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The Flint Public Art Project invites visionary practitioners of contemporary art, design, architecture, and urbanism to team up with local artists, residents, and institutions to collaborate on a series of public art installations, performances, educational programs, small-scale sculptures, and urban designs to reimagine Flint.

ArtPlace asked Stephen Zacks, Producer and Artistic Director for Flint Public Art Project, how he pitches his wide-ranging program to create urban interventionist actions in Flint.

ARTPLACE: What is your elevator pitch when you describe your project to people?

ZACKS: It depends on who I’m speaking to. The interests of different groups are so different, and the motivations of artists in New York are different than artists in Flint. I try to appeal to everyone in a way that recognizes the value of what they’re doing and how it connects to this larger goal of urban transformation and deconcentrating cultural capital.

For an artist in Flint, it might start by asking, ‘What are some areas in your neighborhood where you’ve been wanting something to happen? I’m working on this project that might be able to help. Let’s meet and talk about it.’

For an artist in New York, it could start from understanding their work. ‘I really appreciate the way your work creates this dynamic experience rooted in the character of places. I’m working on access to this spectacular brownfield site where you can do a project that’s not just boosting real estate values for Manhattan condo developers.’

But the core motivation is always the same: to amplify value in devalued spaces.

ARTPLACE: How do you expect to increase vibrancy in the place you are working?

ZACKS: One of our goals is to contribute to a creative economy-of-scale in the city. That means bringing as much new work as possible. A vibrant culture already exists downtown, but we’re looking for types of work that otherwise doesn’t exist in the area, because our theory is that it will be much more generative and produce new types of experiences.

An unavoidable tension exists between the local producers, who are bound to feel threatened by people coming into their turf, and visiting artists. ‘Why do we need these people coming here—we have our own artists.’ But we think these artists are producing qualitatively different forms of art—and it wouldn’t be possible to bring them without the support of ArtPlace. Not art that’s better according to some abstract ideal, but that possesses the cultural capital of millions of dollars in graduate education and the embedded experience of living in cities where investment in the arts and migration of generations of artists has produced an insanely dynamic creative culture. So the work coming out of New York or Los Angeles has a different character, and we’re counting on it to be exciting for everyone to experience the cross-pollination.

The two sides of the equation are both integral. I work really hard doing the groundwork to make sure local organizations are connected to projects, that projects respond to their interests, and that area producers are involved as collaborators from conception to realization. However, I also want the process to be led by artists who are the most highly trained, have the best technical capacity, and—that intangible thing in art—are able to do things that would be unimaginable to me or local producers if we just created a list of interests and tallied them up in some analytical way.

The most inspiring thing is when something unanticipated happens. As a producer–rather than an artist–I’m just preparing the ground, so when something you never could have conceived happens, it can be very moving. But this kind of work can also flop horribly. That’s the nature of taking risks and testing limits.

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