MassCreative's Arts Matter Advocacy Day

On the steps of the State House. Front row, Kameko Branchaud, PEM Connected Learning Developer, Kati Nalbandian, Feminists of Salem, Representative Paul Tucker. Back row, Donecca Thurston, PEM Creative Engagement Producer, Deborah Greel, Public Art Planner, City of Salem. Photo Creative Salem.

On the steps of the State House. Front row, Kameko Branchaud, PEM Connected Learning Developer, Kati Nalbandian, Feminists of Salem, Representative Paul Tucker. Back row, Donecca Thurston, PEM Creative Engagement Producer, Deborah Greel, Public Art Planner, City of Salem. Photo Creative Salem.

(Published in PEM's Guide newsletter, April 2017)

Two weeks ago, myself and other PEM staff were among the 600 arts advocates who showed up for MassCreative’s Arts Matter Advocacy Day. This was the first advocacy event I attended, and I had a great experience. I was able to speak directly to Representative Paul Tucker, and Jason Silva from Senator Joan Lovely’s office about my personal experience with the arts— as a young person, a youth worker, and art educator.

The creative process has been intrinsic to my entire life, so it’s odd for me to hear that anyone considers it superfluous. Throughout my adolescence, when I was contending with severe emotional distress, the arts provided a safe place for me, and outlet, a positive way to attain a sense of control in an otherwise upside-down home life. It was also the one venue in which I was able to connect with the outside world and to relate positively to people with whom my relationship was strained. It’s because of those experiences that I pursued a career in art education, and over the years I’ve seen countless transformations in the young people that I work with, many of whom are dealing with the same sorts of struggles that I was.

Today I work at PEM as a Connected Learning Developer. In our program ArtLink, we partner with several community organizations such as Express Yourself, RAW Art Works, Boys and Girls Club, and LEAP for Education. Through their experiences here at PEM and the ongoing work they do with our partner organizations, our students:

• participate in critical thinking

• develop a sense of belonging within the museum

• are introduced to career fields in art and design

• create work that they can be proud of

• strengthen their visual literacy

• practice public speaking

• experience new materials and new approaches to problem-solving

• experience an authentic audience through exhibition opportunities

Part of the funding for ArtLink comes from Massachusetts Cultural Council, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which is now at risk of being defunded. Just two weeks after Arts Advocacy Day, which appeared at first to be a success, a newly released budget by the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee recommended a 28% cut to Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Share your stories about how art has impacted your life, or about how you have seen the arts impact someone else’s life. To those of us in art and education, it might be obvious—but there are masses of people outside of our bubble who simply do not know how powerful and vital the arts are.

To support the NEA is to support people. Those hoping to cut our funding might think they don’t need us now, but they’d certainly miss us if we were gone.

Socially engaged art exemplars

the art is the transformation of the community, and the transformation that happens within the peoples’ lives.

Here are some projects that most closely exemplify what I have come to understand as socially engaged art. All projects were implemented post-2000, and respond to issues of equity, access, or inclusion. I considered which projects most faithfully placed power within the community, and those that are most engaging of the participants.

 

The Quiet in the Land    
Luang Prabang, Laos | 2003-2007 | thequietintheland.org


The Quiet in the Land is an arts and education organization in which artists live and work with a community to create artwork in response to issues that are occurring within that community. At its core is the belief that artists can be agents of positive change. When artist Ann Hamilton noticed during her stay in Laos that tourists were invading and disrupting the local monks’ practice, she created a boat on which monks could practice in isolation. The design of the boat is based on the walking meditation halls of the area. This particular project represents the potential of socially engaged art as an arena of authentic learning: the process offered an actual solution to an actual problem. Shazia Sikander noticed that tourists were treating the monks as anonymous photo subjects instead of individuals, she responded by creating a series of fifty large-scale graphite portraits of monks, in honor of their individuality. While working on the series she also taught a group of locals the basics of realistic drawing in graphite. Each artist and the approach they took was different and had varying levels of engagement. However, each project was thoughtfully constructed in response to the unique resources and changes occurring in Luang Prabang, and was informed by and dependent on contribution by the locals. 

 

Project Row Houses
Houston, TX | 1993 - | projectrowhouses.org


Project Row Houses consists of twenty-two shotgun style houses over two blocks. The renovation was begun with funding from National Endowment for the Arts and from the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation; collaboration was a part of it from the beginning as the Menil Collection, Chevron, a church, and hundreds of volunteers became involved in the renovation process. Eight of the houses provide spaces for artist residencies, in which the artists stay from one week up to five months, and the next block houses the Young Mothers Residential Program, wherein low-income single mothers who are committed to attending college or job training have subsidized housing and the supports to eventually achieve self-sufficiency. In addition to housing, the participants attend programs that focus on academic excellence, career development, financial security, parental responsibility, and social and spiritual awareness. The program can serve up to five women at a time, with up to two children each, for one to two years.

