Looking To Public Art To Revitalize Cities Post-Covid

Somewhat in line with my post yesterday about the growing number of basic guarantee income programs for artists, Artsjournal.com had an interview with the mayor of Toronto, John Tory, about the beginning of a 10 year initiative to create public art. The program had been delayed by the start of Covid and the mayor says that has created an even greater need for public works of art.

This is true for a couple of reasons: first, I think the sense of joy — the look and feel of the city being enlivened by artistic creations of all kinds — became even more important after a desolate period when you’d walk around downtown and it was bleak, I mean it was a wasteland. The second reason, which was valid before but now became 100 times more valid, was that it also allows some of our artists to tell their stories. And beyond the benefits to us of having those stories told and those works displayed, this program will retain the services of 1,500 artists over the course of this year. That’s not unimportant in the context of a group that has been very hard hit. I’m not minimizing the problems other people have had, but artists had a terrible time. Now there’s a need to bring the city back to life and there’s nothing like the arts and culture to do that.

I was interested to see the interviewer, Jonathan Dekel, follow up by asking the mayor how this vision of supporting artists and their importance to the city reconciles with the concerns about gentrification displacing the artists. The mayor made mention of some measures like tax relief for music venues and affordable housing arrangements which recognize that artists’ income is not regular from month to month.

How Arts Orgs Used Relief Funding Is Beginning To Be Examined

A couple weeks ago Hyperallergic had an article that was a critical of museums who had received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds meant to keep people employed, but instead ended up laying off large numbers of people. They particularly noted that the Museum of Science Boston initially didn’t qualify for the program due to employing more than 500 people, but were later able to apply for funding after laying off more than 300 people.  The article also suggested that while some institutions needed the money to survive, some of those at the top ended up in almost better financial shape.

It found that out of $1.6 billion given to about 7,500 cultural institutions that qualified for PPP loans, nearly half of the money ($771 million) went to just 228 recipients. These same 288 institutions collectively laid off more than 14,400 employees, or at least 28% of their workforce.


However, AFSCME’s report found that not all museums faired that poorly during the pandemic. In fact, an analysis of 69 cultural institutions with available financial data revealed that 67% of them ended fiscal year (FY) 2020 with operating surpluses.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), which received $3.3 million in PPP loans, laid off 97 workers during the pandemic despite ending FY 2020 with a $2.3 million surplus. Nearby, the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County ended FY 2020 with a $23.9 million operating surplus after receiving a $4.8 million PPP loan. And yet, it furloughed its 127 part-time employees from March 2020 until the end of December 2020.

Not to excuse the act of laying off people after accepting money to keep staff employed, the fact that institutions ended fiscal year 2020 with a surplus may not be indicate they profited off of layoffs. Many non-profits have a July 1 -June 30 fiscal year so if the organization was doing well from July 1, 2019 through March 2020 when the pandemic started, losses of the three months from March-June 2020 may not have moved them into a deficit. The PPP program started in April 2020 with a deadline of June 30, 2020 so organizations may not have received the funds until their 2021 fiscal year.

It has been generally acknowledged that a lot of those who applied for the PPP program didn’t have the severe financial need the program was intended to serve. Determining whether museums used funds meant to stave off layoffs to achieve better financial footing should be examined, but it isn’t clear from the information provided here. The full report can be downloaded on the AFSCME website. I haven’t downloaded the report at this time because the registration form indicates they and others may use the information to solicit and lobby me.

It will be interesting to see if a similar examination is conducted of performing arts venues which largely fall under the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, something most museums were not eligible due to the fixed seating requirement for that program.  From what I have seen, the administration of that program is still plagued with errors which they are trying to resolve for adversely effected venues, but that raises concerns that there was opportunity for inappropriately granting funds as well.

When You Actually Want Your Sidewalk To Fall To Disrepair

More great stories of artists being part of infrastructure projects, this time from a Next City article that came out last week. I have written about these type of projects before and one of my favorite go-to examples is the Green Line project in St. Paul, MN which employed artists to help mitigate the impact light rail construction on nearby businesses.

