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Podcast: Public Art & Black Lives Matter with Amina Cooper, Arts & Science Council

Posted on September 8, 2020


Amina Cooper - GovLove

Amina Cooper

Amina Cooper
Program Director, Public Art CLT
Arts & Science Council
LinkedIn | Twitter


Authentically reflecting community values. Amina Cooper, Program Director of Public Art CLT for the Arts & Science Council, joined the podcast to talk about creating more equitable and diverse public art. She discussed the recent efforts by communities across the country to rethink their public art and what it emphasizes or honors. Amina also talked about how the way public art programs are administered can exclude artists from marginalized backgrounds.

This is part of ELGL’s Creative Community, a partnership with ArtPlace America and CivicArts to write, explore, share, and learn about creative placemaking.

Host: Javon Davis

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Episode Transcript

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You can register right now for the ELGL Oktoberfest. ELGL’s annual conference will be entirely digital this year. And to help avoid that Zoom burnout, we spread the conference out over the whole month of October, you know, hence the Oktoberfest theme. We have sessions on Equity and Anti Racism, Efficiency and Happiness plus two summits on Creative Placemaking and Innovation and Strategy. To get you even more excited, here are a couple of our amazing speakers, Amethyst Sloane from the City of Fort Worth, Texas for joining us, Mariel Beasley from Common Cents Lab, Ashley Traynum from the City of Asheville are all speaking. The best thing about this digital conference is that you can customize your registration and pick the sessions that either you are most interested in or work best for your schedule. You can learn more at the ELGL website and register for the best Conference of the Year by going to ELGL20.org. That’s ELGL20.org to learn more.

Javon Davis

What’s up GovLove listeners. Coming to you from the City of Brotherly Love and sisterly affection, it’s me Javan Davis. As part of our ongoing creative community series, today we are chatting with Amina Cooper, a Program Manager with the Americans for the Arts. Amina is currently the Public Art Director for the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and has years of experience working in the art world. Amina, welcome to GovLove.

Amina Cooper

Thank you so much.

Javon Davis

So my first question, we’re going to jump right into the arts questions. And you can’t say, Charlotte. So what is your, what is your favorite public art city?

Amina Cooper

Oh, that’s tough. Um, well, I mean, I’m originally from Atlanta, Georgia. So I would say Atlanta, and specifically, my mom worked for Delta Airlines, and our house was right by the airport. And so my first real you know engagement with public art came through Hartsfield International Airport, which is funny because now I work for the you know, in airports art collection. But yeah, I just I love that it would be rotating, you know you would come into the city and you would know that you were home because you would see specific murals. You know, the zoo, we have the ants on the wall. So, you know, I think Atlanta is a great place for public art, especially at the airport. I love their current program now. And I love the murals that are popping up in Atlanta.

Javon Davis

Great! Yeah, I hear this like a, I haven’t been to Atlanta but ever really explored Atlanta ,and is it like the beltline that kind of has like the murals kind of lined up along the trail?

Amina Cooper

Yep, yep, yep. Um, we have the Beltline, which is relatively new. But it’s great. It is sort of trails throughout the city, its super long so you can ride your bike, you can stop and get drinks and food and also encounter sort of smaller public art interventions, murals and things like that. Its run by a really lovely lady named Miranda who’s also on Americans for the Arts public art network. So shout out to Miranda.

Javon Davis

Shout out to Miranda. That was cool. I definitely want to explore more and definitely want to see the Beltway because I do love that kind of public art. So we know we live in this weird world now. So I I’m sure you’ve been quarantining a bit too. Do you have any new quarantine activities that kind of gotten you by over the last few months?

Amina Cooper

Yes, riding my bike. You know, I’ve been able to, you know, invest more in my bicycle. So I try to go on walks, I got a Fitbit and I’m getting my steps in. And, you know, if I’m trying to just, you know, pick a lemon and make lemonade out of it, like I’m being much more physically active, because I’m just not a homebody like I’m quarantining, and I’m not doing anything crazy, but I can’t I have to keep moving and I have to get outside and enjoy some fresh air.

Javon Davis

Yeah I feel that. What do you think has been the hardest part of this new reality for you? Is there anything particular that you really miss, that was such an integral part of your life that you have had to miss out for a bit?