To Lowe and the participants of Project Row Houses, the art is not the houses. The architectural elements are the context in which the art occurs; the art is the transformation of the community, and the transformation that happens within the peoples’ lives.


ARTifariti
Tifariti, Western Sahara | 2007 - | artifariti.org


ARTifariti is an annual international festival that takes place in the Western Sahara. Founding artists Federico Guzmán and Alonso Gil, with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and the Ministry for the Arts, began the festival in 2007 in response to the Moroccan Wall of Shame, a thousand-meter wall that is lined with over three million land mines. It is an intervention that utilizes exhibitions, workshops, and collaborative projects. In this festival, the Sahrawi people work with non-governmental organizations and artists who were selected by a curatorial team. The curators specifically seek artists who propose projects that make use of resources already available in the camps, and use them in a way that brings about permanent change. During the festival, learning is reciprocal, as programs are also held to educate the foreign participants on Sahrawi culture. Artist residencies are not paid, but the organization provides artists-in-residence with all materials needed and covers travel expenses to and from Madrid. The Sahrawi people collaborate with the artist to complete the projects; upon completion, the artists waive the copyrights of the arts to the Ministry of Arts so that the completed works may be documented, broadcasted, and exhibited. Examples of completed projects range from Sahara Libre Wear, a clothing line co-developed between Alonso Gil and the Sahrawi community, to the new Sahrawi Art School, which was opened in November of 2013.

 

Conflict Kitchen    
Pittsburgh, PA | 2010 - | conflictkitchen.org


Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant which features foods of places with which the US is currently in conflict. Past versions of Conflict Kitchen include Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and Afghanistan. Conflict Kitchen invites defectors from the country of focus to collaborate on the menu and other educational events and materials. Each edition is supplemented by events and materials, which augment the restaurant’s existence as an educational tool. Lunch hours are informal gatherings where geopolitical issues are discussed with defectors from the nation of discussion who live in Pittsburgh. The involvement of local defectors gives authenticity to the informational and cultural output of the restaurant, and their perspectives give a human voice on a geopolitical issue. In a refreshing change from many socially engaged projects, it has a website which also exists as an educational tool. The site includes information about the restaurant and a record of events and related information. There is a page for each edition, complete with the menu, the interviews that were printed on the wrappers, and additional resources such as documentaries.

 

Ai Weiwei: Fairytale, 1001 Chinese Visitors
Kassel, Germany | 2007


In 2007, Ai Weiwei organized a field trip for 1,001 Chinese residents to visit Kassel, Germany, during the art fair Documenta 12. Installed throughout the exhibition space were 1,001 chairs, which represented the visitors’ presence. Within three days of posting the invitation on Ai Weiwei’s blog, 3,000 applications were received; in a direct response to the issue of access, the selection process prioritized those with those who had travel restrictions or limited resources. About five hundred of the visitors were from Beijing, and included artists, students, teachers, and journalists. This curatorial selection of people from these fields demonstrates a respect for their roles in China. Considering the idea-spreading nature of these fields allows for the weeklong experience to continue after its conclusion, through the dissemination of the participants’ work that might be influenced by their participation. Each participant’s voice contributed to the project via filmed interviews and a 99-question survey.

Through the interactions of the visitors and the residents, to the documentation of the visitors’ histories and experiences, the piece became one about collective memory. Ai Weiwei described this piece as a culmination of his varying practices: architectural, curatorial, and art. 

 

Harrell Fletcher: Sex and Education
Amherst College , Amherst, MA | 2013


In the fall of 2013, Wendy Ewald invited Harrell Fletcher to Amherst College to facilitate an art project with her and Martha Saxton’s students. The course was a first year seminar for new freshman that addressed the issue of sexual assault on campus. Fletcher began by having the students conduct interviews around the campus to gather a range of perspectives on the topic. The students were given starting questions that they could choose from, and they were able to ask their own. In conversation with the students, Fletcher decided that an appropriate way to open the dialogue wider would be to hold a public panel and to produce a pamphlet that could be provided to people throughout the campus. The sixteen- page document contains a variety of perspectives of issues related to the thirteen contributing student writers’ perspectives on gender discrimination and sexual assault. It includes quotations, essays, photographs, statistics, and references. In this case, Fletcher was the coordinator, but the students conducted the majority of the work. The conversations they opened through their interview process, the perspectives they brought to light in the event and the dissemination of information through the publication all empowered the student body to take control of the phenomenon of sexual assault on the campus. It created the context in which a conversation that could be held to affect transformation within the campus community. Publication of the material was important in terms of making the information accessible to those who were not able to attend the public event.

