A Change of Heart

Public art can do a lot to promote the health of our communities —if planners understand all the new roles it can play

Jack Becker is the founder of Forecast Public Art and director of its Consulting + Creative Services.
Photo by Dan Marshall.

I’ve had my fair share of near-death experiences. I fell out of a tree when I was 10 years old; cracked my head open on the bottom of a swimming pool a few years later; and survived a head-on collision on the highway when I was a freshman in college. But I topped those mishaps 16 years ago when I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a degenerative form of heart failure. It was a frightening diagnosis, but not a death sentence. In 2007, after a long, slow decline in my health, I was extremely lucky to get a new heart, thanks to a young man named Brad who died in a motorcycle accident. He had checked a box on his driver’s license, and the result was the saving of six people’s lives, including mine. The rescue also required the efforts of many skilled medical professionals working selflessly and at the top of their game.

As a husband, a father, and a dweller in a neighborhood, I’ve also become more and more aware of a conception of health that goes well beyond my personal history and concerns. The health of the world, our country, and the communities in which we live, I’ve come to realize, is in jeopardy at many levels—from the physical health of citizens to cultural, economic, and environmental health and sustainability. Care for our community fabric, like care for our physical bodies, calls for selfless concern and professional skill.

One of the professionals most crucial to fostering the health of urban areas is the city planner. Like a physician, the planner works under tremendous pressure—and he or she needs the best tools and practices in order to do the job of restoring our communities to health. One vital tool in the planner’s kit is public art, which can do remarkable things —but only if its true nature and potential are understood.

Pivot Points

Having worked as a public art consultant, including work as a facilitator of public art plans for cities, I’ve gained a deep respect for the difficult role that planners play, and a reverence for their ability to serve as pivot points within complex bureaucracies. Planners have to navigate the terrain inside and outside city hall, collect input from key stakeholders, follow trends, address potential crises, learn from the past, be aware of the present, and make plans for the future. They have to interpret data, not only to make their own informed decisions, but to be able to inform others and make recommendations—recommendations that often involve taking a long and broad view and may not be seen as immediately helpful. Their view is broad because they’re channeling the needs, opportunities, and concerns of all the stakeholders in their city —residents, businesses, developers, and others. It’s long-term because environmentalists, they’re charged with creating strategies to improve their communities far into the future.

And in this complex role, the planner is very much a “health professional”—fostering soundness at multiple levels, from the (metaphorical) health of the economy right on down to the literal physical health of citizens.

Public Art: The Unknown Quantity

At Forecast we’ve recently been asking the question: What do city planners—and other allied professionals in the public art field, such as place-based designers, community developers, infrastructure engineers, educators, and parks directors—know about public art today, and how can public art, in one form or another, play a role in addressing the entire range of health issues faced by their cities

How aware are planners that public art has evolved from the commissioning of objects and wall treatments into a sophisticated practice, one that utilizes creative community engagement tactics, equity-minded techniques for bringing unheard voices to the surface and amplifying them in our neighborhoods, and out-of-the-box thinking addressing the challenges of practically every sector in our cities, our suburbs, and our rural communities? The awareness has its limits—after all, if it were more widespread and comprehensive, we wouldn’t be stuck with almost 350 percent-for-art programs throughout the U.S. that can only fund the commissioning of fixed works of art.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely grateful for cities that are investing in art and artists in any way at all; but how can we increase the depth and breadth of public art programs to support the wide range of work being done today and the work of the future, which is likely to be even more expansive? How can we work with planners to figure out how to support vibrant bottom-up public art struggling to make a meaningful impact outside of bureaucratic systems? How can we make sure artists are engaging communities in creative ways to support the goals that our cities have already established?

We need to help cities go beyond hosting occasional projects; help them develop deeply meaningful public art and community cultural development programs that connect with all aspects of the city, perhaps through the lens of health—a new kind of public health initiative. With help from city planners, cities can develop an infrastructure that supports artists’ participation in addressing the health of the built environment, the social environment, and the natural environment.

Public art isn’t a frill, nor is it icing on the cake. It’s a key ingredient. But after working in this field for 40 years, and seeing it flourish, for some reason I still get that deer-in-the- headlights look from all sorts of people who have no idea what public art is, let alone what it could be. Our educational system isn’t helping, and probably can’t or won’t change fast enough to put a dent in the problem; artists have to do this themselves, by infiltrating every corner of our cities, meeting and talking and sharing their talents with everyone they can.

A Partnership for Planners

Artists working with planners and other civic decision- makers should be paid handsomely, receive specialized training, and gain the respect they deserve as professionals pushing for positive change. But how could this scenario ever come to pass?

Forecast’s two-year, NEA-funded partnership with the American Planning Association is one answer that’s gaining momentum. We’re jointly creating public art curricula and learning resources for city planners in cities of all sizes, tools that will help city planners learn about public art and how artists can help them meet health goals set by their cities, in collaboration with allied professionals and networks of planners in other cities.

Our pilot effort involves planners and their colleagues from the southern Minnesota cities of Rochester, Red Wing, Winona, Austin, and Mankato. We’re watching as they gain the ability and the tools needed to conduct independent demonstration projects, share knowledge with their colleagues and city council members, and network regionally to create authentic and actionable public art plans in partnership with their own communities.

How can all this trickle down to support for artists, not just to make artworks, but to work in and with communities? How can we go from percent-for-art to the new paradigm suggested to me by one city planner: percent for community engagement? (Sure, there’s misunderstanding of, and resistance to, the idea of public art—but who could be against community engagement?)

I wonder which city will be the first to step up to the plate and devote one percent of every dollar they spend in their city, in every department—police, schools, public health, public works, planning, parks and recreation, libraries, etc.— to artists in their communities. Imagine artists working in and with every department, to help it maximize its impact and gain access to communities it seeks to serve. The program would involve the most diverse, skilled, and creative set of artists possible, and would set aside funds to coordinate the elements, guide the process, train the artists, and provide resources to city departments and leaders to help them gain appreciation of what’s being done and what’s possible.

It’s time to broaden and diversify the way cities engage in our field, in every way possible, with equity, intention, authenticity, common sense, and good planning. If we get it right, we just might give new life—a new “heart”—to our public life and our democracy.

Jack Becker is the founder of Forecast Public Art and director of its Consulting + Creative Services.

Featured in Public Art Review #58.

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