Amina Cooper

Yeah. I miss engaging with my coworkers, honestly. I’m missing, you know, the faces of the people that I work with day to day. You know, I’m in sort of unique role where I have one office but then I also have to work at the airport. So I go back and forth and so I get to see a lot of different stakeholders and colleagues and so I just missing their faces. And, you know, even though we have Zoom meetings and all these other things, and you know, we can get plenty background you know, in our meetings now, it’s, it’s just not the same. So I do look forward to a day where I can, you know, be at my desk, sitting next to my colleagues and or going to an actual community engagement that’s not virtual, that’s, you know, in a community center touching and talking to people. I do miss that.

Javon Davis

Yeah, yeah, totally. I feel that too. I hate all that. I’ve been doing a lot of Zoom happy hours with friends and I wish I could just go and you know, go be with them for a happy hour instead. No, I feel that. Yeah, one day. So you said you’d like to make lemons out of lemonade, but what do you think are some things that will stick around after we’ve gotten past COVID, that you know have been more of a positive? You said riding your bike, anything else that you think you’d love to see kind of stay from this time?

Amina Cooper

You know, honestly, I think that we’re seeing that a lot of meetings can be emailed. So hopefully, that is one thing that will, you know, remain after, you know, this pandemic. But I do think that because we’re limited in terms of the indoor spaces that we can go into, you know, we are seeing a lot more work you know, sided outdoor. So, you know, in terms of, you know, being creative in terms of where we locate art, I think we’re seeing that public art is a great option.

Javon Davis

Yeah, absolutely. So you work at an airport, the Charlotte airport, which I’m certain referred to as the gateway to Charlotte by someone at some point. What do you think everyone, why do you think everyone should visit Charlotte?  What’s something about Charlotte that you love and that you think everyone should see, at least one time?

Amina Cooper

I’ll be honest. I am still getting to know and getting to love Charlotte is I, you know, moved to Charlotte about a year ago. And what I do like is and what I’ve missed is just sort of, you know, the southern hospitality and the friendliness. People are genuinely warm and receptive in Charlotte. Charlotte has a really unique art community. And I think it’s driven by sort of more emerging and local artists, which is really cool. So there is this, there is a bit of it, that seems a bit nascent. So there’s a lot of opportunities for Charlotte’s art community to grow, but I do see a lot of really grassroots effort that I like. It just seems a little bit more authentic to me. So, if that’s if that’s something that you like, Charlotte is a great place.

Javon Davis

Great. Is Charlotte Queen City. Is that its nickname?

Amina Cooper

Yes, yes. And if you come to Charlotte airport after we’re finished with our renovations of that of that main terminal lobby building, you will see Queen Charlotte with a big statue by Ray kasky of the Queen Charlotte. It’s very unique sculpture but you know it is it’s become an iconic symbol for the Charlotte region. So yes, we are the Queen City.

Javon Davis

Very cool. Always love to learn a new city nickname. And this is going to be our last lightning round question. Say you live in the world where you can go to brunch with your friends. Are you going to get a, are you more of a Bloody Mary or Mimosa person?

Amina Cooper

I don’t understand Bloody Mary’s as a concept. As a genre or a thing it mystifies me. I am very much a Mimosa person. I love them. And I just just a splash of orange juice. I don’t really need a lot of orange juice. And I am but I and I and I’m pro coke. I don’t understand. Can you explain Bloody Mary’s to me? Like why somebody would put vodka in tomato juice?

Javon Davis

I cannot. I cannot explain that for you. I’m very much on the same team as you. Champagne and a little bit of orange juice and I am very happy. Yeah. So I don’t know, I can’t help you there. I never want to be able to help you there. And there we go. Okay, great. Well, thanks for playing the lightning round. And then I want to like jump into our main topic. Our main topic today, you know, talking more about public art. I think we we as a country have been talking about public art, more I’m not sure if we really realized that’s what we’ve been talking about. We’ve talked about murals and statues, like those are all pieces of public art. But first I want people to learn more about your background as it informs the discussion. Can you give us your life story in about two to three minutes?