 

Suzanne Lacy and Penny Evans: University of Local Knowledge
Knowle West, Bristol, England | 2000-2006 |ulk.org.uk
 

The residents of Knowle West were relocated there from a housing project to work in local factories. Residents found themselves facing discrimination, economic hardship, and educational barriers. In effort to celebrate the locals’ existing wealth of knowledge (instead of focusing on a deficit), Suzanne Lacy and Penny Evans, in partnership with Arnolfi Gallery and the Knowle West Media Center, conducted a project that resulted in the creation of over nine hundred videos, from thirty seconds long to four minutes long, within which a resident shared his or her expertise on his or her topic of choice. The individual videos are presented as texts and categorized into courses. Topics of the everyday are interpreted through the lens of academic subjects. There is a section on equine science, where the locals share their knowledge of raising and training horses; under Health and Nutrition, there is a section on food preparation with videos from how to set a table, to how to pluck and how to gut a pheasant, to how to cook Malaysian food. The website serves as an ongoing educational tool and residents still may add videos to it to become a faculty member, or they can become a lecturer by curating a playlist.
 

Summary


While most of these did not completely resolve any issue within its community context, they at least built a foundation on which a solution could be found; the involvement of the community members in that process emphasized that they are in charge of making that solution a reality. Most of these are long-term or ongoing projects that are committed to create lasting effects.

This selection reflects a larger world that is socially engaged art. Not every project is made to address the same concerns, and not every project is implemented using the same techniques. Not all projects are intended as an educational tool. However, with my background in youthwork and education, I recognize socially engaged art as a venue in which those philosophies can be implemented.

Bibliography

ARTifariti, “ARTifariti, a tool for freedom,” accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.artifariti.org/en/ about-artifariti.
Conflict Kitchen. “About,” accessed April 4, 2014. http://conflictkitchen.org/about/.
D-movies.net. “Ai Weiwei, Fairytale (2007), interview at Documenta 12.” Accessed April 4, 2014.
http://vimeo.com/68202707.
Fletcher, Harrell. “Sex and Education.” Amherst College. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.
harrellfletcher.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Sex-and-Education-PDF.pdf.
Kimmelman, Michael. “In Houston, Art Is Where the Home Is.” New York Times, December 17, 2006. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/17/arts/design/17kimm.
html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
Morin, France, and John Alan Farmer, eds. The Quiet in the Land: Luang Prabang, Laos, New York: The Quiet in the Land, Inc, 2009.
Project Row Houses. “About.” Project Row Houses. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://projectrowhouses. org/about/.
Project Row Houses. “Young Mothers Program Description.” Project Row Houses. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://projectrowhouses.org/young-mothers-program/program-description/.
Sahara Press Service. “Western Sahara: Inauguration of Saharawi Art School.” All Africa, November 5, 2013. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://allafrica.com/stories/201311060673.html.

Defining socially engaged art

“All art, inasmuch as it is created to be communicated to or experienced by others, is social (...) a social interaction that proclaims itself as art – that is, socially engaged art.”
— Pablo Heguera

While all kinds of art may be socially responsive, whether or not an art production can be termed “socially engaged art” depends on a few things, including the role of the audience, the role of the artist, and relevance to social issues specific to the community in which the piece exists. To elaborate, the following describes a basic hierarchy of audience involvement, from least to most. It is not my intention to trivialize the first three categories, but rather to provide a clear hierarchy of audience involvement to differentiate between traditional visual art, participatory art, community arts, and socially engaged art. The role of the audience is key in this sort of categorization; meanwhile much room remains for variation within each category as far as how projects may be carried out.

The audience as viewer

This would be the most common way that we experience art. While the art piece may engage the audience intellectually, the piece itself is able to exist without an active audience. The viewer is what Pablo Helguera refers to as a “passive receptor.”1

Example: Temper Tot mural by Ron English in Manhattan

Example: Temper Tot mural by Ron English in Manhattan

The audience as participant

The audience or viewer is required to complete the piece. Participants may be directed in how to interact with the piece, or they may be asked to contribute to a project with little to no creativity; contributions are superficial. Artworks that fall into this structure are participatory art.

