Art-Force Boomerang

Cross-Currents of Production : Artists + Manufacturers Strengthening Place

ArtPlace spoke with Janet Kagan and Jean Greer, Principals of the Public Art Collaborative Art-Force Program, an innovative effort to diversify economic development in three rural counties by partnering artists with manufacturers to generate core products and stimulate a community’s social and economic connection to place.

ARTPLACE: Is there a new challenge that engaging in creative placemaking presents for you, your organization, and the artists who work with you? Are there new skills required?

KAGAN AND GREER: Let us respond to this question of Challenge from three perspectives: Community, Manufacturer, and Artist.

Community Civitas
The three North Carolina towns of Siler City in Chatham County, Sanford in Lee County, and Greenville in Pitt County are striving for economic change and reimagined vitality from their unique genius loci, their own distinctive spirit and history.

Rural Chatham County, formerly a thriving agricultural community, is working within its civic, public, and private structures in a synchronicity best described as shoulder-to-shoulder because its small size (population 7,887), older and minority demographic (almost 50% Hispanic), and a downtown absent even one restaurant, is requiring and impacting its leadership to create a collective trajectory for job creation through their commitment to art and artistic interventions.

Sanford is a community whose bedrock was once manufacturing and transportation; today, its civic representatives are focused on job attraction because there already exists an industrial infrastructure for repurposed buildings attractive to business and a downtown poised for increased density and diversity. Among municipal agencies and departments there is increasing autonomy, which must be negotiated among public and private organizations frequently sharing overlapping boards of directors.

In Greenville, a university and medical service center, economic development efforts are emphasizing job retention especially among young professionals. Greenville has crossed a developmental threshold (even with a modest population of 86,000) and its leadership is focussed on state and national prominence and designation.

Each of these communities operates with different assumptions and expectations; the execution of creative strategies for vibrant placemaking must be sympathetic and attentive to these histories, the reinvention of each town, and how directions are manifest and decisions are approved. Our challenge is to make a positive visual impact in these communities that each demand different levels of coordination and approval. In other words, how many degrees of separation are there between an artist’s concept and experiencing it in situ. This strategic process we have named boomerang – setting activities in motion to animate these rural towns through civic planning and branding, actualizing how product-defines-place based on unique, authentic tradition, and marking the recirculation of capital as a direct consequence of this work.

Manufacturing Models
The business model of partnering an artist both inside a plant as well as coordinating design work from his/her studio asks the business owner to think in nuanced and novel ways about product, process, and operations because the language of art and design may be unfamiliar. We are synchronizing this key relationship with education, visual and process examples, frequent and regular written communications and telephone conferences, emails with pictures and drawings, group design reviews, and consistent project and program management. From interactions thus far, we have observed that the will for experimentation is tempered by risk tolerance; in other words, how manufacturers viscerally need to balance artistic ideas and processes within their current (and frequently more linear) approach to plant management and existing steps in production. Collectively, we are introducing new cognitive processes through which everyone is growing stronger. And just like the towns, each business is at a different point in its life cycle. Although we are not reinventing core operations, we are developing a new revenue stream that sometimes torques in a direction that disrupts old and familiar patterns. The challenge is to understand manufacturing operations in each plant, the skill-set of the owner, and their desires and aversions.

Artistic Approaches
We are not surprised the work styles of the three artist teams are profoundly distinct: one begins with material touch, another with thoroughly understanding the tools of production, and the third with form. These approaches reflect studio temperaments that are then counterbalanced by experience in public art where schedules, budgets, clients, and approvals are the norm. The challenge that confronts artists in this project is how to shape-shift between these impulses; in other words, protecting the time it takes to conceive, design, and develop a product and advancing a contractual deadline. Artist Hoss Haley, working in Siler City, articulated this collision when he shared, I think the creative process is difficult to quantify, and unfortunately in this country we tend to value that [the quantifiable] over everything else; it’s a show- me-the-numbers attitude. Of course it’s understandable as we all have to make a living, but sometimes it doesn’t leave enough room for innovation.

For The Collaborative’s Art-Force Program, we continue to be agile by planning and playing ahead of the curve while interpreting, synthesizing, advocating, and serving as a gyroscope advancing the work.

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