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Placing Artists Upstream: The Practice of City Art

Published onDec 24, 2019
Placing Artists Upstream: The Practice of City Art

The City Artist Program

Since its inception in 2005, Public Art Saint Paul’s City Artist program has redefined the role of the artist working within city government. Integrated far upstream in the daily and long-term workings of the city, artists are creating new artistic, social, and civic practice through this innovative public-private partnership between Public Art Saint Paul, a private, nonprofit, and the City of St. Paul. The Program’s central goals are to integrate the creative approaches and mindsets of artists into the daily workings of the city, and to create art out of the city’s social and life-sustaining systems. Artists advise on major city initiatives and lead their own artistic and curatorial projects. They have dedicated workspace within the city so they can freely collaborate across departments, also aided by an assigned City of Saint Paul email address.

Saint Paul is unique in that City Artists work within the walls of City Hall to ensure that art is considered as an integral part of nearly every civic discipline. Since City Art stems from the life sustaining systems of the city, artists need this extended opportunity to work collaboratively with other professional city makers to be truly groundbreaking. Immersed and integrated in the city-making process, artists can finally fully learn these systems as their media. How do city systems move, shift, and develop, why are policies in place? This obviously is a long game. Project after project, work after work, City Artists ultimately seek to create a holistically wonderful city to be experienced by all through an artistic approach that pollinates across different departments while finding articulation points within sustaining systems ranging from storm water management to parks and street construction.

Art is a visual language, no more, but also no less. Like any language, it can help us both understand the world and also communicate this understanding to others. It has its weaknesses—lack of precision and clarity to mention some—but it makes up these tendencies in its celebration of ambiguity and contradiction that are cloaked in glorious spectacle.  Contemporary society prioritizes written and spoken language as it can be clear and concise and understood quickly. However, these languages can form boundaries that at best bind, but they also can exclude. As the living systems of the city belong to everyone, the visual language of art offers a universality that is based on a life that is lived and joyfully experienced and while art is of course flavored by the culture around it, ultimately it transcends common boundaries set up by other forms of communication and expression.

Pollination and Articulation

The problems of the city are very complex and constantly changing with so many issues that require attention. The approach of the typical city is to address these problems through specialists in different departments with exacting training. This works to create separate pockets of deep knowledge and skill sets. From engineers to attorneys, planners to surveyors, each profession’s knowledge is vital to the whole, but sometime creates a disjointed approach. Where can ideas flow and inspire everyone? What parts can shift to make a better city? These are some of the questions we consider as City Artists.

One of the first things Amanda Lovelee was tasked with upon being hired as a City Artist in 2013 was to make a PowerPoint presentation for a community meeting about the design of a new park playground. After making the presentation as informative and aesthetically stimulating as she could, she was excited to use it as a tool to engage the neighbors near the park. . Looking up at the sparse audience, Lovelee realized that the presentation did not matter if so few people saw it.  And to have more people see it, major barriers for people to attend this kind of meeting had to be surmounted. Some would have to find child care or not work second shift. They would have to know when and where the meeting would take place.  Most importantly, they would need to feel that their voices would be heard. And many live in a system that historically favored some voices over others. After this experience, Amanda created Pop Up Meeting as a way for ideas to flow more freely and openly between city residents and city government.

Figure 1: The Pop Up Meeting truck with Former City Artist Amanda Lovelee

Photo Credit Tiffany Bolk Photography

Pop Up Meeting seeks to increase diversity and participation in Saint Paul’s urban planning process. From an artistically-wrapped electric truck owned by the city, Pop Up Meeting dynamically unfolds as St. Paul’s front porch to engage communities and customize civic meetings based on place and stakeholder needs. (Figure 1) Each Pop Up Meeting involves a city survey from any department who seeks input from residents—from the mayor’s budget to park design to major planning developments. Pop Up Meeting visually and comprehensibly collects and shares the ideas and responses of community members with city staff. In exchange for their thoughts, survey responses, or handwritten love letters to the city, participants receive a locally-made St. Pops ice pop (mint lemonade) from the staff who drive the brightly designed truck. Through playful engagement, Pop Up Meeting brings the city to the people and creatively invites residents into community conversations. (Figure 2) The results are significant. Surveys found that 70% of the respondents to Pop Up Meeting surveys reported that they had never attended a city meeting. This artist-designed tool is bringing more young families, people of color, and seniors into the civic conversation. (Figure 2)

Figure 2: A Pop Up Meeting for the design of a playground

Photo courtesy of Public Art Saint Paul

After the first three seasons, when Public Art Saint Paul ran Pop Up Meetings in collaboration with city departments, the program expanded to Pop Up Meeting 2.0 by working with the Department of Libraries. What came to be called “Pop Up St. Paul” uses the library system to help organizations throughout the city to have better meetings.  Now, anyone with a St. Paul Library card can check out amplification systems, road barricades, sandwich board signs, interpreter systems, and games for children to  facilitate better meetings of their own. Pop Up Meeting 1.0, the truck, has been integrated now into how the City of St. Paul does business, with city staff taking full responsibility for scheduling and operating the program.

Walking along the sidewalk Marcus Young noticed that some contractors stamped their logo and date of the concrete pouring into a corner of a sidewalk panel. He thought if the city would allow this small form of advertising, why wouldn’t we stamp something beautiful and unexpected? The sidewalk could be a book of poetry that has yet to be printed.

Figure 3: Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk By former City Artist Marcus Young.

photos courtesy of Public Art Saint Paul

So Young initiated the project, Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk, which shifted the city’s sidewalk maintenance program into a publishing entity for poetry. (Figure 3) The project has an ever-expanding collection of poems, written by residents of Saint Paul. Now numbering at more than 1,000 poems, these works are found throughout the City of Saint Paul, providing moments to reflect, smile, puzzle, or delight to anyone walking, running, rolling, biking, or roller skating on St. Paul sidewalks. (Figure 4)

Figure 4: ‘Yes, we will take a poem, please & thank you’

These are but two examples of the deep extant (?) work that City Artists have brought to the City of St. Paul. Among the many other projects are vacant lots that were transformed into temporary parks that hosted science experiments; object-based sculptures that provide pollinator habitats;  and a program that re-imagines the built environment around street reconstruction as a place for beauty and surprise. This is only the work that is visible to the public. City Artists also help to change city processes to make the city more open and even friendly. Each City Artist is tasked to find their way through the forest of living systems that sustain the city creating and advising as they wander.

By embedding artists upstream, St. Paul is truly a spectacular place. Now nearly 15 years old,  the City Artist Program of Public Art Saint Paul is one of the longest Artist-in-Residence programs in the nation and is founded on a few beliefs.

  1. We must place artists in leading roles to shape public spaces, improve city systems, and deepen civic engagement. Art should sit at the table with all the other city workers and dreamers, not be merely just an afterthought.

  2. System change is a long game and artists need extended time to truly make something new. This is why we dropped the phrase ‘in residence’ and now just call our program “City Artist,” like city engineer or city attorney

  3. Artists should be compensated for their time. Too often artists are brought in and asked for their ideas from groups with salaries and pensions. By paying artists to do this work, we also place value on their contributions.

The City Artist Program is based on the belief that art can connect and shift what truly matters to everyone while creating a 21st century city that is just, sustainable, and beautiful.

Aaron Dysart
City Artist embedded in the City of St. Paul through Public Art Saint Paul

This event is supported by the National Science Foundation, Award #1929601. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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