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Flint Public Art Project organizes public events, workshops, and temporary installations to inspire residents to reimagine Flint, Michigan, reclaim vacant and underutilized buildings and lots, and use innovative tools to steer the city’s long-term planning.

ArtPlace spoke with Director of Programs Jerome Chou about Flint Public Art Project’s recent events, and about the organization’s experiences in building support and a constituency for their work.

ARTPLACE: Have you gained any political traction with your efforts? If so, with whom and how did you do it?

FLINT PUBLIC ART PROJECT: To be effective we need to be able to engage anyone who’s interested in the future of the city. We need to find and encourage people who, like us, want to bring performances and classes to abandoned buildings or propose design interventions to use overlooked corners of the city. Political traction for us is much broader than the mayor’s support—it goes to the origins of the word “politics,” which is rooted in the idea of “citizens” and the “civic,” or in our case, the word “public” in our name.

We’ve followed some basic principles in seeking public participation. First, go where the people are. One of these places – even in cities that have lost a lot of population – is church. We’ve attended Sunday services and met with pastors afterwards to hear more about their work, and share information about ours. Early in September, we found out about an event called “Be the Church,” in which hundreds of people spend one Sunday boarding up vacant homes. Although this wasn’t originally in our budget or on our schedule, we attended meetings and talked to people about ways Flint Public Art Project could be most useful. Ultimately we proposed to paint a single fuchsia stripe across an entire block of plywood-boarded windows to show how a conceptual gesture that extends across a space can have an effect on residents’ aesthetic experience and their perception of a place.

A second principle is to look for ways to have a quick and immediate impact. We brought artists, architects, landscape architects, and planners from around the country during our late October conference, the Congress for Urban Transformation (CUT), to conduct workshops with community groups. One of these artists, Alex Gilliam, worked with carpentry students at a local job training center to design, build, and install seating at a nearby bus stop. In just three days, moving from cardboard modeling to full-scale mockups, the students built three different prototypes, and presented them to the mayor and others at CUT. The training center staff and the students are already looking beyond bus stops for other opportunities for interventions in the city.

ARTPLACE: Has this success translated into support from political leaders as well?

FLINT PUBLIC ART PROJECT: From the beginning, we’ve been lucky to work with elected officials and city workers who share our vision for re-imagining and activating sites all over the city. Mayor Dayne Walling champions the concept of “recycling” the city, or adapting former industrial sites and abandoned houses for new uses. The mayor and his staff were immediately receptive when we approached them to propose projects for a former Chevrolet manufacturing center known as Chevy-in-the Hole.

During the CUT events, the mayor joined us for the first-ever public tour of the Chevy site since its closing and participated in a workshop led by planner James Rojas where residents built small-scale models of ideas for immediate uses and activities – everything from outdoor movies and concerts to food truck parties and public art installations drawing on autoworkers’ stories of working in the factories.

In May, we’re planning a large-scale three-day international art festival, Free City, featuring temporary installations, performances, light sculptures, and video projections to transform the Chevy brownfield into an active public space and open up its long-term potential. For Free City to work, it’ll be important for all those autoworkers and residents from neighboring blocks and folks living out in the suburbs, as well as people from Detroit and other regional auto towns who have their own abandoned factories, to feel connected to this story and want to build things on site and help transform the site through their participation.

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