How Artists Help Build Equitable, Empathetic Infrastructure

Op-ed: Who better to "build back better," making the invisible visible, playfully bringing in all the community voices, and illustrating a new future together, than artists within government?

 Grand Marais, Minnesota's “Detour Project” (Photo courtesy Amanda Lovelee)

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After the long pandemic year, residents of the small harbor village of Grand Marais, Minnesota faced the loss of their only major highway due to necessary but disruptive construction. Seeking ways to support the residents during this disruptive process, the local government brought in artist Amanda Lovelee (also one of the authors of this piece) to turn the project into something productive for the community.

She began by interviewing village residents about detours in their lives and turned their stories into a playful scavenger hunt of signage that reframed the construction as an exploration of unexpected life shifts. Detour signs sharing personal life stories are now installed throughout the village. With artist collaboration, this infrastructure project became an opportunity to turn road detour signs into messages of community joy.

Projects connecting art and infrastructure are happening across the country. Artists are working with local governments to recognize the potential for infrastructure projects to build systems of care that support us as we navigate our daily lives.

Lovelee’s work recognizes that infrastructure encompasses physical systems but also the social and environmental foundations required for our society to function. The infrastructure bill being passed in the Senate and moving slowly through Congress is crucial to rebuilding our nationwide system to safely support us. In preliminary drafts the bill expanded traditional notions of infrastructure to include vital human infrastructures that hold up our civil systems. While the future bill will now focus on only physical infrastructure, this “civic infrastructure” remains crucial to sustaining every resident across the country.

In creating an infrastructure to support a strong collective future, we cannot forget that people and the planet should be at the heart of this work even in “traditional” infrastructure projects. We must consider who each project is for, whose daily lives are prioritized, who is leading the redesign and how systems are interconnected. Because infrastructure can enable or hinder access to safety, health, and opportunity, it holds incredible power to ameliorate or exacerbate inequity. People’s daily activities are interconnected in civic and environmental systems, what AbouMaliq Simone calls “people as infrastructure.” Infrastructure is about people and the planet, led by people and for the collective good of people and our shared environment.

In centering care in the nationwide infrastructure overhaul there is a strategic tool that has become increasingly recognized. Artists have long been collaborating with governments and local community members to build civic infrastructure systems that place the people who use those systems at the center of the work. More recent programs have begun to formally embed artists into government systems through artist-in-residence in government (AIRG) programs that unite artists, communities, and government staff in collaboration around a shared civic goal. AIRG work has been happening for decades across the U.S. from large cities like Boston and Los Angeles to smaller rural towns like Granite Falls, Minnesota and many other cities and towns of all sizes. These artists are embedded in government systems that lead civic change in every department from parks to sanitation to housing. Furthermore, this embedded way of working creatively has already helped to shift government operations to reconsider the relationship with the people it serves and the land it is on.

Artists have turned public works projects into opportunities to include community voices in physical infrastructure. In St. Paul, Minnesota, artist Marcus Young turned common sidewalks into atlases of community stories by inviting residents to share poems printed in the concrete. City residents are invited annually to submit their poems for consideration to be printed into sidewalks as they are scheduled for replacement across the city by the public works department. Young saw this system-based work as a re-imagining of the city’s annual sidewalk maintenance program in which the city replaces 10 miles of sidewalk a year, a way to enhance a civic system to give it a new sense of relevance and appreciation.

Working within the existing city system, the project makes St. Paul residents the designers of civic infrastructure and extends the capacity of foundational repair work to become focused on the people who use it daily. Today more than 1,000 poems in multiple languages have been stamped across the city so that everyone in St. Paul lives within a 10-minute walk of a Sidewalk Poem.

Civic systems of social infrastructure have also been sites of artist-led re-imagining within government work.

While in residence at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, artist Anu Yadav strengthened networks of healing and wellness to more inclusively connect city health infrastructure to community wellbeing practices. The resulting toolkit Healing Through Story centers wellness providers operating outside of western medicine not typically included in health policy, aligning their perspectives and community needs alongside the Department of Mental Health’s strategic goals. This led to Yadav and Robin Garcia co-directing art and culture projects for WE RISE, a county-wide initiative with over one hundred partners that mirrors the goal of infrastructure to be inclusive of social and human needs, like mental health.

Writer and theatre artist Hortense Gerardo worked with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and Boston communities to explore how their lives are impacted by the effects of climate change. Workers in fishing, construction, farming, and healthcare shared stories of their changing industries due to extreme weather events and shifting temperatures that made visible how climate change is impacting us all. The resulting project, Climate Perspectives, coalesced this work into films, an exhibition, and report with tangible suggestions for infrastructure responses.

President Biden’s rallying cry for the recovery bills is “Build Back Better.” He talks about making the government visible in daily life to show how it can work for everyone. Who better to lead this charge, making the invisible visible, playfully bringing in all the community voices, and illustrating a new future together, than artists within government?

Building back better requires all of us to take action and be a part of a creative, collaborative solution that envisions something better than what we have now. This requires imagination, courage and empathy. Artists contribute valuable skill sets to nudge infrastructure work to center the voices and needs of the people who use these systems every day. Artists are leaders of future-focused change, critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, facilitators, and storytellers who invite others to share collective experiences. Artists can build places together, write policy that is sensitive, and create tools for conversation. They are uniquely unafraid of the challenge and collaboration necessary to bring governments towards change. Working together, artists and government can turn civic systems into opportunities for cooperation to support people and planet.

Whether you are a bridge engineer or cultural worker, water resource manager, artist or mayor, the time is now to create systems that truly care for all people and the planet. Artist-in-residence-in-government programs are underexplored resources that can encourage new ways of tackling big challenges in our small towns and big cities to collaboratively rebuild places where all people belong.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve updated this op-ed to clarify that WE RISE existed prior to Yadav and Garcia’s involvement.

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Amanda Lovelee is an artist who works in civic systems as a translator between government and community with the goal of building places where everyone belongs. She is a cofounder of CAIR Lab, which supports artists in residence in government through public speaking, research, and launching new programs all in collaboration with government staff, artists, and communities.

Mallory Rukhsana Nezam is a cross-sector culture-maker who loves cities and believes that we have the tools to make them more just and joyful. Through her cross-sector practice, Justice + Joy, she engages government, artists, advocacy groups, elected officials, community members and urban planners to de-silo the way we run cities and build new models of creative, interdisciplinary collaboration. She is a cofounder of CAIR Lab, which supports artists in residence in government through public speaking, research, and launching new programs all in collaboration with government staff, artists, and communities.

Johanna K. Taylor is an Assistant Professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University and director of the graduate program in Creative Enterprise and Cultural Leadership. Her work is grounded in a core value of art as catalyzing force advancing justice in daily life; her research pursues questions of cultural equity through the intersection of art, community, policy, and place. She is a cofounder of CAIR Lab, which supports artists in residence in government through public speaking, research, and launching new programs all in collaboration with government staff, artists, and communities.

Tags: civic engagement

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