How Empowering Local Artists can Benefit your Whole Community

It's Public Art Week at Strong Towns. For the next few days, we'll be discussing the value of art in public life, the impact of public art on our neighborhoods, and how to ensure that public art is created by  and for the people, not through a top-down process.

There’s more to public art than just putting up a sculpture in a park. The public art that’s most likely to be embraced and appreciated over the long-term is art that’s embedded in the community, that originates from local artists.

How can towns support artists in a way that benefits the community as a whole? Several unique art spaces and programs offer examples of this across the country including a university/neighborhood art space in Philadelphia, a city artist program in St. Paul, and an artist residency in St. Louis.

The Rotunda – A University-Neighborhood Partnership in Philadelphia

The Rotunda (Source:  Facebook )

The Rotunda (Source: Facebook)

Like many academic institutions, the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) is located in a racially and economically diverse area of a city (Philadelphia) and hasn’t always had the best relationship with the surrounding neighborhood. In 1996, the University purchased a historic church near its campus in the hopes that it could use the space to better connect with the community in some way. Today, that church has become a unique interdisciplinary public art space called the Rotunda that benefits the university and the neighborhood alike.

An Urban Studies seminar at the University first came up with the idea to form a community art space within the old church and Andrew Zitcer, then an undergraduate student at UPenn led the effort. Today, Zitcer is an assistant professor of Arts Administration at Drexel University and I spoke with him recently to hear the story of the Rotunda.

Zitcer explained that in the late 1990s, the University’s efforts to get more actively involved in the life of the surrounding neighborhood had been both praised and critiqued, so there was a lot riding on the Rotunda project.

“We were asked to dream up a public art space,” says Zitcer. “The ideas [was to have] a flexible multicultural community space as opposed to a jazz club or rock hall.” An interdisciplinary space was better positioned to meet a multitude of community needs and attract a variety of audiences, making it more valuable and useful for everyone.

A promo video for summer events hosted by the Rotunda a few years ago.

UPenn offered funding for a test run of the space in 1999, which involved four weeks of arts programming. One weekend was jazz music, another electronic, and so on. It generated considerable interest and the program took off. In 2002, the University funded a position for a full time Director and today, the Rotunda regularly sees 30,000 patrons a year. It maintains its commitment to expansive interdisciplinary arts programming.

Zitcer decribed his recent visit to the Rotunda where, on a Monday, there was a letter writing event to tell local mosques that they were welcome in the community. Then later that week on Thursday, Zitcer attended a jazz concert in the Rotunda, and on Sunday, there was a kids’ show. A look at the Rotunda’s event calendar illustrates the active, diverse uses of the space aptly.

Zitcer stressed two main reasons for the success of the Rotunda. The first is that the University of Pennsylvania doesn’t put its name on the space. The Rotunda has its own unique brand and it viewed as a place of its own, not as a subsidiary of the University. This has allowed the neighborhood to feel greater ownership over the space. The second reason for the success of the Rotunda that Zitcer highlights is the editorial control exercised by the Rotunda Director and the artists she works with. UPenn never comes in and says they want a specific type of performance or that they want to avoid controversial projects or anything of the sort. They have allowed the space to freely develop and they have created an opportunity for local artists to freely express themselves.

An event inside the Rotunda (Source:  Facebook )

An event inside the Rotunda (Source: Facebook)

I’d also add that the University’s funding of the initiative and purchase of the building has enabled a level of success that might not otherwise have happened. Of course, a wealthy benefactor who is willing to allow a community free range of a space is not something that most arts initiatives can count on. More often than not, if you have the benefactor, you must also accept that foundation’s or person’s stipulations and if you want freedom and flexibility, you have to seek different funding sources. And yet, creative funding options exist and empty historic spaces abound. I know of many communities with the creative willpower to put the pieces together to make something like this happen in their town.

City Artist – An Artist in Residence for St. Paul, MN

Amanda Lovelee (Source:  Amanda Lovelee )

Amanda Lovelee (Source: Amanda Lovelee)

Creating a space for public art has made a positive impact in Philadelphia, but what about other venues for public artists besides physical spaces? The City of St. Paul, MN has a unique program in which they name and support a “City Artist” each year, in partnership with Public Art St. Paul. Their website explains:

The central pursuit is to create art out of the life-sustaining systems of the city. Artists advise on major city initiatives and lead their own artistic and curatorial projects and have dedicated workspace within the Department of Public Works so they can freely collaborate across city agencies...

Saint Paul is unique in that City Artists work within the walls of City Hall and ensure that art is considered as an integral part of nearly every civic discipline: parks, planning, public works and libraries; from early conceptualization of the City’s urban future through planning studies, capital project design, on-going street and sidewalk maintenance, and the programming of public places.

