Saturday, December 17, 2011

Feel-Good Holiday Post: Food and Art as Uniting Forces

Michael Rakowitz, Enemy Kitchen, Hudson Guild Community Center, 2006. Image via More Art
Now I don't want to go all "kumbaya" on you, but I would like my last post of 2011 to end on a high note. It's the holidays, everyone's frazzled, needs to get in the spirit, remember what is really important, yadda yadda yadda. But seriously, with all the crazy divisive political rhetoric that has gone on this year (and that will continue next year, no doubt) I think it's a good time to look at some uniting factors. In the past I've talked about how art connects us to our ancestors thousands of years ago, but how can we connect to people today who are different than ourselves today? Well, no matter what side of the aisle you sit on, or vote on, no matter who you worship, no matter what country to pledge your've got to eat. Read on for some musings on the power of art and food to connect across differences.


Uniting across nations...and across the aisle
    Recently I heard an interview with food personality Anthony Bourdain in which he talked at length about the power of food to cross potentially volatile cultural and political boundaries.* As you may know, Bourdain is a sort mouthy but charming chef and food writer who travels the world sampling local cuisine for his TV show. Often his experiences with food serve as a window into the broader culture of a place, from Saudia Arabia to New Jersey to Iceland to the American South. Needless to say he has feasted at the tables of all sorts of people.
     In this interview, Bourdain commented that breaking bread with people who operate in totally different value systems (and ones that most Americans might find offensive or suspect) is actually a great exercise in unity, as it forces you to put politics aside and think "hey, if these folks are behind this delicious food and tremendous hospitality we must have something in common, no matter what they believe." Bourdain thought that this line of thinking should be applied not just in other countries but within the United States as a way to unite red and blue-staters during this especially divisive political time.

Cooking in the Enemy Kitchen
     I thought back to that interview when I came across several articles about the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. Rakowitz has been getting a good deal of press in the last week or so, since the official end of the Iraq war. His projects are participatory works that use food in much the way Bourdain describes. But in Rakowitz's work the food isn't just a vehicle for cultural understanding but also a jumping off point for cross-cultural dialogue.
     For his ongoing piece Enemy Kitchen, Rakowitz cooks Iraqi food for different groups of people while asking his guests questions about the Iraq war and America's relationship with Iraq. Enemy Kitchen is meant to create a safe space where participants can discuss their feelings about the Iraq war, and, more broadly, American and Iraqi cultural differences. Many participants don't know much about Iraqi culture due to its relative in America - which makes food a good entry point for the topic. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Rakowitz's practice operates on the idea that "food creates a 'social platform and circumstance' that can stimulate a 'cultural puncture' among distinct geographical, political and psychological realms."

Food as "cultural puncture"
     To me, Rakowitz's concept of "cultural puncture" as an entry point to empathy with another culture, is quite similar to Bourdain's idea that food and hospitality are an equalizing force across difference. Of course, we aren't all as lucky as Bourdain who could plausibly go to Iraq and enjoy Iraqi hospitality and a home-cooked meal. It's almost as though Rakowitz understands this and has created that opportunity for us regular-folk in the United States. Not all of his projects take place in strictly art institutions either- in 2006 he conducted an Enemy Kitchen at the Hudson Guild Community Center in Manhattan with a group twelve-year-olds.
     You can read more into Rakowitz's creative process, the philosophy behind Enemy Kitchen, and reactions from participants in the SF Chronicle piece and on the the Smart Museum of Art's Feast blogFeast also details the next installation of Enemy Kitchen: a collaborative food truck staffed by Iraq War veterans and chefs from Chicago's Iraqi community.

Art and food are two things that are hugely important to me (obviously!) so I thought this was a great place to end 2011. Not only is Rakowitz's work an example of the uniting power of food and art, it's also, for me, a reminder of why we advocate for art in the first place. Increased funding for artists and arts organizations means creative artistic minds such as his will continue to make moving and important works of art - ones that are beautiful, but also ones that might open minds. In fact, an Enemy Kitchen-style artwork could be a great way to encourage cultural understanding here at home in the current politically divisive climate. Any takers?

Thanks to all my readers this year. Happy Holidays and best wishes for a fruitful, artful, and peaceful New Year. I'll see you in 2012!

*If you are interested, the interview was from Marc Maron's podcast. Warning: profanity ahead!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Art at Recess: Better than Nothing, or Dangerous Precedent?

Recess at School No. 74
Recess at School No. 74, Baltimore, MD, 1969. Image via University of Baltimore Flickr(I liked this picture because it's much what my recesses looked like: no monkeybars or swings, just concrete!)

Do you remember recess when you were a kid? (I suppose if you're currently an elementary school teacher the memory might not be so distant.) Though I've never been of the athletic persuasion I remember feeling as though recess was sacred - even if it was spent inside due to rain or bad weather. But according to this New York Times article, some NYC schools are squeezing "enrichment" subjects (i.e., the arts) and extracurricular activities into recess time in order to make the most of the school day. I am quite obviously a big fan of the arts, but I can't imagine I would have taken kindly to any proposal that diminished an already short and sweet recess time. (Of course, I went to elementary school in the '90s, before No Child Left Behind and the ubiquity of standardized testing. Perhaps kids today are more used to it?) So what does this mean for the arts? Read on to find out Art Advocado's take.

On the plus side...
     First, let's look at the pros. Though it's unclear in the article whether recess arts time is the only arts education these students get in school, it is implied. So it's easy to think- better than nothing, right? And it's true. Some art education IS better than nothing. A recess art class or violin lesson could spark a passion that becomes a career in years to come- or at least give students an opportunity to use their brains in a different way and develop some critical thinking skills. And there are school districts where arts have been cut dramatically or totally for budgetary reasons, or for time constraints in the face of standardized tests. If recess arts are a value-added program - providing art education in schools where there previously was none - than such the better!
     Principals at schools with recess programming also emphasized student, rather than parent, choice, ensuring kids get to spend their recess time participating in an extra activity that really strikes their fancy, rather than what their mom or dad might think is best. I think this is hugely important too. To take recess away kids need to be willing, or an art class might suddenly seem like a punishment. And students interviewed for the article seemed very pleased with their participation in the programs too. Nine-year-old Elizabeth Katanov, who uses recess time to work on her computer skills, says giving up recess time is “definitely worth it.”

Are the arts just "hobby-type stuff"?
     Although art during recess might certainly be better than the alternative of no art, it does present some problems. Before I launch into the downsides of art during recess, I will say that I realize my objections are somewhat philosophical and don't always address the realities of running an elementary school, balancing the demands of parents, school boards, and standardized tests. But I think they are still worth mentioning.
     One Manhattan parent describes the recess enrichment/club time at his first-grader's school as “hobby-type stuff geared toward introducing kids to different things.” Here's where I wonder if recess arts could potentially be detrimental to the cause of art education in the long run. The phrase "hobby-type stuff" sounds innocuous and is, I'm sure, not meant to demean. But it does put art education - which should be a part of every curriculum, if you ask me - in the same category of, say, the movie club, which no one would deem necessary for a comprehensive education.
     There's also a downside to having students opt-in. For every student that seeks out the arts there might be some that stumble upon it and fall in love with it. In an opt-in system, those students may be less likely to find their way. And if you're reading this blog I probably don't have to rehash the importance of arts education on critical thinking and problem solving skills (just in case- my past posts on the subject can be found here). Though reaching some students is better than nothing, many students will remain deprived of an opportunity to develop these skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
     My final issue is with the framing of the New York Times' story. The headline implies that the recess arts/recess enrichments trend is going on at some of the more successful schools in the city. Though it's unclear if the programs are value-added or if they are replacing larger art programs, what if another school district imitates this idea as a money-saving technique and does implement it to replace a more comprehensive art education program? Perhaps it's far fetched but stranger things have happened.

