Linda Lombardi

Member Spotlight: Sue Lambe

Posted by Linda Lombardi, Aug 10, 2021 0 comments

Linda Lombardi

As the Art in Public Places Program Manager for the City of Austin, Texas, Sue Lambe is responsible for the existing public art collection of over 300 pieces and for the active permanent and temporary art projects underway throughout Austin. Established by the City in 1985, the Art in Public Places (AIPP) program collaborates with local and national artists to include the history and values of the Austin community into cultural landmarks that have become cornerstones of the city’s identity.

You’re also a licensed landscape architect with over 20 years’ experience designing public spaces. What attracted you to public art?

Black and white photo of smiling person
Sue Lambe, photo by Rino Pizzi.

Public art has always beckoned from a squishy sort of area just beyond landscape architecture. A public artist occupies a professional space adjacent to landscape architecture, working in civic space as well, without the need to conform to traditional notions of beauty, but rather focusing on meaning and connection to community or local culture. There is still a concern for function, such as ensuring sustainability and resilience in public space, and responding to real world concerns such as accessibility, health, safety, and welfare, but the public artist is also charged with producing depth of expression, wonder, delight, surprise, and/or connection amid these functional snares. With artists who have not worked in public space before, my experience and skill set were very helpful and personally rewarding. I continue to love the work we do as arts administrators; supporting public artists is challenging, fascinating, and keeps all the synapses firing!

What is AIPP’s process? How does a public art project develop from selection to design to installation? And how are community and artists involved?

Ah, this is the public part of public art! So many people are needed to be part of this process if it is to end up a success! In Austin, once we know that there is funding—2% of a capital improvement project construction budget set aside for a public art project—one of the seven AIPP project managers starts researching what is needed, what is possible, and what is desired by the community and stakeholders at/near the facility generating the funding. After much discussion and vetting, this research becomes the project prospectus, with specific artwork goals, that gets approved by the AIPP panel of public art experts, as well as by the Austin City Council-appointed Arts Commission. The artwork goals are the roadmap for artist selection, and for artist inspiration in the design phase. We mainly use two tools for artist selection—either an open call to eligible artists, or a prequalified pool of artists allowing community members to vote for the artist they wish to select. Once the artist is selected (a six-to-eight-month process), and we have a contract in place, the artist then reaches out to the public for community engagement that is iterative throughout the design phase, eventually connecting the artwork goals through artist inspiration to the final design. After final design is approved by the AIPP Panel and the Arts Commission, the artist is cleared to work with their AIPP project manager throughout the fabrication and installation phases of the project. By the time the project is complete, anywhere from 75-300+ people have had a hand in making it happen, which is real cause for celebration—the final step in the AIPP process!

How does public art connect people to their community and spark that ‘aha!’ moment that brings people together?

Public art connects people to community, creating opportunities for shared understanding or conversation in person or, with COVID-19 surging again, across social media. Just look at #thebean (Chicago) or #tauceti (Austin) to see how many of us seek connection in this way! I posted a video on YouTube a few years ago that documents what I mean. My family regularly visits the temporary arts exhibits along the Highline in New York City, and on this visit, Tony Matelli's Sleepwalker (2014) was installed. The reactions from passersby—from startlement to laughing to hugging the sculpture—was altogether joyful and a shared moment of connection with a group of strangers.

At some point during the later half of 2020, I heard a statistic that while normally approximately 1 in 12 adults in the U.S. has a mental health disorder, during the pandemic 1 in 3 adults were coping with anxiety or depressive disorder. Viewing public art that is available 24/7/365 as a museum without walls in shared civic spaces has been an amazing resource for exploration, exercise, dialogue, and connection. The opportunity to visit an artwork and share the visit on social media to create conversation despite the requirements of COVID isolation has great value.

Large outdoor mural in bright sunny colors featuring figures with flowers and faces turned to the sun.
Artist Rex Hamilton’s Be Well Mural, photo by Joe Ybarra.

In response to the pandemic, AIPP initiated and funded the Be Well Murals, a large-scale mural project of positive messages about mental and physical health. What was the origin story of that project? And what impact has it had on the community?

This is a story of need + opportunity = magic! As part of my work as City of Austin’s Economic Development Department staff, I was seeking quick ways in mid-2020 to hire artists to help keep the creative economy in Austin robust during the pandemic. The Austin City Council created a vehicle for quickly hiring people via the new Austin Civilian Conservation Corps (ACCC), enacted to channel workforce development opportunities to people whose income was reduced due to the pandemic. They named our temporary art program, TEMPO, as an accepted funding vehicle under the program.

So, we want to hire artists to create temporary work—where and how will we do this? At that same moment, we had an amazing spot in the city that had been a location for large scale art installations. The Lamar Underpass, just north of lovely Ladybird Lake, had been the site of a site-specific public art installation that was THE piece in the AIPP collection that Austinites loved to hate. I loved this artwork installation in part because it sparked so much conversation around public art. However, the condition of this artwork was no longer within the artist's vision of the work. We needed to decide—will we invest some money into this artwork, or should it be deaccessioned? Before the pandemic hit, we brought the artwork through the jury process to decide its fate, and the verdict was that we would deaccession it.

So now we have this amazing location for art, and we need to hire artists to create temporary art. I wrote a pitch titled TEMPO Together, proposing a mural project of over 10,000 square feet for the location. The prompt for the artists was to share positive or uplifting messages promoting physical and mental health. I proposed that a local arts organization be hired to run this project from soup to nuts. I tasked them with running artist selection via a jury of local art and culture leaders, making racial equity the foundation of the artist selection process, and requiring that eligible artists would have lost employment or lost income due to the pandemic. 

Artist spray paints large outdoor mural featuring pink flowers on sky blue wall.
Artist Samara Barks works on their Be Well Mural, photo by Joe Ybarra.

Raasin McIntosh and her organization, Raasin in the Sun, was hired to run this process, and they knocked it out of the park! They organized an open call to local artists; empaneled a jury of leaders in art, culture, and mental health; and selected a stellar group of six artists—Samara Barks, Carmen Rangel, Kimie Flores, Rex Hamilton, Niz G., and Luis Angulo—all artists of color who have imbued the site with vibrancy, beauty, and messages of wellness. Raasin in the Sun did the heavy lifting of organizing these artists to execute their installations at this busy underpass, keeping them safe throughout the project. Artists often received encouragement and accolades from drivers as they inched by in the heavy Austin traffic.

The impact of the Be Well Murals (props to Raasin for the name) on Austin has been hugely positive. The Austin Chronicle newspaper and Austin Monthly magazine have recognized the Be Well Murals for excellence. The murals have been mostly left alone by local taggers, a real tribute to the respect felt for these artists and their work! We expect the murals to be in place until the next installation is organized, likely in mid-2022. With the tragic resurgence of COVID in Austin—we are now back in Stage 5 protocols—the messages of these murals remain poignant and timely.

Americans for the Arts Membership

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