Soon Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Department of Transportation (CDOT) won’t just be planning and overseeing street design, maintaining traffic signals, and repairing speed bumps—it will be supporting an artist, too.
When the department’s first artist-in-residence takes up a two-year commitment this fall, Chattanooga will become part of a trend: governmental transportation agencies, with their day-to-day responsibility for large swaths of urban and rural infrastructure, partnering with public art programs and other organizations to call on artists to help, not by making artworks or doing other one-off projects, but by being embedded in the agencies for long-term residencies. Their goal: to help create and rethink procedures—especially ways of interacting with the public—from the ground up.
Chattanooga’s experience began when CDOT, led by Blythe Bailey, approached Katelyn Kirnie, director of Public Art Chattanooga (PAC). “Blythe was trained as an architect,” says Kirnie, “and he understands the role of artists in placemaking.” On his watch, she says, “CDOT wanted to get artists involved with all the projects they were doing. We soon realized that might be too ambitious, so we suggested a single artist-in-residence plan, and they were very enthusiastic.” The City Artist program was born in 2017.
The artist was to be tasked with working closely with the agency, garnering community input in the underserved Southside Gardens neighborhood, and carrying out projects there. “But after the initial interviews we realized this plan asked too much of any given artist and didn’t allow CDOT the degree of control they wanted,” Kirnie says. “So we took the placemaking and the art-making components out and pared it back to embedding the artist in the department to kind of disrupt systems and projects with creative approaches.”
Under the revised plan, the City Artist will help CDOT figure out fresh ways to interact with the community—to communicate the agency’s initiatives and gather community input. The artist will also help to come up with innovative and economical methods of traffic calming—“beyond speed bumps,” Kirnie says.
“There are a lot of things that state DOTs want to do better and learn about, and we think this artist-in-residence model is a good way to help them.”
—Ben Stone, director of arts and culture, Transportation for America
Storytelling in L.A.
Some transportation departments, of course, have established residencies aimed specifically at the creation of artworks. Seattle’s DOT and its Office of Arts & Culture, for example, set up a short-term residency in which artists called attention to three of the city’s most iconic bridges via writings, a musical composition, and a lighting scheme. Indianapolis’s transportation agency spearheaded a residency in which stories from riders were displayed on city buses. But the move toward allowing artists to have an impact on the transportation agencies themselves was pioneered by Los Angeles.
In 2016 its Creative Catalyst program chose sound, visual, and public artist Alan Nakagawa for a one-year residency in which he created multiple public-facing works, including a “perfume box” at a city bus shelter that spritzed waiting riders’ hands with scents evocative of California landscapes. But he also set up workshops with staffers in which a professional storyteller showed them how to explain policies and issues to the public in livelier, more humane, less technocratic ways. And he recorded oral histories from former and current LADOT staffers and turned them into a podcast.
Into the Statehouses
Now, thanks to urbanist Ben Stone, director of arts and culture for the nonprofit Transportation for America, the DOT-embedded-residency trend has reached the state level. In July the DOTs of Washington State and Minnesota kicked off artist residencies, administered and funded by Transportation for America through a grant from ArtPlace America. Mary Welcome and Kelly Gregory will be joining WSDOT, with Marcus Young at MnDOT.
“There are a lot of things that state DOTs want to do better and want to learn about, and we think this artist-in-residence model is a good way to help them,” Stone says.
These include figuring out how to deal with the local-state conflicts, he notes. “For example, the main goal of the state agency is to move people efficiently through space, from city to city, core city to suburb, while the municipality is more concerned with the quality of the space itself, issues of aesthetics and safety and culture.” Artists can engage with push-pull issues like that in creative ways, he says.
At the same time, state highways function as the main streets of many smaller towns that have no municipal DOTs of their own, and improving aesthetics, safety, and culture on these roadways can be a key state DOT contribution, with artists’ help.
While it’s too early to say what Welcome, Gregory, and Young are planning for their state DOTs, Stone is upbeat on the way embedding can work in general.
“Staff meetings, where you talk about what could be done better, are fine,” he says, “but there’s also something important about asking someone kind of naïve and not that familiar with the organization to come in and just kind of poke around.
“It will be a fresh set of eyes. It will be a new way of thinking about things. I can’t promise what will come out of it, but I hope it will be something new and different, something unique.”