A tribute to Forecast’s founder on the eve of his retirement.
“I first knew of Jack Becker fairly early in the public art administrator phase of my career,” says Julia Muney Moore, director of public art for the Arts Council of Indianapolis. “He was one of the luminous names in the field—Jack Becker! He founded Forecast Public Art! He practically invented modern community-based public art! He wrote the resources that we all use! No way I could ever speak to him! But then, at some point, probably after one of his talks, we actually had a conversation.
“He was so warm, so genuine, so human, that he made me feel—finally—accepted as a colleague. Singlehandedly. He made me believe I had something to say, and he listened, really listened, to me as I said it.”
When Jack sat down for a Zoom interview on the occasion of his retirement, the man with whom Moore had this life-changing conversation described himself in terms I’m sure she would agree with. “I’m not an isolated kind of guy,” he said. “I’m social, and I like to engage with people.”
Jack Becker’s engagement with people, his career of helping artists and others who support public art make their dreams real, has also helped give public art a sense of itself and a sense of mission. As Seitu Jones, a nationally known and lauded St. Paul–based public artist, and a friend and colleague of Jack’s for more than four decades, puts it: “Jack Becker carved out a path for public artists through Forecast. He created our trade magazine, Public Art Review, which we all look at for ideas, comments, trends, and friends. Under Jack’s leadership, this field called public art was formalized.”
Born in St. Louis, the son of an ophthalmologist, Jack embraced multiple arts from an early age. A particular love was that most social of art forms, the theater, and though he ended up majoring in studio art at St. Louis’ Webster University, “my theater background probably served me well,” he says, “in terms of taking my art public and thinking about communication, about shared ideas and working with others, like on a theatrical production.”
After graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) in 1977 with a BFA, Jack met Melisande Charles, director of the Minneapolis Arts Commission. She was looking for artists to be part of City Art Productions, a one-year program funded by CETA (the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act). Jack was hired as “Gallery Director”—one of 60 CETA artists in the program—a job that set him on the path to Forecast.
“Melisande and the Arts Commission gave me a desk and a phone in City Hall,” Jack says, “and told me that the city was my gallery.” He worked as a connector, linking artists with public spaces and audiences. “I’d suggest to an artist, ‘Why don’t we go explore the library and the government center and the parks and plazas for your project?’”
Like all good things, CETA came to an end—after one year—and Jack picked up gigs as an usher and a backstage security guy at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis. One day, on his way to work, he passed a gallery space in a renovated warehouse with a “for rent” sign in its window. A lease was signed, and Jack and his “CETA buddies,” as he calls them, joined in the national trend of establishing alternative art spaces. Thanks to a midnight epiphany on Jack’s part, the space was dubbed the Forecast Gallery.
After ten months paying rent, they abandoned the gallery in favor of freely available vacant storefronts and parkland. Still, an enduring name had been created, along with a distinctive logo: a Magritte-esque figure with an open umbrella. “Artists are forecasters of the culture,” says Jack. “We’re on the cutting edge of where things are going. We’re looking out ahead, predicting, projecting, intuiting. The name stuck.”
The creation of Forecast the institution came next. Jack and his buddies decided to make the most of not having a home base; they would mount temporary projects in whatever venues were available. “We weren’t about just doing our own stuff,” Jack says. “We were about opening up opportunities and seeing what other artists wanted to do, too.”
Public art has come to a place where it really does ask itself big questions … How can it help us address this pandemic? How can it help us overcome our grief? How can it bring people together who’ve never talked to each other? How can it address environmental health in a way that environmentalists can’t seem to?
It’s amazing. There’s no subject, no need in the world, no issue you can name that a public artist can’t do something with.
– Jack Becker
The first of these opportunities, and one of the most dramatic, was an exhibition of light and sound art by a group called Midwest Electric Art, in a huge vacant building that had been an early auto showroom. “It was a big production and got a lot of media attention,” Jack says, “and it felt like the real launching of Forecast.”
The Forecasters spent the decade of the 1980s going project by project, Jack says, “focused on connecting the ideas and energies and talents of artists with needs and opportunities that were out there in the community, and that became our mantra.”
The organization made a decisive move toward defining the still-amorphous field of public art when, in 1988, it applied for a regional arts council grant intended to help nonprofits become more entrepreneurial and generate earned revenue. Forecast partnered with a Twin Cities art publication of the era called Vinyl to propose, and then launch, Public Art Review.
“At the same time, we started getting tired of the project-by-project mode,” Jack says, “and I noticed that one of our main funders, the Jerome Foundation, had started re-granting programs with other discipline-based organizations in Minnesota, like the Northern Clay Center and the Playwrights’ Center. I wondered: Could we get in on that? Do a re-granting program for public art?”
And that’s how Forecast’s grant program, which offered two categories of support, was born: research and development grants help artists research materials, opportunities, and ideas; and project grants are for artists who have already done some R&D and have permission from site owners. Forecast also began offering technical assistance and help with insurance, public relations, and documentation. “We told artists, ‘We can be your back office,’” Jack says. “Artists started to realize that they could step out of their comfort zone, because they had an organization helping them on the way to realizing their vision.”
Now Forecast was publishing what would become, for decades, the only magazine in the world solely dedicated to public art, while supporting artists in what was for many their first foray into the public realm. Jack and colleagues were doing workshops around Minnesota, meeting people and getting to know the regional arts councils, too. It stood to reason that entities, governmental and otherwise, looking to make public art part of their planning might get in touch. They did, and Jack added consultant to his titles. Helping cities in Minnesota, the nation, and the world find artists, envision projects, and create public-art master plans became an important element in Forecast’s identity.
The shift from a sole focus on supporting artists to a focus on artists and communities working together to advance equitable outcomes under Theresa Sweetland, who became executive director in 2016, allowed Jack to concentrate on consulting. Jack sees the shift as implicit in Forecast’s mission from the beginning, and implicit in public art itself.
“Public art has come to a place where it really does ask itself big questions,” he says. “How can it help us address this pandemic? How can it help us overcome our grief? How can it bring people together who’ve never talked to each other? How can it address environmental health in a way that environmentalists can’t seem to? It’s amazing. There’s no subject, no need in the world, no issue you can name that a public artist can’t do something with.”
If public artists, in all genres, are addressing these questions today, it’s at least in part because Jack Becker has dedicated a long career to giving so many of them the power to look outside the gallery, into the community, and most of all, into their own hearts.