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City Art: New thinking about public art in Saint Paul is transforming the public sphere

Drawing of Seitu Jones' "Create: A Community Meal"

Marcus Young was a surprising choice for Saint Paul’s City Artist in Residence (CAIR), a post he’s held since 2006. From a background in music and performance art, Young had evolved into a conceptual artist. So when Young came along, CAIR decided to take a giant step toward reimagining what public art could be.

The program, formerly known as the City of Saint Paul’s Public Artist Residence and a partnership with Public Art Saint Paul, was created in 2005 for artists to collaborate with the Public Works Department and Saint Paul Design Center on planning and designing the public realm. For the past eight years, Young’s been working “upstream” at the source of city making, working with representatives from a multitude of agencies.

As a result, he’s created a new definition for the kind of public art increasingly being practiced in Saint Paul. He calls it “City Art,” by which he means art that “aspires to be the civic collaboration of creating the beautiful city—project by project, work by work, yet ultimately as a whole beloved experience.”

Young’s idea is not public art as it’s commonly understood and funded—permanent work commissioned as part of singular public capital developments. “City Art is not an additive to individual projects—it emerges from within and has an impact on the City’s systems, including sidewalks and the urban forest,” he says. When the Central Corridor Public Art Plan was launched, the artists and urban designers involved expanded those possibilities to include gathering places, food production and delivery systems, stormwater management, and zero waste.

City Art entails looking closely at how the City functions, from macro and micro perspectives. Arising from the living systems of Saint Paul and insights he’s gleaned during his residency, Young’s work and the works of other public artists are transforming the shape and experience of Saint Paul’s public sphere.

Capturing national attention

Like artist Mierle Leiderman-Ukeles, who has worked within the New York Department of Sanitation for the past 30 years, Young is one of a rare species of public artist whose work creates vibrancy on a real city scale and at a level of everyday impact. In his award-winning project “Everyday Poems for City Sidewalks,” Young re-imagined Saint Paul’s annual sidewalk maintenance program by transforming sections of sidewalk into panels of poetry.

Young’s ideas about City Art are bolstering Saint Paul’s reputation as a crucible of new thinking about public art. Over the past 25 years, such artists as Wing Young Huie, Seitu Jones, and Christine Baeumler have built this reputation. From their deep caring for community arises art that Baeumler sees as “a catalyst for intervention, action, reflection, and possibly even transformation of sites and communities.”

Cities nation-wide, and across the globe, are taking notice. Young was a featured speaker at the 2013 American Public Works Association Congress in Chicago and Baeumler re-imagined Saint Paul as a “hydropolis” as part of the recent International Low Impact Development Conference. Cities are interested in emulating Saint Paul’s artist-in-residence model, artist partnerships in water quality initiatives, and the sidewalk-poetry initiative.

Interviewed on the ArtPlaceAmerica blog, Young said that City Art requires people to “fall in love with the city again, dream big, forget the rules, listen to our hearts, make friends, think carefully, and work hard. These things are too easily forgotten. We also remind ourselves to work slowly focusing on the accumulation of successes, not the easy fix. City art is slow art. We need to work in rhythm with the city…. With time, we want to create art forms that show how the personal and collective sustaining of life, our daily living, is the great masterpiece of our times.”

City Art as civic dinner

One upcoming public art project with masterpiece potential is Seitu Jones’ “Create: The Community Meal,” a civic dinner-table conversation about food, food access, and food justice. Launched with a Joyce Foundation Award and a demonstration project of the Central Corridor Public Art Plan, Jones’ work has been in development for two years, its progress marked by a host of interactive artistic experiences. On September 14, 2014, the work culminates in a meal to be shared by 2,000 people at a half-mile long table set in the middle of Victoria Street in Saint Paul.

Local chefs will prepare locally sourced food, while mobile “art kitchens” will serve as food preparation demonstration centers. Spoken word artists, and the young people they mentor, will perform a work that illuminates the food rituals of the world cultures that comprise Saint Paul’s diverse population. With “Create: The Community Meal,” Jones says, “I’m aspiring to create an environmental artwork that honors and inspires communities. My mission is to create art that can be a source of community pride, as well as a tool for social and cultural development.”

Public art projects such as “Create: The Community Meal” augment CAIR by extending the ongoing transformation of traditional public art into active City Art that engages neighborhoods in addressing complex, system-wide issues. Through their interactions with participants, artists like Young, Jones, Baeumler and Amanda Lovelee (CAIR’s new artist in residence working with Young) hope to create work that translates urban systems into new practices that, in turn, transform human behavior. In doing so, our personal and collective daily lives can become the great masterpiece of our times.

Christine Podas-Larson is the president of Public Art Saint Paul.
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