Making Space for Conversation

Patricia King, Vice President of Programs + Operations, Waterville Creates!

Diana Tuite, Katz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Colby College Museum of Art

In early 2018, the Colby Museum of Art and Waterville Creates!, a local nonprofit organization designed to promote arts and culture initiatives in Waterville, came together to develop a new speaker series that focuses on public art and creative placemaking. Entitled Space for Conversation (Fig. 1), this series was designed to establish a shared understanding of best practices for public art initiatives and innovative projects and to examine the ways art can instigate meaningful exchange and serve as a catalyst for reshaping public spaces. For our purposes, creative placemaking can be defined as a mechanism that animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.

Fig. 1: Audience members gather before the March 15 Space for Conversation presentation.

At a moment when historical sculpture in the public sphere is under considerable scrutiny—and justifiably so—our discussions about the development of Space for Conversation explored art’s unique capacities to reflect, cultivate, and reinforce communities. Contemplation of the series provided a moment for thoughtful scrutiny of how we develop, maintain, and foster our partnerships. It prompted questions such as: How can we listen to communities about their needs? How can we engage our audiences across the community to have the highest level of participation? When we think about engagement, where do we begin? How do we ensure relevancy and access to the process and how do we ensure inclusivity and create connections that are meaningful?

The inaugural speaker, Elizabeth Jabar (Fig. 2), assistant dean and director of public engagement at Maine College of Art, seemed like a natural choice to kick off the series on March 15.  Elizabeth spent part of her childhood in Waterville and has a unique perspective as a former resident, artist, and designer. Her work today blends studio, classroom, and community experiences—all of which hearken back to the role of public service in her family, fond memories of the art room at the Boys & Girls Club, and weekly visits to the Colby Museum of Art in her youth.

Fig. 2: Elizabeth Jabar speaks to the crowd at Common Street Arts.

Historically, artists have employed unique and less traditional methods to arrive at solutions to challenges. What’s interesting to think about in this context of problem-solving is the model of cocreating, in which each participant brings value and expertise to the project and the dialogue begins with a basic, shared understanding. In her presentation, Jabar emphasized the importance of shared knowledge and clear definitions in order to work together efficiently and effectively. Developing a list of agreed-upon definitions is critical in having meaningful, creative exchanges that can happen through collaborative workshops, events, and exhibitions. In the end, the dialogue that takes place carries equal, if not greater, weight than the visual, tangible result.

Jabar provided inspirational examples of various projects, from Mobile Print Power in New York to CultureStrike in Oakland, California, to her work with MECA students, faculty, and the Portland, Maine, community. All of these illustrations embraced an inclusive, collaborative approach, and it was apparent that this model could be used to dissect and diffuse complex issues and to instigate change across myriad platforms. Through this model, all constituents became engaged and enlivened—they were encouraged to become active participants through shared dialogue, guiding principles, and creativity. In these examples of socially engaged art, a liminal space between the visual arts and nonart was produced in which participants’ voices fit comfortably and provided a strong communal element to the projects.

For the second event in this series, we moved beyond Maine, hoping to gain insights into a recent high-profile project many years in the making. On April 24, we hosted a panel discussion with participants from Monument Lab, an ambitious public art and history initiative based in Philadelphia. Cocurators Paul Farber and Ken Lum (Fig. 3), joined by Karyn Olivier, one of twenty participating artists, reflected on the genesis and implementation of this project, which was launched in September 2017. Organized in association with Mural Arts Philadelphia, the largest public art program in the United States, Monument Lab posed this question: What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia? As Farber and Lum explained to the audience, this phrasing represented a reconsideration of their original point of departure, which had been more narrowly focused on “the ideal monument” for the city. In its revised version, their question privileges pluralism over singularity, stressing the civic values guiding Monument Lab’s design.

Fig. 3: Monument Lab cocurators Paul Farber and Kenneth Lum introduce their initiative to audiences in Given Auditorium on April 24.

Monument Lab endeavored to open multiple lines of inquiry by acknowledging and “occupying” tensions or omissions in public spaces, and prototyping new possibilities, all in partnership with citizens of Philadelphia. According to the organizers, public engagement in the process was of paramount importance from day one. This meant slowing down and inviting stakeholders into the development of the project, which lasted for more than five years prior to the fall 2017 realization. It also informed decisions at all levels. As part of the 2015 “discovery” phase, organizers collected and analyzed 455 prototype proposals from members of the public. Likewise, once the temporary monuments opened at ten sites across the city, they were accompanied by “labs” staffed by high school and college students. These empowered student employees functioned as docents and research leaders, facilitating discussion and collecting additional data through their exchanges.

Artist Karyn Olivier (Fig. 4) sited her monument in Vernon Park, close to where she lives. Entitled The Battle Is Joined, this installation fused her responses to two existing memorials in the park, one of them commemorating the 1777 Battle of Germantown. Sensitive to the fraught nature of this celebration of a slaveholding George Washington in an African American neighborhood and to the abundance of markers for defeats suffered by certain populations when others merit none even for their accomplishments, Olivier encased her monument within a completely mirrored structure. In a beautifully symbolic gesture, her piece both disappeared and came to life: its surface conducted reflections of its surroundings and it became both a subject of discussion and a point of convergence for neighborhood residents from all walks of life.

Fig. 4: Artist Karyn Olivier discusses the ways that members of her neighborhood interacted with her monument.

The first two installments of the ongoing Space for Conversation series touched upon issues central to discussions of Waterville’s history as well as its future. Both Elizabeth Jabar and the Monument Lab team underscored the importance of arriving at a place of shared vision, not only for the end product, but also for the process. In each presentation, alignment of vision coupled with intention was critical to the creative exchange taking place. As we collaborate on creative projects with partners throughout Waterville, the framework provided by both Elizabeth Jabar and Monument Lab will remind us to move forward with compassion, reach across boundaries, involve multiple voices in the creative process, and operate with humility, flexibility, and transparency.