Amina Cooper

[Laughter] Absolutely. So I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I went to Howard University, and I was convinced that I would become a photo editor. So I studied fine art photography, and I had a concentration or minor in print journalism. So right after I graduated, this was right when the recession happened. And I interned and I worked with with professional photographers, freelance photographers, and I hated it. I decided that it was not for me, I was more of an artist that was not into commercial art as as a venture. And I realized I needed to do something different with my life. So I ended up going back to school. I studied Art Administration at Boston University, which is really understanding the how to run the business of nonprofits geared towards the arts. So we studied fundraising and strategic planning, all centered around creating and cultivating these arts communities, and really enjoyed that. So right after I came out of graduate school, I ended up working for DCPS, DC public school system. And I managed nonprofit organizations that would come into the school system for creative or enrichment activities. And I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t giving me the interaction with the arts that I really did love and missed. What I loved about working or studying arts administration is that rather than be an artist for myself, which was not fulfilling, I really enjoy supporting other artists and helping them be more successful and realize their project. So I left DCPS after two years and ended up in a fellowship at a performing art center in Virginia. From there, I ended up at a local arts agency in Maryland, Montgomery County, Maryland. And I started out there as a Communications Manager because of my print journalism background. So I was writing press releases and grants. And I entered into the world of public art as a fundraiser. I helped our leadership craft a grant proposal for an art talent grant, which specifically supported creative placemaking initiative. And our proposal was to sort of help catapult this really culturally diverse multi ethnic community in Maryland, called Wheaton, get this funding so that all of these culturally specific groups could have a venue, could have a place to, you know, show their creative expression, share their culture. And so after about maybe two years of trying to get back right, we finally got it and it was to not only help create venues for artists but also to launch a public art project. And so through that, you know, after we were awarded that grant, the woman who ran our public art program left, and the role became open. So I stepped into that role as a public art manager because of my, my background in arts management. And from there, it’s just been a whirlwind. It’s been a really wonderful experience. This is certainly the place that you know, I want to be and I’m really thrilled to work in the field.

Javon Davis

That’s really great. Thank you for sharing. And I, you know, thinking about public art, I think people understand it, but don’t fully understand its full value. Can you give us like a quick background on the role that public art plays in cities today?

Amina Cooper

Sure, and so there is the role that public art plays in theory, and then the role that it plays in practice. So I just really want to talk about, you know, some of what public art, the role that public art plays in cities, literally. And, and maybe go into a little bit about what public art is. Public Art includes a broad swath of objects and interventions intended to decorate public spaces, enhance public space, and, you know, make the built environment look and feel more appealing to people. So it can include artworks, sculptures, murals, but also lighting in concrete and manhole covers that, you know, it encompasses so many things. So, in terms of the role that it plays today, in in the positive sense, I think we’re seeing more inventive and creative ways that the arts are utilized in cities to provide solutions to a you know, a whole range of issues that include public safety or transportation, wellness. And particularly at this moment, we’re seeing public art play a role in educating people about, you know, the history of racism in our country with regard to monuments and memorials, you know, and we’re also seeing public spaces utilized as an alternative to the museum and gallery space, which traditionally has felt very unwelcoming to communities of color, to people of color, because there’s really sort of a place where, you know, white, highly educated and affluent people would gather and support with their money. But we’re seeing now, you know, even blue chip artists are shifting their practice in a way that considers the public realm in the built environment. So I think that that’s something that we’re will continue to see. And I think that those are very positive things. On the flip side, and it’s something that I think about often is the role that public art plays as a major part of this creative placemaking toolkit in a way that really serves planners and developers, for quote unquote “revitalization”, but in practice, you know, these are strategies that gentrify historically black, brown in disinvested communities. So, you know, we’re seeing a lot of the ways that public art can contribute negatively to that. And that’s something that as a public art practitioner and manager, I think about, you know, how I can combat that and not participate in those practices.

Javon Davis

Yeah, that’s really, that’s really great and really insightful. I think for many people, people just kind of think that murals pop up, you know, like, like someone wanted to paint so they painted. But it’s actually a really thorough process happening from you know, a nonprofit sector, usually the government has something to do with it. Can you talk about how the planning process of like a municipal planning department and then a public art agencies, how they differ and how they can better work together? Absolutely.

Amina Cooper

Absolutely. Public Art emerges in very different ways. And I and I can, I’ve seen it from both standpoints. You know, it doesn’t, you don’t just decide that you want to go to a wall and paint it. Generally that doesn’t work, you know, you have to get sanctioned and approved. Working for a local arts agency, our process included a lot of planning, a lot of proposals for funding. And then, you know, at every stage of that planning process, there is a community engagement aspect. And I’ve seen it also from more city standpoint, you know, not from a local nonprofit standpoint. And it seems that planning departments have more autonomy to move through the design process, almost in a silo, you know, we generally have to engage with community at every stage. And from my experience, it feels like public, you know, municipalities will come to a public art agency and say, hey, we have the same, you know, we saw this public art thing here, we want you to put it into this building that is already existing. You know, so being contacted when the scope of a project is fully designed is is not optimal. You know, so I would really love to see public art being considered far in advance of the actual development of a site and more frequently linked to and maybe even integrated into area sector plans and master plans, as one of the tools offered a service oriented solution to civic issues and not necessarily something that is an economic driver. You know, we talk about the creative economy a lot but I would love to see public art thought of in the in the pre pre planning stages as a solution to a civic issue and something that can create community good.