     I don't want to end on such a Debbie Downer note, and in the end I think any arts in schools is, as Martha Stewart would say, "a good thing." And the problems that art-at-recess programs seek to address aren't going away. Short of bigger reforms that gets more art teachers in the schools or adds more hours to the school day (or both), I don't have a better solution. Teachers (and students!), what do you think? 

*On a programming note, from now on I will be posting closer to bi-weekly rather than every week (on account of that pesky day job). See you in two weeks for my last post of 2011!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On the Role of Humor in Advocacy

Image from Detroit's College for Creative Studies Ad Campaign. via Facebook

"Doodling is a gateway drug to illustration." "One in five teenagers will experiment with art." This catchy and hilarious ad campaign that apes teen PSA tropes has been making the social media rounds over the last couple of days. Though it's an ad for Detroit's College of Creative Studies, a post from the Philbrook Museum of Art's Facebook page is really what helped the campaign go viral. (Please check out the full ad there- it's really hysterical.) As of this morning, the original post by the Philbrook has been shared over 13,000 times and has over 12,000 likes- making it Facebook's most engaged museum for the day it was posted. Though the social media trajectory is fascinating, I'm interested in how this campaign can help inform our arts advocacy tactics.

Engaging, funny...and true
     Though it's an advertisement, not an advocacy program, the wild success and strong resonance of the "One in Five Teenagers" campaign got me thinking about the role of humor in advocacy. Is humor a strategy we can use to get our message across effectively? The CCS ads are engaging and funny. (I think Don Draper would approve.) What makes them especially great is the element of truth - if you check out the original post on the Philbrook's facebook page, many artists and art teachers are chiming in with comments about how they are indeed addicted to art (or in recovery). I also noticed art teachers clamoring for copies of the ads for their art rooms. (FYI, if you are interested in getting one yourself go to the College of Creative Studies- not sure they have them, but they would be the ones to ask.)

Good for arts addicts- and arts skeptics?
     Obviously this campaign resonates with the proverbial choir who are already art addicts. And I doubt that even something this clever and funny could reach the naysayers - it takes more than that, of course. But the campaign certainly sticks with you, and even if you aren't an art addict you've got to admit it's pretty darn funny. I think humor has the ability not just to draw attention to your product (or in this case, cause), but also humanize it and give it personality. It also shows that you don't take yourself TOO seriously. 

Let's Go Viral
     Americans for the Arts has used humor in their "Arts: Ask For More" campaign by creating arts mascots that parody branding of popular products (think "Raisin Brahms" and "Elizabeth Barrett Brownlees"). Can arts advocates make a funny viral video campaign? Something similarly catchy and thought provoking that really makes you think about arts support? It's a tall order but I bet someone out there is up for the job. After all, I the arts advocacy community has some of the best creative minds out there - I'm looking at you, artists and art teachers! Any ideas? 

If we're successful enough maybe we can get the next generation saying "I learned it by watching you" about arts advocacy! (Maybe I just wanted an excuse to include one of the most parodied PSAs of all time.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Art Advocado's Pre-Thanksgiving Art Education Roundup

Turkey on the Road
Turkey on the Road by flicker user tomswift46.
(It's almost Thanksgiving, guy...might want to put a little spring in your step.)
I've blabbed before about my Google Reader and Google Alert addictions. As my day job has ramped up I don't have time to cull through the dozens of articles constantly being sent my way by these services- and I'm always afraid a terrific story might fall through the cracks. So what does that mean? Time for me to slog through the backlog, pick out the best news, and put it all together for...the Art Advocado pre-Thanksgiving Art Ed Links Roundup! Read on to find out about art on the back of your car, Magritte meets the iPad, a 24-hour draw-a-thon, art education in Egypt, and one lucky teacher who hit the jackpot for her art room.

Art teachers (and their students!) in the news
  • Art ed advocacy, Egypt-style: from Almasry Alyoum, an interesting perspective on art education in Egypt. The piece speaks to several art teachers in Egypt as well as a social psychologist who emphasizes how art can boost confidence and help children express themselves.
  • Bearden, Tennessee high school student may get some major visibility for her artwork, in her state and beyond. Sixteen year old Sarah Byrd entered a competition to design Tennessee's "Support the Arts" license plate, and her design has made it to the top ten. The other nine finalists are all professional artists at least a decade her senior. If Byrd wins, she'll have her art teacher to thank (at least in part) - she entered the competition for an assignment in her art class. You can vote for Sarah's design at through November 23.
  • In New Orleans, art teacher Susan Gisleson is organizing her sixth annual 24 hour Draw-a-thon, which will take place this coming Saturday, November 19. Some participants drop in while others, like Gisleson, embrace the challenge of a full day coffee-fueled day spent drawing. Last year's draw-a-thon hosted over 800 participants at all skill levels. Gisleson told The Times-Picayune, “A lot of people have hang-ups about drawing. They think they can’t do it. At the Draw-a-thon, we tell everyone: If you can write your name, you can draw. ”
  • Meet Canada's Art Teacher of the Year, as deemed by the Canadian Society for Education through Art: Bonny Hill of Sussex, New Brunswick. The secret to success in her 25-year career as an art teacher? Hard work ("I'm barely at home") and allowing students to explore the media of their choice - whether it's painting or computer graphics. She's humble, too. "These things are so random...I can think of lots of people I should be nominating who are amazing teachers." Congratulations Bonny!
  • Lucky! Florida art teacher Jill Hallauer hit the jackpot, bigtime. Her art room will undergo a $25,000 makeover from HGTV design program Home by NovogratzHallauer and her principal, Judy Cosh, admit they are extremely lucky, but hope the end result will inspire other teachers to make creative changes to their own classroom. Students are psyched too. Nine-year-old Josefa Torres said she's glad her art room is getting the makeover because "It's the most best thing in the whole world." Spoken like a budding arts advocate!

iArt on an iPad: Technology in Art Class

I'm always looking for new stories for roundups and for posts, so if you've got something let me know! You can post a comment here, email me at, or get me on Davis Publications' Twitter page. (I don't have to tell you to follow Davis on Twitter because you already are. Right? RIGHT?)

On a programming note there won't be a new Art Advocado post next week. I'll be giving thanks for my readers and for the art educators and advocates everywhere. And, of course, for mashed potatoes.  Thanks for reading and see you in December!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Beyond Preaching to the Choir: How Can We Convince the Naysayers?

Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Red Rocks.
The proverbial choir (Actually, it's the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). CC image via Flickr user tracy out west
This week I want to talk about the power of the arts- and how we, as arts advocates, convey this power. Since I started writing this blog in April I've tried to touch on the myriad arguments we use to advocate for the arts, from the instrumental (job creation, economic driver, creative workforce driver) to the intrinsic (an artwork that gives you the chills or makes you laugh or cry or think).  But preaching to the choir is an easy trap to fall into as an arts advocate. It’s hard to know how all these arguments sound on the receiving when so frequently the only response we get is not “that’s not true” but rather “there’s not enough money.” Read on to find out what some advocates are saying about how to go beyond the proverbial choir to convey effective messages about the power of the arts. 

What works?
     Here’s an example of the kind of unconstructive negative feedback I’m describing: the director of the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, KS, recently wrote an eloquent op-ed in favor of public funding for the arts, in response to the demise of the arts commission in her state (read my coverage of that event here). Most of the negative comments on piece amount to “that’s all well and good but we don’t have the public money” or, more simply, “then you write the check.”
     Aside from the fact that these public funding antagonists aren’t up on the issues (lest we not forget that the shuttering of the arts commission in Kansas actually cost the state $1.3 million in matching funds—more than the budget of the entire arts commission itself), what kind of message will reach these folks? It may be unrealistic to reach the real antagonists, but the “on-the-fencers” may be a group we can convince – with help from the right messages.

With apologies to McLuhan, the ripple effect is the message
    That’s where this terrific piece from Santa Cruz's Museum of Art & History director and participatory guru Nina Simon comes in. In a recent blog post, Nina highlighted the relevant points from a report conducted (pdf, 10MB) by Cincinnati-based group ArtsWave. The report studies just what I’m talking about above- how do our messages sound to those who haven’t drunk the arts Kool-Aid? ArtsWave surveyed Cincinnati-ans who are not part of the proverbial "choir" and found that what doesn’t work are the arguments about health benefits, stress reduction, civic boosterism/local pride. In other words, the arguments that often fall into the "intrinsic" category.
     So if those arguments aren’t effective, which ones are? ArtsWave found the effective arguments involved an "arts ripple effect:"

The arts ripple effect creates at least two kinds of benefits:
1. A vibrant, thriving economy: Neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists and residents are attracted to the area, etc.

2. A more connected population: Diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better, etc.

     Simon’s piece focuses on advocating for specific institutions (as director of the Museum of Art and History, this perspective is obviously important to her.) But I think the arguments she presents apply to the arts as a whole, beyond the institutional level. And I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but the effective arguments highlighted in the report – thriving economies, thriving communities – are exactly what ArtPlace is striving for.
     The arts community is not as divided as maybe some other advocacy communities are (though I’m sure hair splitting goes on somewhere). But it’s still great to see a consensus around efficacy of both arts messaging and arts initiatives. In other words, look at what the arts can do - and in ArtPlace's case, they are doing it here, here, and here!
     This feeds even more into ArtPlace director Carol Coletta’s argument that I mentioned last week - the more effective ArtPlace (and other arts ripple effect programs) are, the more likely it is that we can get more funding for arts and culture- whether public or private.

Simon also notes that what works to advocate for the arts in Cincinnati or Santa Cruz may not work somewhere else. What have you found is an effective arts advocacy in your community?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why ArtPlace Matters: One Consortium, Three Takeaways, Millions of Dollars

Screengrab from
Well, October has come and gone- and aside from a freak snowstorm for the northeast and a bumper crop of sale Halloween candy, that means the end of Art Advocado's month-long series on creative placemaking consortium ArtPlace. We looked at the urban and the rural, from Detroit to South Dakota to New York City. There are so many terrifically diverse ArtPlace projects, I wish we could have explored more - from the public-art based projects in Indianapolis and Wilson, NC to artist housing in Hawaii, to the entire category of projects that ArtPlace calls "magic moments." Perhaps these will resurface down the road. But since hindsight is 20/20, let's wrap up with a few points that demonstrate why ArtPlace has such strong potential for effective change in such diverse circumstances. Read on for three takeaways from ArtPlace director Carol Coletta.

Takeaway one: Partnerships beget partnerships, or 1+1=3
      In this PhilanTopic interview, Coletta notes that not only is ArtPlace a partnership, but that they look to fund pre-existing partnerships and collaborations to maximize return on investment. "We're looking for places where there are...real partnerships among artists and other organizations. So when you look at the outcomes, you can imagine one plus one equaling three." Or how about a 24x return on investment? ArtPlace provided NYC's PS109, which I wrote about last week, with $1 million in funding. That sounds like quite a bundle, right? Not compared to the $24 million in tax credits that PS109 received from New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. I noted this huge amount last week, but according to the Artspace, the developer behind PS109, it's unlikely they would have received this amount without ArtPlace's backing. (Note: Thanks to Ian David Moss at Createquity for linking to the PhilanTopic interview and for noting the massive return on investment at PS109.)
      Not only does this example already speak to the huge potential for success in ArtPlace's model but it also confirms an argument arts advocates have long made in favor of government arts funding- it's so highly leveraged because of matching grants that the return on investment is astronomical. For example, according to Americans for the Arts, NEA dollars leverage, on average, at least seven dollars for every dollar in a grant - a terrific return on investment for federal money.

Takeaway two: ArtPlace strives to be essential to its communities
      "I think what makes creative placemaking and ArtPlace so important is that it's not an add-on. It's not a nice to-do. It really becomes an essential part of a community's economic success." Here's another quote from Coletta that speaks to why ArtPlace is unusually exciting in the realm of arts funding and economic development. Like STEAM, ArtPlace is not a well intended, nice initiative that might help create a few jobs here or there, or bring a few more dollars to a severely impoverished community. Because it leverages funds and reinforces pre-existing projects to maximize impact, and because it is based on proven economic methods (Coletta is the former director of CEOs for Cities- she knows her stuff) there is real potential for change. Considering their funding as essential to a community is not just a financial investment but a commitment to success as well.

Takeaway three: ArtPlace could be a boon to arts and cultural funding
     Finally, Coletta also told PhilanTopic that if ArtPlace is widely successful it could help encourage more funding of arts and culture across the board.  "We believe that if we can demonstrate that investing in the arts in this way actually does contribute to vibrancy and to changing the trajectory of a place, that will result in a whole lot more money for arts and culture." Of course it's too early to tell, but PS109's early success bodes well for ArtPlace's ability to generate more dollars, and more culture, in its grantee communities. The idea that it could attract more arts funding too is an exciting bonus!

All of this is a long way of stating the obvious - I believe in ArtPlace's potential to change places for the better, and I can't wait to see what they can accomplish down the line, in New York, Detroit, South Dakota, and beyond!

For further reading check out the terrific PhilanTopic interview with Coletta as well as her post on the NEA's Art Works blog.

