At the recent Public Art Network conference, a panel entitled Contradictions between Placemaking and Public Art got me thinking—and wanting to leap up out of my seat. Lester Burg moderated the panel of accomplished practitioners, including Leila Tamari, Matthew Mazotta, and Courtney Fink. The conversation was fascinating and also wide-ranging, but a point was made that traditionally funded Percent for Art models may not be able to support place-making initiatives and civic or social practice. And that is when I wanted to leap up and say, that’s just not true.

Capital building projects are developed to house civic services and support civic missions. Missions that include everything from social services to publicly supported healthcare, natural resource management and environmental protection, criminal justice, equity and social justice and government reform, and public transit. Capital projects fund activities beyond architectural design and construction, including planning and strategic visioning, community engagement and public outreach and education—and so can the Percent for Art programs that derive funds from those projects.

If this type of work is what you want to do (and your civic partners, citizens, and elected officials will thank you for doing this work), then don’t let the initial legal analysis of what capital dollars can fund be a deterrent. Instead, show how artists can contribute towards more effective strategies for engaging communities in dialogue and relationships that lead to better outcomes and services valued by citizens within developments that are catalytic and fully integrated with shared, civic values.

Making the case for an expanded definition of public art (within the context of Percent for Art funding) depends on working closely to a nexus of mission, context, place, and the communities most impacted by the project and/or most in need of the services. It is exactly this kind of nexus that fuels social and civic practice.

Here are just a few examples of social and civic practice artwork that 4Culture has produced with our capital project partners:

Brightwater Planning, Ellen Sollod, Looking for Brightwater

Brightwater is a state-of-the-art sewage treatment facility and an environmental education center, community gathering place, and reclamation project. Artists were added to the engineering-driven design team at the earliest stage: siting analysis. Ellen Sollod’s community engagement profoundly affected the engineers, shifting their thinking and opening them to possibilities beyond the technical. Citizens, initially apprehensive about siting this facility in their neighborhood, also shifted their thinking, as they were able to articulate a shared vision for a community amenity. Caring is about connecting and that is what the artist engagement promotes—it invites discovery, it creates memories, it incites understanding. Partnerships with artists can build deep community connections and stimulate actions that help individuals re-imagine their place within a larger social and ecological network.

Seattle Public Utilities and King County Metro, Stokley Towles, Life in the Gutter

Stokley Towles’ one-person monologues are hilarious and fact-filled. Perfecting a performance-based artform that depends on long-term and intensive interaction with utility workers, Stokley reveals the human beings behind the city’s water infrastructure. The performances have the double effect of honoring these utility workers, boosting morale, and revealing their commitment to service, while enabling public audiences to understand the water utility at a relatable and human level. Brilliantly, the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture used Stokley’s performances as the central content for a series of public meetings about upgrades to SPU facilities in neighborhoods throughout the city.

© Stokley Towles, Life in the Gutter, 2011, performance. Photo by John J. LIttle Jr.

King County Regional Trails System, Susan Robb, The Long Walk

Our partners in King County Parks manage 200+ miles of regional trails. Is there a better way to engage the public in understanding that resource than by walking it? As an artwork? The Long Walk was a 4-day, 50-mile, 3-year adventure through the cities, suburbs, farmlands, and forests of King County. This artistic occupation of public space connected citizen trail users and trail-side communities through creative engagement. It connected urban residents to rural lands and the resources they consume and depend on.

© Susan Robb, The Long Walk, 2012. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Creative Justice

Creative Justice is an arts-based alternative to incarceration for young people in King County. Through collaboration with mentor artists, participants consider the root causes of incarceration and focus on the positive role youth voice can have in building a more just and equitable society. 4Culture and a cohort of community partners developed Creative Justice as an innovative approach to ending racial disproportionality and youth incarceration.

Creative Justice 2015, Shontina Vernon, Mentor Artist. Photo by Timothy Aguero Photography.

We do not have to be constrained by preconceived or limited notions of what public art is or can do—or can fund. We can confront inequities in our world, imagine new possibilities, and we can support artists’ interventions and actions that will lead to profound changes.

All of these project examples utilized capital funding derived from a range of legally restricted sources including voter-approved bonds and utility ratepayer and enterprise funds. It can be hard to make the case for this type of practice as public art—the first time. But once you support artists as mediators, translators, instigators, and collaborators within that sweet spot nexus of mission, context, place, and communities, there will be remarkable outcomes. Your capital project partners will the first ones to advocate for more.

Cath Brunner is the recipient of Americans for the Arts’ 2017 Public Art Network Award. Given annually since 2003, the award recognizes an individual or organization that demonstrates innovative contributions and/or exemplary commitment to the field of public art. Brunner is a member of Americans for the Arts.