Javon Davis

Yeah, I went to a city managers like architecture training thing. And it was really interesting, they were talking about the role of public art and how it should draw someone to a space. And they were planning a project based on what art will be there to kind of bring people there. And then they get the services or whatever else they were planning to do. But they were, it was just a different way of thinking for most people, I think, to ever consider art and not just oh, we built this building to put something on the wall, or put a statue outside. It was really, really fun way to look at development, I think. So like I said earlier, you know, this is a big moment for talking about public art, you know, cities around the country, are you know, talking about like toppling statues of historical figures that supported slavery. How do you see public arts role in shifting, as our country starts having these really important conversations about equity and justice?

Amina Cooper

Right. You know, the powerful thing about public art is that it has the ability to reframe, and help contextualize sensitive subjects, you know, public’s like right, for good or for bad and in the past the money in public art has been used not only to refrain but to create these sort of revisionist histories that almost canonized perpetrators of domestic crime, horrors like slavery, you know, and in our history, with colonialism, public monuments and parks is kind of like museums have existed to display power and status, and often to the harm and detriment of indigenous people and people of color. And that is primarily because almost exclusively these spaces and these shapes are designed primarily by white males, either as industrialists or urban planners, or city leaders. There’s not a lot of diversity in our field and has not existed historically. So that is why, you know, these policies that are racist, like redlining with steering, or restrictive covenants have existed in app boards for a really long time. So I think now we’re seeing, you know, we’re finally having very frank conversations about these issues, and how public art and how monuments are a reflection or a response to be really, you know, inherently racist practices. So then I would say that the role of public art isn’t really shifting, but our awareness, and hopefully, our values are shifting. We’re seeing, you know, people reject this, you know, this iconic white statuary as a model. And, you know, cities and municipalities are racing towards something that is more inclusive, in terms of who’s represented, who does representing and who the intended audience is. You know, just in the museum space, we’re seeing, there’s this movement to you know, there’s a decolonize museums, and we are wanting the same thing for our public spaces. You know, unfortunately, as a result of sort of this awakening, you know, we’re seeing I think the emergence, re-emergence of culture wars. I think the most recent example of that was Trump’s executive order on monuments and memorials. And that’s really just a reaction against letting go of power to shape these spaces and shape communities. And that’s something that we’re going to have to grapple with I think for for a while before we get to the other side of this conversation.

Javon Davis

Yeah, you know, definitely goes really deep. I’m curious about like, the Black Lives Matter street murals specifically because I know we, like we first saw them in DC, you know, right across from the White House and they kind of like popped up across the country. There was, some people loved it, and of course, there was push back. Can you help us understand all the feelings around doing something like that in the streets and kind of black lives matter street murals, period?

Amina Cooper

Yep. Okay. Um, let me preface this by saying that again, I went to Howard, I lived in DC for almost 20 years. So I am probably biased [laughter] when it comes to this debate. Yeah, so I’ll just be really upfront about that. You know, um, so yeah, these these, you know, the Black Lives Matter street murals, we first saw them in DC. And it was a public design initiative spearheaded by DC’s Mayor and the knee jerk to saying that is wow, you know, it’s powerful. If you believe that Black Lives Matter, like I do, seeing something like that can be super affirming, and validating. But when you look at something like that, versus the actual policies that come out of leadership, it just, it seems performative and hollow. And I think that was a lot of the, that’s the reaction that I had and I saw that echoed in a lot of the sentiments that I saw from from black and brown people. You know, some people love seeing those words, and I love seeing those words, but what we want are those words actually matched by actions and policies. Specifically in DC, The National Community Reinvestment Coalition issued a report that said that DC was the most intensely gentrified city in the nation by percentage of eligible neighborhoods that experience gentrification. So between 2000 and 2013, 20,000 black DC residents were displaced. And again, I was a DC resident in that timeframe, you know, and that displacement is a direct result of policy, investment and disinvestment strategy and planning policy. So again, so against the backdrop of all of this really rapid gentrification, to then paint that in the streets, it feels like an empty gesture. Somebody who I want to cite, a sociologist, her name is Brandi Thompson Summer, she’s the author of an incredible book called Black in Place. She coins, sort of this the conversation that we’re having about this as black aesthetic and placement. So I really wanted to sort of give honor to her because she really, she sort of captures it very well. And what that is like this term that she’s coined, really discusses how black men, black values, black aesthetics have gone from evoking a set of political commitments, rooted in the preservation of black life and our wellness, to aesthetic representations in the form of words, objects or images. That’s evidence in the way that representations of blackness and black people are used by politicians, developers and corporations to achieve their social, political and economic interests. So it’s a gesture, it’s something that is made, you know, done to make us feel better about the situation that we’re in, even created to bring intention and to bring coolness to a community that we again want to gentrify, you know, that’s the way that we see public art being used in a lot of these cities. So I think that some of the push back about it has its interest there. But I also think that it’s interesting that you know, the city would create this mural, specifically that, that would come out of the mayor’s office when in the very recent past you know, mayor’s office was in this sort of entanglement, this dispute with their own public arts agency in a, they locked them out of their public art collection. So it’s so in the midst of all of that it says it’s it’s a very confusing, the reaction to it is confusing. From what I understand, people on both sides of that reaction is being really sort of dismayed by something that seems like a gesture, but also being happy to see you know, those words in such big bright yellow letters. It is a funny.