Do you have any further questions about ArtPlace- or projects you'd like to see explored down the road? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

PS109: An ArtPlace for Artspace in New York City

El Barrio's PS 109 Artspace, Harlem, New York, NY. Image via ArtPlace America
In my final piece for my October ArtPlace series I'm talking about two subjects near and dear to my heart - affordable housing for artists and New York City, the place I call home. I wrote my masters' thesis on artist housing programs and how they impact both artists and communities. After spending a good chunk of the last year studying these programs and interviewing planners and participants in affordable housing for artists, I'm quite passionate about the subject. So I was very pleased to see that several of ArtPlace's funded projects - including ArtPlace's only Manhattan-based project - are affordable artist housing developments. But why New York City? Read on to find out the benefits - for artists and community - of affordable live/work space for artists, in NYC and everywhere.

Artspace + ArtPlace = artists' space
    The PS 109 Artspace, located in Harlem, is being implemented by Artspace (not to be confused with ArtPlace!), a non-profit artist housing developer with extensive experience creating affordable live-work spaces in such varied locations as Houston, Reno, and  Brainerd, Minnesota (a town that fans of the movie Fargo will recognize). Though projects vary based on local resources and needs (it's all about the local, you know!), generally each development works from the adaptive reuse model - taking unused available buildings and turning them into affordable live/work spaces for artists (meaning apartments with extra room for studio space). The projects are funded through tax credits, especially Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and Historic Preservation Tax Credits. (PS 109 is receiving both of these credits, which will generate nearly half the cost of the project's development.)
     So what do artists get- and what does the community get? When complete, PS 109 will consist of 90 affordable live/work spaces for New York City artists and their families. In addition, most Artspace projects include community space for outside programming and arts organizations; PS 109 is no exception, as it will provide 10,000 square feet of space for arts organizations. That's a big number in New York City, the land of the Murphy Bed. So PS 109 won't just help individual artists who live there, but outside artists and organizations in need of programming space. It will also provide the community with a local hub for for art activity. A key component for the success of artist housing developments is integration into the neighborhood through programming, so this inclusion bodes well for PS109.

Does the land of the $10 sandwich need arts-based economic development?
     One notable difference between PS 109 and the other ArtPlace grants I have written about is it's location in New York City. It's already a notable cultural hub - perhaps even the cultural capital of the US. And New York, at least in the last couple decades, is known for a robust economy (at least compared to other areas of the country). This stands in stark contrast to Detroit and South Dakota, my previous two ArtPlace subjects, as well as many of the other ArtPlace locations. If anything, New York has a reputation for taking advantage of art as an economic developer in the past few decades, from the organic gentrification of SoHo and Williamsburg to the 2005 public art installation The Gates. (In fact, New York was the home of the first affordable artists' housing development, Westbeth Artist Housing. It's still alive and kicking today, and still the world's largest, housing nearly five hundred people. I was lucky enough to visit and interview several residents for my thesis.)
     Despite this, New York's arts community can stand to benefit from PS109. If you've been to New York you know that it can be astonishingly expensive. A sandwich? Upwards of $10. A cocktail? $12+. Rent? You don't wanna know. And for artists to create art, especially visual artists, dedicated space is important. That space is pretty hard to come by at an affordable price these days. So while many artist housing programs with economic development goals might focus on attracting artists to an area, New York's goal is to retain them by helping them afford the city's notoriously high rents. By helping keep a creative core in New York City, and specifically Manhattan, the city is at less risk for becoming a cultural playland available only to those who can afford high rents and ticket prices ($25 to get in the door at MoMA!).
     Keeping artists in Manhattan can help bolster the careers of artists, too. Much of my thesis research focused on interviewing artists residing in affordable live work spaces, and the ones who lived at Westbeth were particularly appreciative. It helps keep the artists closer to the collectors, allowing them to host open houses or showings at a convenient location. Those collectors might be less likely to trek to a studio in an outer borough. It's also worth noting that Westbeth has closed their wait list, as it is over ten years long. So there is clearly a demand for this kind of property in Manhattan.
    Plus, an added bonus of PS109 is that construction on the building will create jobs. New York might not be Detroit, but there are still plenty of unemployed folks in need of work. A win-win!

Are there affordable live/work spaces for artists in your city or town? Maybe you even live in one! Tell me about it in the comments.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Creative Placemaking, South Dakota Style: The Red Cloud Indian School

Storm clouds, Pine Ridge, SD
Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Image by Flickr user kerry1962
To some art advocates or culture vultures, the idea of creative placemaking in post-industrial areas might seem practically cliche. After all, we've seen it happen before. It happened organically in New York City's SoHo in the 1960s and 70s, when artists moved into old factory spaces and galleries followed; now it's one of the most expensive zip codes in the country. In Bilbao, Spain, a new Guggenheim Museum helped turn a former industrial backwater into an international tourist destination. But not every place has a gritty industrial past that can be flipped into artistic cache. How does economic development through the arts occur in rural areas? Read on to find out about the economic and cultural impact of ArtPlace grantee Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

A direct boost to the nation's second poorest county
     Last week I wrote about ArtPlace's creative placemaking in Detroit, which carries quite a reputation for weathering economic depression. But Shannon County, South Dakota, home of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is the second poorest county in the United States. Per capita income in Shannon County is $6,286. For some perspective, Detroit's per capita income is $14,118 - over double Shannon County's. (A little side note: in researching this post I learned that eight of the ten poorest counties in the US are located on Indian Reservations. What a sobering statistic. But that's a tale for an economic advocacy blogger to tackle.)
     Despite these startling statistics, Red Cloud Indian School has been a ray of light in the county hub of Pine Ridge for the past thirty years. The gift shop at the school's museum  provides a direct boost to the area's economy by purchasing traditional Lakota artwork and crafts from local artists and artisans for sale to museum visitors. In the years since the shop opened, it has paid up to $100,000 per year to local artists. That might not sound like much, but it's a lot of money in an area where per capita income is under $7K, and where population is sparse in general - about 13,500 people reside in Shannon County.

Taking Lakota craft from local to national
     In the past, the Red Cloud gift shop has depended on tourist traffic as a market for the local crafts. (Though this is not noted by ArtPlace, Wounded Knee Battlefield, home of the famously brutal 1890 massacre, is located in Shannon County.) Now, funding from ArtPlace will help Red Cloud widen their scope by selling Lakota craftwork online. A marketing campaign is also underway to help broaden awareness of the shop. This is particularly important, ArtPlace notes, because of the wide interest in American Indian craft that can be found in all corners of the nation. Many enthusiasts may not be able to make it to remote Shannon County, but now the crafts can come to them - and they can help support the economy of an area that desperately needs it. Of course, aside from the economic part, this project is a great way to keep traditional Lakota craft alive, in South Dakota and out! (I hope these beaded Keds go up for sale soon - I'd love to snag a pair.)
     The Pine Ridge project stands in stark contrast to the kind of economic development ArtPlace is funding in Detroit. I think that difference really speaks to the localized strategy ArtPlace is employing as a funder. Their approach is the opposite of one size fits all, and that's especially obvious when you compare rural Shannon County to urban Detroit. Hopefully both projects will find the same success in kick-starting local economies through the arts! So far, they are off to a great start.

