We were honored when we were invited to help the NEFA public art team review the nominees for the 2022 Newell Flather Award for Leadership in Public Art - but also nervous. Making decisions about who should be given accolades as part of an awards process is always tricky. While reviewing this year’s impressive slate of public art practitioners, we grappled with some of the following questions: How do relationship-building and community care factor into how we define leadership? How are public art leaders facilitative, and how does this push the edges of their practice? What vibrational impact does their work have on individuals, communities, and the Commonwealth in the here and now, and how will it continue to inspire and nurture folx in the future?  Through this three-part blog series we are sharing some of our reflections on these questions.

Three women of color kneel before a painting of a group of women in pastel colors.
photo courtesy of Marquis Victor/Elevated Thought

Defining Public Art through Impact

This year’s awardees of the Newell Flather Leadership Award in Public Art, Catherine T. Morris, Christa Brown, Rob Gibbs, and Marquis Victor, each met all of NEFA’s award criteria and in addition, have profound impacts within their communities by building culturally resonant and long-lasting platforms that foster artistic expression, community-building, and spatial justice in public spaces across Massachusetts. We heard the ways these awardees are distinguishing themselves based on how nominators lauded their work and community impact in the public nomination process. Their bios share a window into how they center care and community in how they create: Catherine T. Morris, founder and artistic director of Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Fest in Boston, is a cultural activist who aims to “mobilize, empower, represent and engage communities” through the arts; and Christa Brown, Founder and Executive Director of Free Soil Collective in Lowell, is “amplifying the experiences of Black Lowellians and artists of color in a way that invites different channels of meaning-making.” Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs, the visionary graffiti artist and Co-Founder/Paint Studio Director of Artists for Humanity in Boston, saw graffiti as a way to “document and pay homage to underserved, underheard communities in the city”; and Marquis Victor, Founder and Executive Director of Elevated Thought in Lawrence, “centers collective youth decision-making through creative expression, encouraging youth to critically engage with and reimagine power structures.”

Art as a means of mobilizing communities and documenting their histories, centering youth decision-making, creating platforms for meaning-making, reimagining power structures...these ways of knowing and practicing public art differ from the terms some funders have historically used to define the field. Most mainstream institutions and organizations define public art along the lines of sculptures in a garden or murals on walls. Projects that demonstrate criteria, such as “artistic merit,” “project feasibility,” “foot traffic,” and “other sources of funding” are the ones that typically receive funding. But where did these concepts come from, and who defines them? According to whose standards does a project have “artistic merit”? Who determines “feasibility,” especially when many historically excluded communities are rooted in resilience?

After evaluating nominations for nearly 50 individuals, it was clear that traditional institutional definitions of public art radically diverge from how communities practice and self-define it. We also noticed that communities define leadership differently from how institutions train, hire, retain, and support leadership in the arts. This gap means that funders, writers, policymakers, and advocates are missing out on supporting the ways communities practice arts and culture. The Newell Flather award criteria take steps to do this by not using traditional public art criteria and framing its award around spatial and racial justice. And after reading so many public art leadership descriptions in the nominations, it is clear that this way of defining public art - through its impact on the community towards the end goal of joyful expression, freedom, and justice - is more in line with how communities practice it. What we are calling “the ripple effect” - the vibrations public art makes over time and throughout the community - consider the spiritual, economic, political, and social impacts of public art within communities as a way to broaden and redefine public art.

But individuals and communities have and will always find ways to make art and practice culture despite barriers.

BIPOC, folx who are LGBTQ, immigrants, people with disabilities, and many others have not been safe to practice their culture and art in public spaces because of many impacts of systemic and institutionalized racism, including over-policing, socio-economic inequality, bureaucratic red tape tied to pulling permits, and more. But individuals and communities have and will always find ways to make art and practice culture despite barriers. Communities pass down cultural practices from generation to generation; our right to express ourselves through art and creativity is part of our right to exist. Institutions, however, are not designed to see and champion all forms of arts and culture. We hope that a new way of defining public art will enable funding and policymaking bodies to support the art that communities are already practicing. As the places in which we create and experience public art are intertwined with the dynamics of intersecting oppressions, we, as reviewers, considered which aspects of “leadership” and “public art” furthered a greater awareness of spatial justice rooted in community. One theme that surfaced repeatedly was the ripple effect, or resonance, which became a guiding star for our discussions around the impact of the nominees’ scope of work and relationship to local and culturally specific communities. Beyond the visual wonder of public art, what does it take to shift the energies within a place and its people that open towards meaningful transformation? What is needed to support such transformative practices reverberating into the future?

The trends we saw speak volumes about the ripple effect public art has in communities. Nominees created platforms for their communities to express themselves, tell stories, claim space, and more – and in so doing, they interrogated the status quo and helped create space for people to imagine creative possibilities for the future. Folx emphasized power-sharing, bringing others into the co-creative process while leveraging resources to shape community capital. Rather than the originators of a particular initiative, leaders acted as conduits of information and a diversity of narratives shared by the broader community, holding tremendous respect for the history of a place. They acknowledged mentors, collaborators, and supporters while cultivating intergenerational knowledge-building to carry forward their public artmaking and community practice lineage. In particular, the work of the four awardees for the 2022 Newell Flather Award for Leadership in Public Art redresses public art’s legacy of exclusion across the Commonwealth in favor of supporting joyful and impactful community-driven expression. They also held space for communities to imagine, create, and celebrate through public art. We hope the concept of the ripple effect invites folx to share and reimagine institutional support for public art based in and created by communities. We look forward to continuing the conversation with you in the next blog post.

Mural of a little Black boy blowing into a video game cartridge and stars coming out of the other side.
Rob "ProBlak" Gibb's "Breathe Life" | photo by Gabriel Ortiz

Check out the other The Ripple Effect essays: Public Art as Community Care and Imagining Public Art for the Liberatory Future.