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Head of ambitious public art projects in New York City joins grand juror team for ArtPrize 2013

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This interview with Anne Pasternak, ArtPrize 2013 Grand Prize Juror, is one of a series of three interviews helping ArtPrize visitors get to know the perspective of this year's jurors.
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This article was first published on the ArtPrize blog, where you can get all the news and information about ArtPrize. Check it out here to keep up to date.

by Kevin Buist

In 2012, ArtPrize introduced the Juried Grand Prize. The $100,000 award, supported by Kendall College of Art and Design, is chosen each year by a panel of three distinguished guests doing vital work in the arts. New for 2013, we're inviting these three jurors to share the stage to discuss an issue that's relevant to ArtPrize and the world beyond.

This year's discussion is titled Can Art Save Cities? It will be a provocative look at the evolving relationship between contemporary art and urban revitalization. Increasingly, the arts are seen as the key to infusing cultural and economic vitality in neglected downtown areas. But these efforts are not without their pitfalls and complexities. The discussion will look at the work these three individuals are doing, the challenges they face, as well as productive ways forward.

The free event will take place at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 26 at Ladies Literary Club (61 Sheldon Blvd SE, Grand Rapids). The event is made possible by CWD Real Estate Investment, a full-service boutique investment, development, brokerage, and property management firm.

As a prelude to this discussion, I've interviewed each of the three jurors separately about this topic. We'll be presenting these interviews in a series of blog posts over the next several weeks. The first in the series is Anne Pasternak, President and Artistic Director of Creative Time, an organization that stages ambitious public art projects in New York City and around the world.

I spoke with Anne on July 30, 2013.

Kevin Buist:  For those who aren’t familiar, tell us what Creative Time is, and how it’s different from other art institutions.

Anne Pasternak:  Okay, Sure. Creative Time is a nonprofit arts organization that’s been around for 40 years. We commission artists to create great projects that push them to experiment, to try new things and take bold risks. We believe that this is not only really good for the artists, but is also really good for society, that they’re doing new things and trying new things that help push culture forward. Our other core values are that public spaces are places for free and creative expression, and that artists matter in society and should be weighing in on the issues of our time. In fact, there’s no door that they shouldn’t kick open. Historically, our programming was commissioning artist projects throughout New York City’s public places, which could have meant anywhere from the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage to city streets and parks. Over time we really broadened our idea of public space [and became] one of the first organizations internationally to use media space, from radio, television, and outdoor advertising to the internet, the skies over Manhattan, and other notions of public space. In fact, in recent years our work has extended beyond New York City, and just last fall we sent the first major public art work into outer space, which will be in geosynchronous orbit for eternity.

But we’re not only about public space today, we’re about [a wider notion of] public realms. So the idea is that artists can contribute by creating really incredible, thoughtful, provocative, wondrous, challenging, inspirational public art projects, in public spaces, but there are other ways for them to contribute their ideas, too. The Creative Time Summit, for example, has become the largest art and social justice conference in the world. Creative Time Reports, a new initiative, is a way for artists to share their ideas about issues of public import around the world. It provides a rare opportunity for them to share their voices unfiltered by curators and critics like myself.

KB: I was talking to someone recently from Detroit who mentioned that you had done a trip there with your board, and I was wondering, do you guys have plans for projects in Detroit?

AP:  Everybody keeps asking us this! No, we don’t have plans for projects in Detroit, but I’m a huge fan of the art scene there, and I’ve been going to Detroit, I’d say, once every two or three years for probably the past 15 years and have fallen in love with the city. And I’m open to thinking about a project in Detroit, but in the meantime, I think giving artists from Detroit opportunities to have a sort of global stage and to create new networks through Creative Time Reports, through the Creative Time Summit, is our biggest contribution. In addition to just talking up the art scene and encouraging foundations and others to get involved in the Detroit art scene… I’m playing more of an advocacy role, I would say.

KB: Can you think of any specific things that are happening there that you’d like to happen more?

AP:  What I would simply say is that I think artists there are trying new things; they’re energetic, collaborative and even entrepreneurial. From recent conversations I suspect it could be useful to have some artist training and mentoring in community organizing. It’s one thing for an artist to come into a neighborhood and create interventions, but it’s another thing for them to be able to do it in an inclusive, ethical, caring, open, sharing, learning, participatory way. Those are skills that one really has to learn, because you’re not just dealing with paint on canvas, you’re dealing with real human life, and it’s far easier to inadvertently offend and upset people than it is to make them feel cared for, included, and respected.

