Flint Public Art Project

Flint Public Art Project

Funding Received: 2012
Flint, MI
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
February 7, 2013

Flint Public Art Project supports collaborations among local residents and organizations as well as with leading artists, architects, planners and community organizers from around the world, connecting Flint to regional, national and global movements to revitalize neighborhoods and cities through art and design.

ArtPlace spoke to Executive Director Stephen Zacks about the risks it has taken to initiate the FPAP program.

What is the biggest risk you've taken in your efforts?

In the beginning, it was really a lone effort and I staked my reputation as a reporter and critic on the project. Journalistic ethics normally prohibit reporters from being active producers and advocates—I wrote a couple of stories for the New York Times, for instance, and the writer’s agreement specifies limits on all kinds of activities that might result in potential conflicts of interest and the appearance of favoritism.

Later I realized there is a long, proud history of writers and critics becoming active beyond print work. Jane Jacobs’ role in the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway in 1962, Willoughby Sharp’s helping with Takis’ removal of his sculpture from MoMA in 1969, Lucy Lippard’s founding of the Art Worker’s Coalition later that year, Alan Moore’s role in Colab’s Real Estate Show in 1980 are well-known examples.

In 2009 I had a choice of either becoming a traditional architecture critic and competing for a handful of not very good jobs in a shrinking print world, writing about buildings that had already been completed--which is a kind of work that I love but is a very small insular world--or I could engage in projects that reflected what I thought were the best ideas out there, using art, architecture, and design to transform places. I started to understand that the object of the best writing is not just a good read but also making things happen in the world.

Last year I was joined by Jerome Chou, who took a big risk in leaving a very good, better-paying job at Design Trust for Public Space to work on the project, and James Andrews, who also could be making much more money in New York. All of the artists who participate in Flint are taking a certain risk as well, standing up to skeptics and doubters to embrace a vision of Flint as a part of a global network of cultural producers.

How did you get burned, or how did you prevail?

My favorite comment was from our friend Georgeen Theodore during one of the first meetings about the proposal. I emailed it to her, Dan D’Oca and Tobias Armborst at Interboro Partners, and we met one afternoon at the Metropolitan Exchange office. Georgeen said the project was “probable.” It was a sober assessment, but I thought it was saying a lot given the proposal’s far-reaching scope. I wasn’t sure myself. Sometimes people are a little incredulous following what we’re working on: “It’s seems like to goal of the project to transform the identity of Flint?”

As I shared the proposal with colleagues and potential partners in Flint and New York for the next nine months, periodically I was stung by comments here and there from people who may have felt threatened or might not have fully understood the idea. I had expected some amount of naysaying, but early on I decided to disregard it and to insulate invited artists from negativity as much as possible.

Flint has been stung so many times by failed development schemes, incompetent management, and outright frauds. Our assumption was we had to quickly mount some projects to convey the experience and ideas directly. The first grant I applied for I didn’t get, but I learned in the Do-It-Yourself downtown performance scene that you never let the absence of money stop you. You’re motivated by the ideas, and that’s what carries the work forward. We borrowed some par cans from the Local 432 all-ages club, a video projector from THA Architects, and I dragged my battery-powered amp and laptop computer out onto the sidewalk. Suddenly you have a street party.

Our biggest coup this year was probably being asked to install a 10-story video projection in that same spot in front of the Mott Foundation building for New Year’s Eve.  The spectacle drew 4,000 residents downtown in the freezing cold to countdown the New Year for the first time in front of a virtual ball-drop.

What are the risks of what you’re doing now?

Our worry now is what happens at the end of the year. The project is scalable in such a way that we could effectively use ten times the resources we have, or we can work on a smaller scale doing workshops and performance interventions. If we had $3 million we could develop a thick network of cultural producers in small- and- medium-size cities across the region that could amplify the identity of the industrial Midwest. Or with a quarter-million dollars we can continue expanding a really dynamic program in our metropolitan area.

Right now several of our initiatives, such as Trade School Flint, the Art Walk interventions, and James Rojas’s Ideal City Workshops can be self-replicating. We’re seeding practices among participants and encouraging them to take ideas and work independently. But several projects, like the Spencer’s Art House, the Stone Street Residency, and staffing for the overall program are vulnerable to the need for ongoing support. Everyone has student loan debts to pay off.