Louvre Abu Dhabiís ërain of lightí. © Mohamed Somji. Courtesy of Louvre Abu Dhabi.

UNFOLD Art XChange: Make Art Accessible Again

Forecast Public Arts is at the fore of supporting public arts projects

ART AFRICA spoke to Theresa Sweetland, Executive Director of the non-profit organisation Forecast Public Arts based in St Paul, Minnesota, which will be at UNFOLD Art XChange 2018. UNFOLD Art XChange, running from the 19th to 22nd of March to coincide with Dubai Art Week,  joins the worlds of art, architecture, and culture for the purpose of networking and knowledge-sharing for a number of stakeholders, among them financial institutions, government authorities, spatial designers, and public art agencies. Forecast Public Arts is one of such public art agencies that does fascinating and continuously progressive work in marrying the visions of artists for their communities to tangible public arts opportunities.

Portait of Theresa Sweetland. Photographer: Dan MarshallPortait of Theresa Sweetland. Photographer: Dan Marshall

ART AFRICA: Currently, you are the Executive Director of Forecast Public Arts – a company that activates people, networks, and proven practices to advance the transformational power of arts in public life. Could you please expand on how Forecast goes about activating people, networks, and proven practices to do so, and why the company believes that art in public life is important?

We are certainly a unique non-profit organization! We were founded in 1978 by a group of artists here in Minnesota who wanted to work outside of the traditional art venues of museums, galleries, and theaters and make art, performance and events that were free and accessible to everyone. We remain committed to that mission of supporting independent artists and have expanded over the decades to support the public art field. Today, we are dedicated to the transformational power of arts in public life which focuses on a more people-oriented approach that strives to make a positive impact on people’s lives. With that as our foundation, we basically do three things.

The first thing we do is we help communities with planning and implementing public art and place making projects. Why do people need help with this work? Because making meaningful and transformational public art and authentic community places is very challenging! I worked as a gallery curator for 15 years and when I wanted to make creative decisions in my gallery or theater, it was largely my call. But with public art and place making, there are countless players involved from city councils to developers to residents to property owners and artists; the risks are higher for everyone. Forecast’s team helps to translate, navigate, facilitate, and smooth the way for everyone. That’s what we do. We do this with over 30 cities, libraries, parks, and communities every year.

The second thing that we do is we support artists who want to be engaged with the public and public space – any kind of artist. So many people think that public art is just a sculpture, or a mural, or a monument. We provide financial support through grants to Minnesota public artists and we are one of the only places in the country and the world to do this. Most public artists across the city, country, and the world create public art in response to an idea that already established opportunity; the plan is fixed and the artist fits in. What Forecast does is ask artists what they want to do. and we give them money and support to make their dreams happen.  It’s really that simple. Between our matching with artists and cities and our granting, this support leverages to millions of dollars given directly to artists in our history, and hundreds of projects that connect people to each other and their communities.

The third thing we do is we help build the knowledge and capacity of the people making public art happen. We do this by telling stories, providing context, and providing tools and training. This includes publishing the internationally renowned magazine Public Art Review but also providing case studies, tool kits, in-person training, online courses, artist talks, and so much more. 29 years of publishing means that we have thousands of resources and stories available and we are always creating more.

Today, our work takes us around the country and tackles some big issues and goals bringing together public art, community-engaged design, and transformative place making to improve the lives of people here and around the country.

Indeed, Forecast publishes Public Art Review, which is an internationally acclaimed magazine that offers a holistic understanding of art in public spaces. How do Forecast and the magazine work together, and what are some of the challenges Public Art Review faces, if any?

Forecast Public Art is a non-profit organization based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. We are also the Publisher of Public Art Review magazine so it functions as one of our three core program areas focused on storytelling, education, and inspiration. I serve as the Executive Director and the Publisher of the magazine, ensuring that the mission and vision for our organization is also helping to drive the magazine’s strategic alignment with our work. We have an Editor-in-Chief, Karen Olson, and she leads the magazine’s content and ensures that our readers are getting the most thoughtful and knowledgeable coverage on public art in every issue. As any magazine published in print for thirty years faces, we are challenged with growing our subscriber base, providing relevant content on multiple platforms, growing our digital presence, and facing new competitors for attention and content. We are also seeing a growing need for our content, as the interest, excitement, and investment in public art grows internationally.

 

Lastly, your keynote address set to open Unfold Art Xchange will focus on the current trends and critical issues facing artists, public art agencies, program managers, city planners, educators, developers, and others who comprise of the constellation of public art stakeholders in our contemporary society. This is quite a broad selection of practitioners – can you tell us a bit more about how they are all interconnected, and what the current trends and critical issues are that affect them?

Forecast is working every day, on the ground, bringing our consulting experience to the tables where decisions are made about our shared public places, working with artists, planners, designers, engineers, architects, city managers, mayors, property owners, and other key decision-makers. Because public art takes place in public, creative and practical decisions need to take into consideration the budgets, policies, plans, and expectations that guide that place, whether it is a city park or a train platform or a shopping mall. We believe that public art is not simply taking a work of art and putting into a public space. Meaningful public art takes into account the specific site, the context and story of that place, and the people who will experience the work. These are critical creative decisions, and behind the scenes, there are also lengthy and contested discussions and decisions about city and state budgets, insurance, logistics, safety, zoning, durability, maintenance, and often the most nuanced; content and the potential for controversy.

Critical issues and trends that we are paying attention to include equity and representation, social engagement and participatory practices, outmoded public art policies, need for capacity-building and training, the explosion in the use of technology, privatization of public space, and sharing and measuring impact. At Forecast we see a critical issue in the lack of diversity in leadership and decision-making. This year, Forecast will be training the next generation of public art and place-making consultants, with a focus on training people of color and from indigenous communities, so we can ensure a more diverse community of professionals and leaders in the field. We will also take a proactive approach in building a roster of artists who represent diverse backgrounds, disciplines, and perspectives—a roster from which cities across the country and can draw from. This will include training more artists to take their work into the public realm. We are taking our training program, Making It Public, on the road so more artists, in more places can learn. We are already kicked this off by training 25 artists in Honolulu last fall, and we hope to bring our experience and best practices to more communities in the years to come!

FEATURED IMAGE: Louvre Abu Dhabiís ërain of lightí. © Mohamed Somji. Courtesy of Louvre Abu Dhabi.