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Public Art Scrambler

October 8, 2016 – In 2012, Forecast started hosting the public gatherings – workshops, conversations, presentations – designed to engage people working in and interested in public art. The events are focused on issues and ideas related to public art creation, process and ideation — temporary and permanent. Over the years, we’ve designed multiple events to ask and address questions arising inside the context and evolution of placemaking, a term that has become increasingly familiar and controversial over the years.

This gathering invited Mark VanderSchaaf, former Regional Planning Director for the Met Council, to share his thoughts on the topic. Past conversations have included an collaboratively-created conversation about the definitions we use to describe creative work in communities [1] and another reflecting on underutilized public space [2], a workshop led by Works Progress [3],  a presentation by Dave Loewenstein [4] and one with Marcus  Young [5], and our very first conversation in 2013 [6]. Throughout 2014, we piloted a couple of audio conversations with Works Progress and national creative changemakers that you can listen to here [7] and here [8].

We plan to continue to host events that invite a range of voices and perspectives to the conversation. We welcome suggestions for future presenters, facilitators and conversation topics.  Following is a recap, in the presenter’s own words, of the presentation.

At the September 14, 2016 Public Art Scrambler, participants considered potential answers to a question raised by Jon Spayde in a 2012 article in the Public Art Review [9]: “Can there be a ‘deep placemaking’ that aids in economic and community development, attracts young, affluent ‘creative class’ professionals, and creates beauty – all current goals of the placemaking movement – while welcoming others too, and reminding those who are enjoying the place-as-made of the darker, stranger, perhaps sadder realities that make the place what it is?”

I led the discussion at the Scrambler event, focusing on ideas that I developed regarding “deep placemaking” at the same time Jon was raising his question. My ideas were initially summarized in another recent Public Art Review article, Placemaking Gets Deep [10]. I’ve come to value the practice of engaging with the personality of a place via a feature of the natural or built environment that possesses “iconic soulfulness,” a term I learned from the Austin, TX market researcher, strategic planner and sustainability advocate, Robin Rather. Places with iconic soulfulness behave as if they have actual personalities, and enable us to ask a bold question, “What does the place want to be?” to begin a conversation with the place that can lead to surprisingly rich, therapeutic results.

In my case, I learned in the early 1990s to converse with my city of Saint Paul via its historic skyscraper, the First Bank Building, a place with an iconic “1st” neon sign at its top – following the lead of my mentors at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture whose work draws inspiration from the neon Pegasus at the top of Dallas’ historic Magnolia Building. Saint Paul’s 1st sign suggested to me two facets of the city’s personality that indeed were, in Jon Spayde’s words, “darker, stranger, perhaps sadder realities.” Specifically, it suggested that Saint Paul was at first a river city, but over the years had lost that orientation and despoiled the river that gave it birth. Also, Saint Paul was the first of the Twin Cities – founded before Minneapolis and for several decades larger than its twin, but eventually losing that status in a way that many Saint Paul citizens have long felt to be tragic.

My conversation with the city’s 1st sign led through happy coincidence to my discovery of the story of the Grand Excursion of 1854, a national patriotic celebration of the arrival of the railroad from the East Coast to the Mississippi River at Rock Island, IL, and a festive riverboat flotilla traveling from Rock Island to the new city of Saint Paul. I was able to succeed in persuading civic leaders throughout the Midwest to re-create the 1854 excursion on its 150th anniversary in 2004, both as a celebration of new riverfront revitalization efforts, and as a kind of “reverse the curse” ritual to undo several things that went wrong in 1854.

In 1854, excursionists were outraged at what they perceived to be inhospitable treatment by the citizens of Saint Paul, a problem created in part by the boats arriving a day ahead of schedule. And from our 21st century perspective we could see that they 1854 excursion embodied regrettable efforts to displace or eliminate native peoples and despoil the river valley’s natural environment through clear-cut logging and heavily-polluting industrial development. So the goal of Grand Excursion 2004 became to “get it right this time” relative to those issues – by emphasizing hospitality, and the affirmation of cultural diversity and environmental responsibility. Citizens of all kinds, including many artists, devised projects to contribute to this re-creation. A total of 55 communities in four states participated in Grand Excursion 2004, but the focal point was Saint Paul where this event helped catalyze a genuine transformation of the community into a national center of hospitality, diversity and sustainability through projects such as the Xcel Energy Center and many lower profile accomplishments.

At the Scrambler event, participants experimented in an exercise to identify a place of iconic soulfulness that speaks to them, and consider how they might engage in a conversation with the place. We discussed results as a group and many participants shared their worksheets with me. The responses were fascinating both for the variety of places identified and the large number of suggested ways to engage with the place. All told, 28 different places were identified, about half in the Twin Cities, but with others elsewhere in Minnesota, the US, and the world. A total of 77 different ways were suggested to engage in a conversation with these places to learn more about the personality of each – about its past and present, but also what it wants to become. I was thrilled with the fruits of this crowd-sourcing exercise, and am hopeful that it will help us all to become better “deep placemakers.”