Flint Public Art ProjectFlint, MI
Flint Public Art Project organizes public events, workshops, and temporary installations to inspire residents to reimagine the city, reclaim vacant and underutilized buildings and lots, and use innovative tools to steer the city’s long-term planning. The project supports collaborations among local residents and organizations with leading artists, architects, planners, and community organizers from around the world, connecting the city to regional, national, and global movements to revitalize places through art and design. The project documents and amplifies the many ways residents, businesses, and institutions are transforming the city, its public image and identity, and broadcasting this new story to audiences throughout the world.
ArtPlace spoke to James Andrews, Flint Public Art Project’s Director of Strategy and Operations about its relationships to its partners, and what makes a good partnership.
ARTPLACE: Who outside your organization has been key to your ability to move your initiative forward?
ANDREWS: It’s impossible to overstate how important partnerships are in enabling us to produce our programs and events, especially ones like the Congress for Urban Transformation (CUT) Conference— a conference Oct. 26-28 on urban revitalization featuring artists, planners, architects and community organizers from Flint and around the country. We see partnerships as being an essential part of our mission of amplifying the city’s artistic culture, transforming its image and identity, creating connections between people and places, and activating disused sites. Our visiting artist program, Art Walk interventions, Spacebuster events, and the May 1-4 Free City Festival at the former Chevrolet manufacturing site known as Chevy-in-the-Hole often require dozens partnerships and participants. Our team, Stephen Zacks, Jerome Chou and myself, are fortunate to have a motivated crew of volunteers, friends, interns, helpers, and neighbors, with whom we collaborate on much of our planning and programming.
I’ll give you an example of a few people who are instrumental to our work:
Phillip and Joe
Phillip Barnhart and Joe Schipani have been hosting magnificent dinners for us most Sundays. At these events we are able to reflect on our projects in progress and brainstorm new ideas, meet new friends, and navigate difficult decisions. The richness of casual face-to-face conversation inspired by delicious home cooking, and structured by the relaxed etiquette of the dinner table, helps us to process and unpack complex challenges. These conversations can sometimes be more effective for problem solving and brainstorming than formal meetings. Perhaps most importantly, these regular dinners help us feel at home in our new surroundings. Phillip and Joe live around the corner from Spencer’s Art House, a project led by Andrew Perkins and Matthieu Bain, who Flint Public Art Project invited after visiting their Dwelling on Waste project in Buffalo.
Be the Church
We met many people through Be the Church, a giant community event in Flint’s North Side. Part church picnic, part human swarm, part community flash mob, it brought hundreds of people together to board up disused houses, beautify Max Brandan Park, clean-up trash-filled lots, and in our case, paint giant fuchsia stripes on several abandoned properties. Be the Church was organized by Pastor David Bowser, from the West Flint Church of the Nazarene. The stripes idea, hatched by our Artistic Director Stephen Zacks, rapidly evolved into a mural project, coordinated by Flint Public Art Project in cooperation with a local weekly community block club meeting and Salem Housing Community Development Corporation. We invited art and design students to design and realize the murals, including Ariel Sammone and Jay Rowland from University of Michigan – Flint, and Nicholas S. Pentecost, Cinthia Montague Kuzma, and Candice Stewart from Mott Community College. Discussions about the mural at Salem’s offices have brought together community groups, artists, designers and North Side stakeholders, prompting new ideas for developing retail shops, co-ops and additional public art projects.
Among the most positive developments in Flint is its thriving green movement. The city is filled with people working on innovative projects in support of green spaces, healthy natural food, alternative transportation, and a more sustainable world. That this is happening in “vehicle city,” home to Chevy-in-the-Hole, Back to the Bricks, and a deep car culture, is significant. We have already collaborated with Flint River Farm where we brought the Spacebuster for a potluck and screened the film The Greenhorns, and are presently looking forward to working with Peace Mob Garden, a community of young farmers and creatives who are building an urban orchard and envisioning new ways of living in the post-industrial landscape of Flint. When artists arrive in town through our visiting artist program, we always bring them to the Flint Farmer’s Market, which functions as the town commons with its multiple seating areas, cafes, farm venders, and fun activities.
Finally, there’s Rob. We first met Rob McCullough last summer at the Flint Crepe Company, a cheery crepe shop and community-conscious cafe downtown reminiscent of many of the new food places throughout Brooklyn. Rob’s talents are many. His gift of gab is legendary around town, and he seems to know almost everybody in the whole region. He is famous for his infectious enthusiasm, his passion for reuse, and his lightning fast descriptions, especially of crepes, how they are made as well as the incredibly intricate contexts of all of their ingredients. His tours of Paul’s Pipe Museum are simply unbelievable. Rob helps us with everything from strategic introductions, to brainstorming, to scenario planning, to construction, to community outreach. This winter Rob will help launch a collective to host a local version of Trade School, an open source barter-based free school system, which started in NYC and is now in several cities around the world, along with its sister project Our Goods.
ARTPLACE: Are there secrets to good partnerships?
ANDREWS: Trust is the most fundamental aspect of a healthy partnership. Without it, there is no basis for a meaningful collaborative relationship, and no possibility for building common goals and a shared vision for the future. Of course establishing and maintaining trust is a complicated matter, and no two relationships are alike. Trust is also dependent on values, attitude, history, social context, and the nature of the relationship in question. These factors are unique from person to person, and from group to group, and they tend to evolve over time, dynamically.
Here are a few more things I find helpful when approaching a new potential partnership:
Be transparent regarding our intentions, background, motivations, and goals. This can mean sharing details of how our group came to a decision, talking frankly about our views on controversial matters, or encouraging people to ask difficult questions about our work. The day we first moved into our office I filled the walls with giant sheets of paper with our mission, goals, plans, and lists of ideas written all over them. This is helpful and encouraging for us to see as we produce multiple complex events simultaneously, but it also affords visitors to the office the ability to peek inside our planning process.
Find common ground through stories and humor. A gripping story can flavor a social event and break down cultural barriers. In addition to its many obvious pleasures, humor works as a shortcut for establishing an awareness of people’s values, so agreements can be more easily crafted.
Clear communication is key for healthy partnerships. This means talking about the work that we do using accessible language, known references and local metaphors, breaking down complex descriptions into intelligible chunks, and then explaining how these chunks interact and evolve over time. For formal workshops and presentations, clear communication means differentiating the delivery of information so people with varying educational backgrounds and communication styles can freely participate. Internally, it means integrating feedback discussions into our formal planning process after significant events.
Flexibility. As any good designer knows, designs evolve over time, and it’s a poor idea to cling to the initial version of a design in the face of inevitable change. Likewise, when entering into a partnership, one’s initial expectations will likely need to evolve and re-form over time to accommodate compromise and the healthy growth of the relationship. Similar ideas were formulated by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, in his essay Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization which addresses the need for planners to include an awareness of the nature of context and dynamic recursive systems in their work.
Active listening. In the western world, active thinking, talking and speech are usually privileged over contemplation, reflection and listening. Active listening means listening carefully to what the counterpart in the conversation is saying and reflecting this information back in different ways. It can also mean being aware of the subtle non-verbal cues that circulate within a conversation or set of messages. Being a good listener helps people avoid the ping-pong effect, whereby two sides of a conversation speak at each other, without enfolding the ideas and more nuanced messages of their counterparts, into their thinking, thus hindering growth.
Photo courtesy of James Andrews