St. Paul’s current City Artist, Amanda Lovelee, has done some truly incredible public art projects that encourage the community to rethink its use of space and become more involved in local decisionmaking. Lovelee had a baby a week before this article was published, so we weren’t able to interview her, but I want to share some highlights from the projects she’s worked on as City Artist of St. Paul:

(Source:  Amanda Lovelee )

(Source: Amanda Lovelee)

Urban Flower Field – A spiral of wildflowers populates a greenspace in St. Paul — simultaneously public garden, soil remediation experiment and activation of vacant space.  Public Art St. Paul describes the project as:

a low-cost, short-term project that combines art and science to convert an abandoned lot into a vibrant center for learning and exchange. The location (corner of Robert and 10th streets in downtown Saint Paul) is in a dense, urban neighborhood: 6,000 people live within three blocks of the space, 4,000 people work within walking distance…

Lovelee worked with several local artists and scientists to create this project. The site may later become an official public park.

(Source:  Amanda Lovelee )

(Source: Amanda Lovelee)

Pop-Up MeetingUsing popsicles and a city truck to encourage public engagement? What could be cooler? (Pun intended). Here's Public Art St. Paul's description of this project:

Pop Up Meeting seeks to increase diversity and participation in Saint Paul’s urban planning process. From an artistically retrofitted city truck, Pop Up Meeting dynamically unfolds as St. Paul’s front porch to engage communities and customize civic meetings based on place and stakeholder needs… In exchange for their thoughts, survey responses, or handwritten love letters to the city, participants will receive a locally made St. Pops ice pop from the brightly designed truck. 

Really Big TableThis might be my favorite of all the projects I looked at. Lovelee worked with an engineer and an architect to create a really long table that can be assembled and disassembled easily. Lovelee explains on her website:

Our concept is to create a long table that functions as a gathering space and activates streetscapes. Through its modular construction, it can be easily transported throughout the urban landscape by bicycle. We think of our table as an accordion book that holds, tells, and creates stories through the use of technology and participation.

The objectives of the project include providing a space for public gatherings and community meetings and using the table to activate underutilized spaces like alleys and parking lots. Visit the table’s website to learn more.

All of these ideas make use of existing objects and spaces (a city truck, an empty lot) to invite residents into a dialogue about what they want from their city. All it took was the local government saying “Art is a priority for us” and finding a talented person like Lovelee (and the many other City Artists that have served in this position over the years) to make it happen.

Paul ArtSpace - An Artist-in-Residence program in St. Louis, MO

A gathering at Paul ArtSpace (Source:  Paul ArtSpace )

A gathering at Paul ArtSpace (Source: Paul ArtSpace)

Our last example is an artist residency combined with a public art space based in St. Louis, MO. Paul Artspace was founded by Mike Behle after his uncle, Paul, passed away, leaving a home that the family wasn't quite sure what to do with. I spoke with Behle to learn about how the space came to be and what impact it has had on the community. He explains: 

My partner and I had been thinking of trying to create some sort of arts collective. [...] I was fortunate to get a fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center in 2006. That experience for me solidified this idea of creating a residency in the St Louis area as a way to [...] engage the community and support local artists that are based here.

Paul Artspace supports young artists by giving them something that's very hard to find in our modern world: pure time to create art. They're provided with living quarters and studio space and encouraged to spend anywhere from 4-12 weeks on location at Paul Artspace. Behle says the program, which has been in operation for the last 5 years, has hosted a wide range of artists:

We’ve hosted probably 60 residents by now from all over the world. We support visual artists as well as writers and curators. When we say visual artists, we take a broad scope and understanding of what that could be—quilting to contemporary performance art to anywhere in between.

Residents also volunteer in the community as a way to give back for the free opportunity they’ve received through organizations the do art therapy, gardening and more. "It’s been really well received by the community," says Behle. In addition to supporting artists in the community and contributing volunteers for programs in St. Louis, Paul Artspace is also a venue for community arts events like poetry readings and art shows.

Keys to success

What are the major lessons we can learn from these initiatives?

  • Starting small and building as you gain success is the best way to go. It means low risks when you fail and the ability to adapt to feedback.
  • Neighborhood buy-in is crucial. All of these programs would likely fail without the interest and support of their communities.
  • Diverse artistic media means there’s something for everyone. Each of these initiatives features a wide range of artistic media—from different genres of music and theater to interactive placemaking projects to more traditional visual arts. 
  • Passionate people make all the difference.  These programs are all spearheaded by people and institutions that choose to make art and community wellbeing their priority. They're willing to devote time, space and finances to making these programs happen and they persist to figure out what works and what doesn't.

Which of these elements are already present in your town? Which can you bolster? What would it take to support public art and artists in your town?

(Top photo source: Really Big Table)

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