AIRs Bring Fresh Perspective to Government

January 25, 2019

By: April Greene for ArtPlace America

“We did a little art walk through the offices, and people said, ‘Wow, I never thought municipal collaboration could look cool!’ It put a different energy into the work.”

In 2017, Massachusetts’ Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) hired Carolyn Lewenberg as their first artist-in-residence. The goal of MAPC’s AIR program is to bring arts, culture, and creativity into the agency’s already multidisciplinary planning work with cities, towns, and other organizations.

After 18 months on the job, Carolyn wrote this reflection on her experiences. For our blog’s January focus on health, ArtPlace asked Carolyn to speak more about her involvement in an MAPC project that sought to advance public health goals: the Everett Earthworks Sculptural Garden. The garden was a collaboration between the City of Everett; Everett Community Growers; the UMass Boston School for the Environment; and MAPC’s Arts & Culture, Environment, and Public Health teams to create a new green space in which the Everett community could grow food, celebrate artistic expression, and spend time together.

We also asked Carolyn to share a few of her larger-picture thoughts about how AIRs can best work with municipal agencies, the challenges both parties face, and why artists are worth investing in.


ArtPlace: What do you think your background as an artist brought to this project—versus other collaborators who approached it from an agricultural, public health, or land use perspective, etc?

Carolyn: My artistic practice is rooted in a hunter-gatherer approach. Often, I’m literally gathering—I do a lot of sculptural collage. At MAPC, I was hunting for and gathering relationships and expertise: “Which cities and towns want to do something cool?” “Who’s game for nerding out with me about XYZ?”

Successful public art projects typically involve a lot of public engagement. I also think forging personal connections with nature is an important element of public health. People don’t necessarily have many opportunities to connect with nature, though I personally find that to be very important to my own physical and mental health. I was able to to bridge these social and environmental goals by connecting with MAPC public health planner Heidi Stucker, who was working on a community food assessment with Everett Community Growers, and with MAPC land use planner Carlos Montanez, who was working on an Open Space Recreation Plan. Building off these relationships that had already been established in Everett, I was able to pull out a lot of existing recommendations and demonstrate them in this project.

So I brought this hunter-gatherer method, then weaved a thread between all our approaches so all the moving parts could be connected in a meaningful project that everyone could see themselves in.


ArtPlace: Did this project present any particular problems or opportunities that you were able to propose creative solutions or ideas for?

Carolyn: The project called upon a lot of different skills. In college I majored in landscape architecture, so I can create renderings, prepare plans for public review, things like that. I was able to work with the Everett facilities staff in their workshop to stain and build the sculptural bench and a shed to store the garden’s tools and bench cushions and things in.

Interestingly, the shed idea was something we decided to do as the project was underway. In community meetings, people talked about what activities they wanted to do in the garden: hold workshops, host concerts, have barbeques… So we realized they would need storage, and we decided to build this shed. Then, when we were cutting out pieces of wood for the sculptural bench, all the scrap pieces we produced—the negative space—made me think, “Hmm, this shed is going to create four walls of empty canvas.” I connected with the art department at Everett High School and we organized an in-school field trip for students to paint these funky cast-off pieces of wood to make mural panels for the sides of the shed.

My process is super organic. Once a project gets underway, the momentum will tend to attract people out of curiosity. As new relationships form, new people say they want to be involved. It’s so important to be able to run with those things and build those new opportunities that can deepen the value of the project. Honestly, this does get me into trouble sometimes, and there are boundaries that need to be in place, but it’s important to allow the community to take as much ownership over the project as possible. With MAPC, you’re supposed to scope a project before you start having meetings and planning too much; you’re supposed to have everything articulated: cost, timeline, etc. It’s hard to be able to do that and account for new, exciting opportunities to make deeper community connections. So that was something I always worked to make room for within the scope somehow.


ArtPlace: What were the biggest challenges you faced as an AIR working in a public agency—in the course of this project, or overall? What were your biggest successes?

Carolyn: We didn’t scope the high school students being involved in the mural, but it was an opportunity to have youth involvement, so I felt strongly about working it in. I would love to have been there painting with them, but I hadn’t budgeted for that time, so I couldn’t participate. It turned out that one of the art teachers was super into the idea, and is a painter, so she worked it into her other teaching obligations and took the lead in coaching the students on coming up with a design and strategy for painting it. We decided that it would be meaningful enough to bookend it so that I got the ball rolling at the beginning and then helped them install at the end.