What do you think about art's potential to kick-start rural economies? Is it a real solution, or pie-in-the-sky? Let us know in the comments!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"A Place Where Things Are Made" - Art, Innovation, and Possibility in Detroit

detroit, mi
The Heidelberg Project, Detroit, MI. Image by Flickr user Heather Phillips

At this point it's practically cliche to note how hard the recession hit post-industrial America, and Detroit is the poster child for this particular type of economic decline. It's hard to look (and to look away) from some of the poetically beautiful images of decay that have been documented in this once bustling city. One of my favorite comedians, Eugene Mirman, has even joked that bears will be the ones to gentrify Detroit. But it's not all doom and gloom in the Motor City. New initiatives utilizing the arts to revitalize the city are gaining traction, especially thanks to funding from creative placemaking consortium ArtPlace (our theme for the month of October). ArtPlace believes so strongly in the potential of art to revitalize Detroit that the city was the only funded location that received three grants from the consortium, totalling over $1 million. Read on to find out the who, why and how of ArtPlace in Detroit.

"A major force of positive change"
     All three ArtPlace grants in Detroit are centered in one area, the Sugar Hill Arts District in the neighborhood of Midtown. One of ArtPlace's objectives is to fund projects that already enjoy local support and funding, rather than building from the ground up, and the Sugar Hill projects are no exception. One of the grantees, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), has been a presence, even an anchor, in the Arts District for the last five years.
     According to their ArtPlace page, "[MOCAD's] entire facility exists as much more than a mere building...we aim to empower the community by connecting them to the best of national and international art and by presenting a broad and eclectic selection of public programs." It goes on to say that this ArtPlace funding "will not only benefit the city but will contribute to its growing visibility as a place where art lives and is a major force of positive change."
     ArtSpace is also investing in projects in Sugar Hill that are still in the developing stages. Nonprofit planning and developing company Midtown Detroit earned a grant to purchase and renovate a 1915 Late Gothic Revival church located in the boundaries of the Arts District. Though it's not entirely clear how the space will be used (a feasibility study and more information are on the way), there is interest in creating a music venue--a perfect compliment to MOCAD and a terrific way to hearken back to the neighborhood's artistic roots as a jazz hotspot through the 1960s.

"This is about the intersection of art in the real world, people’s real lives. And I don’t think you can talk about renewal in Detroit without talking about Woodward Avenue [the main thoroughfare of the Arts District], and I don’t think you can talk about Woodward Avenue without talking about the arts." 
      Rocco Landesman, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts

Fostering Innovation at the FAB Lab
     The above projects are exciting, and it's easy to envision how they will help revitalize this area, as cultural organizations have done everywhere from Milwaukee to Bilbao. But Detroit's most exciting ArtPlace grantee, in my opinion, is the Detroit FAB Lab.
     The FAB Lab, modeled after others that exist in the US and around the world (such Brooklyn's 3rd Ward), will be a community workspace for industrial and traditional arts as well as startup businesses. Artists will have access to technology such as 3-D printers and more traditional artistic amenities. Aside from a place to set up shop, businesses will have access to services any startup would appreciate- coaching, networking, mentoring, and the like. The Lab will also be closely affiliated with TechTown, an already existing entreprenurial community at Wayne State University. This affiliation will provide the FAB Lab with access to the University's resources, physical and otherwise. Bottom line? The Detroit FAB Lab will provide the area with "a cooperative working and social environment that will foster innovation" for both artists and entrepreneurs.

Art and Industry in the Motor City
     The Detroit FAB Lab's team is quick to point out the connection between their own mission and the history of Detroit as "a place where things are made." I think that's why I find this project most exciting - though it is based on the Fab Lab model that exists around the US and the world, this Fab Lab feels very specific to Detroit. The intersection of art and industry is especially key to its local relevance. In Detroit's heyday, art and industry (automobiles) were the city's two major exports. What art, you say? Motown, of course! Back in the day Motown Records was a major economic and cultural force in Detroit. The music may be a popular art form, but Motown's quality and staying power over the decades are inarguable. Hopefully ArtPlace's "all about the local" strategy will ensure that art can be a reinvigorating force in the Motor City in the 21st century, the same way it was for Detroit in the mid-20th century.

Have seen what the arts are doing in Detroit first-hand? Are you a Detroit native with thoughts about how ArtPlace will impact Midtown and the city at large? Tell me all about it in the comments!

PS: For images of hope from Detroit, check out the Can't Forget the Motor City photography project, which was created in response to many outside photographers documenting decline ruin in Detroit. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

ArtPlace: Creative Solutions through Creative Placemaking

ArtPlace grantee Swarm Street by Acconci Studio. Indianapolis, IN. Image via ArtPlace
On September 14, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, Mellon, & other foundations, in conjunction with a host of government agencies and corporate partners, announced a groundbreaking partnership with the aim of "accelerating creative placemaking across the US": ArtPlace. Throughout the month of October I’ll be writing about different projects funded through this new consortium and their potential to revitalize and transform communities through the arts. But first, the basics--what's the deal with ArtPlace? Read on to find out.

All about the local
     According to the consortium's “About Us” page,  ArtPlace believes that art and culture can revitalize cities and towns by "increasing the desire and the economic opportunity for people to thrive in place.” But this isn't a one size fits all, cookie cutter approach. There will be no generic starchitecture anchor institutions or developer-funded imitations of 1970's SoHo--ArtPlace is “all about the local.” According to the New York Times, ArtPlace seeks to fund projects that already have preliminary infrastructure in place as well as strong support in their respective communities. An ArtSpace grant (on average around $350K) is then intended to help build an even more robust program and, hopefully, attract more public and private dollars.
     The annoncement of ArtPlace made waves in the arts community because of the unprecedented collaboration--ten private foundations (Ford, Mellon, Bloomberg, Rockefeller, and other heavy hitters in the philanthropic sphere) and six banks (Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, Citi, Chase, MetLife, and Morgan Stanley) will provide funding and loans. In addition, eight federal partners, from the NEA to Housing and Human Development to Education will provide oversight and leadership support (but no funds). “We felt if we worked together and coordinated our efforts, it would have a multiplier effect,” NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, who spearheaded ArtPlace, told the New York Times.
"In this time of need, the arts can give"
     As I learned in one of my favorite graduate school classes, Public Policy and the Arts, America's idiosyncratic arts funding system is built on the public/private partnership. ArtsPlace fits squarely in that tradition of matching grants, CIGs, and the like. But it's more unusual for foundations to join forces in this way. Why start now? “It seemed too important not to do,” stated Don Michael Randel, president of the Mellon Foundation. Ford Foundation President Luis Ubiñas wrote on the NEA's blog that "The arts can heal, and the arts can build. In this time of need, the arts can give.” Ubinas also told the New York Times that “art is a precondition to success in a world increasingly driven by creativity and innovation.” (Sound familiar? See: STEAM.)
     So, who got the money ($11.5 million in total)? Projects span the breadth of the country, both culturally and geographically- from Massachusetts to Hawaii, from New York City to South Dakota. Projects vary contentwise, too--from Los Angeles’ Watts House Project, an artist-based neighborhood revitalization effort, to a public sculpture park in Wilson, NC, comprised of the whimsical whirligigs of local outsider artist Vollis Simpson.

Maximizing bang for buck - and speed
    Last week, I wrote about the enormous potential of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ART! and Mathematics education) to help America compete in the global economy. But what about the short term? STEAM has more to do with our long-term potential--making sure today and tomorrow's students are prepared to solve problems ten, twenty, and fifty years down the line. Many places can’t wait that long. (Just ask Detroit, home of several ArtPlace grants. More on that next week.)
     ArtPlace's economic development strategies will help provide localized economic development in less time. By investing in creative economy projects, art festivals, and institutions (among many other projects) ArtPlace will help kick-start local economies across the country through the arts. Combining resources across sectors and funding projects that area already underway--not starting from scratch--will help get things going more quickly too.

You can check out all the funded projects--and learn how to apply for the next round of ArtPlace grants, at ArtPlace's website. What do you think of ArtPlace? Any grantees in your community or particular projects you are excited about? Stay tuned for a whole month of ArtPlace at Art Advocado!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

STEAM: A Powerful Agent for Change

Steam by Ronan_C on flickr*

Have you heard of STEM to STEAM? You may have heard the phrase around the web, at conferences, or even on my blog- it's one that comes up relatively frequently in arts ed advocacy circles. What does that mean? Is it a coalition? An organization? A movement? All or none of the above? In this post I’m going to outline what STEAM is and why it is so important to the future success of our nation...and the world.

 How to Succeed in Business? STEAM!
          STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math - subjects that no one will deny are necessary for success in the global economy. For that reason, these subjects also don't have to stand up to the kind of scrutiny arts and humanities do. However, art education advocates have pointed out that STEM education alone won't solve our economic problems going forward. That includes business executive Harvey White, co-founder of Qualcomm, the largest fabless chip supplier in the world. I don’t know what a fabless chip is--perhaps because my education post-2002 has lacked in the STEM department. ;)
     As an innovator and entrepreneur in the technology industry, White obviously knows a thing or two about STEM subjects, and about what it takes to succeed in business. So it's great news that White has come out as a strong advocate for adding an A to STEM, working with Americans for the Arts, the Conference Board, and others to push this message. Last summer I viewed a webinar in which White made a convincing argument for STEAM (read my coverage of that webinar here). White pointed out that countries such as China, recognize the important role of creativity and critical thinking in the innovation process more than we do here in the US of A. He also quoted former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who said our future success will depend on "solving problems that we don't know are problems yet." This combination of technological know-how and critical thinking skills that will help students with a STEAM education succeed in business  in the future - locally and globally. (Read more of White on STEAM at ARTSblog.)

Art and Design for Good
    STEAM was on my mind this week because I kept coming across information about a STEM to STEAM forum in Rhode Island, led by Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda and Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI). The forum also focused on STEAM as a powerful tool for workforce development (in fact, the forum followed a Washington briefing led by Madea and Langevin demonstrating the potential of STEAM). But though workforce dev was the subject at hand, Maeda's perspective on STEAM also added another layer of understanding- the revolutionary power of design.
     As I mentioned in my ARTSblog post about STEAM, engineering is essentially the art of using science and math to creatively solve problems. That's where design comes in. "Art and design are critical components of innovating products that are both effective and appealing to consumers," Langevin said at the STEAM forum. Maeda continued "I believe art and design are poised to change the world now like science and technology did in the last century," said Maeda, citing the iPod as an example.
     Indeed, the iPod (or the iPhone, or the iPad) is a great example of the practical synthesis of art, design, and STEM. But STEAM also has the potential to create change in ways that range beyond providing consumers with attractive products that do everything. I immediately thought of a New Yorker article I read last year about designing innovative stoves that, if widely distrubuted, could change thousands of lives in third world countries. STEAM doesn't just change lives by allowing us to check Facebook while grocery shopping- it could help drive innovations in social change, too.

     Harvey White and John Maeda provide different yet complementary perspectives on the power of STEAM to revolutionize the American workforce of the future--which, in These Difficult Economic Times, is particularly exciting and appealling. I can't resist...STEAM deserves to, ahem, pick up steam in education policy!

What is your experience with STEM to STEAM? Have you seen art integrated into math and science lessons- or vhave you integrated those two subjects into the art room?

*I was really hoping to use J.M.W. Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed for this post- an artwork about modern engineering if there ever was one...and not to mention the literal STEAM connection! Unfortunately the National Gallery in the UK owns the rights and I could not find a free image. But please enjoy that splendid painting here.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Extra! Extra! Art Teacher Advocacy Hits the Local Newspaper

Newsboys in St. Louis, 1910. Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, colorized by Frederic Falcon.
Image via Shorpy. View the non-colorized image here.
Despite that this blog is called "Art Advocacy for Educators," thus far advocating educators haven't gotten much play. We've got advocacy, and we've got art educators, but the twain have not yet met. Perhaps it's somewhat akin to "Rhode Island is neither a road, nor an island. Discuss." (Any mid-1990s SNL fans? Anyone?) Well, this travesty has gone on far too long, and it's ending with today's post. I am finally literally interpreting the mission of Art Advocado! Read on to find out about a music teacher who took to the local 'papes (as the boys above would call it) to advocate on behalf of her program.

It's All About the Students
     Sondra Collins, a music educator in Marion County, Florida, took to the Ocala Star-Banner this past weekend to make a passionate but rational argument for strengthened music education in the county school system. Collins describes how much she loves her job as a music educator. She admits she knows times are tough - and illustrates this through the music educator to student ratios in Marion County schools (one teacher to over a thousand students, in most cases).
     Collins pulls another very effective stat out of her back pocket: most students in Marion County will only receive 9-12 hours of music education in school this year, which is half of what most students in Florida receive. Think about that - nine to twelve hours! For many people that is a single work day. Of course, a little is better than nothing, but I find these numbers quite striking. (And have spent a LOT of time looking at art education and advocacy stats, good and bad.) Not only does this minute amount of time shortchange students, but it also doesn't fulfill the Florida Department of Education Music Sunshine State Standards, which require 18-24 hours of instruction per academic year.
     Collins closes with a proposed temporary solution to the dearth of music ed in Marion County: fill vacant music teacher slotswith full-time substitute teachers, as is the practice for vacancies in other core subjects. (As Collins points out, art and music are core subjects under No Child Left Behind!) This influx of educators will to ensure Marion County students receive the 18-24 hours they deserve- and that the Sunshine State Standards for Music Education require. "The bottom line is that this is not about the music teachers," Collins writes. "We are concerned about the amount of music education that these students will now be receiving."

A Cool Mix of Passion, Ration, and Stats
     In her op-ed, Collins lays out what is, to my mind, a tight argument for the return of music education to Marion County - combining passion and ration with hard numbers and a proposed solution. Her piece could easily be presented to a school board or city council as-is. But it's not just the argument that is strong - it's also the strategy of placing the argument in a local paper, where these hyper-local stats has potential to reach a very relevant audience. Many readers of the Ocala Star-Banner will have a personal investment in Collins' cause as parents of students in Marion County schools. Additionally, parents of adult children who, perhaps, benefitted from more robust music education in earlier years might feel impassioned - and empowered by this information - to take a stand.  Plus, like many of my favorite advocacy strategies, it's replicable! I would love to see more art teacher op-eds in the local 'papes.

