The Public Art Network and the Emerging Leaders Preconferences converged for their combined closing plenary session: “Multiple Meanings: The Expanding Role of Leadership in Creating Place” with Jason Schupbach (National Endowment for the Arts [NEA] Director of Design) and artist John Bela of Rebar in San Antonio on June 8.
The session sought first to explore the somewhat unsuspecting backgrounds of Jason, with a B.A. in Public Health and M.A. in Urban Planning, and John, whose education skipped from biochemistry to sculpture, performance, and landscape architecture, illustrating the benefits of their eclectic and complimentary experience to the arts field.
What does this reveal about the work of creative placemaking?
Because, in my unauthorized definition, creative placemaking is about cross-sector collaboration in which artists are a catalyst for public participation and community transformation. In order to infiltrate community, master planning processes, and policy, artists and arts professionals alike must speak the language of the architect, the planner, the social worker, the community activist, the health care provider, and the politician OR find internal allies so that we have support in the calculated risks that are intrinsic to making a social impact and to making art.
John’s formula for creative change: the Advocate, the Artist and the Guerilla Bureaucrat. For me, the latter offered the biggest conference take-away (the tantalizingly oxymoronic term also mentioned in a previous Public Art Network session).
What does this mean? What does this look like? John gave us a personal example. He led the now international “Park(ing) Day” movement with the encouragement of an admiring San Francisco planner who advised that the event not become an official government sanctioned event, but one ultimately facilitated by, though not associated with, the planning department. This latent support allowed for the event to flourish organically, sending an independent plea to city officials for more parkland.
So, how do we support naturally occurring creativity within the communities that we work? The economic crisis, the spike in urban growth and the local movement beg us to produce work that is not only relevant but also authentic to the site. This means, as discussed in the following Convention Town Hall, that tapping local culture and talent as a source of distinction, pride, and social capital is a strategy for achieving community health.
Where do artists fit into this picture? Artists, as affirmed by Jason, will always be called upon to create high-quality artworks, however, in the work of placemaking, experience in public practice and a greater variety of disciplines is an asset. Artists will never work the same way, nor conform to a certain practice in order to get more work.
Authenticity, too, is key to an artist’s style. Artists must align their personality and unique process to their mode of accessing the public and sourcing inspiration outside of their studio. With that, I am heartened by the NEA’s vocal of process—from the process of engaging a neighborhood in order to understand its creative pulse to long range community development planning in which an artist is at the table.
Let us follow their lead by entering into comprehensive strategies that make room for what we do best: experimentation.