The Huddle: Public Sector Support

February 24, 2016

By: ArtPlace America

We’re excited to continue our new blog format: The Huddle. As anyone who’s journeyed through our ArtPlace website will see, we have a very diverse group of funded projects that make up the ArtPlace family. But as with many large and dispersed families, it’s often hard to connect with one another.

The Huddle recaps conversations where our ArtPlace funded projects and organizations came together to talk through topics, get advice, and perhaps even gossip a little. After each one we will use these blogs to recap the insights, questions, and provocations from these conversations.

This round featured a conversation with Joseph Kunkel of the Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority’s Heritage Art Walk, Nicole Crutchfield of the City of Fargo, Janet Kagan of Art-Force, and Caitlin Butler of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program on the question: “What can I do to generate more and better coordinated public sector support?”


In the search for public sector support, affability and strategy become two sides of the same coin. In this edition of The Huddle, our grantees reveal their approaches to finding (and maintaining) partnerships within the public sector, emphasizing that while it's great to have a plan, flexibility and finesse will often get you further than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Public sector support often builds from the ground up. Joseph Kunkel, architect and planner for the Santo Domingo Tribal Housing Authority, kept that at the forefront of his mind when he turned to community engagement to determine how his team could best serve the Santo Domingo Pueblo’s residents.

"It was important for us to hear what the community had to say and how they envisioned the project themselves. I liken it to the community as the architect and myself as the person bringing in a design process to them. I have a set of skills but it's really the community as the designer," he explained.

"We had a walk-through of the area where they (the community) started to envision a trail and what the trail might mean to the community. That's what they decided they wanted from the tribal government, so tribal government applied for state and federal funding. It was really the community's voice that empowered the project from the bottom up," Joseph said.

The Santo Domingo Heritage Trail Arts Project will connect the Santo Domingo pueblo with the local commuter train station approximately two-miles apart from one-another, creating not just a more accessible, walkable community, but opportunity for new tribal artists markets and affordable housing options. Joseph credits the support of the residents, who were given a sense of ownership over the project from the start, for the trail’s current public sector support.

Janet Kagan, director and co-founder of Art-Force, a nonprofit that stimulates and diversifies socio-economic development in rural and distressed neighborhoods by curating creatives with local enterprise, prefers a more top-down approach. “I believe that elected officials hold significant power, which is evidenced in different ways throughout every civic initiative,” she told the group.

Of course, approaching public representatives requires just as much finesse as dealing with the public. "Part of my job is to figure out what someone's self-interest is. There's a lot of information out there about the arts as an economic driver – but how does that knowledge impact an elected official? And why would they care? How can I help shape an outcome that this civic leader or representative body can empower or require municipal staff to implement - from policy and guidelines to zoning and financial support?” Janet said.

This strategy requires two things: research and the ability to tailor an organization's message. Caitlin Butler, director of development for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, explained how her organization aligns with specific public sector outcomes to fulfill their mission of leveraging murals and the arts to transform places, individuals, communities, and institutions: "Reading plans, being at the table during planning processes as much as you can, listening to speeches – just good old fashioned research helps you understand what's going on and how you might align what you're doing to those outcomes. It has also been very effective for us to try to understand the barriers that city officials, public officials and public agencies tend to experience in achieving those outcomes and then talking very specifically about how we're going to help them with those barriers."

Caitlin also emphasized the importance of communication: "We nurture our relationship with the mayor and with our council members. We let them know whenever there's a public event happening in their district, we're very open to having them speak… We also provide regular reports on what's going on in their district so they're aware," she explained.

Providing data, maintaining those close relationships, and keeping lines of communication open equips public sector leaders with the information they need to advance larger support for projects going forward.

Don't forget, though – sometimes the best tool for the job is already in your toolbox. Nicole Crutchfield, a city planner and landscape architect with the city of Fargo, ND, has been working on the Fargo Project, an initiative to transform a neighborhood drainage basin into a community commons, for the last four years. Nicole credits their lead artist, Jackie Brookner, with garnering the most public support for the project.

"It was Jackie who helped communicate to the community, city staff, and our elected officials this vision of a different space. She was able to translate that message based on the audience… Having the artist in the room gave them permission to be somebody else. As she explained recreation activities– for instance, the Fargo Park will have a drumming circle in the middle of it – the mayor started to think about his children playing in it and he was immediately hooked. Having that personal connection is what helped us get up and running," Nicole told us, reminding us of the effect a personal connection can have in forging relationships, which is something, luckily, those in the arts tend to be great at.  

Organizations who find themselves lacking strength in these areas should bear in mind the viability of lateral partnerships as well. Mural Arts, for example, often partners with the Philadelphia Water Department's community engagement team to help bolster their outreach efforts. Caitlin recommends seeking partnership with entities who have more regular contact with public officials or public agencies – leveraging those connections can help build out networks of public sector support with the potential to benefit other organizations too.

There may not be a standardized approach to amassing public sector support, but our grantees agree that doing your homework, tailoring project outcomes to specific audiences, and empowering the community will get you far. When it comes to sniffing out support, the name of the game is strategy and the strategy is flexibility.

Is there any advice you’d offer on gaining public sector support? As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!