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Boston Builds an Artist-in-Residence Program, Bringing Creativity to City Hall

Juan Obando presenting his Boston Artist in Residence proposal (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Juan Obando presenting his Artist-in-Residence proposal for the city of Boston (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

BOSTON — It’s snowing hard outside, and it’s a Saturday, but the second-floor hallway of the city’s newest municipal building — its school department headquarters — is filled with artists and bureaucrats. All of them have navigated sluggish traffic and slippery sidewalks to be here on a weekend, defying many of the stereotypes people have of each group.

Some are pacing and talking to themselves; one tunes an instrument; others hobnob nervously over baked goods and coffee. They’re all taking a short break from a long afternoon of PowerPoint presentations.

The first chunk featured gorgeous projection mappings of seals swimming among icebergs across the side of a building, an interactive demonstration of “dialog choreography,” and simple line drawings depicting a museum in a major tourist area with an 8’ x 12’ footprint. Most presenters, including ones who seemed used to performing, were nervous; one accidentally cursed, then cursed twice more while trying to apologize for the first curse. The audience tittered and was completely forgiving.

After the break, a violinist makes her way to the stage, playing as she walks. An off-duty police sergeant in the back of the room is beaming. He all but gives her a thumbs up as she turns to face the crowd, places her instrument aside, and launches her slides.

This second batch of presentations includes elegant data visualizations of traffic fatalities, sweeping blips of ship sonar, some intense theatrical exercises, and a Q&A session with all of the artist-presenters.

Violinist Shaw Pong Liu taking the stage for her presentation (photo by the author for Hyperallergic
Violinist Shaw Pong Liu taking the stage for her presentation (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The afternoon closes with instructions from Karin Goodfellow, director of the Boston Art Commission. Facing “Intricacy” (2015), an installation composed of acoustic tiling that the city recently commissioned from young Boston artist Clarita Stephens, and an enthusiastic crowd, Goodfellow thanks everyone for their passion for the city and its artists. She then invites us to use the forms provided to give input to a panel of jurors, who will determine which three of the 10 presentations made this afternoon will become Boston’s first commissioned Artist-in-Residence (AIR) projects.

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At the end of 2014, Boston got its first cabinet-level chief of arts and culture in over 20 years. In early 2015, it began a comprehensive assessment of its cultural assets and needs. Then, last fall, the city inaugurated the AIR program, a collaboration with Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and put 10 artists and representatives from roughly the same number of city departments through a crash course in creative civic engagement together. After that, the artists had several weeks to build relationships with one or more city departments and develop formal proposals for projects that would work directly with them, in their service areas. These 10 proposals, presented publicly in January 2016, would be narrowed down to three in February and slated to enter a production phase in the spring.

Among this first cohort of artists was Shaw Pong Liu, a violinist and composer–turned–social practice artist who has been in Boston for about a decade. Liu described her first encounter with city department representatives as “really exciting.” She found the idealism and passion for service that city employees brought to their work on par with what she’d experienced in artist and activist communities. She was “blown away by people’s willingness to carve time for meeting with artists out of their days when they are already overworked.”

Liu reveled in — but was also disoriented by — how experimental the first iteration of the program was. She loved the thrill of forging new ground, but yearned for a stronger sense of what was expected of her as she began trying to build relationships with particular departments.

A slide from Shaw Pong Liu's proposal
Slide from Shaw Pong Liu’s proposal (image courtesy Shaw Pong Liu)

After completing the last workshop in early December, Liu had a loose idea of turning herself into an interdepartmental musical telegram service for city hall. But she was so concerned about  having a competitive enough project for a particular department that she considered not making a proposal at all. Instead, Liu explained, her strategy was going to be “to use the opportunity to build as many personal connections within the city as possible,” in the hopes of developing projects informally, outside of the AIR program, later.

Fortunately, she managed to overcome her apprehension in time to propose a project focused on “prototyping ways that music can support healing and police-community dialogue about gun violence and race” in collaboration with the Police Department.

A number of artists I spoke with described the matchmaking process between city departments and artists using dating metaphors. Some compared it to speed dating; others said they felt awkward not knowing if people really liked their projects or were more interested in someone else’s. Some artists followed the protocol suggested for making these pairings: listing their three top choices and waiting to see if any of those picks chose them before developing a proposal. Others ignored it and went directly to the liaisons for the departments that interested them to pitch their in-progress ideas in person.

Multimedia artist Juan Obando, a recent transplant to Boston, said his first days in the program were “filled with fascination.” He was seeing possibilities for projects in every department he encountered. “Before I even got paired with three departments, I already met with two more that I was interested in.” He liked that it was the city representatives who got to make the final choices about the pairings. “I think it empowers the departments to welcome somebody that they really want to work with,” he said. Obando also welcomed the challenge of thinking of ideas for each of the three departments he was matched with.

In December, he described a hilarious proposal for the Transportation Department involving data-mined texting-while-driving selfies and an REM cover, as well as a video project that would have essentially given the Police Department a social media makeover.

Slide from Juan Obando's proposal (image courtesy Juan Obando)
Slide from Juan Obando’s proposal (image courtesy Juan Obando)

But Obando’s final proposal came in partnership with the Education Cabinet: a simultaneously playful and serious temporary space for the recycling of academic experiences and equipment, called the Boston Re-Academy. This “pirated education” would address the discrepancy between the density of universities in the Boston area and the low rates at which public high school graduates attend college by connecting “local educators and young learners through an experimental role-playing program”; semester-long courses would be taught in a day, and students would decide what constitutes useful knowledge.

