Valuing art over policy, and action over talk, at the Public Art Network (PAN) pre-conference

Having recently visited Chicago for the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network pre-conference N+T director Kate Gilbert calls on Greater Boston to create bold, temporary projects during the 2016 conference. 

It’s understandable how a public art freak from Boston can get cultural envy visiting Chicago. Rich in monumental, plaza-anchoring sculpture and steeped in a history of financial and political backing for the arts, Chicago gives us pause, asks us to look at our challenges, and ultimately calls us to be a bolder, unified Greater Boston.

How Chicago came to be.

Arguably, the Windy City had a second chance to become the city it is today after The Great Fire of 1871 destroyed roughly 3 square miles. It was rebuilt by visionaries with great political fortitude and support  during a time when serving the public and looking out for the disadvantaged was de rigueur. As a result, streets were reorganized on a grid, the nation’s first free cultural center was created, their impressive parks system was expanded, new forms of commercial architecture like The Chicago School sprung up, and impressive social services were created.

The largest Tiffany dome in the world at the Chicago Cultural Center completed in 1897 and restored in 2008.

The largest Tiffany dome in the world at the Chicago Cultural Center completed in 1897 and restored in 2008.

The building continues.

Today, Chicago’s legacy of creating engaging places from challenging spaces continues with Millennium Park and the recently opened Maggie Daley Park both built over a parking lot which replaced an eyesore of train tracks. Meanwhile Chicago artists like Theaster Gates and Jim Bachor are using art to solve problems. Gates is receiving significant funds to rebuild the cultural foundations of underinvested neighborhoods through his Rebuild Foundation and Bachor is fixing potholes with a creative, hands-on approach. 

Black Cinema House hosts screenings and discussions of films by and about people of the African diaspora, and offers video classes to neighborhood youth, teaching the next generation to make their own films and tell their own stories.

Black Cinema House hosts screenings and discussions of films by and about people of the African diaspora, and offers video classes to neighborhood youth, teaching the next generation to make their own films and tell their own stories.

Boston in comparison...

Boston in contrast has had to grow in and around tight constrictions including it’s original layout (infamously built on cow paths with a lack of directional orientation) and 384 years of historically important buildings wedged within a land-locked peninsula.

Boston has 48 square miles to Chicago's 228. Should Boston annex it’s surrounding cities as Chicago did, perhaps it could do more by having more: more collective financial resources, more land, and more great minds working towards a common goal.

But we don't need a formal unification project to be as bold as Chicago in our public art offerings! We simply need to work together as Greater Boston. This type of change happens when Arlington works with Somerville, Boston with Cambridge, The Boston Foundation with The Henderson Fund, FIGMENTBoston with the Gardner, and private philanthropists work with individual artists; when we all roll up our sleeves to solve problems or simply gather together in unique places.

Medicine Wheel's production "Beacon To The Dream" and Ifé Franklin's "The Indigo Project" at Castle Island Park August 28, 2013. Photo © 2013 Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Medicine Wheel's production "Beacon To The Dream" and Ifé Franklin's "The Indigo Project" at Castle Island Park August 28, 2013. Photo © 2013 Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Let's practice next June!

Sure, it is a daunting challenge, but we have an opportunity to practice collaborative placemaking next June when the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network pre-conference comes to Boston. This is our chance to showcase what we have, and what we can do collectively. One easy way to do so is with temporary public art which provides the freedom to be experimental.

With temporary public art we can provide examples of what’s possible, unite disparate communities and spark the region’s private philanthropy into action. We can create conversations about the work – Should it stay? Is it even art? Who is it for? – and create the “see it before it leaves” buzz that comes with temporary work.

And let's support artists.

PAN’s 2016 pre-conference is also a chance to recognize the dedicated and talented artists in Greater Boston. PAN's recent conference was heavily focused on arts administration and, with the exception of their Year In Review awards, it didn’t offer many inspirational projects and showed too few contemporary Chicago projects. Most disheartening was the fact that very few Chicago artists were in attendance.

We can do better in Boston! What if, as Boston sculptor Mags Harries suggested, we offer discounted tickets to Greater Boston artists who host out-of-town artists and thus remove the financial barrier to entry for all artists? Not only would we give our local artists a platform to become engaged in the creative placemaking conversation but we’d open our doors to new artistic voices who may return with engaging projects.

June 2016 is our chance to value art over policy, and action over talk, by engaging Boston artists
and creating temporary public art projects.

The next PAN pre-conference is a chance to give back to our community as much as we give to conference-goers.  So let’s, together, make June 2016 a catalyst for conversations that will continue well beyond the days and months after the conference leaves town.

Americans for the Arts Public Art Network (PAN) develops professional services for the broad array of individuals and organizations engaged in the diverse field of public art. Americans for the Arts hosted its annual conference and pre-conferences in Chicago June 11-14. The conference and pre-conference will next be hosted in Boston June 9-12, 2016.