When I graduated as a sculptor from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1976, my goal was to get gallery representation, score a museum show, land a commission, and maybe move to New York City.
While none of these things happened right away, I chose to stay in the arts mecca of the Twin Cities, hang around MCAD, and continue networking with former classmates. This quickly evolved into a club of sorts that met weekly in hopes of doing some kind of exhibit project.
At one of our sessions we realized we shared an interest in postcards: collecting, making, and so on. So we decided to organize a postcard exhibit. We posted fliers around the school and invited others to join.
At one of our meetings, a woman none of us knew came into the room, sat in the back, and observed our excited discussion.
After an hour or so she raised her hand, and I called on her. “Hello,” she said, “my name is Melisande Charles, and I have six thousand postcards.” Of course we were elated, and the show went forward with renewed energy.
Little did we know, Melisande was the director of the Minneapolis Arts Commission and was in the process of securing federal funds to launch a CETA program that would hire 60 artists in the region. (More on CETA in our article, Looking for CETA.) An outspoken, pioneering artist and entrepreneur with New York City hutzpah, Melisande must have seen something in me that I was unaware of, and she later encouraged me to apply for a job in the program. Soon after, like some kind of Horatio Alger fable, thanks to my modest role in organizing a fun little postcard show in the college cafeteria, I was crowned gallery director for City Art Productions, with a desk and phone at City Hall. The city was my gallery, and I was charged with organizing exhibitions of CETA artists at places like the library, the government center, parks, plazas, and other public venues.
“The city was my gallery, and I was charged with organizing exhibitions of CETA artists at places like the library, the government center, parks, plazas, and other public venues.”
For a 23-year-old art pup, this was empowering. With Melisande as my mentor, I learned how to work the telephone and get things done, make connections and open doors that I never imagined could open. Calling from City Hall, as it turns out, gets results! Bureaucracy, I soon learned, is like found-object sculpture, an art form that’s all about connecting the raw materials of the city—people, places, and things—in new and meaningful ways.
This basic notion of creative connecting became the core of my artistic practice. The CETA experience was my graduate school and led to the formation, less than a year later, of Forecast Public Art, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening and advancing the field of public art.
Thirty-eight years later, it still is. Now, as we go to press, Forecast’s board of directors is conducting a national search for a new executive director so I can shift my job here to what I most enjoy: serving communities seeking a foothold in the public art world.
Most of my time here has been spent responding to requests for help from artists, educators, design professionals, government agencies, developers, planners, and others. I now have the opportunity to take what I’ve learned and the contacts I’ve made around the world and help Forecast increase its impact by focusing my full attention on consulting and downloading what I’ve learned over the past 38 years.
As I look back and consider the core values that helped Forecast survive and even thrive, it wasn’t about innovating or artistic bells and whistles. It was about foundational things like connecting, sharing, channeling energies, and giving artists a chance to follow their passion and realize their potential. After all, it was Melisande who saw something in me and gave me a chance. I’m just paying it forward. And I’m still collecting postcards.
Jack Becker is the founder of Forecast Public Art.
This piece appeared as the publisher’s note in the print issue of Public Art Review issue 54.