I think an important part of youth collaboration is to share a bit about what it’s like to survive as a practicing artist, so I worked that into my intro and closing. Many high schoolers considering art school don’t realize the difference between doing public art as opposed to studio art: I don’t make and sell paintings. It’s really helpful for them to have perspective on what their employment options might be with an art school education. Many families discourage their kids from going into art for fear they will be a starving artist, especially in economically disadvantaged communities. So much of being an artist can be about creative problem solving, communication, and community building and can be applied in many different career trajectories; I never miss an opportunity to share that information with students. So being able to work with youth in this project was a huge success. Their work came out awesome.


ArtPlace: Any advice to other new AIRs in municipal entities about how to work with the government?

Carolyn: Being an AIR was such a cool opportunity to translate and distill what people are doing in their administrative work, research, data collection, and project management into goals and values and bring it back to the spirit and essence of their work in a visual way.

I worked with MAPC staff on a project to better convey their spirit better within their spaces. I brought a bunch of young artists in and together we walked all around and assessed MAPC’s spaces. The young artists sat and talked with some of the staff about the essence of the organization’s strategic priorities and what they “looked like.” I acted as their project manager: I created the framework for them to be able to operate within the agency, in terms of access to information and connecting with staff through regular feedback during their design process. I created 2-inch deep panels that were roughly 2 feet by 3 feet, and each artist had three panels to use to translate the information and planners’ words onto wall pieces that captured that spirit.

One of the artists is a mentor at Artists for Humanity and he brought about 15 of his students, ranging from 9th to 12th graders, for a little gallery walk celebration. It was the coolest thing seeing all these youth in the office looking at art. Some of our staff commented, “Wow, I never thought municipal collaboration could look cool!” It put a different energy into the work that really seemed to energize everyone. There’s something really refreshing about having artists in these spaces where artists don’t usually operate.

Just listening is the most important advice I could give. Ask, “What do you value?” “What are you rooted in?” “Why do you do this?” In all the projects I was involved in, I needed to do a lot of creative problem-solving. There was always an issue like, This downtown is struggling, or even, This office is drab! The garden, for example, was sited in a utility corridor—which necessitated its own journey of permissions. I had to think, “How can we bring our humanity into these industrial spaces where all the natural energy and life force has been dredged out? How do we breathe life back into them and allow nature to regenerate there?” That approach guided me in all my work. When I’m presented with a problem, it comes back to that hunter-gatherer approach. All the solutions exist within the agency. My skill as an artist was to visualize connections that would make them more engaging and accessible.

I did a lot of organizing information, and sharing it in formats that people use at MAPC: using Outlook to manage schedules, storing and sharing files on the K drive… People at agencies like this have standards and templates of how they use information, so I had to be open to learning the ways that would best convey the information to them. I had to be flexible and I wanted to show comprehension and respect for the methods of a government agency and that I could operate within this structure.

It did take a bit of time to adjust to the culture and the style and to get to know who does what. It’s important to meet everybody, and that takes time—to sit down with everyone and get to know what they do, what they like about it, what their challenges are… I got to pick my own projects, which was exciting, but also challenging. It meant I had to articulate what my own values were as the AIR. I made my own framework—“what would success look like?” etc—for choosing projects so that my choices wouldn’t feel random. Having a framework was a way to explain, “These values are being addressed in this project,” instead of just, “I feel like doing this one.” MAPC’s Arts & Culture team wound up creating a similar list of guiding values, so I think it was formative.

It was fun to be part of a new thing [as MAPC’s first AIR], and to be able to form it with a really awesome team. We did a couple of retreats when we were just starting out, and we asked: “What are we doing and why?” “How can this all work?” That was really helpful, too.


ArtPlace: Why should government agencies, regional planning councils, etc, invest in AIRs?

Carolyn: The creative problem solving reason is really easy to grasp for somebody who primarily uses a different part of their brain. Government agencies and planning councils, they’re all trying to make the world a better place. That struck me at MAPC: that everyone there was super smart and really dedicated to making life better in our region, through improved health outcomes, good transportation… Planners through history haven’t always succeeded, but my optimistic lens is that people are getting better at seeing the negative effects of planning and are working to avoid them. Having an AIR is really just another avenue to make positive change.

Also, the findings and reports these agencies put out don’t always get to the people in their region. Being able to engage communities through different modes of expression helps planners to meet their goals and agencies to be more effective. Arts and culture is always a good way to capture people’s attention, to allow them to participate in a public process, to help them understand what’s going on, and to give them a way in. Employing AIRs is just another of the many, many ways we can use arts and culture to engage the public.


- Learn more about Carolyn’s art on her website.

- Read more about artists in government in our "Why Artists Make Good Civic Leaders" series.

- A wave of AIRs is sweeping government agencies across the country! We’re especially excited to note that, with ArtPlace support, the Washington State Department of Transportation is the first statewide agency to host an AIR.