The Politics of Place
What are the dimensions of civically-engaged art practices and how do they work to balance inequalities in income, housing, and access to clean food, water, and air in the built environment? Project Row Houses, initiated by artist Rick Lowe, is known nationally and internationally as an example of a project that has successfully cultivated long-term, sustained civic engagement. In 1993, Lowe and a group of his collaborators, bought 22 shotgun houses in Houston’s Historic Third Ward. They used grant funds from the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation and the NEA as seed money to begin renovating the dilapidated buildings and established community buy-in by asking neighborhood residents and church groups to “adopt” individual houses. Hundreds of volunteers fortified porches, removed trash and used needles from lots, and hung wallboard. In 1994 the first houses opened and Project Row Houses has since evolved from a cluster of small, unassuming structures to a site encompassing five city blocks and 39 buildings which provide housing for new mothers and under resourced neighbors, space for small community-focused businesses, and temporary residences for artists working to understand and enrich the lives of others.
Not far from Houston in New Orleans, Operation Paydirt, a project by artist Mel Chin, has grappled with post-Hurricane Katrina soil contamination since 2006. Lead is a particular problem for younger city residents as research has definitively shown high levels of lead in the bloodstream are linked to severe delays in physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Unequipped to shoulder the hundreds of millions of dollars in costs associated with soil remediation himself, Chin instead invited schools, families, and communities to contribute to the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, a central component of Operation Paydirt. Nearly half a million community collaborators have been enlisted over the last ten years to make original, hand-drawn interpretations of hundred dollar bills as stand-ins for the huge amount of paper currency it would take to remediate New Orleans’ soil. The “Fundreds” are then collected and delivered via armored car to policy makers in Washington DC in volumes that make civically-engaged art practices’ capacity to foreground discussions around policy change hard to ignore.
Closer to home, Undesign the Redline: Understanding and Transforming the Effects of Housing Discrimination in Omaha, currently on view at the Union for Contemporary Art, examines the interdependencies of segregation, discriminatory home lending practices, and inequalities in education, income, and health. Initiated by designing the WE, a group of designers and organizers based in New York City, the project actively collaborates with community leaders and advocates to build public programming that reveals a history of hurt entangled with policies and decision making processes, either hidden or obscured by city government. More a gathering place for neighbors to share experiences than a white box exhibition, Undesign the Redline holds space for honest conversations about the persistence of institutionalized forms of discrimination. Openly acknowledging how the built environment is leveraged by policy makers to intentionally perpetuate social injustices not only issues a challenge to do better for ourselves and our neighbors, but also positions collaborative learning as a path forward, through fraught histories, to a more equitable future.
Those are just a few examples of projects born from civically-engaged practices that forge meaningful change by cultivating more nuanced understandings of place through collaboration. Prioritizing a working practice that operates in tandem with community leaders and organizers, over a singular approach to static neighborhood beautification projects, has proven an effective way build social cohesion and attract other community stakeholders with a vested interest in the place they call home. City governments across the country, with the exception of NYC where Mierle Laderman Ukeles has been the Artist in Residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation since 1977, have been slow to acknowledge and embrace the positive impacts of work that emerges from thoughtful, civically-engaged art practices. Admittedly, the aesthetic punch of a hand-drawn $100 bill lands a little softer than one of Jeff Koons’ enormous balloon dogs, but more and more cities are making important distinctions between the value of aesthetic impact and the potential for sustained civic engagement. Take St. Paul, Minnesota’s City Artist Program, or Houston’s Resident Artist Program as examples of two initiatives with municipal funding working to address issues surrounding neighborhood development, immigration, income inequality, climate change, etc. by creating positions within city government for artists who have developed context-sensitive, community-centered approaches to art making. Could Omaha be next on that list? Would having an artist or group of artists working at the city level to intentionally address some of the issues bound up with civic life change general perceptions about artists’ roles? Could a cultural masterplan for the City of Omaha open up space for a city artist program here? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.