To create public works that truly serve our shared experience, we must maintain that community organizers
and city-appointed art directors are sitting at the table as peers, not outweighed by power or pedigree but rather equalized by their lived experience.
Imagine that public space put the ideas of the artist at its center, with urban transformation, public infrastructure, and civic architecture as its foundation. In such a space, creative culture would be championed by the public and be financially supported by those who understand that art is essential to social advancement. In that world, hasty cycles of development would become more thoughtful, collaborative civic movements that represent people from all backgrounds and abilities.
Imagining public art in this way reminds us that cities should function as vehicles for social movements and progress, rather than as spaces that reinforce existing power relations. Our public spaces most often reinforce the dominant systems of our time, such as capitalism and white supremacy. It can and must be different. This means, when thinking about sustainable support for the arts, we must develop a system that sustains not only artists but ourselves.
So how can we begin to execute these ideas? Sustainable support for the arts requires a three-pronged approach: equipping citizens to engage with public art, reforming the design and development process in our cities, and introducing mechanisms for strategic funding from the ground up.
Equipping Citizens to Engage with Public Art
There are examples of this approach we can find, if we look for them. For example, in 2018, the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition in California reinstated an Arts and Culture Commission to redefine and grow its arts grant program through the funding and approval of more than 80 projects. After years of developing a strong framework rooted in equity, the community’s voice now drives the development and implementation of new policies to protect and advance creative production rooted in a culture of belonging.
In the same vein, Sara Zewde of Studio Zewde builds a similar storytelling strategy directly into the urban experience through literal landscape architecture and public artistry. Her studio’s project Graffiti Pier creates public access to cultural narratives while prioritizing preservation of a layered creative history of street art in Port Richmond and Philadelphia as a whole. Through an early, intentional collaboration among artists, community advocates, and neighbors, the design process provided a careful approach to public art as authentic representation. In the revival of a neglected yet significant site, this project shows how artists create the foundational fabric of the city.
The Costs of Undemocratic Design
A common thread weaves through each initiative, project, and organization: advocacy through active listening and an inclusive process. Understanding the power of visual arts to bridge societal gaps is at the forefront of each effort. Culture is fluid; it’s our most dynamic resource.
The flow between community activation and what is culturally produced opens up opportunities for constant exchange. Whether we choose to acknowledge it, the history and contributions of Black and Brown people are the heart of American culture.
In Art on My Mind: Visual Politics, bell hooks discusses how the underpinnings of race, gender, and class shape art practices. She retells a moment of privilege dreaming freely before “coming face to face with the politics of property, not only who owns and controls the space, but the relationship between power and cultural production.”1
In short, hooks is pointing out that power and ownership dictate the public art we see. Those who have power and possess a large financial stake are the ones who typically determine what public art we get to see. Further, a community’s right to represent itself is constrained by a bottom-line-focused perspective of influence.
It is because of these imbalances of representation and support across authorship, economy, and coverage that we find ourselves in such divergent worlds—the mainstream, backed by corporate funding and private dollars. And on the other side, creative voices representing multidimensional lived experiences that are often pushed to the margins. Laid bare is the question that the public should never have to ask: Why is this here?
In neighborhoods experiencing new interest from developers, we often see public art used to aesthetically appease Black and Brown communities as plans to restructure them are being initiated. Often, these large-scale, site-specific works disrupt social microcosms and attract the attention of spectators; at times, they welcome over-policing. And there is a lack of programmatic infrastructure to empower the public to effectively engage before decisions with larger cultural impact are made.
With that, we have to examine how to create better pathways to and platforms for a curatorial process led by an informed public, grounded in research. To accomplish this, in each city, we have a responsibility to thoroughly search for and secure appropriate, contextually relevant artistry that reflects the heart of the community.
When citizens are marginalized by uninformed, city-sanctioned art initiatives, we alienate those who hold relationships that span the entire community’s landscape. The unfortunate result is essential perspectives, seasoned narratives, and histories are cast aside.
What a Democratic Design Process Looks Like
It is no secret that these days we face major challenges—wealth inequality, structural racism, health disparities, and a global climate emergency among them. We need artists to be freed to speak directly to our times and these issues. Never has our cultural dependence on artists—of every level, to make and present their work in a public, accessible setting—been more obvious.
The architectural and public infrastructure we see around us deeply reflects a history of political priorities that have excluded the working class and communities of color for centuries, especially in decision-making processes.
If we briefly examine this dynamic, we recognize a range of artistic integrations as a negotiation of space and resources. Take the conceptual artist Mel Chin’s work, for example. His sociopolitical commentary presents a greater sense of awareness in the built environment, founded in deep research. Chin’s ongoing project, Operation Paydirt, invites children and their communities to imagine, express, and actualize an equitable future.
