Imagining Public Art for the Liberatory Future

State Representative Vanna Howard | photo by Marte Media, courtesy of Newell Flather Award recipient Christa Brown/Free Soil Arts Collective

We invite you to get comfortable in your body, whatever that means for you, and take three deep breaths in and out. As you relax, visualize a positive memory you’ve had with art in a public space. What did that experience look like? Smell like? Feel like? Take a few seconds to feel it in your body and in your heart. What elements of this experience are you grateful for? Continue breathing and sit with these elements.

We welcome you to ask yourself: How might you seek out these types of experiences? Could you contribute to creating these types of experiences for yourself and for others? What is your vision for how this feeling will resonate in community with others? Breathe in and sink into this feeling.

We began this series because we were inspired by the Newell Flather Award nominees’ work; we wanted to magnify the ripples that emerged from the shared dialogue that flowed and evolved as we encountered different practices, questions, and perspectives during the review process, as well as from our respective experiences. In our first blog, we celebrated the Newell Flather awardees and their approach to creating public art that communes with and nourishes communities: a counter to the parameters and processes set by most mainstream institutions and organizations. We deepened the focus on community care in the second blog where we discussed the social, spiritual, political, and economic impact of public art, uplifting the importance of acknowledging lineage in carrying forward “the ripple effect” - the vibrations that spread and build over time. In this third and final blog, we’re excited to share a recent workshop we conducted for the Public Art for Spatial Justice and Collective Imagination for Spatial Justice grantees, along with a digital zine template on the ripple effect. We are immensely grateful to workshop participants who were willing to share their wisdom, care, and time on this collective journey.

The cover of the Ripple Effect Zine has soft wavy, blue ripples and the title.

Download The Ripple Effect zine

At the start of the workshop, we offered the meditation above to help ground ourselves. We then created small breakout groups for participants to share a public art experience that had ripple effects in their lives, followed by a digital zine-making session with everyone in one room where we explored the layered dimensions of public art and its relationship to our sense of being. We framed the zine around four core themes of resonance, reverberation, intention, and dream; in doing so, we aimed to center public art that stretches our senses and makes us feel full and that generated experiences we still carry forward in some way, either within ourselves or with others. We also held space for discussion around what it means to be intentional in public art-making and what intentions we aim to cultivate in our practice. Towards the end of the workshop, we invited folx to dream about a world where all of the ripples of our collective intentional public art practice have been felt, and together, we imagined what public art would look like in this liberatory future. 

From the generous contributions by participants, we drew the following insights about the ripple effect: 1) There is complexity within ripples as we engage in public artmaking that interacts with the natural, political, and personal vibrations throughout communities; 2) we may never fully know or understand the ripples we create, but it’s important to keep this in mind as we think about how we approach our work; and 3) initially, we, as the facilitators, had thought of ripples as a way to describe positive impacts, but learned that negative ripples, and everything in between, are critical to consider as well.

The workshop also underlined some things we expected about what is meaningful about public art experiences, such as connecting with others, celebrating history and cultures, and reveling in nature and beauty. There was a fullness and wholeness to the public art that surfaced, and the ability of meaningful public art to awaken ourselves to our world. It also brought up some concepts that have been contested in the field of public art, such as political sovereignty and the solidarity economy. The notion that public art is political - and directly tied to worker solidarity and wealth building - is not new to communities that have been practicing culture and building collective resources in tandem. However, the silos we are usually given separate “the arts” from “the economy.” We are still considering, and we ask you to consider, what does it mean for public art to be a means of supporting workers’ rights? What does public art look like when it is tied to poverty alleviation, police and military abolition, land reparations, and a society without borders?

Excitingly, there is a movement of people now working to more explicitly connect public / community-based art and the solidarity economy. Right here in Boston, Boston Ujima Project is building a participatory economy led by working class communities of color and involving artists and cultural workers to harness the power of art to shift ideas and economic practices. Nationally, the “” movement and their partners are integrating arts and culture workers into larger movements for systems change in the economy. In San Francisco and in New York State, groups are providing universal basic income for artists because they recognize that artists are vital to the health of their communities. Communities and organizations working to eliminate poverty have long practiced arts and culture (several are described here), because they are fundamental to building powerful ways of sustaining resources and political agency. 

We all can - and we especially encourage funders - to support initiatives, like the work of the Newell Flather awardees, and more: works that center public art and cultural organizing to build power for worker and other social movements, and ensure that gains won towards the solidarity economy include the arts and culture community. With more awareness of and care towards local people and ecosystems, we can shift the dynamics to deepen resonance and strengthen transformative change within the arts and cultural sector. 

As we close out this blog series, we invite you to revisit the grounding meditation offered earlier and ask yourselves the following questions: 

  • What are your dreams for the future of public art? How can we work together to build those dreams? 
  • Who are the leaders in your community that you can look to feel inspired and creative? Listen to interviews, be inspired, feel, and create.
  • How can we reconsider our processes, timelines, and definitions of success to create space for community care?
  • How can we operate from an abundance mindset instead of a scarcity mindset? 
  • What are your spheres of power and influence? How can you leverage this power to create opportunities for public art experiences that inspire accountability and community care?
  • Who can you collaborate with to help build authentic relationships and create a dialog with community members? (hint, NEFA & these authors are on your team!)

We invite you to dream with us and with each other. Please be in touch with us at and make sure you’re subscribed to the NEFA public art newsletter for upcoming opportunities to deepen your practice.

Check out the other The Ripple Effect essays: How Communities are Defining Public Art Through Impact and Public Art as Community Care.

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