KB:  Yeah, that’s very true. Moving to a different city—

AP:  There is something else I wanted to add. My experience is that there are many people in Detroit who are excited about collaboration and the opportunity to work with artists from other places in the world, and then there are artists who are very concerned about that. This is true for every artist community I engage with—whether it’s Boston, Chicago, Dallas—and I always believe that it’s very important for each to embrace different voices, new experiences, and new energy. Everybody benefits. So while I respect and understand concerns about outsiders “parachuting” into any city, I know there are benefits when done well.

Look at New York City for example. It’s made up of people from around the world  coming and going, telling their stories, sharing their practices, bringing new ideas and energies. It makes NYC a more vibrant place

Now that New York City has become unaffordable for artists as a place to live, artists are choosing to come here for either a very short time or not live here at all. It’s a bad thing for NY, but it may be good for the rest of the country. I’m witnessing artists  really investing in other communities around the country, which is creating more exciting art scenes. Detroit is a great example and rather exemplary in this way. New York City’s loss is the rest of the country’s gain.

KB:  Yes. That’s interesting, that point about a certain kind of knee-jerk reaction against outside artists, because there is a tension within ArtPrize, within Grand Rapids, of that same kind of thing. Where people are coming to ArtPrize from all over the world, and people think, ‘well, couldn’t that funding be used to bolster just what local artists are doing?’ It’s always been our position that there is a place for that, but our role is to bring the world to Grand Rapids, and show Grand Rapids off to the world. And ultimately that exchange will strengthen what’s happening here more than an insular approach.

AP:  Absolutely. While I don’t know how it’s working in practice, I’m going to assume it’s working well.

KB: Another project that I wanted to bring up was Paul Chan’s staging of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, after Katrina. I think that’s such an interesting project. I was reading a little bit about it, and it was apparently still at a time when people needed clean water and food, and so there was some criticism saying, ‘How can you spend money on doing theater, when people have more practical concerns?’ Can you speak to how you balance that, in a city that is in that level of crisis?

AP:  Well first of all, I don’t think those criticisms came from people in New Orleans, I think they came from people outside. People need water and food, but they also want experiences that bring them together and speak to their experiences with dignity. We were extremely sensitive to this. It’s true, people didn’t have basic services like water or electric let alone homes. Bodies hadn’t been identified or located. Families were torn apart, homes were gone, insurance checks were not coming…  Things were in such, such a bad way, and so we wanted to provide an experience that would not only reflect respectfully on people’s experiences, and continue to bring them under the national and international spotlight so that people knew what the impossibly challenging living conditions were for people on a daily basis in New Orleans, but this project was also designed to bring in real support. We could do that. NOLA citizens told us again and again 'Give us a great art experience, make sure it’s "world class."' They told us to pay them for their work respectfully. So we provided jobs locally. They asked us to help with the rebuilding efforts, so we created a shadow fund matching the play’s production budget with dollars to be invested in community needs such as providing books for the local school library, adding swing sets to the local playground, and underwriting arts programs in the neighborhood. The list went on and on and on. The local community approved the project, they fully embraced it, and they contributed deeply to its success.

You know, I was in Haiti a year and a half ago, and sitting at the hotel bar a lot of NGOs and businessmen asked me, ‘Why are you coming here for art, that’s ridiculous!’ Then I went into a displacement camp and witnessed young women, from ages 4 to 16 years old, gather on a make-shift stage as somebody starts to play the drums. They had rehearsed a dance, and they got up there to perform. Before you knew it, everyone came out of their make-shift tents, and started to dance and sing together. The camp went from a place of utter sadness and misery to a place of joy for the next 20 minutes. The arts did that. It wasn’t the water truck or international military presence with their machine guns “guarding,” the camps that made people come out of their tents and celebrate. It was the arts, reminding them of their humanity and their dignity, giving them a reason to come together and have some joy. So anybody who says, especially in the arts, ‘Oh, we should be doing water and these other types of services and that the arts aren’t important,’ well, they’re dead wrong.