Javon Davis

Yeah, it’s funny. I mean, we talked about nicknames, you know, earlier for cities and DCs, of course is Chocolate City. And you know, hearing about the gentrification you just mentioned just kind of makes me, I haven’t really heard anyone refer to DC as a Chocolate city in a long time.

Amina Cooper

Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s not. That is not, it is not a chocolate city anymore, unfortunately. Yeah.

Javon Davis

Are you, I’m just curious, you’ve been talking about like, you know, the process for art and how like when it’s a community led effort and you know, that someone’s pushing forward. Are you familiar with like, the statues in Richmond and all the monuments, how they’ve been repainted and all that stuff?

Amina Cooper

Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. And what happens is, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you, but when when policies do not account for public will, people will take will into their own hands. You know, there there are people who are invested in these symbols. And, and maybe they won’t acknowledge to you that these are symbols that support white supremacy and racism. But that’s that’s really what it is. So if you refuse to acknowledge, you know that we’ve we’ve come far as nations and we recognize that this is our caste and it was wrong and will and will take some restorative action, people are going to take it into their own hands. We shouldn’t have to. It’s unfair. You know, our, the people that we elect should respect, you know, our desires in terms of what our public places look like.

Javon Davis

Yeah, so I actually I went to school in Richmond, I’ve actually lived about a block away from the Lima, and which is the one that’s been totally reclaimed. I mean, they planned it like community, a community garden, they put their own official looking signs up contextualizing the monument, they’ve of course repainted it. And it’s been a huge gathering place for everyone. And I think about everyone’s argument for the years I was there like, oh, it’s a big tourist boom, you know, to have these monuments here, blah, blah. But I’ve never seen more people down there than I have recently and I can’t see that changing for a while and it’s just really kind of a beautiful things like, this is actually our space now. It’s a basketball goal there. Like, it’s just really fun to see that it’s been taken over. And I’m curious, like, I don’t know what the future, I’m sure at some point, the the bus, the statue at the top will come down but because the actual monument has been repainted, do you feel that the city should leave it that way, where it has graffiti and stuff over it, kind of like some European structures have been?

Amina Cooper

My view is that it should be removed. It should be scrapped, it should be put in a dark closet and never seen again. You know, a lot of people are you know, when these monuments are being taken down, people are asking if they can buy them and saying, well, if we don’t put it in public, let’s put it in a museum and that really just defeats the purpose of de-installing something like that, that is offensive. You know, so no, I’d like to see it just come down and taken somewhere, buried somewhere. That that that would be my solution.

Javon Davis

Oh yeah, I totally agree about the horse and the man on top. But I wonder about, they put a roll of kind of protective concrete around the circle and they’ve also painted the bottom half of the pedestal that it was on. So I wonder if the city is going to just keep it you know, beautiful to me. It’s beautiful. I love graffiti, and I love kind of these, you know, really local messages. So I just wonder what’s going to happen with the rest of it, once they take off the horse and the man.

Amina Cooper

You know, I’ve seen in other cities people paint picking and using those …. and putting new monuments on them. So you know, there is a way that it could be repurposed, but and I actually echo your sentiments. It’s not super popular and memorable. But I love graffiti you know. So I yeah, I agree with you.

Javon Davis

Yeah, I don’t think it’s gonna fly for this neighborhood. [Laughter] But I think it’s cool. And I can see them saying, okay, like it’s come down, like take the paint off. But again, it’s been a huge like, it’s been a tourist attraction for many people. So I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Um, so I just want to talk more about the infrastructure. So you know, many of the systems that help us plan and commission public art, have been called out as being inherently racist, inherently biased. Can you discuss how you know a few of these practices and share some solutions public art practitioners have developed to counteract these outdated policies?

Amina Cooper

Absolutely, absolutely. So for audiences, the way that a project is scoped, and when we talk about scoping, we’re saying you know, the location of the work, how much money is going to fund it, whether this will be something temporary or permanent, where it’s located. All of those issues can be inherently biased and racist. For example, you know, if you know that you want to you know, if a city decides that they want to place work and artwork in a community that is low income, or, you know, primarily black or brown, you know, the budget may be vastly smaller than it would be, and you know, a more affluent in my neighborhood. So that is something that we talk about when talking about the systemic barriers. You know, often communities that are lower income or multicultural, diverse, don’t benefit from developer focused programs and their area may not be being the target for a very focused economic development that is often the precursor for citing public art in the first place. And then, if these communities get work at all, they’re rarely engaged in form, you know, what that work looks like? So these, this is a part of, you know, inherent bias in the way that our system, our public art system has worked and operated for many years. So that’s just for audiences and communities. In terms of artists, if you are particularly an emerging artist or an artist of color, you’ll see challenges when applying for public art permissions. And that can include restrictions in terms of artist eligibility. For example, you know, you’ll see an RFQ or request for proposals or qualification, which is the vehicle that artists use to apply for these opportunities. And it will require that you have an MSA or BSA, it will require, you know, a resume and an artist statement. It’s going it’s putting in place very academic barriers that everybody doesn’t have access to. And it’s not a reflection of their ability or capacity to create and complete these works. It’s really more a reflection of their opportunities. Often in our field, we’ll create a an RFQ, or proposal for new works, and we will ask that you demonstrate previous work, of you know, a budget of up to $500,000. So, basically like, you know, you know, if you, if you haven’t had an opportunity, you won’t get an opportunity. And I don’t think that any of those things, again, are indicative of somebody’s ability to create work. So some of the things that, some of the strategies that we’re seeing in our field now just to combat that, are, you know, instead of asking for an artist statement or bio, we’re just requesting that you give us a video statement. We’re not requiring that you have an MSA or BSA. And we’re not putting any budget restrictions in terms of your previous work. And another major indicator of bias is even in the artist selection process itself, the way that we evaluate, judge art in terms of aesthetics and excellence, is really framed around very Eurocentric standards of beauty and excellence. And that’s really considered sort of a normative comparison for what is it that we are pleasing, um, is propelled as a standard, prevailed as a standard in the arts for a very long time has been coded into the public art field. So only recently have we really acknowledged that, you know, that we, you know, praise the ballet and the opera over salsa dance, things like that, you know. One of the tools that I really love, created by animating democracy, and it is a new sort of it’s called the aesthetic perspectives, but it’s introducing new ways of thinking about aesthetics. So in terms, instead of excellence as a criteria, they want to see evidence of commitment or cultural diversity and authenticity in the work. They want to make sure that the work invokes or evokes an emotion, whether it’s good or bad or for sadness, you know, rather than saying that, oh, you know, this was created by this well known prominent sculptor, and, you know, the big broad, you know, massive hunks of steel that we’ve that we loved as a field. So you know, so we’re opening the door to cultural forms that, you know, we really haven’t praised in terms of, you know, what is acceptable via Western eyes. You know, we’re looking at indigenous art form, you know, African culture, Caribbean culture, and traditions that we’re just not familiar with, because we haven’t been educated about it, because it hasn’t been valued. So that’s something that I would love to see more of.

Javon Davis

Yeah, that’s great. I’ve been really surprised. I’m fairly new to Philadelphia too and I’ve really been loving the diversity on all the murals here in Philadelphia. So shout out to mural arts here in Philly.

Amina Cooper

Philadelphia has an amazing mural program. And they also have a wonderful, really wonderful program called Monument Lab that’s out of mirror labs and has been really driving conversation around monuments in this country. So yes, absolutely shout out to Philadelphia. [Laughter]

Javon Davis

Um, so most of our listeners work in local government. So I want to talk a bit more about how cities and how you know, local government agencies traditionally misuse or underuse public art as a solution based resource. And how might that partnership be your best harnessed to meet more contemporary planning goals that also include cultural equity.

