In the last few months I have been fortunate enough to have been awarded two public commissions in Ottawa and Calgary. Despite the obvious geographic and cultural differences between the two projects, they are both being undertaken in a very similar manner – they both involve community consultation.
Normally when competing for a public art commission, the shortlisted artists are asked to propose an idea for the final artwork, that includes detailed descriptions, material lists, budgets, etc., all of which aid the jury in deciding which artist will be awarded the commission. With my current projects, a proposal for a finished project was not a prerequisite for being successful in the competition – instead the expectation is that the artist will conduct several months of community outreach in the neighbourhood where the finished project will be located, and through this research will develop a project that is rooted in the social fabric of the site.
On one hand, this is great for the artist, as it presents the opportunity to explore a location, both in terms of geography and social use of the space, before designing a final piece. On the other hand, it adds a tremendous amount of pressure, as you become the face of the project. Through community outreach you get to meet and develop relationships with people who will be seeing your sculptures on a daily basis – on their commute to work, during shopping trips and maybe even from their windows. In this way collaborative community based approaches to public art tend to be challenging experiences that demand flexibility and an open minded approach on the part of the artist. The creative process is exposed to the public and is reliant on the participation of many diverse groups and stakeholders. I find this approach simultaneously challenging and rewarding because it (hopefully) results in a work of art that has social significance for the community and a sense of communal ownership will emerge through the process. It requires the artist to not only connect with the public, but also to think of the citizens as co-creators of the final work – the difficulty arises in how you engage the public in order to solicit participation.
Upon beginning these projects, I admit I saw myself as an anthropologist immersing myself in a culture that was new to me, and I assumed that I could utilize the same tools anthropologists use. However, it became quickly apparent that I know very little about anthropology, except from the cursory information I gathered binge watching episodes of Bones on Netflix (I am not even sure Dr. Temperance Brennan is a good model to follow, what with all the murder and gore). What I am an expert in is art, and what it can do for a community when it is executed properly. It can become a shared experience, a landmark that defines the spirit of place, and a signal that a location is public space open to all. As the projects have progressed, there are a few things I have learned about approaching community consultation:
Staged ‘meet the artist’ events hardly ever draw a crowd; you have a much better chance of connecting with people when you go to them (think libraries, schools, community events).
Slick websites explaining the project are great, but only if people visit them.
Most communities seem to have gate keepers; these are influential people who can open doors for you if you win them over.
Trust - no one is going to honestly engage with you if they do not trust you.
When people say “I am not arty” the conversation should not end. It is the artist’s role to talk to them about what role art can play in the community.
Be prepared to talk about budgets.
Some people are going to slam your project no matter what, but mostly people are interested and open if you try to connect.
Seniors and children are the most ready to share their opinions and talk about their towns.
When in doubt, go to the local Legion. You can have a beer while consulting with the locals.
You can find more information about my project in Ottawa at : www.imaginedmonuments.com
Samples of community feedback: