Artist Dispatch from One Water Summit, New Orleans

August 8, 2017

By: Shanai Matteson

What critical roles might artists and other culture bearers play in efforts to imagine and create equitable and resilient futures for water and other life-sustaining systems?

This is a question my collaborators and I have been asking in different ways and places since launching the Water Bar project in 2014. While facilitating temporary Water Bar pop-ups at art and community venues across the country, we’ve slowly evolved Water Bar & Public Studio into an art and social space with an ecological focus, incubating cross-sector public projects in our Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood, and with partners cross Minnesota.


Artplace Working Group on Environment
Earlier this summer, I was invited to join a new working group convened by ArtPlace to explore the intersection of art and the environmental sector. As an artist with experience living and working in both rural and urban communities on water issues, I brought ideas and strategies for building relationships across sector and in place.

At this gathering in Seattle, I was fortunate to meet Danielle Mayorga, Program Manager for the US Water Alliance, a nonprofit working to advance sustainable water management, by building public and political will for water infrastructure investment across the United States. US Water Alliance convenes a national network of public utilities, policy makers, environmental justice and water advocacy groups. As we’ve discovered through our own water and culture work, this area of community development has untapped potential to address racial and economic equity, as well as environmental justice and cultural resilience (these resources from US Water Alliance provide some background).

In our discussions, Danielle revealed that though she appreciates the arts and the role they play in community life at large, she had a limited view on the potential role of the arts in advancing the US Water Alliance’s mission prior to the ArtPlace working group: “The ArtPlace meeting really inspired me to think more broadly about the importance for artists and culture leaders to have a role in this One Water Movement. From Water Bar to the other arts projects we heard from in the working group, I see how integrating arts into water projects has the potential to be much more strategic than stand-alone public murals and sculptures; art can transform the way water and wastewater service operates in our communities.”

At this gathering in Seattle, artists from rural, urban, and tribal communities spoke about the deep work they are doing in collaboration with scientists, public utilities, environmental justice organizations, policymakers and their own neighbors. It was clear to Danielle and others after attending this meeting that across the country, critical and impactful artistic projects are emerging at this intersection where different place-based knowledges and passions converge, and where the arts bring a focus on healing relationships between people, land, water and public life.

This meeting in Seattle was only the beginning and set the wheels of collaboration in motion. “At the US Water Alliance, we see arts and culture as an important way to connect people to water. We’ve seen how some of our partners are incorporating art and culture into their work and we wanted to find a way to fold this into our broader One Water Movement in a meaningful way. Connecting with ArtPlace and Water Bar has really sparked our creativity about what is possible,” said Radhika Fox, CEO of the US Water Alliance.


Water is life
Water is life, and our approach to water is very much shaped by our culture and our values, so the intersection of art and water systems intuitively makes sense. It just so happened that the annual One Water Summit was coming up in New Orleans, and with an invitation from US Water Alliance and support from ArtPlace, Water Bar was able to participate in a few critical ways:

  • We officially joined the Minnesota delegation to the One Water Summit, alongside leaders from local and state government, and the business sector. Water Bar has partnered in the past with the Metropolitan Council and we are currently working with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. These organizations welcomed us—as artists—to join this policy-based conversation about the future of One Water in Minnesota.
  • We also brought a pop-up demonstration of Water Bar to the One Water Summit, sharing information about our own work, and connecting Summit attendees to the inspiring work of other artists in our community who also collaborate with water and environment organizations. We were thrilled to learn that across the country, public utilities and water advocacy groups are eager to find creative and collaborative ways to better serve the people and environments in which they work.
  • At the One Water Summit, we also attended a pre-conference workshop on Water Equity, where we heard from national policy leaders, community organizations, water professionals and activists from around the country about the challenges and opportunities for advancing water equity through infrastructure investment, education and community-based policy. We also heard again and again about the importance of culture in shaping attitudes toward water and water work, and a desire for creative strategies and collaborations with artists.

On the final day of the One Water Summit in New Orleans, it was announced that the 2018 One Water Summit will be held in our home community of Minneapolis-St. Paul. We continue to develop creative ideas with US Water Alliance, and with our local community. We look forward to helping illuminate the possibilities of artists working at this intersection, and finding ways to highlight the work of artists to water professionals at the 2018 One Water Summit here in Minnesota.

Many thanks to ArtPlace for the introduction to US Water Alliance, and the opportunity to bring a focus on culture to a conversation where there is so much potential for further collaborative work!


Shanai Matteson is a public artist, as well as Co-Founder and Co-Director of Water Bar & Public Studio, a creative community space and incubator of collaborative projects on water, place and environment.