“Experiments in Public Art”—A Citywide Laboratory Expanding the Potential of Public Art

Posted by Ms. Mandy Vink, Aug 15, 2017 0 comments

This post is part of our Public Art Network 2017 Year in Review blog salon.

In 2014, the Office of Arts and Culture, the local arts agency for Boulder, Colorado, launched the “Experiments in Public Art” program: an ongoing series of civic interventions that serve as a citywide laboratory expanding the potential of public art.

Debuting in 2016, the series of temporary artworks commissioned through “Experiments in Public Art” disrupt the traditional commissioning process. Each project’s temporality encourages work responding to “now”: What’s urgent? What is an immediate community conversation? How can public art be an agent to facilitate these conversations? What experimental practices can advance the artists’ body of work, the use of a public site, or the community interaction with art? Participating artists are additionally asked to identify their preferred location within the city, and a budget required to accomplish the concept, ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. Artists need not be local, but community engagement is a critical component of these projects.


HARM TO TABLE is about honoring that moment when people have time and space to connect new knowledge with their own experiences and possibly turn it into actions that draw directly from their own lives.”


With initial commissions running the gamut in media and duration, the selection panel was particularly eager to work with artist Matthew Mazzotta. Known for his metamorphizing and participatory projects, Mazzotta has had six projects recognized by the Public Art Network Year in Review. His initial proposal imagined a community-wide consumption of noodles. But through Mazzotta’s participation within the community, HARM TO TABLE transformed into a mobile dining experience with an unfolding dining table for 30 and focused menu, with each item featuring an ingredient anticipated to be extinct in the next 20-40 years due to climate change.

How did he arrive at this version of the project? Boulder is known as a center of innovation in Colorado, and hosts the nation’s most highly educated population. The city is home to more than 140 cultural organizations, award-winning restaurants, and high-quality schools and healthcare. Mazzotta built relationships with more than 50 individuals from across these sectors, and partnered with local industry leaders to realize the work: Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha crafted Ponderosa Osha Kombucha; Chef Tim Hessenbruch crafted a Wild Sarsaparilla and Sweet Grass Soup; and Fortuna Chocolate provided Chocolate Financiers with local bee pollen. Through this curated experience, Mazzotta created a place for organic and impromptu conversations about one of our community’s most pressing topics of climate change.

What’s interesting about HARM TO TABLE is that, although it included all the right Boulder ingredients, Mazzotta’s approach to climate change ran counter to ways the city chooses to talk about climate action. Much of the city’s current strategy centers on adaptation, rather than highlighting the harms associated with climate change. But to the Office of Arts and Culture and the Boulder Arts Commission, that tension is part of the appeal. Public art projects should not be edited down to a tailored narrative, and should create opportunity for discourse.

HARM TO TABLE is one example of the commissioning approaches of “Experiments in Public Art,” and seeks to take a commissioning approach that creates an exploratory opportunity for artists to bring their unique perspectives to challenging topics like climate change. “HARM TO TABLE is about honoring that moment when people have time and space to connect new knowledge with their own experiences and possibly turn it into actions that draw directly from their own lives,” said Mazzotta. “To me, the more people that are taking time to connect these gigantic issues we face with their everyday lives in a real way makes the conversation that much stronger, robust, and fruitful.”

Matthew Mazzotta is a conceptual artist who creates permanent and temporary public interventions that range from opening up new social spaces inside the built environment, to addressing pressing environmental issues, but always with a focus on community and public participation. The objects, situations and spaces he creates as community projects and participatory interventions ask us to relate to ourselves, and each other, in unfamiliar ways, in hopes of finding new perspectives on how we see ourselves in this world. Instagram: @mmazzotta99 #matthewmazzotta

The City of Boulder’s Office of Arts and Culture is currently implementing Boulder’s Community Cultural Plan. Through a set of programs including cultural grants, public art, initiatives that support artists and the creative economy, and research, the office supports the community-created Vision for Culture: Together, we will craft Boulder’s social, physical, and cultural environment to include creativity as an essential ingredient for the wellbeing, prosperity, and joy of everyone in the community. Instagram: @bouldergov #boulderarts

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