Artists as Essential Workers with and within Local Government: Models & 3 New Resources for a Creative Way Forward

Posted by Ms. Pam Korza, May 29, 2020 0 comments

In early April, as the City of Boston became an escalating COVID-19 “hot spot,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office responded with forceful measures on many fronts. In the midst of extreme circumstances, on April 3, the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture (MOAC) also announced the fourth cohort of artists-in-residence in its Boston AIR program. The program pairs local artists and staff from City of Boston departments to co-design projects that test new approaches to City policies and processes and that often address the social and political context of that year.

Boston AIR artists gather with Mayor Martin J. Walsh for the public announcement of the program’s third year. Photo courtesy of City of Boston.

In its first three years, Boston AIR artists and city agencies addressed issues of police-youth relations, the City’s goals of racial equity and community resilience, and opportunities to improve the city-wide system of Centers for Youth and Families, among other concerns. No doubt, as MOAC’s website states, the five artists selected in 2020 to work with the Boston Public Health Commission, Office of Emergency Management, Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab, and Mayor’s Offices for Immigrant and Women’s Advancement will be compelled by COVID-19 needs facing these departments and look for ways to contribute to systemic changes that address all levels of social emergency experienced by the people of Boston.

Poet Krysten Hill reading during Jennifer De Leon's Write-In (Boston AIR, year 2). Photo courtesy of City of Boston.

The Boston AIR Leadership Team is working to support its artists toward this goal. MOAC staff leads Karin Goodfellow and Sharon Amuguni are “providing opportunities for [artists] to ask big questions, such as, ‘What are we witnessing now that is showing us that changes must be made for us to have a more equitable and resilient city? How can we have elements that explore the moment we’re in now, while not losing the opportunity to make that bigger impact on policy? How can we utilize flexible tactics that can be adapted once we return to our regular routines?’” (Learn more about MOAC’s thinking and plans for Boston AIR in the context of COVID-19 in this blog.)

These programs have demonstrated that artists working in partnership with government are essential workers who bring creative practices and solutions to issues that municipalities face.

In the years ahead, municipal and county government officials face unfathomable challenges in recovery and reconstruction stemming from COVID-19. Programs such as Boston AIR have demonstrated that artists working in partnership with government are essential workers who bring creative practices and solutions to issues that municipalities face. Municipalities can learn from models of longstanding programs such as Saint Paul’s City Artist program, New York City’s Public Artist in Residence (PAIR), Minneapolis’ Creative CityMaking, and others that have ramped up in recent years. Local arts councils and commissions often play a big role in conceiving and coordinating these programs in tandem with local government.

One of these programs is the Los Angeles County Creative Strategist Artist-in-Residence (CS-AIR). The CS-AIR program embeds artists in County departments to work alongside staff, project partners, and community stakeholders in a collaborative process to develop, strategize, promote, and implement artist-driven solutions to civic issues. Creative Strategist was conceived and is administered by the Los Angeles County Dept of Arts and Culture as part of LA County’s Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative.

Funded by the LA County Board of Supervisors in 2017 and launched in 2018, the CS-AIR program kicked off with projects at the Department of Public Health/PLACE Vision Zero and the LA County Library. In the program’s second year, artist residencies took place at four County departments including Parks and Recreation, the County’s new Office of Violence Prevention, and Registrar-Recorder—responsible for voting systems in the largest county in the U.S. One of the 2019-2020 artists was theater artist Anu Yadav, who partnered with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (DMH). Together the partners determined her work would provide staff with arts-based practices they could use to build a culture of listening that prioritizes community leadership, all in support of the agency’s commitment to equity.

On the toolkit cover: Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore 15th Annual Celebrating Words Festival. Photo by Giovanni Solis.These practices are shared in Healing Through Story: A Toolkit on Grassroots Approaches, a resource the artist developed for DMH staff and which is now available online. Yadav describes what her process revealed:

I interviewed 11 Los Angeles County grassroots groups in March 2020 just as the County issued its first safer-at-home order in response to the COVID-19 public health pandemic. The crisis emphasizes even more the critical importance of their work. Many of the groups didn’t know about the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s 2020-2030 Strategic Plan, yet their work overlaps with many of its goals point by point. This fortunate coincidence reveals how communities often meet the challenge of addressing their own healing and can offer valuable perspective on policy, programs, and models of care. It also demonstrates how communities are in a perfect position to inform DMH’s organizational structure, process, and outcomes.

The Healing Through Story toolkit focuses on the power of story because it “helps people process the fears and sudden realities that many are facing,” a demonstrated outcome that artists and mental health professionals agree on. Yadav fine-tuned the toolkit to directly addresses mental health needs exacerbated by the pandemic. Part 1 offers step-by-step storytelling methods including shared listening, story circles, and facilitation techniques with translation for use in virtual spaces. Part 2 shares 11 stories of grassroots groups, pointing to how each is relevant to DMH’s strategic plan goals in some way(s). Discussion prompts support DMH staff and other kit users to reflect and draw lessons that “show how people, regardless of where we are all positioned, can partner as equals toward healing and justice for all.”

From the Toolkit story about Meztli Projects drum making workshop. Photo by Joel Garcia.

Keris Jän Myrick, DMH’s Chief of Peer and Allied Health Professions and a leading national mental health advocate, underscored the value of artists for the agency in the Foreword to the toolkit:

At DMH we understand how art is a powerful tool for wellness and recovery as demonstrated by the many arts and music groups in our clinics. During her time here, Anu has bridged two worlds often removed from each other—civic institutions and grassroots groups. Anu was instrumental in expanding our scope beyond its individual rehabilitative benefits to include how arts-based methods can be part of larger social and organizational change, aligning with our strategic plan to deeply engage communities as leaders in healing. Through this toolkit she provides paradigm-shifting practical exercises and grounded community stories. Taking in the powerful knowledge of these stories, our task is to build upon creative and holistic methods like these towards meeting our mission with communities at the center.

When partners invest in understanding each other’s skills, needs, and language to clarify desired outcomes, and maintain a critical lens on issues of power, equity, and accountability, their projects have a much higher chance of both artistic and pragmatic success. This premise is substantiated in the Municipal-Artist Partnerships (MAP) guide developed by Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, and A Blade of Grass, a national nonprofit that supports socially engaged artists, with support from Our Town, National Endowment for the Arts’ creative placemaking grants program. Based upon research and interviews with two dozen experienced municipal staffers and artists, the MAP guide profiles programs that embed artists in municipal government for the public good and captures principles, best practices, impacts, and lessons learned.

The free, online MAP guide is designed for artists, municipal agency personnel, and intermediary organizations working with them and:

  • introduces a spectrum of partnership/program models;
  • features the voices of partners on common challenges and ways to approach them;
  • underscores guiding values such as equity and fair compensation for artists’ professional expertise;
  • offers profiles of partnerships, tools, model documents, and print and video resources from a number of remarkable partnerships; and 
  • testifies to the value-add and impact of engaging artists in municipal settings.

Finally, also check out this excellent resource on civic practice—a compilation of short videos, interactive exercises, readings, and podcasts—developed by veteran practitioner Michael Rohd, a theater artist who founded Sojourn Theatre and the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, and who teaches at Arizona State University.

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