Amina Cooper

I think we just need to set better intentions in terms of partnerships between the city and local, local arts organization and local groups. So I think when these partnerships happen, and the intention is to drive economy, or to drive development rather than to create new types of public goods and services, the outcome is going to tend towards gentrification and art washing or the creation of art districts that artists can’t afford to live in. So, you know, our field is really taking a look at the way that work that has occurred in partnership with cities and developers, in the name of creative placemaking has in actuality, precipitated rapid gentrification and displacement of low income or elderly people and people of color. I think one of the first indicators unfortunately of future gentrification is the increased presence of artists and artworks in neighborhood. Artists are often low income themselves, you know, but are highly educated and gravitate towards historic neighborhoods, or neighborhoods in city centers. And so, you know, it’s enticing because artists create vibrancy, and that incentivises those who seek to focus investment of public and private capital into these areas that were disinvested during the post war and post civil rights era. But then again, you know, artists come to these communities and then they’re driven out by, you know, increasing rents and prices. So I would say that murals and other public art art encourages economic development tools and attractive terms are offered to galleries. But again, that’s that’s literally what we call art washing is, you know, we’re hiring all these artists to create these works to, you know, create this vibrancy in the community that then become, you know, untenable for average working class people to live in or even to visit. So in terms of creating more fruitful and equitable partnerships, I would suggest, having worked at a local arts agency and working for cultural funders, I would like to see those conversations happen more frequently and much more earlier in the planning process. So, you know, just as background a local arts agency is primarily the vehicle in which taxpayer funds go into an organization, generally a nonprofit organization with a contract with a municipality to fund the broader, you know, portfolio of artists and cultural groups. So the leadership, the staff at those agencies should have a good working knowledge of who are the artists in the cultural groups working on the ground, that are viable, that have received funding in the past, that may that you may want to partner with but I think a more intriguing question for agencies to ask when when, you know, contacting cultural groups or, you know, cultural sponsors is, you know, who are you not funding? Who do you want to fund but aren’t able to that we should look at? Because what we’re seeing, you know, just in terms of talking about bias is a lot of, you know, culturally specific, and artists of color have been outside of that funding portfolio for, for a very long time due to a lot of the racism and the bias that we’ve just been talking about. So I would say, you know, starting there, asking those questions very much early in the engagement process and in the planning process, and then digging in for the long haul, because often, like I said, you know, so many times I have been approached, you know, a building has been built. And it’s, it’s like trying to fit a square into a circle. [Laughter] You know how that thing goes.

Javon Davis

Yeah, a square fitting into a circle. [Laughter]

Amina Cooper

Exactly. Like this, it should happen in tandem. There should be a pre planning process that far predates the actual drafting of anything. It should include a community engagement component. And I think one of the really great things that artists can do is really contribute to that cultural data mapping, cultural asset planning, in the cultural engagement process that really should, you know, is really the hallmark of a strong partnership. So, you know, creating these partnerships and investing and staying and sustaining these relationships, you know, even when, when the project is done is, you know, something that I would like to see more of.

Javon Davis

Yeah, that’s great. You know, I never, I was in California recently, not really recently because you know, Coronavirus, but we’re talking about artists housing, and I think it would, I think that’s been the delusion for many people to get ahead of the problem that you kind of detail about artists doing all the work and then like getting pushed out. I’m not sure you can speak on that. Do you know, do you know a lot more a lot about this space of, you know, artist housing, what that looks like, and how we can, you know, get that to be more of a prominent thing in cities, especially they want to have?

Amina Cooper

Yeah, well, the thing is, I don’t think that artists housing exists at the level that that people think that they do. I think that that’s something that is, is you know, discussed when developers want to come into an area and make an art district and say that they’re going to desert me, part of that as is, as an art house artists, you know, low income housing for artists, but it’s often not sufficient. And it’s often not sustainable for artists to live in these communities. So, you know, I think, again, you know, arts districts are, they can be good, but often, it’s really just an idea that is used to develop an area. So we do, we do need more, you know, middle class, low income housing, but again, that’s not necessarily an attractive option for developers and cities that are trying to, especially in this environment, environment economically, when we’re just trying to, you know, drive all the housing that we can and bring in middle class and upper class, income and tax base revenue into these communities.

Javon Davis

Yeah, it really sounds like it just fits into the broader affordable housing conversation. And I think I think we heard in the panel was that the same metrics you were you were talking about to get funding were being used for the housing. Like, oh, so what’s your portfolio? What kind of work you’ve done before to get into this housing arrangement? So it sounds like all those things are still there.

