Tacoma, Washington, is the site of a unique project to train artists in the processes associated with creating public art. The Public Art: In Depth (PA:ID) program, which wrapped up its first year at the end of 2012, combines traditional workshop training with a unique series of opportunities that culminates in a real-life competition for real-life projects with real-life budgets.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” says Amy McBride, Tacoma’s arts administrator, whose undergraduate work focused on effective professional development strategies. “I strongly believe in the practical experience piece. By getting to know what it takes in real life, that’s how you learn. And I also needed to build a base of local artists who could compete not only in Tacoma, but on a wider stage.”
The opportunity to launch PA:ID came when a city bonding project provided a budget for public art with a bit more flexibility in spending than most. That allowed McBride to hire public artist Elizabeth Conner to help develop the curriculum and devise the program, and still retain stipends for five competitive public art projects.
McBride recruited 23 Tacoma-based artists, all of them with established studio reputations and a few with some public art commissions behind them. Conner led the students in six full-day workshops that included information from engineers and planners, as well as more theoretical discussions of site specificity and placemaking. The students also collaborated in teams on creating temporary works, like those along Tacoma’s Prairie Line Trail. Finally, the group competed for the budgeted public art projects—receiving extensive feedback on their applications, whether shortlisted or not.
“I’m not a teacher,” says McBride, “so being in this role where you see change and improvement and growth—it’s amazing. It gives me shivers.”
While the program was tailored to meet the needs of Tacoma, its basic contours could be applied anywhere, according to McBride. The success of the program rests on several principles that McBride stresses in adapting it to other locales: that it unfold over a period of time and include a variety of learning opportunities; that it include a cohort of artists who can engage with and learn from one another; and that it include practical, hands-on experience.