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.

Considering Appropriateness of Funding Set-Aside Practices

Washington Post reported an interesting development in the Washington, D.C. arts and cultural environment last week. The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities asked the D.C. Council to end the practice of setting aside approximately $7 million in guaranteed funding to a group of established city arts organizations.

That money, which averaged a bit more than $7 million a year, now goes into a general fund of more than $33 million — and anyone can compete for a piece of it. The more money there is at a community level, the more likely some of the city’s grass-roots talent will be discovered.

To their credit, the big-time beneficiaries of the old set-aside did not fight the change. Rather, they explained the economic rationale for bypassing the arts commission and lobbying the D.C. Council to give them special dispensation. They acknowledged that the funding program may have unintentionally added to arts funding disparities — with residents living east of the Anacostia River getting far less than Whites in more-affluent areas.

The article mentions this was a particularly productive development for the Commission on the Arts and Humanities which had been viewed as so dysfunctional over the past year, members of the DC Council overseeing the commission were considering whether it should be dissolved.

The article raises a good issue in raising awareness of set aside programs where many of the most affluent and prestigious arts organizations in a municipality or state are guaranteed a certain level of funding while all other arts organizations are forced to compete for the remaining funds. This isn’t on the case in the US, back in March I cited a work that discussed how powerful arts organizations were making an end run around the Australian Council for the Arts to secure their funding directly from the government.

I’d be interested to know what economic rationale the D.C. arts organizations cited to justify circumventing the arts commission and lobbying the DC Council directly. In any case, I suspect we may see more of these set aside arrangements come under scrutiny as possibly perpetuating  funding disparities within the greater community.

Your Tax Dollars At Art

You may recall that back in 2010 the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) was permitted to put a property tax up for vote on an election ballot to ensure a source of financial support. In return for the property tax increase, which was $20 on a home valued at $200,000, residents of three counties around Detroit would be permitted various levels of access to DIA programming.

Hyperallergic has a follow up report of sorts from Salvador Salort-Pons, Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Eugene Gargaro, Chairman of the Detroit Institute of Arts board of directors. Spoilers – In March 2020, residents of those three counties voted to extend the property tax rate to 2032.

The DIA advocated for this unorthodox approach because there were serious conversations in local government about selling off the institute’s artworks in order to generate sufficient financial support for the organization.

The Hyperallergic piece says DIA negotiated individually with each of the counties, but that generally they were providing the following services:

For each county, the DIA now offers free admission to all residents, free field trips with free bus transportation to all students, free weekly programs for seniors, including free transportation for groups, and a community partnership program where we work directly with non-profits in each county to jointly create programs and events that meet their communities’ specific needs, such as art-making experiences for veterans or those experiencing homelessness.

The article goes on to discuss DIA’s commitment to having the community set the agenda for what the museum should be:

Providing this level of service over an expansive geographic area is not easy, but the rewards extend well beyond the financial support we receive. By being accountable to the residents of our region, we have adapted our programs, exhibitions and even our operating structure to ensure we are giving our diverse communities what they want from their museum, not what we think they should have.

It is good that they state this commitment because a memory of recent criticisms of DIA came to mind as I was reading the article. A quick search and I found articles from March and April about accusations of Salort-Pons fostering a unhealthy work environment and engaging in some ethically questionable practices in regard to some artworks.

I also found a New York Times piece from August 2020 specifically asking if the DIA had lost touch with the predominantly Black residents of Detroit, citing a mixed record of decisions by Salort-Pons.

Given that Covid has allowed for a great deal of introspection and planning about how to move forward, it will be interesting to see if anything happens over the next 4-5 years to shift these perceptions.

Send this to a friend