ST. PAUL, Minn. – Theresa Sweetland brings a lifetime commitment to the arts and social justice to her new role as executive director of Forecast Public Art and publisher of Public Art Review. Previously, Sweetland served as the executive/artistic director of Minneapolis’s Intermedia Arts and as director of development and external relations for the Minnesota Museum of American Art. She is a co-founding artistic director of B-Girl Be, the world’s first international summit for women in hip-hop, and founding director of Creative CityMaking, a pioneering partnership between artists and city staff to advance racial equity goals and engage underrepresented communities in determining the future of Minneapolis.
KAREN OLSON: What most excites you about public art?
THERESA SWEETLAND: The unexpected excites me. I love to stumble across art in everyday spaces like bus stops, parks, a highway underpass, or a store window, and experience it with others. I spent years curating performing and community-based arts, so I’m attracted to the more temporal, DIY works that engage community, creatively disrupt and stimulate questions about public life—whether it is street craft, parklets, guerrilla gardening, digital works, bus stop bingo, or a 20-block community meal. I’m excited when public art can be responsive and immediate, like the mural How The Protectors Defeated The Black Snake, which popped up in Rapid City, South Dakota, in solidarity with the Standing Rock fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
I’m drawn to public art because everyone has access to it, no matter their economic status, the language they speak, their gender or mode of transit. I’m excited when I discover artists who are testing out new ways of working with material and process to engage community, culture, and place. The opportunities for partnership and participation are endless. I have spent 20 years working to partner artists with nontraditional arts environments like senior centers, alternative schools, reservations, prisons, park centers, and boardrooms When an artist enters the picture, new ways of seeing the world unfold and people are invited and allowed to bust open their frames.
What do you find most interesting about working in this field?
Public art—and the definition of what public art can be—is evolving and expanding as more artists and tacticians from all disciplines enter the field. I’m excited about grassroots efforts, pop-ups, high-tech digital works, performance-based interventions, and other community-based means of production in public space. I’m also excited by the rich history of public art practice, how it tells and retells the narrative of place. It’s critical for Forecast to remain at the forefront and stay updated, informed, and constantly prepared to assist artists and communities with their ever-changing needs.
What do you bring to the public art table?
My creative practice is supporting the work of other creatives, cultivating relationships, and curating meaning. I started out working directly with young people and worked with graffiti artists for more than 15 years. As I helped to run the only sanctioned graffiti wall in Minnesota, I earned my credibility with these artists by not only making space for their work but consistently making a case for their rights as working artists. I have a love for art on walls, however it ends up there, and hope to bring my years of experience to Forecast programming and Public Art Review storytelling.
In 2009, I completed my master’s in urban planning with a focus on community and economic development. With the rise of creative placemaking, I developed a multiyear partnership with the long-range planning department in the City of Minneapolis. Creative CityMaking was born out of a need to focus on issues of racial equity in cities and engage underrepresented communities and communities of color in city planning. Through the partnership of artists and planners, more people were engaged in the process and the program expanded to several more city departments. I am always seeking out ways to bring more voices to this work, and building opportunities for Forecast to listen, learn, and share.
From your perspective, and given your experience, where do you think public art is heading?
I have more questions than answers at this stage, but I’m investigating the future of public art, along with some great thinkers across sectors. What we are seeing is exciting; it challenges the field to think and act differently. I see more people engaged in creativity in public places, and moving into the social cause space. What does this mean for public arts? Where does design end and art begin? Innovation, rapid prototyping, and tactical urbanism are driving creative programming and the building of public space. How are public artists in service to this work? What are the differences/similarities between various notions of art and culture? More people across the world are talking about equity, race, justice, and health in relation to neighborhoods and communities. We are engaged in critical conversations about place, land, and history. We live in an era of climate change, population shifts, and innovation in human health and resilience. How is the public art field exploring environmental impacts and cultural impacts, and how can we be part of future solutions?
What artists inspire you?
Nationally and internationally, I love the work of JR, Candy Chang, Faith47, Kobra, Osgemeos, Theaster Gates, The Laundromat Project (NYC), Conflict Kitchen, and—in my own community—the works of Seitu Jones, Greta McLain, Mike Hoyt, Million Artist Movement, the Electric Machete collective, and so many more. I’m also inspired by all kinds of musical artists, but most recently I’m listening to Kendrick Lamar, learning all of the lyrics from Hamilton to keep up with my kids, and trying to figure out Pokémon GO. I collect hip-hop and street-art books, specifically ones that feature women, and one of my prized possessions is a special-edition Levi’s jean jacket designed by the godmother of graffiti, Lady Pink (NYC).
Who do you want to play with?
I am looking forward to collaborating with visionary, diplomatic people who get things done—people who listen deeply and plan thoughtfully. I want to play with rebellious thinkers and people who disrupt the status quo on a continuous basis. I’m always trying to see years down the road and I love to play with people who make me laugh and dream and question why.