The Many Benefits of Public Art

According to Linda Slodki, Mt. Airy Art Garage, the arts are a highly cost-effective way of driving economic revitalization in urban areas. However, the arts not only spur economic development but also “shape our consciousness, create a collective attitude, inspire, remake behavior, and reduce stress.” In a session at the national Brownfields conference, both public artists and arts policymakers discussed how this process works.

Art Has Intrinsic and Instrumental Value

Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer, said the arts industries are deeply connected with economic development in his city. However, there’s still a raging debate over whether art has more intrinsic or instrumental value. Intrinsic value relates to the aesthetic value of any work of art, its own value as a piece of individual expression. Instrumental value relates to the ability of art to educate, create jobs, increase real estate value, build citizens, increase tourism, and provide other benefits.

While in 19th century France the argument was “art for art’s sake” because “art can’t support any political or social agendas,” Steuer says most artists working in the city today think “art can do both: provide aesthetic value and change the world.”

As an example, Steuer pointed to MASS MoCA, a 13-acre site in North Adams, Massachusetts. An unused building was turned into a space for “huge art installations.” MASS MoCa has had a “transformative effect on its community.” The building also houses creative design businesses like Web design firms. The museum itself has attracted 100,000 visitors, contributed $15 million to the local economy, and increased local property values by $14 million. In another example, Steuer explained how the Brooklyn Art Museum draws in half a million visitors a year and has helped preserve a multi-cultural neighborhood filled with old buildings. In addition, both of these projects had positive benefits without kickstarting gentrification.

Future Farmers Use the Land to Create Art

Amy Franceschini, an artist with Future Farmers, explained how her group reintroduced the concept of Victory gardens in front of San Francisco’s City Hall (image at top). Victory gardens were an initiative of the U.S. defense department during World War II designed to improve the self-sufficiency of the U.S. population. Families were encouraged to grow food in back lots or yards. Furthermore, President Roosevelt’s WPA put a lot of great artists to work creating “printed propaganda.” Franceschini believes “the imagery was key to the success of the project.”

To get their own massive public art project going in a major civic space, Future Farmers created their own imagery and tools. Their logo was a “pogo-stick shovel.” They designed a fun wheel-barrow bike. Seed banks were created for San Francisco’s distinct micro-climates. An online garden registry was created. With a $60,000 grant from the city, they also created a set of test plots throughout the city, which included raised beds, seeds, and water. In addition to educating residents about self-sufficiency, urban farming, and American history, one tangible result of this project was a directive that formalized the city’s committment to urban agriculture. Also, the art project brought in lots of visitors to City Hall.

In Philadelphia, Future Farmers has just launched an innovative project called Soil Kitchen. Given the building the team used is near a scultpure of Don Quixote, Franceschini decided to add a windmill on top of the building. Within the building, Future Farmers set up a soup kitchen for local residents. In a sort of interactive art piece, residents get free soup if they deliver a soil sample. Soil samples will be tested for contaminants and then plotted along a map of the city. The goal is to get thousands of samples to determine a broader soil remediation plan in the city.

Mel Chin Makes Fundreds

Mel Chin, public artist and provocateur, leapt to the stage at the conference, ripped off a staid suit to show an undercover miltary uniform, and brought out a large shovel. Leading the crowd in a marching cadence, he sang about his Operation Paydirt and Fundreds Dollar Bill project.

Chin said New Orleans was a “disaster before it was a disaster” because its soils were the most contaminated in the country. Extremely high levels of lead meant that “more than 30 percent of the population was poisoned before they reached adulthood.” He found that $300 million would clean up the city’s soils but he quickly realized getting a hold of those funds from the federal government was going to be very difficult.

Chin decided to create a public art project that would raise awareness about the dangers of soil contaminants and the need to remedy the soil problems in New Orleans. With a revamped biofuel-run armored truck, Chin travels to communities and schools around the country, asking students to create their own Fundred Dollar Bill. His goal is to create millions of these (he already has more than 350,000). Chin said “because we don’t have the funds, we must create something just as valuable as money. Human creativity is worth more than $300 million.”

Within communities, he’s created “safe houses”, buildings with fake bank vault exteriors. Using guards, a safe house stores some 10,000 Fundred dollar bills. Schools gather the community, waiting for the safe house to be opened, only for the kids to discover they need to create their own Fundred once they get inside. The armored truck also drove these bills to Philadephia, the site of the original U.S. Mint. His ultimate goal is to send these to Congress to get them to act on soil health. After coming to D.C., these bills will be added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum. Chin said they may end up at either the American History Museum or Hirshhorn.

Chin sees himself as merely a conduit or channel for collective action, not a clever conceptual artist. “Intense collaboration is the only way to get something done. I play a subservient role. I am just a delivery guy.” Given he’s too old to be an emerging artist, he believes he may be “submerging.”

Learn more about the Fundred Dollar Bill project and see a slideshow.

Image credit: (1) MASS MoCA / More Intelligent Life, (2) San Francisco City Hall Victory Garden / National Empowerment Network, (3) Soil Kitchen / Future Farmers, (4) Fundreds / Arts USA, (5) Fundred Safe House / Good Magazine

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