 

Example: Before I Die by Candy Chang

Example: Before I Die by Candy Chang

The audience as collaborator

The artist conceptualizes an idea, and completes it with the help of community members, in other words, the audience. Most community arts projects fall under this category.

Example: Guam's Liberation Day parade floats completed by the community

Example: Guam's Liberation Day parade floats completed by the community

Photo credit: unknown (that's my grandpa waving!)

Photo credit: unknown (that's my grandpa waving!)

The socially engaged audience

The artist works with community members to conceptualize and execute a final project. As Pablo Helguera explains in the introductory chapter of Education for Socially Engaged Art, socially engaged art grew out of feminist concept art of the 1960’s, into something that has similarities with conceptual art, installation art, process art, and performance art. It draws from the fields of anthropology, sociology, ethnography, and education. The artist uses the work to create an experience in service to ideas of the aforementioned disciplines. The artist takes on many roles: “teacher, leader, artistic director, boss, instigator, and benefactor(.)”2 The expertise of the artist in these projects is in the creation of meaningful experiences for participants, and in ensuring the quality of the project’s outcome, but the audience must be equally invested in and share equal responsibility in the work. The uniqueness of socially engaged art is that the process is more important than the product, and its success comes from those involved being empowered from their experience long after the project is done. With all of the above varying factors, there is a vastness of possibilities from one socially engaged artwork to another. 

Photo credit: conflictkitchen.org 

Photo credit: conflictkitchen.org 

This post is an excerpt from my 2014 MA thesis, Beyond Dialogue: Socially Engaged Art as Educational Platform. Random text sizes courtesy of Squarespace. 

1. Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art (New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011), 11.

2. Heguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art, 53.

 

 

In Defense of Guam's "Percent for Art" Law

An article in this Monday’s Pacific Daily News (PDN) reported on the forestalled opening of the fifth floor of Guam Regional Medical City (GRMC) due to the failure of the building’s developers to comply with the state’s Percent for Art law. Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities (CAHA), the agency which oversees the enforcement of this law, was unable to sign off on the building’s occupancy permit due to this noncompliance. The article paints a picture of a much-needed resource being held ransom by evil art administrators. What I see instead is a state appointed agency fulfilling its duty in enforcing the Percent for Art law. While the PDN article provides some history on the new construction project and offers readers a few opinions, little context is given for the rationale behind Percent for Art..

 

Fort those of you who did not read the article or who are unfamiliar with Percent for Art, the program requires that one percent of the total amount spent on the construction of public buildings, or private buildings that are receiving certain tax benefits for having public areas, and have a budget of over $100,000, either be spent on art or donated to the state agency. On Guam, the state appointed agency is CAHA.

 

The economic impact of this law extends beyond the artist whose work is selected. In addition to the art itself, the funds cover all aspects of the administration that goes into facilitating the acquisition of artwork, and all installation costs. That means state agency costs are being covered, and all engineers, fabricators, and installers involved in the process are also getting paid. On top of that, money that does go directly towards paying a local artist is eventually going to feed back into the local economy. In the case that CAHA is paid directly, those funds are made available via grants. People can then apply for grants in order to fund a variety of art or cultural projects, including things such as supplies for art programs or educational workshops open to the public. 

 

The program is often attacked once the public learns about how much money is being spent on the arts. In this case, for example, the $1.5 million sounds like a lot of money—but, it is still only one percent of the entire $150 million cost of construction. Of the other $148.5 million dollars that was spent, how much of the other expenditures were challenged? How can we know that every other aspect of the construction was selected and paid for responsibly? For example, how do we know the best architect was chosen? How much was spent on hardware? Equipment? Cleaning supplies? Electricians? How energy-efficient is the completed 5th floor? Furthermore, how does the $1.5 million contribution to art purchases compare to the tax breaks that were granted?

 

According to the PDN article, “the law describes local artwork as including sculptures, murals, or paintings.” To clarify, the actual law states:

“All visual art forms will be considered along with objects relating to or consisting of indigenous art.”

I point this out because $1.5 million dollars sounds especially large if one is thinking of art as a framed painting hanging on a wall. Yes, sculptures and paintings can be displayed in public and can and should be included in the types of works purchased by these funds.  Public art, however, is a specific type of art that is conceived of by an artist for a specific context. This is important. The funds are not meant to bankroll a few hobbyists. They are meant to fund projects that stimulate dialogue within the public, enrich the community, and define the experience of the place in which it exists. When the context is a hospital– a place of healing and hope but also of anxiety and loss– a well-considered artwork can have enormous impact on the hospital experience.

 

The law requires artists be selected soon after the architect’s schematic design is approved so that the artists and the architect can work together to “gain from each other’s design insights and thereby produce a more integrated solution.” In this particular case, the construction is complete and yet only $205,000 of the $1.5 million– about one fifth– of the project’s art fund has been worked out. What I wonder is how the construction got so far along without this issue being resolved. Was GMRC reluctant to comply at some point? Was there a problem in CAHA’s facilitation of the process? Or are there simply too few available and qualified local artists?

 

Additionally, the law encourages the state agency uses this process as an educational tool by exhibiting proposals and having the selection process and design process made public. Have we missed that opportunity with this project? (If it happened and I just missed it – excuse me.) Will we see the new proposals? Can we see what pieces were selected, without having to go to the hospital? Will the digital images required as documentation of the selected pieces be made available in an online gallery?

 

As for the selection of artwork, PDN pointed out “Investors can’t just choose local artwork on their own.” This is true. A committee of between five and nine people choose the artwork together. This includes the building owner or a representative of the building owner. It also includes the architect, interior designer, a member of CAHA, a representative from the Mayor’s Council, and two practicing artists. The committee may also include representation from Guam Community College, University of Guam, or Guam Department of Education. Since it is public artwork intended to serve an entire community and not one single person, it is only fair that the community at large is represented. The role of the two practicing artists on the committee (PDN, why was “practicing artists” in quotation marks? What are you insinuating?) is to contribute expertise in determining which proposals or artworks are quality choices. The committee aims to ensure a fair, well-informed selection that does not result in the building owner or CAHA just choosing their buddy.

 

Some people have called for changes to be made to the law, and discussions have already been held about doing so. If changes are made to the law, I hope the changes do not reduce the budgetary requirements already in place. Instead, I would like to see changes that allow for more flexibility in the way CAHA can utilize these critical funds. Right now, the policy requires that the funds cannot be spent on educational activities. Guam is small. Its population is small, and its artist population is even smaller. Yet there is immense potential for Guam to generate more artists. Events such as Guam Art Exhibit (GAX) and Guam International Film Festival (GIFF) demonstrate that there is interest in the arts, but there is at present a dearth of opportunities for arts education. If a construction project exhausts what it can effectively spend on artwork but has a huge remainder to spend, imagine what that money can do if it could be applied towards educational programming! That money could cover afterschool programs, professional development for arts educators, even fund an arts facility or fly a world-renowned artist out here for a residency. To nurture a developing community of artists on island instead of rewarding contracts and purchases to the same handful of artists time and time again is a much better investment for Guam.

 

I would personally suggest that we relax the requirement that all art funded by Percent for Art relate to Guam history or Chamorro culture. To limit the subject matter to finite sources of inspiration and interpretation is to limit creative output. Sure, this stipulation would be appropriate to something like the new Guam Museum, but there should be more artistic freedom in other contexts, such as this hospital. Allowing for diversity of subject matter or creative approach is essential to developing Guam’s art scene.

 

Another concern raised in the article is the idea that developers will be discouraged by having to pay large amounts of money to art. In the case of the hypothetical $500 million project mentioned, how big of a problem would a $5 million arts contribution be to a project that costs half a billion dollars? Again, it is only a single percent of an already enormous budget. I do see how $5 million might be difficult to allocate when the pool of artists living on Guam is so small. Other states larger than us do have a cap, (for example, Massachusetts has a cap of $250,000 and New Mexico $200,000). By contrast, some places actually require more than one percent (San Francisco, for example, requires 2% be spent on art). Looking at the state most comparable to us in size, Rhode Island does have the same 1% requirement, and for buildings under $250,000 the funds are allowed to provide artwork for other buildings. Certainly, the public buildings on Guam that were constructed before this law was instated could benefit from some artwork. In any case, if Guam were to implement a cap, let us keep it high. Not only will Guam be enriched by the art it funds, but that is money that will end up back in the economy. 

 

Many professional artists do not survive on sales alone; they rely on residencies, contracted projects, grants, and teaching positions. The opportunities provided by Percent for Art laws are enormously crucial to the health of the art world on Guam, and the other twenty-seven states that have it.

 

Percent for Art may not be perfect. Bureaucracy exists. But this is not a shakedown. For Guam, where opportunities for artists and arts education are scarce, Percent for Art remains a crucial initiative in providing opportunities for local artists and architects, exposure to arts and insights into the design process for the public, and the cultural advancement of our community– and it is the duty of CAHA to enforce the law, and to facilitate the program responsibly.