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Art + Community in Saint Louis Sarah Hermes Griesbach

What’s Good In Public Art? Sensitivity of public artists to our greater St. Louis community varies. Many of our local artists ask difficult questions of themselves as they consider their role in public art projects: Is the collaboration between community art practitioners and the public respectful of all involved? Do all parties receive recognition? What about compensation? If there is a mentor-mentee relationship, whose career grows? Questions also arise about the legacy of such a project. What makes public art good? The St. Louis Public Art Consortium (STLPACK) offers curriculum kits using public art from the St. Louis metropolitan area, a project organized by Jane Birdsall-Lander. STLPACK describes successful public art as installations that: 1) are sensitive to community history, assets, issues and aspirations 2) are community and site-oriented, i.e. have internal qualities that allow the work to unify, surprise, 3) develop in an open, informed atmosphere, in order that expectations and goals are clear and shared 4) articulate and extend the values and vision of a community and is designed for a diverse audience 5) allow for artistic creativity and innovation with the added resources of community input, local character and materials The STLPACK guidelines for public art are only one working measurement of good public art that St. Louis art workers are putting to the test. Our regional artists and art institutions approach public art with motivations that range from a push for artists to engage in serious self-examination about the impact and legacy of their projects, to programs that consider public art as an exercise in city branding.

CATs Work With Not For In the years since its founding in 1997, the Community Arts Training Institute (CAT) has prepared more than 400 graduates to grapple with questions inherent in public art practice. The CAT Institute’s June exhibition With Not For at the Regional Arts Commission (RAC) was titled to encapsulate the most basic question that determines good and bad public art programs.

Map of CAT programs to date (detail), With Not For exhibition, at the RAC (photo credit: Sarah Hermes Griesbach) 15 ALLTHEARTSTL.COM FALL 2015

CAT alumna Emily Squires’ 2012 Manifesto for Community Arts hangs in the office of Roseann Weiss, Director of Community and Public arts at RAC. The Manifesto was removed from Weiss’ office to hang in the With Not For exhibit. It begins, “Art is a necessary tool for addressing social injustice in America. Community art seeks to make visible or ameliorate social injustice. But the work of community arts is not separate from systems of privilege, access and oppression.” This intense scrutiny is integral to the CAT ethos. The current iteration of the Pink House reflects that self-reflective critique. The Pink House, a modest bungalow in the Pagedale municipality of North St. Louis County, has origins tied to the work of Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation. It is a neighborhood art space that is now supported by Beyond Housing. It was the first physical placement of a CAT program. Gina Martinez organizes the child-directed programming at the Pink House, where artist-adults are midwives to the ideas of the young people who show up. The artist-adults first need to consider the security of the artist-youth and endeavor to gain the confidence of the children’s families. After that, the work of the adults is to encourage the young to create. CAT alum Marcis Curtis worked with artist-youth at the Pink House to build chess sets. He has put considerable thought into the impact of his role as an artist-adult in the larger community and offers that “social practice holds numerous intense, complicated responsibilities.”

Vulnerable Communities Any community that an artist works within will have some degree of vulnerability. At Blank Canvas Studios in Saint Charles, the risk of unintentional exploitation is inherent and obvious. Blank Canvas is an art program organized by Resources for Human Development (RHD-Missouri), a nonprofit that creates services for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. The Blank Canvas Studio artist instructors focus on their respect for the dignity of the program participants. Their primary goals include consistent examination of the intentions and impact of their programs. Similarly, Vision Strength Action (VSA) Missouri, founded by CAT alumnae, is a statewide organization promoting access to the arts for people with disabilities. Like the facilitators of Blank Canvas, VSA organizers work to ensure that the community participants they serve are never exploited. Their belief is that “art changes lives.” Their goal is to provide the opportunity for personal transformations through artistic production.

Artists working at the Pink House and at Blank Canvas Studios do not have any particular outcome in mind when they engage with their public. But when artists are commissioned to create art outcomes collaboratively with a community, the expectations are tied to product as well as process.


Model of the Pink House, With Not For exhibition at the Regional Arts Commission (photo credit: Sarah Hermes Griesbach)

That product is often tied to the goals of the organization funding the project. Organizations commissioning art may have more interest in the work of a design firm than an artist. Art may be chosen that emphasizes decorative features over work that is experimental and powerful. Blandly attractive public art isn’t inevitable, but public art that is profound or remarkable in any way only comes from intentional emphasis on the relevance of the art and the rigor of the artist. Artists William Burton Jr. and Robert Ketchens direct the Atelier D’Artiste 14 (formerly known as the 14th Street Artist Community Gallery) in the Old North neighborhood. They are responsible for the new mural celebrating Olympic runner Jesse Owens on the corner of North 14th Street and St. Louis Avenue. The Owens mural, completed last June, was commissioned by Focus Films to promote the upcoming biographical sports-drama Race. Burton and Ketchens developed the project as part of their Raw Canvas program with artist apprentices Arieona Burse, Darryl Reece and Nia Price. Burton and Ketchens, both CAT alumnae, are confident in their ability to navigate their way through the fraught task of corporate commissions to work ethically within the community. They consider heavily their intentions and the legacy of their projects. Ketchens asserts that “Art is a noble profession. We have to make a living. However, we cannot be bought or muzzled.” In June, Burton and Ketchens designed murals for a Metro Art Bus that attendees of the Green Homes Festival then painted. The uninitiated might confuse the painted Art Bus with a bus wrap designed by a commercial graphic artist. You’ve seen both. One important difference between the two is that while there are acknowledgements of all the Art Bus funders with logos and text on the rear of the bus, the main message of the Art Bus is from the non-profit sponsor. It is not a commercial for the underwriter.

Possibilities and Limitations David Allen, director of Metro’s Arts in Transit program, is a member of a national organization that created a handbook of “Best Practices for Integrating Art into Capital Projects” for the American Public

All the Art, Fall 2015  

The Visual Art Quarterly of St. Louis

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