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Flint Public Art Project supports collaborations among local residents and organizations as well as with leading artists, architects, planners and community organizers from around the world, connecting Flint to regional, national and global movements to revitalize neighborhoods and cities through art and design.

After the recent Creative Placemaking conference in Miami, ArtPlace spoke to Executive Director Stephen Zacks about what his organization learnt from the summit.

ARTPLACE: Where does this movement go next?

Zacks: I like that you’re calling it a movement. It’s true there is an activist streak behind a lot of the work happening in public space. It stands in entertaining contrast to the contemporary art market in Miami—with its creepy-glitzy Art Basel fair.

Being in the room with all of these people brought a great sense of making common cause with an activist group of national leaders in the arts community. The goal among many is to make a measurable difference on economic inequity by improving the character of places in our communities. In many cases, it is directly connected to Occupy Wall Street: in our case, several collaborators played an organizational role in art-related OWS subgroups.

Rocco Landesman and Carol Coletta were in the vanguard of recognizing this movement bubbling up around them on the more indirect level of cultural activism and created a funding vehicle to support it. If you compare the economic impact of this work to the world of a collector who is warehousing ninety Warhols , I think you’ll find that its effects will be far-reaching. Like a lot of the National Endowment for the Arts funding in the mid-70s that was allocated to alternative spaces—led by people like NEA administrator Brian O’Doherty, who was active in the emerging Soho artists community—it puts relatively small amounts of money directly into the hands of grassroots producers who are able to make it go extremely far.

You see a process underway now where the lessons learned from “placemaking” work—for lack of a better word—is being formalized into a set of criteria for art as a tool of community engagement and economic transformation. No doubt there will be missteps, but I expect it to be very productive in countering the deteriorization of the public realm in many cities and suburban communities.

ARTPLACE: What ideas did you gain or lessons did you learn that you plan to apply to your initiative?

Zacks: I was looking for discrete examples that I could borrow from, like one official who talked about using street furniture to help improve the quality of street life in one neighborhood. It’s nothing mysterious, and we’ve been watching Janet Sadik-Kahn do it in New York for several years: put some tables and chairs out, people sit in them, they are comfortable, and their presence helps ameliorate the quality of public space.

Flint Public Art Project’s staff are very dug into one troubled but very promising corner of Flint where many of the people hanging out on the street are considered undesirable. Kip Bergstrom thought it was kind of funny—and I agree—but I’m interested in whether granting a degree of respect to the undesirables, having genuine conversations about the neighborhood with them, and providing amenities can help improve public safety in the area. I came out of the conference wanting to implement some more quick improvements on that corner using simple LED-lighting installations and street furniture.

ARTPLACE: What did you share about your initiative that was surprising to you or to other participants?

Zacks: That we talk to alcoholics, drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes, and take what they say about their neighborhood seriously—just like we talk to the coffee shop owners, house-proud gay couples, med students, the director of the nearby hospital and universities, and the mayor. As a result, the people on the street keep an eye out for us and become our allies in rebuilding the community. Maybe I take a page out of Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures, which made a big impression on me when I was younger. As an outsider from Denmark, Holdt saw how deeply racism cut through our society. We’re right in the middle of that divide in Flint.

ARTPLACE: What new opportunities for your initiative did you identify from conversations with other creative placemakers?

Zacks: I met cultural producers like Rebecca Massei from MoCAD in Detroit, Marlease Bushnell from Rebuild Foundation in Chicago, Tamara Harkavy from ArtWorks Cincinnati, Robert Gipe from Harlan, Kentucky, Peter Mello from WaterFire in Providence, Eva Silverstein from the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, and Olga Garay–English from Cultural Affairs in the City of Los Angeles. We discussed possible collaborations and ways of contributing to each other’s work. That’s what I was hoping for: to meet new collaborators and build a network of producers throughout the country, as well as to meet heads of government programs and grant-makers first-hand, get their perspectives, and better understand the people and convictions behind arts funding.

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