The biggest complaint I heard among artists in the program was that the competitive winnowing process did not encourage connection among members of the cohort, and thus undercut one of the things that Boston’s socially engaged artist community counts among its most valuable assets: a deeply collaborative, nurturing spirit. The three artists interviewed for this piece addressed this subtly by incorporating collaborators into the budgets that accompanied their final proposals.

Early on in the process, playwright/performance artist Melissa Nussbaum Freeman, who has lived in the area nearly 20 (non-consecutive) years, mentioned that the private Facebook group set up for the first cohort of artists and city employees was not a very active channel of communication and brainstorming in the way that many local artist Facebook groups are. She expressed disappointment that, when attending events other AIR artists promoted there, she was one of only a few from the group to show up.

Freeman described absorbing the reference materials from the workshop phase of the program as one of the best experiences her brain has ever had. But she feels the city missed a real opportunity by not allowing collaborative proposals in the final stage of the process. “The other artists are fabulous, and I’m so glad to have met them and am so inspired by their work. But I think if you get three artists talking together you have much more than just three ideas. It totally amplifies [art making] in every single way. My ideas just explode when I get to work with other artists.”

Slide from Melissa Nussbaum Freeman's proposal (image courtesy Melissa Nussbaum Freeman)
Slide from Melissa Nussbaum Freeman’s proposal (image courtesy Melissa Nussbaum Freeman)

Freeman’s final proposal was to put the feedback processes embedded in her participatory performance troupe Playback Theatre into service for the Commission on Affairs of the Elderly and the Commission for Persons with Disabilities. The goal is “building community by artistically dramatizing” vulnerable populations’ “true, personal stories” and generating “new perspectives and creative ideas to support the work of both commissions.”

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Boston is not the first American city to launch an AIR program, but there are fewer out there than people think. Calls to major cities around the country brought the surprising information that Boston is among a very small number with currently active, officially sanctioned, funded AIRs.

San Francisco, which spends far more on the arts than Boston, doesn’t have an AIR program, and even New York City, famous for piloting the concept via Mierle Laderman Ukeles‘s poetic, self-initiated, nearly 40-year relationship with the Sanitation Department, didn’t have a funded program until 2015. Ukeles receives in-kind workspace and fabrication assistance, but her position is not a paid one.

This model has been replicated in other cities, and is something that Karin Goodfellow wants very much to transcend. In some ways, the reason Boston is just getting into the city AIR game now is that “we wanted to do it in a way where artists’ efforts would be recognized meaningfully, and as valuable work,” she said. “It’s very important to us.”

Goodfellow painted a portrait of hard-working city employees hungry for new modes of exploring the problems they face with limited resources. She also described the pleasure of having artists in the city hall building validating the creative practices that many city employees already engage in outside of work, and that they often see as a secondary form of thinking to the main kinds they do on the job.

Boston’s 2015–16 AIR program is funded in part by a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Our Town grant, which prioritizes public-private partnerships and which Gülgün Kayim, Minneapolis’s director of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, claims is rooted in the master plan developed for Worcester, Massachusetts’s arts district in the mid-2000s. The NEA was unable to confirm that Our Town has Massachusetts roots, but the much-circulated master plan does seem to predate a 2010 white paper about creative placemaking that the NEA produced for that year’s Mayors’ Institute on City Design, and that continues to inform programs like Our Town.

Kayim, who subscribes to the view that city AIRs should be compensated as consulting professionals, oversees Minneapolis’s resident artists collaboratively with Intermedia Arts, a nonprofit deeply embedded in the local community. Salaried at a pro-rated $60,000 annually, the city’s five AIRs have, as in Boston, been matched with different departments. But they’ve been focused exclusively for the last three years on developing projects that increase racial equity in Minneapolis. Kayim describes everyone involved as a part of “an incredibly passionate partnership.”

Melissa Nussbaum Freeman presenting her Boston AIR proposal (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Melissa Nussbaum Freeman presenting her Boston AIR proposal (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Last month, each of the 10 selected Boston artists publicly presented a proposal (with buy-in from a city department) for a project meant to approach the city’s work from a completely new perspective — this is where the snowy weather, baked goods, expletives, and violin playing came into play.

Three of them were chosen as winners yesterday: Shaw Pong Liu; Georgie Friedman, whose video project focuses on abandoned buildings; and L’Merchie Frazier, who proposed a quilting project to help women with substance abuse problems. Each was awarded $25,000 in funding to support implementation over the next six months. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh recently announced that the city would be earmarking $500,000 for the next round of artist residencies, ensuring that these first three AIRs will not be the only ones.

This is undeniably welcome news in a city where artists are watching housing affordability decline by the day, and from which native creatives are reluctantly moving in search of professional opportunities elsewhere. So far, the AIR program has served primarily as a symbol of hope that the tide of underfunding in the arts is turning. It should soon also prove to be the source of some challenging new public art; a means of cleaning the dirty window that separates a city’s civil servants from its civilians; and an example of Boston being just slightly more ahead of the curve than you think it is.

Correction: This article originally misstated that Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s position with the NYC Department of Sanitation is unofficial; it is, in fact, official but unpaid. We regret the error, and it has been fixed.

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