While visiting New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the artist learned of an unseen disaster. Lead contamination has plagued citizens not only in NOLA but also in other parts of the country for decades. A powerful activation within Operation Paydirt is the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, a campaign to advance public education and community engagement through the creation and collection of Fundreds—original, hand-drawn interpretations of $100 bills that represent the tangible voices of millions speaking to those with the power to end this national problem. The Fundred project, born in the urban landscape, has successfully traveled from academic institutions to museums to the policy sector.
Public art must be addressed with an intention for community. Or, as hooks might say, it must be “spirited in the groundwork of an interaction based on mutual respect and reciprocity”2
To authentically execute this intention, we need proper mechanisms to listen to and include people of all identities and abilities in the process of creating spaces that represent the full vision of the community. There is a clear responsibility of public art to serve as a reflection of its neighborhoods and people while looking forward. This is a particularly special opportunity to reshape and reimagine spaces for the future that releases the bounds of how we’ve been defined in the past.
We founded Openbox on listening, believing that if communities have an active voice in shaping development projects, we all benefit from their outcomes. The failure of design is when we don’t listen and make assumptions, to check boxes instead of building insight. We have to start with learning who we are truly working for and how we’ll collectively move toward a product for everyone. And with gentrification comes a shifting of community identities that potentially widens the gap of whose voices are being heard. So the belief that building “for” communities and thinking they’ll come is outdated; we build with them because they are already and have always been there.
Resourcing a Public Art that Centers Community
A vision for broader, successful public art involves an inherent agility and resilience built into its infrastructure. From the pandemic, we see magnified examples of how the arts are disproportionately vulnerable and affected. In December, Creative Capital shared a survey by Americans for the Arts that showed “95 percent reported a loss of income from their practices, while nearly 62 percent said they had become fully unemployed because of the pandemic.” The focus has been on artists trying to survive through financial barriers.
This aspect of survival reveals a constant challenge of sustainability in the span of an artist’s career. The public arts tend to gravitate toward the vibrant newcomer or those with an established presence. This creates the “almost/always” phenomenon, where artists struggle to maintain momentum after initial praise and support, then subsequently, can remain stagnant for the rest of their careers. Organizations like Creative Capital become even important in this instance, in that they can provide the support system to sustain and grow the career of artists at all levels.
However, inequities are still widening and becoming more complex than a sheer loss of funding or career momentum. The commoditizing and commercialization of the Black lived experience challenges the intentions behind how Black art is portrayed and represented.
Equity, thus, takes the form of a financial mechanism with an overshadowing power that serves only the best interests of its funding sources. It is now especially important that we examine how artists of color maintain their agility, authenticity, and independence in the wake of extreme uncertainty and rapidly changing economic conditions.
In other words, there is a creative culture and style in need of preservation without risking the purity of the artist’s voice. I recall the time-based works of Arthur Jafa, works that often meticulously confront the deeply subversive—we see a new language forming to reach Black and Brown audiences (first) specifically. His work challenges notions of all things not visible to the naked eye and the cultural drivers that society has yet to acknowledge. Juxtaposing Jafa’s work against the city, where urban development is always evolving and shifting, we can appreciate how art catalogues time periods and attitudes. As a canonical documentation and ability to bridge the past, present, and future, public art shows us that what is contemporary will become classic.
Frankly, this is a city-based solution of intentionally funding the stewardship of the public art process. At the intersection of public art and policy, there is tangible progress through the financial support of a formalized department of city government that can focus on building the arts and creative, cultural affairs. Resources are needed, of course, at the national level; Congress has already allocated $15 billion in emergency funding for museums, theaters, and other performing arts spaces. But the issue is not just about dollars and cents, but about how they are spent. Long-term, particularly within the public sector, what we need is sustainable, consistent multimillion-dollar movement per city and community that provides holistic support and frees the public to participate in the design process. Neighborhoods, organizations, artists, and residents of color need to be supported with a clear strategy for providing housing and studio space, as important pathways to an equitable public artistry.
Resuscitating the Nation’s Creative Edge
For many BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] artists, the fight for support of an authentic expression is one that remains founded in contemporary modes of representation—cultivating Black art for the sake of diversity. Even our most accessible art forms have been undermined by conformity, commercialization, and programmed convenience.
It is evident that the US is empathetically out of shape. We have come to a place of muscle fatigue and essentially failure, where our only choice to rebuild our creative edge is through a cultural heart transplant to revive our ingenuity—the evidence of our existence. The design work within a neighborhood is fueled by the contextual voices within it; this storytelling approach should feed into the design process of new spaces. Ultimately, public art is important not just in an economic sense but as an added strength and stamina to support the diverse fabric and preservation of cities.