A Catalyst for Art: Jessica Cusick

Posted by Ms. Helen M. Lessick, Mar 28, 2016 0 comments

Jessica Cusick retired as the Manager of the City of Santa Monica Cultural Affairs Department on March 3, 2016. Starting the job in 2005 she took a staff of three and grew it into a powerhouse of 21 to serve a city of 90,000 residents. She also created municipal programs through planning, policy, creative communities, public art and artist residencies to bring the work of writers and coders, planners and planters, poets and visual artists free to city audiences.

Jessica CusickCusick developed nationally noted cultural works in Santa Monica including Glow, the temporary nighttime art festival; the Annenburg Community Beach House with a civic art gallery and artist-, dancer-, writer- and choreographer-in-residence programs; Tongva Park, an urban oasis of outdoor rooms created out of a parking lot; Fresh Art, a series of temporary commissions site specific to outdoor sites; and award-winning permanent public art commissions by Ball Nogues Studio, Karen Carson and Inigo Manglano-Ovale among many others.

Americans for the Arts members who work in cultural policy or have enjoyed public places in Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Santa Monica and Seattle have been impacted by Cusick’s vision. Public Art Network (PAN) subscribers know Cusick led the grassroots effort to establish it twenty years ago. She brought the group to Americans for the Arts and worked as PAN manager for its first two years. She initiated the national Year in Review, led the establishment of contract and commission standards and the PAN preconference.

Public transit riders in Los Angeles enjoy the permanent public art in the Metro Red Line stations, in an extraordinary program founded by Cusick. If you hired a graduate of the University of Southern California Masters of Public Art Studies Program (1993 -2008), or know what constitutes a great cultural arts masterplan, or how the work of art can change a community, you have been impacted by the work and thinking of Cusick.

Before leaving the City to devote herself to full time arts consulting, Ms. Cusick sat down with artist and civic activist Helen Lessick. Here is a synopsis of one American for the arts looking back and forward to her next phase of civic activism.

Municipal Policy

HL: Jessica, you have been involved in many well-regarded municipal art programs and masterplan efforts.  What is the secret to your success?

JC: Context is everything.  The work of culture requires many hands.  Municipal policy is a framework for cultural activity. It needs to be flexible enough to evolve as communities change.  The best administration–on every level–realizes that open-ended implementation allows for the artist option to prevail.

Policy is needed to enable and assess programs. Administrators need the flexibility and trust of their bosses, staffs and communities to assess how policy is implemented. Policies need to be flexible enough to allow for diverse implementation. Culture is not static. 

The Education of Art Administrators

HL: You taught at the University of Southern California unique Masters of Public Art Studies (MPAS) degree program and are currently an Associate Professor at Claremont Graduate School. You have full time work. What drives your commitment to teaching administration?

JC:  To grow great programs, administrators must know about policy. Cultural policy is not a dry topic, but a tool for social change. Claremont Graduate School is an empowering situation. My classes are within the School of Non-Profit Management. The Dean states ‘we can make a difference through social change.’  I know this is true and teach to spread the word.

You asked whether a degree is necessary for art administrators. I think an MFA or MBA is not necessary to run a municipal art program. Professional training could come from public policy or social work fields. In developing cultural administration programs, the artist has to be central in consideration. For cultural management knowledge of contemporary artist practices and passion for contemporary art is key.

As we develop our communities, we must consider how municipal policy and planning enhances the creative sector. This artist option means valuing the unique circumstances creators need to thrive. When you realize each of us is a creator in our work, family, community and public life, prioritizing creative space is vital.

The Public Work of Artists

HL: How does an artist affect civic arts policy?

JC:  Everyone has a responsibility to be better informed and well engaged in community.  Artists must participate at all levels too, from serving on local committees to doing political work for an issue or candidate.  Visual and public artists should not wait for a commission to engage their community. Verbal and performing artists can take to the public stage. Successful public and social artists allocate their time to work with community locally and in commissions. It is only by doing it that an artist can get better at impacting cities and their policies.

Artists I am very interested in right now include Mel Chin, Rick Lowe and Gregory Sale. There are many others, but those three show real initiative in creating works of human engagement.

Growing Public Art

HL: Your consulting practice developed from your early work in public art administration programs, planning and projects. I’ve followed your work at the Los Angeles County Transit system, MetroArt, and the Houston Arts Alliance. How does public art work in cities?

JC: I am inspired by artists and their work, particularly the civic efforts of artists. Felix Padrón, San Antonio’s Director of the Department of Culture and Creative Development is a great example of an artist activist.  His program slogan, ‘Art Saves Cities’ is inspirational because it is true and quantified.

When I was at Metro Art, the public art program of the Los Angeles County Transit system, I would discuss the challenges of using art to build a city with artists and administrators. The Public Art Network effort came from discussions with the other practitioners in Southern California. Many public art administrators are the sole shop for public art in a municipal organization and lack internal colleagues. PAN fulfills its role in advocacy and establishing best practices in public art through consensus and dialog. It is a vehicle for raising the level of professionalism in the practice through the Year in Review, art commission contract samples and policy documents.

Art administrators have to stay involved in the community too. Look at what others are doing. The efforts of municipal cultural policy in San Jose and Fort Worth, among many others, are worth emulating.  As Felix says, art saves cities.

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