This recent Next City piece discusses a similar effort in the small town of Grand Marais, MN that was also seeing the impact of construction:

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.

In the article they talk about artist-in-residence programs in cities, both large and small, and the impact the artists have had on planning and design. However, what really caught my eye was another project in St. Paul, MN – Sidewalk Poetry.

“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.”

In the article linked in the quoted section above, they emphasize the fact that only sidewalks slated for replacement are part of the program, “never in new development, ensuring that the poems are able to be found across the entire city.” The project solicited poems in the languages of groups with high representation in St. Paul, including English, Spanish, Hmong, Somali and Dakota.

The project involves an interesting mix of priorities. While some people will request that a poem not appear in front of their home or business, the city is not able to fulfill all the requests they receive to place a poem in a specific place because they strive to balance where the poems are placed and because not every patch of sidewalk requires repair.

Gentrification Is For More Than Just City Neighborhoods

Shelterforce posted a video and article about how the term gentrification manifests in different ways and thus doesn’t always conform to the same definition in every community, leading to the term being applied very broadly.  While this may not seem like a topic for a blog focused on arts management concerns, my organization recently received a grant to create a work addressing aspects of gentrification.

Shelterforce identifies four broad conditions people apply the term gentrification to and note that while over time all four may manifest in a community, only one may ever exist in the community.

In summary the conditions are: 1- housing costs rise, displacing residents who can’t afford rents and taxes. 2- Housing costs rise, residents aren’t displaced, but the character of the neighborhood changes over time. 3- Communities of color experience a “cultural displacement” where relevant businesses and places are lost or political displacement where power dynamics shift as wealthier, and perhaps whiter, groups flow into the neighborhood. 4- Communities who have experienced disinvestment are subject to new investment focused on attracting new businesses/residents rather than bolstering development for the benefit of current residents.

Until the last week or so I always associated gentrification with cities. In my mind it was something that occurred when there was focus placed on revitalizing neighborhoods either because artists, (perhaps displaced from somewhere else), had taken up residence in abandoned buildings leading to the area becoming the center of activity and with it a desire for an infrastructure supporting service, safety and quality of life. Or because a revitalization effort in one area created a ripple effect creating a demand for better quality of life infrastructure.

However, my mother has been recently talking to me about the changes that occurred in the local school district of the rural, update New York county in which I grew up. Both my parents started out as school teachers. My mother in particular would talk about how the disrespect and discipline problems she experienced substitute teaching in the 1980s convinced her she couldn’t return to teaching when we kids were old enough to take care of ourselves.

I always chalked it up to permissive parents and a shift toward the perception of the student as a customer of the education system. It is only recently that my mother talked about how people from NYC had moved up to our county because the school district was so highly regarded, but then started to push back against the culture that under-girded the excellence and close-knit cooperation that made the schools so attractive.

All this was invisible to me growing up. And the district was still very much rural at the time. My house was surrounded by fields of diary cows and fodder and the school buses picked up kids at their farms–as well as the housing developments speckling the hills here and there.

It is only in the last week or so that I realized that rural places can experience some of what is described as gentrification. I can also attest that not all aspects of gentrification appear together. When I went back to see the old house about five years ago, there were dozens of new houses awkwardly placed in the middle of fields, bare acres on all sides with only a few recently planted trees around them as foliage. (Other parts of the county have seen so much development, the exit off the NYS Thruway was unrecognizable from my visit even a few years earlier.)

However, despite all these new house in the area the same general stores, same pizza place, and same gas stations that were there as when I grew up.  It amazed me that there hadn’t been enough pressure to see new businesses pop up to cater to the community. Unless there is “I got mine” mindset to keep the community from being attractive to other potential arrivals. There was one enterprising farmer started growing hops and opened a microbrewery.  Many of the beer names have a Pacific Northwest theme so I wonder where their core clientele is located.

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