As Project Manager for Gary Lights Open Works (GLOW), I supported this project through my understanding of engagement and because of my success in implementing practices that support participation with communities and audiences historically excluded from the US arts establishment. My specific work spans twelve years in various arts organizations and institutions in Alabama, Florida, and Chicago. I am a native of Birmingham, Alabama.
All of us have access to art. If you have never set foot in an art gallery or a museum, a symphony, or a theater, you already have had an art experience and you can continue to have them without entering these formalized spaces. You have art experiences that many who frequent museums and symphonies and theaters may never know. First and foremost, value is placed on those art experiences that take place outside of formalized spaces and value is placed on those people who have them.
When artist team Marissa Benedict and David Reuter initially shared what Gary Lights Open Works is, the 10 colorful, permanent and reprogrammable RGB LED streetlights, designed and built by them, installed in two public parks in Gary, Indiana, I first just listened. Before envisioning how a thing might matter to a community, it is necessary to understand the artists’ intent — who and what they were thinking about when they conceived the idea; what their arts practices have previously explored; how they landed at this moment. Connecting art to communities that have historically been excluded from the arts establishment requires that you sit with the concept for a while, sit with the art and understand the artists. Absurd is the popular notion that connecting art and community is “dumbing down” the art. Only those who think that art is actually for an elite minority struggle with the multitude of ways art experiences reveal itself, especially amongst underrepresented communities.
Benedict and Reuter were and continue to be interested in Gary. They explained, “the new art lighting installations, which are clamped to existing light poles, assisting, rather than replacing existing infrastructure, take the pressure off the immediate need to replace broken light bulbs – replacements which are not feasible for the Department of Public Parks to consider in their current state of extreme budget cuts.”
As someone listening for not just a cool project idea (though there’s nothing wrong with that), but for some care for the communities intended to connect to the art, I am excited about artists who describe something other than a vanity project. Work like this requires such ongoing and patient effort spent sharing what has been funded to gain support from many fronts. Due to city staff turnovers, there were repeat initial meetings to simply build awareness and get the work off the ground. Artists and their collaborators must have the stamina to stay the course during the inevitable ups and down of a project that is as much about executing and adapting a process as it is the installations themselves.
Over the course of a year, there were nine public workshops conducted in Gary by five artists (Jan Tichy, Alejandro Acierto, Lindsey French, AJ McClenon, and David Reuter) in the field of visual art, art & technology and sound art. The Department of Public Parks, Gary Housing Authority, specifically Carolyn B Moby High-Rise, the Redevelopment Commission, and Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in partnership with students and faculty from the School of the Art Institute were all active collaborators in the work of making personal and relevant these artist-designed street lights. While these collaborations were intentional, it is important to consider how the practical work of installing the lights made way for City of Gary Department of Public Parks staff to develop a personal connection to installations. Public Parks Manager, Claude Powers III, and Public Parks employee , Anthony Lillard , reported in their monitoring of the lights that they have begun to see more youth use the courts to play basketball in the evening hours. We often think art experiences must be sought out as entertainment. But, art can also be hardworking, put to good use by changing the way a space is utilized and experienced.
It is not always the community who finds meaning in art experiences. The artists and collaborators can find themselves more changed than anyone. The time spent in Carolyn B Mosby High Rise with the seniors who reside there revealed to me something I may have forgotten – those spaces and people most slighted are never what or who we think they are. I, too, come from a slighted space, a part of town where people who are not from look down upon its conditions. I was aware of the conflict of the perception of my neighborhood versus the experience of my neighborhood. As a young child I rode my lavender tricycle on the sidewalk, walked up the steep concrete stairs to Mrs. Crawford’s, the neighborhood candy lady’s green house to buy a $.25 be-bop (frozen Kool-Aid in a small Styrofoam cup), and learned from Mrs. Bobbie in the shade of her garden about furry lambs’ ear and snapdragons that mesmerized me.
When I walked into Carolyn B Mosby High Rise with lead artist AJ McClenon to begin one of three workshops, I was reminded of the discrepancy of what it means to appear not good enough but to be just fine. In working with the seniors, we did not give them anything they lacked. We provided well-considered experiences and learned a great deal as a result of the time spent. McClenon, a writer, musician and performance artist, proposed a multi-visit workshop where connections would be made and established with residents through recording oral histories, making art, specifically cd covers for music selected by residents. Along with being a colorful presence, the lights can be programmed to music and pulsate to the rhythm of any song. Because the High Rise is closely situated to one of the parks where the street lights are installed, seniors who reside on the east side of the High Rise can see the changing colors from the lights from their windows. What a joy to be able to fill in the gaps around what they were experiencing from their bedroom windows.
When thinking about art and underrepresented communities, begin with writing down your assumptions first. Do you believe that because many people are not exposed to cultural institutions that they are lacking something? Even as a product of the arts establishment and a now decade long contributor to various arts organizations, I do not see my power in introducing underrepresented audiences in the arts to cultural institutions only. Considering the lack of investment of these institutions to make good on the language around inclusivity, my energies are best invested in artists and communities curious about their own resources.