The words “artist” and “bureaucrat” can seem as opposite as the north and south poles. But poets, actors, musicians, dancers, and art-makers of all other stripes have been infiltrating our government’s ranks for years—and many are making great strides.
In this story series, we’re visiting with accomplished artists who hold leadership roles in their cities about their dual callings, how their creative lives relate to their public service, and what the arts can bring to good government.
Mayor, Jackson, Wyoming
“We aren’t just logical, rational creatures; we also value our emotional experience. So we’re making a mistake if we’re leaving that large part of political discourse to others.”
ArtPlace: Why do you think you were elected mayor in 2016?
Muldoon: I think it was a combination of things. Maybe Jackson was ready for someone who’s from the working class and still is a member of the working class. I’m a renter and work three jobs. Maybe they felt I would have a better understanding of the plight of the working class here; it’s a tough town to live in if you’re not wealthy. I think Jackson was also ready for a progressive type of politics.
ArtPlace: What most excites you about Jackson?
Muldoon: I moved here to ski. I thought I’d be here for a winter. What’s kept me here? Obviously the outdoors is amazing: we have national parks, national forests, immense natural recreation. But what’s kept me here is the community. I’m a musician, and there’s a community of musicians here that I’ve found a home with. That would be difficult to replace. I moved around a lot before I moved here. I grew up playing keyboards, but was not involved in a music scene anywhere else I’ve lived. It’s a very creative community. If we didn’t have that, I don’t know if I would have stayed.
ArtPlace: What changes would you like to see in Jackson, and how can residents help achieve them?
Muldoon: Some of the changes I ran on making—including a non-discrimination ordinance that passed in July—the community has been very involved. I put it on the agenda, but we had hundreds of people coming to town meetings and making their voice heard. For any type of policy here, that’s what people have to do. We have a very diverse council with a very diverse set of views, and they all want what’s best for Jackson.
We’ve gotten a fair amount done in the last year and a half, but we’re still faced with a pretty intractable housing crisis. We’ve made some strides, including rezoning a large portion of town for affordable housing, but there are still things we need to do around parking and land use management. The line is well north of $200,000 to be able to afford to buy a residence in Teton County. As you can imagine, there are a lot of people working here in the tourism industry who don’t make that kind of money. So that’s my priority for next two and a half years.
ArtPlace: In addition to your role as a civic leader, you’ve been a musician from a young age. What has kept you so devoted to music?
Muldoon: I can’t imagine my life without music. It’s the one thing I’ve always done, I’ve always stuck with, throughout my life. Why? I have no idea. But I’ve worked really hard at improving myself at it through the years—I wasn’t a vocalist or songwriter to begin with. My dad is a musician and my mom is a musician, so maybe that’s it. Maybe it runs in the family.
I don’t get to perform now as much as I did, but in the last year, one of the bands I’m in had a weekly gig that we lost, so I decided it was time to record. My new record was dropped off at my house this past July.
ArtPlace: As an artist working in government, do you think you face challenges that non-artist colleagues of yours don’t? Do you have opportunities or skills they don’t?
Muldoon: Working in a gig-based economy and being political are often things that are at odds. Political stances I’ve taken have cost me gigs—like the one I just mentioned—even though they had nothing to do with music. But that’s not a challenge on the political side; that’s just “do what’s right and let the chips fall where they may.”
As far as skills, I’ve been playing in bands for 15 years and you really have to learn to work with people. When colleagues tell me it’s hard to work with people, I think about being in a room trying to speak musically with six different people! If you don’t learn how to work collaboratively, you won’t get anything done. At times I’ve been certain I was was right, and three or four other people have told me differently, and they were right. It’s a learning experience. It’s like going from playing solo to being in a band—you have to give up some authority.
Also, you really learn to defer to experts. If you’re working with a drummer or guitarist, you can express your opinion, but at the end of the day, if they know more about it than you and that’s their role, it’s their call.
ArtPlace: Have you gleaned insights from your work in government that have informed your music? How about from your music that have informed your job as mayor?
Muldoon: I’d never done any public speaking before [being mayor], but I’d been on stage for years and played to some pretty big crowds. When I first started in music, I had horrible stage fright, but that goes away with confidence, I think. People would say, “Oh, you have lots of performing experience; you should be fine in this debate, or speaking to these 30 people,” but at first I felt myself just going back to Stage Fright 101! But that’s gone away in time.
ArtPlace: What do you think the role of the arts is—or should be—in a democracy?
Muldoon: The arts are obviously very political and always have been. I don’t want to invoke Godwin’s law this early in the conversation, but the Nazis obviously used art to very nefarious but very effective ends. For better or worse, art is implicit in politics—not just in democracy. With our Public Art Task Force here, we’ll continue to rely on artists to envision things in a more concrete, less abstract way. For example, we’ve been talking about a pedestrianization project and have been writing all kinds of reports about it, but an artist’s visual makes it real for people. Politics are fundamentally emotional. Treating it as a rational discourse is not always the most effective way to get your point across; your logical argument will fall behind people who aren’t making that mistake. Art has the ability to invoke emotion and influence people’s thoughts, and I don’t think that’s wrong. We aren’t just logical, rational creatures; we also value our emotional experience. So we’re making a mistake if we’re leaving that large part of political discourse to others.
ArtPlace: Any parting shots?
Muldoon: Jamie Bennett [Executive Director of ArtPlace America] was out here recently and we had a great conversation about how to involve art and placemaking in improving our community. I think it’s a fascinating concept. Community design, community building is not something I have a background in, so it’s great to know a group whose expertise I can rely on—just like our Public Art Task Force.
Meet more artists in government in these stories:
- Why Artists Make Good Civic Leaders: Carlos Contreras: This National Poetry Slam champion is the new Director of Innovation & Marketing in the Albuquerque, New Mexico Mayor’s Office.
- Why Artists Make Good Civic Leaders: Natalia Macker: Actor, film producer, and artistic director of a local theater company, Natalia Macker also serves on the Board of County Commissioners in Teton County, Wyoming.
- A Love Letter to the City: Amanda Lovelee reflects on her tenure as City Artist for Public Art Saint Paul in Minnesota.
- Guerilla Artists Swing into Government: Peter Svarzbein rode a wave of public support for his El Paso Transnational Trolley art project to a city council seat.
- Check out this newsletter from the Civic Arts Project on artists in government