Public Art as Community Care

Deepening Context for Impactful Public Artmaking

Breathe Life 3 by Rob "Problak" Gibbs | photo by Gabriel Ortiz

In our first post, The Ripple Effect: How Communities are Defining Public Art through Impact, we celebrated the Newell Flather awardees Christa Brown, Rob "Problak" Gibbs, Catherine T. Morris, and Marquis Victor and introduced the concept of "the ripple effect" to describe the economic, political, spiritual and social impacts that great public art has on communities. Through our conversations and reflections on the Newell Flather Awardees and nominees' work, we highlight a framing here that we believe is critical to how the institutionalized field of public art needs to evolve to cultivate these impacts. The most impactful public art doesn't just center community care: it is community care. Public art as community care can take many forms, all of which have intersectional impacts on individuals' and communities' economic, political, spiritual, and social needs. We can see concrete examples of what this looks like by looking at the work of the Newell Flather awardees.

The most impactful public art doesn't just center community care: it is community care.

Public art as community care relies deeply on power-sharing. The experiences of those who inhabit the space or interact with the art are just as meaningful as the artist, the funder, the curator, etc. The projects that have the greatest resonance in communities champion the role of children, elders, and everyone in between. The most important criteria for contributing to a public art project are having a connection to the sites in which these public art projects reside, respecting history, and having dreams about the future of these places and the people who live, work, and play there. We see this in the way Rob "Problak" Gibbs acts not only as an artist but as an educator and a collaborator with the communities in and around Boston in which he creates art; he mentors youth participants so that they can hone their artistic skills and techniques. These programs serve as professional development, creating pipelines to careers in the arts and opportunities for youth to imagine creative futures for themselves. Further, these projects create space for entire communities to create and see themselves as integral parts of the artmaking process.

Public art as community care creates visibility for those historically excluded from art narratives and creates space for people to tell their own stories. In this reality, visibility is not about telling stories to as many people as possible but rather about telling authentic stories and holding meaning for its originators, stewards, and future generations. We see this in Christa Brown's work through the Free Soil Arts Collective and projects, such as Hidden in Plain Sight: Stories of Black Lowell. Christa provides a coalescing force, amplifying the experiences of Black Lowellians and artists of color in ways that invite different channels of meaning-making at a city and regional scale.

A large colorful mural on the outside of a building featuring a smiling young Black girl sitting on the shoulders of a smiling young Black boy
Breathe Life 3 by Rob "Problak" Gibbs | photo by Gabriel Ortiz

Public art as community care raises our collective consciousness by illuminating contradictions, tensions, justice and injustices, and the depths of humanity's complexities. It offers space to process, reflect, and repair these dynamics. We see this in how Marquis Victor and Elevated Thought create holistic infrastructures of support for youth in Lawrence. 'What is Education?' is just one example of a youth-led project that led to drafting the Student Bill of Rights stating youths' vision for schools, which was presented to the City of Lawrence and the U.S. Department of Education. Elevated thought's work is also a beautiful example of how public art can make direct economic impacts on the lives of its participants and communities - through wages, training, professional development, and the built environment.

Public art as community care provides a space for communities to collectively experience joy, grief, and everything in between. It celebrates art, creativity, and expression, particularly when it comes from communities who have not been safe in public spaces and who have been excluded from traditional narratives of art and culture. We see this in the way Catherine Morris carries on the legacy of Elma Lewis in transforming Franklin Park for the Boston Art, Music & Soul (BAMS) Festival. At BAMS Festival, people gather to experience joy and creativity through art and music. This space for joy and celebration is a form of community care that can have profound spiritual impacts, especially against a constant backdrop of violence against Black people in the U.S. It is also an example of public artmaking that cultivates power through the collective to flex political will in public spaces.

Public art as community care models how to commit to caring for ourselves and one another; public art as community care empowers us to make this possible. We can see this in the way each of the awardees creates opportunities for people to see themselves, their histories, and their futures in creative, honest, empowering, and inspiring ways.

Finally, public art as community care recognizes that care for oneself is possible only through the care of one's communities over time; through tending to and elevating each other's past, present, and future. Honoring and embodying lineage is critical and humanizing, and one of the most sincere forms of spiritual impact public art can make. Yet is often overlooked by institutionalized forms of art that favor singular authorship. As Kamaria Carrington, NEFA's Program Officer of Public Art shared in a recent discussion, "…embodiment and ripples – those things are not linear. They connect us to other places in our lineage that have been moving culture with us, healing and moving power within us." Public artmaking as community care embraces a multiplicity of experiences and provides ways to find meaning in complexity - ways of being that stretch beyond any single person, timeline, or outcome. In that spirit, we recognize the multitude of people – artists, culture bearers, friends, colleagues, mentors, and ancestors – who have influenced our continued thinking and how central the concept of inheritance and lineage is in this form of public artmaking. We are so grateful to all of these people. In particular, we want to thank the NEFA public art team (Kim Szeto, Kamaria Carrington, and Jess Wong Camhi) and the public art makers (CISJ and PASJ grantees) for contributing ideas shared here.

These holistic care practices reverberate abundant energy into a collective well of wisdom through which we can see ourselves and others - and build new channels to guide and nourish one another. They are not only possible but essential to the future of public art and, more importantly, the future of our communities.

An outdoor stage on a sunny day with the BAMSfest logo on the screen; musicians are on the stage and there is a crowd gathered in front of the stage.
Photo courtesy

Check out the other The Ripple Effect essays: How Communities are Defining Public Art through Impact and Imagining Public Art for the Liberatory Future.

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