Art teachers! Have you advocated on behalf of your art program, in a newspaper or elsewhere? Tell me about it in the comments!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Art Ed Advocates: The Next Generation

14Feb09 ~ Art Supplies
Art Supplies! Image via flickr user Grace Kat.
Happy National Arts in Education Week! According to the NAEA, “Congress designated Arts in Education Week to promote and showcase the immense role arts education has in producing engaged, successful, and college and career-ready students.” Amen to that! There has also been plenty of arts ed-centric celebrating happening on the internet this week--over at ARTSblog, Americans for the Arts is celebrating with an Art Education blog salon on the topic of “Career Development for Students and the Role of Arts Education.“ As I followed along with the salon this week, I was excited to make a connection between the topic and a terrific article about a student in Kentucky working to help art educators in her community. Read on to find out about a remarkable fifteen year old whose accomplishments bode well for the next generation of art advocacy.
The arts are “helpful in any way shape or form”
     The story goes something like this: Virginia Newsome, a fifteen-year-old student at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Lexington, KY, took notice of budget cuts to arts programs at her own school. When challenged to create a community based project for a Youth Leadership conference, she realized that if her school, an arts school, felt the impacts of shrinking budgets on arts funding, arts programs must be suffering even more drastically at traditional schools. Thus, heARTS was born.
     heARTS accepts requests for school supplies (via the organization’s website) from art teachers in Kentucky and beyond. For heARTS’ first supplies collection, Virginia and her volunteers collected 266 markers, 128 glue sticks and 1,200 crayons; teachers can request musical and theater arts supplies as well. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader heARTS is also working on getting in the advocacy game, designating a classmate to create a presentation designed to fight arts cuts at the school board level. "We want to explain how arts can raise test scores, they help discipline issues, help time management," Virginia told the Herald-Leader. "Even if you don't want to go into the arts as a profession, they (the arts) can be helpful, in any way shape or form."

Creativity Begets Creativity
     Since Virginia attends an arts high school, I’d say it’s fair to guess that she has had access to art education throughout her educational career, at least to some extent. Aside from being a proactive go-getter it’s obvious that she knows how to problem solve and think outside the box--two skills that businesses want from new hires (per Newsweek’s now infamous Creativity Crisis story). Indeed, those issues have been coming up again and again over at ARTSblog’s Art Ed blog salon.
     Virginia is a terrific example not only of practical applications of creativity but also of a grassroots advocate. heARTS responds to educators needs by filling their requests directly--an effective way of helping art teachers, well, teach. And there is certainly a demand; Virginia told the Lexington Herald-Leader that she has received requests from as far away as Hawaii and even Africa! (Looks to me like we have a new arts education advocate poster girl.) The heARTS model could also be replicated in other communities, effectively helping art teachers and art students far and wide. Aside from all this, heARTS is just getting started--who knows what great things Virginia and her organization might accomplish in the future!

Have you seen anything like heARTS in your community--and if not, would you want one? (Materials for the Arts here in New York City is like a big free thrift store for artists and arts organizations--not unlike heARTS.) And have you celebrated Arts in Education week? Maybe every week is Arts Ed week for Art Advocado readers....!

P.S. Check out heARTS on Facebook here!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Welcome back! An Art Teacher News Roundup for a New Academic Year

Welcome Back
Mr. Kotter Figure from the Children's Museum, Indianapolis. Image via flickr The Kozy Shack.
Welcome back to school, art teachers! Labor Day has come and gone, and here in New York City it really feels like fall. All around these United States art teachers are improving lives simply by doing their jobs; some are lucky enough to be recognized for their work in local media. So to kick off the 2011 academic year I am rounding up some of this art teacher news from around the web. Read on to have your heart warmed and maybe to find some inspiration for the upcoming school year! (Plus: a bonus retro-riffic video.)
Did you win an award, make the local paper, or have a remarkable story to share? Let the Art Advocado know about it for a future art teacher roundup! Comment on the blog, tweet me @DavisPub, find Davis Publications on Facebook, or email me at

(I can't resist closing with this one)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Positive Possibilities of Public Art: Wapato, WA

Image via (Apoligies--I couldn't find a free image of Wapato's sculptures! Check them out here.)
It’s the Thursday before Labor Day and the first day of September. (Can you believe it? As a major summer lover I am just going to pretend that today is August 32.) Accordingly, I am wrapping up the Art Advocado public art series today. What was planned to be a mini-series turned into more of a maxi-series! I’ve written about many and varied public art projects since I began the series in July. But though the projects may have varied aesthetically, most were urban projects with major dollars behind them, whether public or private. That’s all well and good but many communities simply don’t have that kind of funding available for art—especially in These Difficult Economic Times. So for my final post I’d like to tell you about Wapato, Washington, population 4,997, as a public art success story. Read on to find out how public art has impacted the town of Wapato, Washington—without art stars or big money. 

“It all started with art”
     I learned about Wapato from an article in the most recent NEA Arts Magazine which focuses on rural placemaking through the arts (I recommend checking it out—all of the articles are excellent!) Barbara Peterson, who was working on education outreach in Watapo, felt that the underserved but wonderfully diverse town needed some aesthetic inspiration. “The town didn't have a good sense of self, so I felt it needed public art, student art," she said. "It was a hardworking place and it didn't have beautiful architecture or other lovely things to retreat to.” But Peterson (who was working in Wapato because of it’s lack of services in the first place) also recognized that a large-scale, expensive public art project was not possible. So she turned to one of the town’s natural resources—children. Peterson describes Wapato as having “oceans” of them.
     To realize her vision for Wapato, Peterson sought funding from the Washington State Arts Commission for local children to collaborate with guest artists such as sculptors, bronze casters, and metalworkers; the resulting works were placed all over Wapato. The success of this project spurred Peterson to go even bigger. Inspired by metal cutout sculptures in downtown Seattle (which were affordable, easily maintained, and visually impactful), Peterson again turned to Wapato’s children to create a similar installation for their town. A group of children from each of the town’s local cultures—from the Wapato tribe to different Latino groups—chose imagery to represent their community on a cutout sculpture in downtown Wapato. Festivals, such as the now-annual Tamale Festival, were planned to draw attention to the works. To make a long story short, the presence of the sculpture has both aesthetically and economically improved Wapato by drawing residents downtown and spurring more public art projects. "Many great things are happening in Wapato and it all started with art. That was the spark,” Peterson told the NEA.

Small Town, Big Impact
     To me, the positive possibilities of public art are nowhere more evident than in the story of Wapato. The driving creative force behind the project was local children, not an art world star or even a commissioned artist. I think this local connection makes it the most site-specific work of all. (Take that, Richard Serra!) These sculptures were created by the community, for the community, and the community enjoys them. Every small town in America could emulate this project, and the results would all be different. The fact that Peterson could achieve this in Wapato, a town recognized as chronically underserved, means it could really be achieved anywhere. What a wonderful note to close out the public art series with! Happy Labor Day, everyone.

