Feminism in Public Art

Returning from the College Art Association conference last week, my head was awash with questions about the purpose of art and the usual critique of the conference – presenters still stand at the front of a room and read aloud papers about hands-on learning or participatory works with zero chance for dialogue or tactile engagement. Why was I sitting in a chair, one of hundreds, receiving content in an utterly old-fashioned way somewhere deep in a conference center in midtown Manhattan drinking an overpriced coffee when I could be doing, making, and facilitating?

And yet my notes were full of with gems like this from Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who received the Public Art Dialogue’s annual award for achievement:

Art gives us power because art is dependent on freedom. Without freedom there is no art.

And this:

We need to change the liberal character [of the artist] as a useless dandy spinning around with their soft feelings. [There] needs to be more social consciousness of what an artist is. Diana Al-Hadid

And images of artists whose works encourage participation and disruption.

 Sheryl Loring's "I Wish To Say" project at CAA, February 15, 2017

Sheryl Loring's "I Wish To Say" project at CAA, February 15, 2017

 Morgan State University students' Black Lives Matter portraits for their 2015 "Inside Out Project"

Morgan State University students' Black Lives Matter portraits for their 2015 "Inside Out Project"

 Pablo Heleguera's 2011 "El Club De Protesta" at the High Line

Pablo Heleguera's 2011 "El Club De Protesta" at the High Line

CAA tried this year and so I’m meeting it halfway. The “Public Art in the Era of Black Lives Matter” panel was the most diverse I’d experienced in my four years of attending, and the panels on feminism and public art were populated by artists, curators, and educators who facilitate rather than curate or prescribe what we experience and learn. These panels reinforced decisions we’ve made at Now + There to support artists’ visions – even when they’re messy and process-oriented – and projects that amplify voices from our communities.

Now + There’s mission is based on a feminist pedagogy.

Feminist pedagogy foregrounds questioning, validates individual experience, and facilitates socially constructed knowledge. It gives students permission and encouragement to speak about their work with passion. In our case, it gives participants a platform to amplify their voices and a chance to be part of something outside of institutional walls and hierarchical governing bodies.

Ultimately, feminist pedagogy supports the production of knowledge that refuses to be reproduced in the dominant white cultural structure and it aims to support social change.

These are unnerving times that, as a colleague recently schooled me on, are lived experiences, not simply spectacle. People’s lives are being ripped apart by decisions made in the White House that have immediate ramifications such as deportations resulting from the Muslim country ban. Meanwhile, within our own families and communities right here in Greater Boston, women’s and girls’ voices are still being muted.

A feminist approach to creating and facilitating public art helps us flex our empathy muscles by increasing a tolerance for ambiguity and a diversity of perspectives.

It [art] deepens our capacity to see and hold pain.
— Arielle Julia Brown

Back in October before the result of the presidential election and coming off the high of Public Trust, we made the decision at Now + There to make 2017 The Year of The Woman. This year we’re presenting female artists whose works support some of our most disregarded female populations – people with much to say but who’ve been historically hushed or scorned – and we asking you to join us this journey starting in June.

The first 2017 Now + There commissioned artist will be announced at the March 6 panel Public Trust Book Launch with Paul Ramirez Jonas. Sign up here to join us for a discussion with the artist, Artist Ambassadors, and participants moderated by ICA Senior Curator Dan Byers. Did making a promise and contextualizing it with promises from the daily news change the way you approach the truth or trust others?