Creating Community through Public Art

Monuments Reimagined, "belong"Photo credit: Faizal Westcott

By Thomas E. Mills

Look around the next time you're out picking up a cup of coffee or on a walk through your neighborhood. Public art is all around you. From long-standing statues to newly painted murals and utility box art, someone, and often a group of people, took the time to decide what public art would go into a given neighborhood.

Public art says a lot about a community, about its past, about what values that community wants to project to visitors and new neighbors.

On October 5, a group of artists and public art professionals joined a community conversation about the importance of public art, how communities are addressing public art that may no longer reflect community values, and what the future of public art looks like.

The conversation was inspired not only by the conversations that are taking place in cities and states across the country, but also locally by an exhibit titled Monuments Reimagined, which has been on display at the Harvard Ed Portal since the early summer. Exhibition co-curator, Brian Hone, and artist, Katherine Megumi Shozawa took part in the event sparked by their exhibit and talked about what moved them about public art.

"Artists are individuals who function in this in between space or a space of the unknown," said Hone. "It's interesting to hear [the panel] reflect on not quite knowing what happens next. Artists have ideas, they have really good ideas and organizations and institutions [should engage with and] work with [artists] to help support them and figure out what comes next."

Throughout the conversation, the group discussed how public art has the potential to make a community a more vibrant and welcoming place while provoking debate about our shared cultural experience. Community members, artists, and public officials all have a role to play in shaping the cultural experience of a neighborhood.

"If monuments are about people and our relationship to community, relationship to one another, each other's history, I feel like socially engaged art is a way of reenacting those exchanges that affirm those communities," Shozawa noted as she suggested we need more temporary public art like her belong piece.

Sara Zewde, a landscape designer, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and co-founder of Studio Zewde thinks about space professionally. Her work at Studio Zewde blends the multi disciplines of the firm's employees and approaches each project – from design to community organizing – holistically to capture the culture and history of the neighborhoods surrounding project sites.

"I'm interested in the complex narratives – the stories we tell ourselves about who we are – and how landscapes, how the everyday things we build tell a story," said Zewde. "How is a curb, a tree, a park bench, or a sidewalk telling us something and if it isn't that says the person who designed it believes the world is right the way it is."

Much like Zewde, Kara Elliott-Ortega is interested in how neighborhoods and those who live there impact the art and culture around them. As the Chief of Arts & Culture for the City of Boston, she is focused on how arts and creativity can build community. She noted that focus on community, and working with local artists, is essential to ensuring a robust public arts program in Boston – from developing resources for artists, supporting cultural facilities, and developing a public art program.

"I see [public art] as part of a broader view of culture and place and I see a lot of our work as honoring the stories and lived experiences of the people of Boston," said Elliott-Ortega. "Where I see a lot of inspiration now is from artists, young people, and community members who are claiming an agency over their places and spaces and demanding a part of what their communities look like."

The Monuments Reimagined exhibit asked viewers to offer their opinions about what public art should mean for a community, and as detailed by the panel, without that community feedback it would be nearly impossible to build a public arts program that reflects the values of a neighborhood.

"I hope one day [my work] isn't considered radical enough, and there is a movement to tear it down," Zewde said. "Anything I can imagine now is a function of where we are and limited by everything... as much as I try to challenge and call on all of you to challenge our conventions, there are limits. We're just passing a baton – we're running as fast as we can and passing a baton [to the next generation]."

If you were unable to attend the virtual event live, a recording will be available in the coming days on the Harvard Local YouTube page. You can view Monuments Reimagined on display at the Harvard Ed Portal on Western Ave in Allston until October 15, or check out the website for the exhibit.