system and a legacy of racism and socio-economic inequality.

Public art is expected in a global city like Boston. It reflects our culture and shows our differences. It drives tourism and reflects the identity of our vibrant, diverse city. It helps with retention too. It can give an under-recognized artist like Sylvia Lopéz Chavez who created Patterned Behavior on the Esplanade a platform to share her work that is free from the hierarchy of the gallery system. (Since completing the mural with Now + There and the Esplanade Association, she’s had six new commissions and was on Chronicle earlier this month. An under-recognized artist no longer!)

Now + There recently graduated its first cohort from its Public Art Accelerator. Most people associate accelerators with startups (especially in Boston), but I love the idea of using that same language around art and actively fostering innovation in the artistic sphere just as we do in biotech or life sciences. How does the Art Accelerator work, and what are your goals for the program?

Every public art project is akin to a startup. You have this idea as an artist. It comes from seeing a need — either your own or one in your environment, or your market. You convince yourself and enough people that the world needs this thing that’s sprung from your brain. You find funding, maybe just enough to show proof of concept. You create an MVP of sorts which may be a maquette or the community-engagement part of the project. You convince many jurisdictions to let you build it (and you promise it won’t fall over), and eventually, you let the world know it exists through digital media. In the startup world, there’s a supportive culture of coaching programs and investors who fuel innovation. Sadly, in the art world there isn’t that kind of overt support of artistic risk-taking. The fortunate artists who figure out how to make public art continue to get the commissions. It’s a closed loop system.

Our goal with Now + There’s Public Art Accelerator is two-part: provide emerging and mid-career artists with the knowledge and self-confidence they need to deliver impactful projects (so they can break into the system) and provide more public artwork to Boston neighborhoods that don’t currently have contemporary public art. Each year we’ll bring at least six Boston-area artists through a six-month curriculum, meeting in a different location each time to encourage the discovery of new hidden gems and introduce artists to new potential collaborators. The Accelerator provides professional development workshops, curatorial coaching, and grants for project funding. Along the way, we’re nurturing a cohort of artists and community groups who can turn to each other for support and potentially collaborate in the future.

We’re building a pipeline for the future of public art in Boston.

Between now and October Accelerator Artists, Katarina Burin, Ryan Edwards, Lina Maria Giraldo, Cynthia Gunardi & Joel Lamere, Stephen Hamilton and Ekua Holmes will produce projects that are hyper-local and site-specific and will provoke conversations about memory and loss, ancestry and homeland, and the cultivation of vacant space. Ekua Holmes has already begun her project, the Roxbury Sunflower Project which aims to plant 10,000 sunflowers and reposition Roxbury as the magical place she experienced growing up.

Following up on the previous question, how can public art be a platform for innovation in our city?

Boston is rich in intellectual capital. We’re curious and studied, and our research labs and start-ups are well capitalized. But we could do much better at cross-sector collaboration, at sharing the knowledge that’s gated within universities, hidden in start-up basements or locked up in an artist’s studio.

Now + There is developing new collaborative processes for curating and producing Boston public art that centers on upholding artistic risk-taking. We like to think that by delivering bias-challenging, high-impact projects that we’re incubating new modes of civic engagement for our shared spaces, and providing test cases for future study. We know not everyone will like our projects — nor will every project be a success — and that’s ok as long as we share the lessons learned with Boston’s future planners, designers and policymakers.

Meanwhile, right now, if Bostonians join Now + There artists in the creation, sharing, and critique of their projects and project themes (both online and in-person), we can develop productive conversations that foster authentic connections across diverse populations. Together, we can drive toward the goal of building a public art city that sparks cultural change.

This year’s HUBweek festival theme is “We the Future.” What does that mean to you?

It means everything to me. There is no future without the We.

The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.

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