Partners in City Hall
Spearheading a quiet revolution in public art
St. Paul, Minnesota, is spearheading a quiet revolution in public art. A 2009 city ordinance includes artists in the regulations by which the city makes and remakes itself. Here, artists don’t merely make sculptures and murals to adorn the urban landscape; they have a meaningful role in city government and participate in the conception, development, and implementation of all manner of city projects. It’s an “upstream” conception in which public art is so deeply placed in the workaday services of the city as to be indistinguishable from them.
Equally striking are the hybrid funding structures undergirding the city’s efforts. Long before ArtPlace and the “creative placemaking” boom, with its emphasis on public-private collaboration, there was Public Art Saint Paul. This privately funded nonprofit has, for 25 years, worked with civil engineers, urban planners, and public works staffers of St. Paul’s city agencies to embed artists in a variety of capital projects and programs, and they’ve done so through several mayoral administrations and city council shake-ups. Public Art Saint Paul leverages private funding for “city artists” to work alongside civil servants. “We fund the City Artists in Residence with private dollars so there are no taxpayer monies at stake,” explains Christine Podas-Larson, director of Public Art Saint Paul, “and in return the city agrees to provide our artists a place to work [in City Hall], giving them a seat at the table.”
The nonprofit similarly funds the position of Public Art Ordinance Administrator, currently held by Regina Flanagan. In September 2012, Flanagan released guidelines, available in hard copy and online, for interpreting and executing the 2009 Public Art Ordinance. The manual provides definitions and handy, descriptive capsules that translate into everyday language the administrative jargon found in the actual text of the ordinance, making the ordinance transparent to the artists, architects, engineers, public works staffers, urban planners, politicians, and organizations charged with putting it into action. Indeed, the guidelines are, themselves, an innovation in public art and a model for effective cross-disciplinary teamwork.
City Artists in Residence Program
St. Paul’s current “city artist” is Marcus Young, who refers to himself as a “behavioral artist,” has served in the role since 2008, and works closely with the Public Works Department. “When it came time to interview artists for the residency program, everyone assumed we would hire a sculptor,” says Podas-Larson. “That’s what most people think of when they think of a public artist. Then Marcus came in and said, ‘I have a lot of ideas and experience I’m eager to share with you, but I don’t make anything.’ Some people got nervous when they heard that, but others got excited. In the end, we recognized the promise of what Marcus’s fresh way of conceiving public art could offer: observations and insights that could make a real difference in city life.”
The experiment has proven so successful that the program was expanded in December 2012. Young now leads a team including two more City Artists in Residence: Amanda Lovelee, a visual artist with a proclivity for socially engaged art and photography, whose efforts for the city will include “temporal work and public engagement”; and Sarah West, a multidisciplinary artist whose work tends toward architectural and large-scale public art installations and whose residency will focus on “streets and open spaces.”