Does your city or town have a public art project like Wapato’s? What might it look like if it did?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Monumental Significance, Aesthetic Mediocrity? The MLK Jr National Memorial

Martin Luther King Memorial - Washington D.C.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Monument, Washington, DC. Image courtesy of Flickr user ehpien
I know many of you art teachers may be heading back to school, but in my office-y part of the land you can practically hear the tumbleweeds. Things are quiet, everyone’s enjoying the last of their vacation before the inevitable post-labor day rush back to normalcy. But in the public art world you’d never know things are so quiet—as the National Mall has seen (in addition to an earthquake) the unveiling of the first monument to an African American—the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Read on to find out more about the memorial and the place of monuments in the world of public art.

Aesthetics vs. Message
     A huge piece in the monument scene, and the world in general, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Monument will be dedicated on August 28, the 48th anniversary of the I Have a Dream speech. It’s an exciting time--and as many have pointed out, about darn time that one of the most influential, widely venerated leaders in American history gets his own memorial in our Nation's Capital. But while the unveiling of the monument is an event to celebrate without question, some feel that the sculpture itself leaves something to be desired. This duality of sentiment is nicely demonstrated in two New York Times pieces on the monument: “A Dream Fulfilled, Martin Luther King Memorial Opens” versus “A Reflection of Greatness, Blurred.”
     At the Daily Beast, Blake Gopnik has some pointed and well-poised questions about the monument itself—such as, why is a sculpture of a great African American leader essentially pinkish? Gopnik, and others, have also wondered why the commission went to Chinese artist Lei Yixin rather than an African American (or, at least, an American). Despite these queries, Gopnik admits that the message behind the work is cannot be overlooked even in the face of aesthetic criticisms. (I have to think that some folks in Indianapolis were looking for something more along the lines of this monument for the controversial Fred Wilson commission I wrote about a few weeks ago.)

Monuments and Public Art
     This duality in the coverage of the MLK work made me wonder--how is a monument to a public figure different than a work of public art along the lines of, say, this Claes Oldeburg paintbrush installed in Philadelphia this month? Gopnik, while pointing out that the MLK monument would never be placed in a museum, wonders whether monuments in general are even held to the same standards. I would posit that they are not. Though monuments are works of art, their charge, first and foremost, is to memorialize someone or something significant in a respectful fashion. The aesthetics are important, but I think it’s harder to argue for something challenging or outside the box with a memorial than for a more generalized work of public art. Indeed, the New York Times points out that the World War II and Roosevelt memorials have also been met with mixed aesthetic reviews. (Perhaps this is why Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is such an incredible feat—it holds up as a work of art and a memorial.)

What do you think about the new MLK Memorial? Is the message more important than aesthetics? Do you like the aesthetics? What might you have created for a memorial to this great man?

PS—Art Advocado is still looking for rural (or at least, non-urban) works of public art. If you know of any, please submit!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Public Art Controversy Part 3: The Carbon Sink Kerfuffle

Carbon Sink at the University of Wyoming. Image via

I’ve got one more public art controversy for you before wrapping up the Art Advocado public art series--and like E Pluribus Unum, this one is still unresolved. In America's least populous state, a seemingly innocuous work by an English sculptor artist’s work on the University of Wyoming campus has drawn criticism from the state’s powerful coal industry. (As we have learned over the course of the Public Art mini-series, there may be no such thing as innocuous public art.) Read on to find out why the above work has drawn the ire of some very powerful Wyomingians.

"Carbon Stink"
      The University of Wyoming commissioned English land artist Chris Drury to create a piece for their rotating, ongoing public art exhibition, Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational. The Museum describes Drury’s final work succinctly and beautifully, so I’ll let them do the talking:
Carbon Sink: What Goes Around, Comes Around, places beetle-kill pine and coal--both natural resources in Wyoming--in a formal structure derived from a mushroom spore, twisting into a vortex to suggest the natural process of decay, decomposition, and transformation. Typical of the artist's work, who routinely connects natural phenomena from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, the whirling deep, dark, and beautiful reflective properties of the coal play off the raw wood that has been charred so the materials merge at the center.”
The problem? this “suggestion” of decay and decomposition is meant to remind the viewer not just of the pine that was killed by beetles, but the global warming caused by the coal industry. Drury told the Casper Star-Tribute that the meaning behind Carbon Sink is based a sad fact that goes a little something like this: coal encourages climate change, an effect of which is warmer winters. Warmer winters allow beetles to live year-round, allowing them to eat pine trees year-round. Connect the dots--coal is the indirect cause of the terrible beetle infestation killing forests in the Rocky Mountains.
    The coal industry is none too pleased about this criticism, especially since they are a major funder of the University of Wyoming. (Fact: Wyoming is the US's largest coal producer). The director of the Wyoming Mining Association, Marion Loomis, said he was "disappointed" by the University's decision to display the sculpture. State legislators have taken notice too; Representative Tom Lubnau told the told the Gillette News-Record that "every now and then, you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from." (Drury addresses the controversy on his blog with sincerity and wit, referring to the contretemps as "Carbon Stink.")
     Despite this big talk, the debate has gone a bit quiet since it first reared its head about a month ago. It’s not clear whether Carbon Sink is permanent or not. Only time will tell whether UW officials will stick up for Drury and Carbon Sink or cave to coal industry pressure. (Or, perhaps Coal can be appeased another way--Loomis told the Casper Star-Tribune that maybe UW could erect a pro-coal energy sculpture on campus to counter the effect of Drury's work.)

Location, Location, Location
     I find it especially significant that all of the public art controversies I’ve discussed over the last couple weeks were site-specific. Though I’m sure there is great potential for controversy over public art not created with a particular place in mind, what is it about site specific public art that gets people so riled?
     To me, and probably many other art advocates and public art aficionados, a site-specific public work seems like a gift to the community--something positive that is made extra-special by its specificity to a certain location. But this location-specificity seems to be what also often causes problems for some of these works. Opponents of Tilted Arc simply wanted the sculpture moved off Federal Plaza--not destroyed forever. The Bronx Bronzes are alive in well to day, but in Queens--not the Bronx.
     Perhaps people only want beauty on their home turf, rather than the challenge of an imposing abstract piece or a reminder of what their neighborhood really looks like (or looked like one hundred years ago). Or does it have to do with the artist? In all of these cases the artist has also been an outsider--in some way, not from the community for whom they are creating their work. John Ahearn lived in the Bronx, but his race made him an outsider when push came to shove. Chris Drury is a Brit creating work for a community that is certainly not his. Can an artist who is not completely integrated in a community create work for that community without ruffling feathers?

What do you think about the Carbon Sink kerfuffle? Is the coal industry being needlessly sensitive, or was Drury insensitive to create a work criticizing his patron’s funder? Tell me about it in the comments!

P.S. The Carbon Sink controversy, the inaccessible but incredible work of Mel Chin, and my otherwise embarrassingly New York City-centric focus on public art has inspired me to go further afield for my final post of the public art mini-series and look at public art outside the city. Readers, do you know about examples of public art outside urban areas? Please let me know!