Who Are the Naturally Occurring Artists in Your Municipal Agency?

Posted by Ms. Elizabeth Hamby, Dec 06, 2018 0 comments

This post is part of our Inside Artist-Municipal Partnerships blog salon.

Bureaucrats [are] public servants, and it is the responsibility of servants to do their masters’ bidding, no matter what that bidding is. Insofar as their master is something called “the public,” however, this creates certain problems: how to figure out what, exactly, the public really wants them to do. —David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or a house be an object, but not our life? —Michel Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth

The first time I tried to get a job as an artist in government, I failed. I was recruited for a position focused on community engagement, visioning, and imagination. The hiring agency was excited by my artwork, and sought me out for the skills I’d honed through social practice. But as we negotiated the terms of my position and I asked that my title be “artist,” I quickly got shot down. To call this work “art” would somehow make it harder for it to be taken seriously by other stakeholders. Plus, my colleagues feared, they were already seen as “soft” for their focus on community engagement, and would be further ostracized from the real decision-making work of the agency. I could do the work however I wanted, they said, but I couldn’t call it art.

The second time I tried to get a job as an artist in government, I kept my artist identity to myself. I showed my projects and reported on the numbers of community members engaged, the connections to “real-world” impacts on policies, systems, and the environment. It was only after two years of producing projects that I started to come out as an artist. As I started to claim the role of “naturally occurring artist in residence” at my agency, other artists started coming to find me. “I’m a dancer,” they would say, or, “I have a photo show this weekend.” And I started noticing the ways that their practices impacted the ways that these artists showed up in their bureaucratic jobs: the photographer was an expert at framing issues and ideas; the dancer had a keen sense of space; an actor talked about his awareness of staging. All this helped me realize all of the ways that we show up as full human beings in our work, not merely a list of tasks and standards. Artist or not, we are more than what we do.

My current work is focused on building tools and strategies, as well as convening diverse stakeholders, with the goal of integrating health equity into municipal decision-making. It takes place at the edge of old familiar ways that are slowly dying, and new ways that are growing day by day. Government work is changing, and as Toni Cade Bambara said, “the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” I use my skills to illuminate and facilitate new ways of working both within government itself, and between government and communities. This suits my practice far better than working from the outside, looking for partners on a project-by-project basis. It allows me to build long-term relationships and develop greater trust, which in turn results in more creativity and more impactful work.

Healthy Neighborhood Imagination Toolbox at a community festival. This tool, originally developed by artist and urban planner James Rojas, gives community members a forum to express their hopes, dreams, and aspirations for their neighborhood using everyday objects and a neighborhood basemap.

There is no special funding for my projects, but one of my skills as an artist is re-purposing things. “Communications campaigns” are opportunities for murals, posters, or comic books. “Community engagement” funding can support festivals and the development of arts-based tools. Evaluation budgets can be used for oral histories. The artist Jill Magid describes her experience pitching an art project to a police department: “We do not work with artists,” she was told. But, Magid wrote, “A few weeks later I returned with the same proposal. This time I represented myself as a designer within my own corporation; my pitch did not speak of ‘Art’ but ‘Public Relations.’”

One of my recent projects, a Dungeons and Dragons-style adventure game about structural racism, was designed as a “staff development tool” to support internal transformation work to help my agency confront systems of oppression. The game drew upon the diverse expertise of my agency colleagues—in social epidemiology, history, research—and built on my experience creating projects that make complex histories legible. More importantly, it created space for agency staff to talk about the ways that government has actively and passively created systems of inequality and oppression.

What Creates Health: Race, Place, and Public Space is a game about the intersection of urban planning, policy, and public health. Based on “choose your own adventure” style role playing games, What Creates Health is an exploration of the ways in which our zip codes—not our genetic codes—shape our ability to live a long, healthy life. Participants roll the dice and confront racism in policy, planning, and interpersonal dynamics as they move along their life courses.

So, what is needed to build, connect, and sustain the work of naturally occurring artists in residence in city agencies to further facilitate the transformation of governments—particularly municipal governments? The first way is for my fellow unicorns—the painters, musicians, and community artists already engaged in bureaucracy—to come out, find one another, and start to talk about what we do and why and how we do it. The next is to start to imagine what government can be, what it should do, and begin to describe the roles that artists play in producing this future. “All that you touch, you change,” says Octavia Butler. “All that you change, changes you.”

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