Amina Cooper

It’s super competitive. It’s very difficult, you know, in the same way that it’s difficult for people to even to find welfare based housing. You know, it’s, it’s difficult. It’s almost impossible. So yeah, we do need more of that sort of relief and subsidy for artists. I 100% believe that, but it needs to be authentic and it doesn’t need to be something that’s just, you know, a ploy to be able to build you know, large skyscraper, you know, housing that is anchored by a West Elm or a Whole Foods. But that is my take on that.

Javon Davis

Yeah. So looking more towards the future, you know, where is how would you like to see municipal public art practices evolving you know, over the next 10, I mean, five to 10 years?

Amina Cooper

Yeah. So okay, so for for this … right? There is and in terms of trans republic art, we’re seeing more of a focus on what we’re calling social practice. And that’s specifically artists and community led projects that focus on community engagement, and work that center the issues and concerns, as expressed explicitly to artists or agencies by the community. These projects are those that are defined by community. And not only take advantages of resources in that community, but pour resources back into the community. And so what you’re, what you’re putting the emphasis on is not the outcome or an object, or the aesthetic attributes of that object, but really the planning process and the the community building and the trust building and the relationship cultivating that occurs during these social practice engagement. I think a really great example of that sort of practice is Project Row House in Houston. That’s, that was an initiative founded and led by Rick Lowe for many years. And again, it’s sort of you’re taking these shotgun, traditional houses in Houston, and creating spaces for artists to come in and either hold meetings or create artworks, but the goal really is to create a space for community and create solutions for community. So that’s really a trend that I would love to see more of, rather than, you know, what has occurred more recently, which is, you know, clamoring for more street art, clamoring for, for more corporate murals. You know, I would really love to see us get back to actually building community and creating work that reflects community. I think that’s, that’s super important. That kind of work requires long term investment and integration into a neighborhood. But I think that it’s much more worthwhile, the results are much more optimal for everybody when that happens. And then I think generally, I would love to see more diversity in our field. And that that’s across across industries. So for instance, in public art, I would say about 80% of public art workers, practitioners, mostly administrators are white women, like 80%. You know, on the on the national board, advisory board that I’m on now, I’m the only black woman on that board out of maybe about 15 people. I’ve been, it’s sort of an ad hoc staff to art Commission’s that literally 90% of the makeup and the composition of those boards and panels are white men and women over the age of 65 that have been in those positions for 30 years. So at all levels, from public art to urban designers, planners and architects, everybody that is involved in this ecosystem that creates and builds the built environment in public spaces, we need much more cultural diversity, racial diversity, language diversity, and a wealth of perspective. Because I think that it’s much more, it’s easier to have these conversations and tackle these issues of racism and bias when there are people at the table that have experienced it and can speak to it. So that I would love to see, you know, our field just look much more like the community that they represent.

Javon Davis

Yeah, absolutely. And there are lots of, I mean, great diversity in artists out there. Like there’s arts of all kinds from all kinds of people. So, yeah, I think you would make it…..

Amina Cooper

Exactly. It’s not like we have to create this pipeline, where you know, people are like, well, where are they? We are here. [Laughter] We just want to be hired.

Javon Davis

Right. Oh, well, thank you so much. You know, I guess as the last question, if you were the GovLove DJ, what would you like the song to be to end the episode?

Amina Cooper

Oh, this is so exciting [laughter] and tricky, okay because I am a huge, I am Prince’s number one fan. I love Prince. Okay. If I had to pick a song, however, that’s appropriate to our conversation, it would be a song by the greatest rapper of all time. His name is Nasir Jones, better known as Nas. And it would be The World is Yours off of the Hallmark landmark album Illmatic.

Javon Davis

Amina, thank you so much for this great conversation.

Amina Cooper

Thank you. Thank you. This has been a pleasure.

Javon Davis

That ends our episode for today. GovLove is hosted by a rotating cast of ELGL members and it’s produced by Ben Kittelson. For our listeners, you can reach us at elgl.org/Govlove or on Twitter @govlovepodcast. We’re also on all your favorite podcast subscription services. Please subscribe to GovLove up your favorite service and leave us a review so people know that Govlove is the podcast for local government topics. If you leave us a five star review, we’ll send you some sweet ELGL swag. If you have a story for us, we want to hear it. Send us a message on Twitter. Thanks for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.

 


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