Cross-Currents : Art + Manufacturing Strengthening Place


Funding Received: 2012
Multiple, NC
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
July 11, 2013

ArtPlace spoke with Janet Kagan and Jean Greer, Principals of the Public Art Collaborative Art-Force Program, an innovative effort in three rural communities - Greenville, Sanford, and Siler City NC - to diversify economic development in rural counties by curating and partnering artists with manufacturers to generate products and stimulate a community’s social and economic connection to place.

As you begin to complete your initial work funded by ArtPlace, what are your reflections?

Kagan + Greer
As we prepare to install our third civic artwork in the historic downtown of Sanford NC (having installed Greenville on 15 May 2013 and Siler City on 18 May 2013) we recall the chance encounter on the manufacturing shop floor that started the development and discussion between the artists and the manufacturer about how to design zero-waste products. The artists noticed several discarded plasma-cut steel panels and commented on their beauty. They envisioned using these large-scale panels with pattern cutouts for a public application. Thus, we have come full circle with the reuse of the original materials that will make the new family of portable tables and the civic artwork, which will remain a permanent recognition of this collaboration. The colorful panels (see image) will serve as entry markers for a future greenway, multi-use festival/market space, and parking area for the historic downtown.

As we near the end of the ArtPlace grant cycle, we marvel at the amount of creative work that has been accomplished in product designs, civic artworks, and in opening new directions for economic innovation in rural settings through these model partnerships. Without question, we have stretched the artistic and technical capacities of all three artist/manufacturer teams. During the past month, we have advanced both product marketing as well as sharing the stories of these alliances through a public relations campaign. Multiple products have been displayed, tested, and will soon be visible on company websites as well as the Public Art Collaborative’s Art-Force website. Articles have appeared nationally and regionally.

What do you think people could learn from your work?

Kagan + Greer
These pilot projects sought to accelerate research and design processes in small manufacturing companies without existing staff capability or capacity. Our task as project originators and facilitators was to interpret, anticipate, and propel the partnerships according to a twelve month timeline. The complexities of merging two sensibilities - the aesthetic training of artists with the engineering/technical direction of manufacturers - shaped the creative processes and its outcomes. Jumping these hurdles, goal-oriented problem solving was organic, protracted, and at times chaotic. We surprisingly found that we were training business owners before we could proceed with core processes of refining and assembling prototypes for production.

Small manufacturers understand the need to diversify, having recently emerged from tough market conditions. We experienced the roller coaster of factory owners with no orders, propelled soon thereafter into overdrive by client demand. In one instance during the past year, company personnel began with 30, elevated to 80, and now rests at 60. Finding and training a rural workforce with increasing technological demands and diversifying their skills is difficult yet essential for quality control and financial stabilization; this extends from core areas to future sustainable growth just as this project proposed.

For small communities across America who yearn to jumpstart innovative manufacturing efforts, this is not easy, simple, or a quick fix. Relationships take time to nurture and communications can be fraught with misinterpretation especially when artists skilled in the language and touch of form-making try to impart a design sensibility to an engineer who speaks almost exclusively in immediate problem-resolution without necessarily considering the visual impact of a spot weld or water jet arc. Often, this is about not knowing the questions to ask, and resolutions may require multiple steps and strategies so as to remain supportive on behalf of the artists or the manufacturers, and to encourage risk taking so that both can reach their higher potential.

You have certainly created new coalitions and collaborations. Where do you see promise and feel optimism?

Kagan + Greer
The impact of accomplishments would not have occurred without the openness of civic leadership searching to better their communities. We continue to be inspired by young leadership returning home after college who directly and passionately are seeking to resolve social and economic needs that were stagnating and unresolved. We recently returned from the annual meeting of the Rural Assembly where so many participants under 35 years old have inventive ideas about rural transformation. We also feel lucky that our civic project partners are sharing our enthusiasm for rethinking how to make change.