6 Reasons Government Should Collaborate with Artists

Everett Community Growers’ ecological art in Everett, MA. Source: MAPC.org blog. Lead artist: Carolyn Lewenberg.

I sat in a circle in a public library basement, holding a cup of goldfish crackers for a mother while she helped her older child draw a scene of carrots and an oblong sun wearing glasses. I spoke Spanish with this mother; otherwise she did not know English. But that was no issue in this environment, as translators mixed into the room, all text on the walls bilingual, and many visual aids — like an oversized map with post-it notes and an art-making station — encircled the space. Because a fifth of the population is Spanish-speaking, the artist-facilitator prepared the room in this way. She believes in the power of art to convene, communicate, open up honest communication, and to help us dream. Slowly, the other children running around the room, finding a parent’s lap or drawing, quieted down. The organizer, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s first Artist-in-Residence, Carolyn Lewenberg, unassumingly took to the stage.

The group of immigrants, parents, children, neighbors, students, passionate green thumbs and curious residents had gathered together to brainstorm for a community garden and sculpture project. This was a typical scene of artist Carolyn Lewenberg’s creation. Skilled as a sculptor, Carolyn also convenes groups of people in the way she might work disparate materials to communicate together as a cohesive body. She creates onramps to participation that made everyone in the room feel comfortable and invited — snacks, multiple languages, opportunities to play, places to draw and build things, places to write about your feelings, opportunities to connect to a neighbor you didn’t know. As an artist-in-residence in government, Lewenberg’s job is to work with planners at the independent state agency to find opportunities for her art practice to strengthen the impact of their work, open their projects up in new ways, and to improve the quality of life for the residents in the Boston metropolitan region.

After working alongside Lewenberg as the agency’s first Arts & Culture Fellow, I wanted to know more about the impact her presence was having. I set out to write a year-long Masters thesis for Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Through that research, a few things became clear. I will be publishing the findings in a series of posts, but the first learning is simple:

Artists and government have a future together. But why now, and why artists?

  1. WE NEED CREATIVE SOLUTIONS— Chronic urban challenges we haven’t been able to break through may not be solvable by hiring more policy wonks. Don’t get me wrong, I love my wonks and we need them, but the risky, frisky, radically different thinking might be aided by the infusion of brains and hands that work outside of the bounds. What’s more, federal retrenchment has resulted in reduced support for local governments, so with limited resources, it’s time to start thinking of new approaches. Artists can help reflect, act, and create differently, sensitively, and more collaboratively. They might act as critical mirrors, and offer more creative ways to address age-old problems. In Fargo, ND, for example, an ecological artist worked with the city to rethink the use of their storm water detention basin to double as a neighborhood commons. It addressed social infrastructure needs, community cohesion, and offered an effective approach to storm water — a solution that addressed both people and place.
  2. COMMUNITY-GOVERNMENT HEALING MUST TAKE PLACE — After decades of civil rights infractions, discriminatory housing policy, predatory lending, uneven urban design, environmental racism and police brutality, trust between minority communities and government is understandably fractured. These relationships will not heal overnight. With their expertise in catalyzing creative and honest communication, artists and culture bearers are key players in this process of civic repair. Through the Portland Archives & Records Center, artist Sabina Haque helped connect residents in east Portland to government resources about their community’s past, and mobilized an exhibition and events reimagining a more well-informed resident-driven future of the neighborhood.
  3. A MORE PEOPLE-POWERED GOVERNMENT IS THE WAY OF THE FUTURE — Everyone knows it. Folx are fed up of being left out of the decision-making that governs their communities. Many civic artists are experts at genuine and refreshing ways of engaging a wide-variety of people in processes. St. Paul’s former City Artist in Residence, Amanda Lovelee, is known for her design of Pop-up Meeting, an artistically retrofitted city truck that unfolds as Saint Paul’s front porch to engage communities directly and customize civic meetings. Though this creative act, Lovelee helped bring the government to the people, and meet them on their terms.
Amanda Lovelee’s “Pop-Up Meeting” .Image from Public Art St. Paul

4. CULTURE IS AND ALWAYS WAS CENTRAL TO PLACE— This never changed, we just stopped valuing it in public society, and we stopped centering it in the way we planned communities. What sometimes gets lost in street grids, engineering protocol and politics is the uniqueness of people in place that together makes a place more than the sum of its parts. In Los Angeles, artist Alan Nakagawa led storytelling workshops with engineers in the Los Angeles Department of Transportation as part of the Creative Catalyst Artist in Residence Program. This experience helped engineers better understand that human stories that relate to traffic safety and danger in their city. Artists and cultural producers can help recenter culture in how we understood places, community, and policy.

5. MAKE VISIBLE HIDDEN BEAUTY — What makes a place tick? What are we overlooking? Too often in contemporary cities money talks, and culture-making is pushed to the background. How can we look at our city, especially its forgotten-about areas, in new ways? Many point to civic art veteran Mierle Ukeles for her incredible ongoing collaboration with New York City’s Department of Sanitation, revealing the nuance and grace involved in the overlooked work of urban maintenance. Artists help us see, center and celebrate the beauty of our neighborhoods and our communities.

Installation view, Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art at the Queens Museum, with “Ceremonial Arch IV” (1988/1993/1994/2016) at center. Photo captured by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic.

6. IMAGINE A BETTER FUTURE — So much change begins with dreaming of the impossible. Artist are professional and radical imagineers. It can be hard to see a path forward if there is no roadmap, yet creatives help envision what isn’t bet but what could be. Many times at MAPC I recall being in meetings where our artist-in-residence would freely brainstorm ideas that seemed beyond the normal realm of planning—but that was exactly the point. One of these dreamy ideas usually worked, and the team stuck with it and worked it into something that might be revolutionary for the department or the agency. Artists’s visionary ideas have the capability to push cities and leadership to be better, bolder and more aware.

No one excels in a silo, especially around bettering the places which we all share. Artists collaborating with government is just one of the many bold ways we can shift our thinking of how we serve community and co-create the place where we live, work, play and love.

For more information about artists-government collaboration, sign up for my new Civic Artists in Residence mailing list.