I recently had the honor of being part of a symposium hosted by Rhodes College about art and place. I thought I would write about the public art panel on which I spoke with local artist and organizer Cat Peña and Clough Hanson gallery director Joel Parsons. And while there were some real gems from that conversation, I can’t get something out of my head that the plenary speaker before our panel said…
Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson gave a fantastic lecture about the connection between art and quality of life. (Note: not the potential economic impact, though there is plenty to be said about that.) Dr. Jackson spoke about how humans use art and culture to frame our own reality and experience; the abilities to create and express ourselves as key to our responding to the world around us. To take those abilities away is to dis-empower people.
And yet, art is often seen as the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself. Dr. Jackson asked why the arts aren’t seen as a key ingredient in the batter?
Insert hallelujah chorus, “Yasss, Queen,” snaps, fist bumps, whatever you got here.
I have found that in my role at the UrbanArt Commission, I am as much a project manager as an arts advocate. Because we focus on public spaces and shared experiences, we have an obligation to involve any number of stakeholders that actively use or are affected by the spaces we consider. These stakeholders include everybody from neighborhood associations to city traffic engineers. More often than not, I am explaining a proposed project and explaining why this work is important in the same breath. It’s a luxury for people to understand what we do and the value in it at the outset of a conversation.
As much as I loved Dr. Jackson’s line, I want to go further and ask, “Why is art being considered the dessert course?”
It seems to be something that is optional if there’s room at the end of the meal, if there’s money left over in the budget. Why do we think about art as so separate from everything else we consider necessary to our daily lives? I pose this question and then I am immediately aware that I am a privileged creature with access.
A year into this role, I think that what we are really trying to do is to embed artists in as many non-obvious situations and contexts as possible. To weave art into the daily experiences across the city through parks, green spaces, vacant buildings, basically wherever we can get permission to be. We have to think about caring for people on multiple fronts and part of that is access to vibrant, thoughtful spaces. Places where creativity is encouraged and on display.
We need to think about different ways and places to incorporate art meaningfully, not as an afterthought. There are examples across the country popping up where artists are being invited into city planning processes and corporate structures. Not to create one-off projects, but instead the are embedded in these departments and cultures so that they have an impact on the entire process and the end product.
We need to trust artists. Wouldn’t it be great if we gave them space to work out ideas and help us address problems creatively? Let’s make a decision to invite them to be part of conversations where important decisions are being made about services and spaces that affect the livability of our city.
That’s a pretty powerful idea to me.
Lauren Kennedy became the Executive Director of the UrbanArt Commission in January 2015 and is very pleased to have not been kicked out yet. She is also a sometimes curator and an avid Dolly Parton fan.