KB:  One thing that always swims around these discussions is the issue of gentrification. It’s been an interesting couple of days, in fact just last week–in Grand Rapids, there’s a volunteer-run art gallery and concert venue that was forced to close very quickly. It’s bringing up these really big questions in the community here and in my mind about cause and effect. I think on one side of the debate there’s an inevitable evolution with spaces and how they’re used, but then on the other side there are people seeing something potentially exploitative happening. In the projects that you help run, is there a stop-gap to help keep things like this from suddenly getting booted out after making a block really great place?

AP: To be honest, I can’t speak to this situation because I haven’t been to Grand Rapids and I don’t know the organization. This is the first I’m hearing of this situation. But we know it’s not an uncommon narrative. In fact, gentrification is the subject of the Creative Time Summit this year. It’s a topic really on people’s minds in a way I have not witnessed since the 90s, Of course I’m well aware and sensitive to the narratives of artists and arts organizations being forced out of the places they’ve re-made and then can’t afford to stay in because of ensuing gentrification. But that’s only part of the story. The truth is, often artists search out 'affordable' neighborhoods–which are usually neighborhoods primarily populated by immigrants, working poor, and people of color–and their presence may provide vitality and improvements, but it too displaces people. This dynamic has been largely missing from the story. I think its exclusion from our field’s narrative is symptomatic of our exclusion regarding race and class, a dynamic that is very alarming to me.

There’s another aspect to this dynamic that I find problematic. The idea that somehow artists should be treated differently from other folks, that they should have other kinds of privileges and benefits that the rest of human society doesn’t have, is troubling. And I think this exclusionary language separates artists and the arts in ways that don’t benefit our field. For example, in one city I recently worked in, a gallery was closing and others were struggling. There was a lot of online chatter and anger that the local collectors were buying in New York or London or Berlin, and they weren’t supporting the local artists. I found the hostility rather troubling. For one, those collectors didn’t ask the galleries to open. Just because a coffee shop opens in my neighborhood, doesn’t mean residents have to get coffee there. The collectors were doing other extremely important things for the local arts community, such as supporting the museums and arts organizations, helping to not only inspire but also employ local artists. The truth is, all businesses have to adapt to market demands–for profit and non-profits alike. But what’s more troubling is that the narrative didn’t honor and recognize the agency that artists have to make their own scenes happen. I know it’s not popular to say this, but I think we’d benefit from a new conversation that really challenged the traditional narratives of our field.

So in the case of Grand Rapids, will this organization go through hardships as a result of being forced out of its home? I am sure. But if people really care about it, they need to rally to its support and find creative, exceptional solutions that turn lemons into lemonade.

KB:  That’s a really good point. How would you define the artist’s role in society and particularly within cities?  I know that’s a super broad question…

AP:  I can’t answer that. There can’t be a definable role for artists in our cities or in society. Artists don’t want to be put into anyone’s boxes. As I said in a speech this weekend, I’m all for an art that hangs on a wall or sits on a pedestal and creates moments of joy and reflection and curiosity and engagement and conversation and even provocation, and I’m also for art that gets off its ass and does something tangible for people. We’re seeing such an explosion of experimentation in terms of artistic practice, and you know my primary interest is that artists really are participating in the important ideas of our time, helping to shape consciousness toward a better collective future. 

KB:  What about arts organizations, arts administrators? How do you think they should approach how to make society, and particularly how to make cities and communities, better places?

AP:  The first thing they have to do is get out of their silos; they have to get out of the galleries and institutions and they have to meet people. They have to get into the neighborhoods and the communities where they are working. It is imperative our field works on greater inclusion and racial equity within our organizations. If you take a look at the statistics about the percentage of people of color, for example, that work in art institutions it is quite appalling. This is one of the most urgent and fundamental issues we face as a field. (I’m not even going to talk about the big issues such as climate change and free markets wreaking havoc on our society, which will have a dramatic impact on our field. I think it is reasonable to ask if 10% of our arts organizations will even exist in 50 years.)

KB:  If you were talking to, and maybe you do this, to mayors, city council members, how would you advise them to create policy around the arts if they’re looking to integrate the arts into their vision for the future of their city?

AP:  Again, I don’t know how to speak to this question... I think that each city has it’s own complex dynamics and that there is no formulaic response to creating an arts policy. You have to get to know the artist community, and what sort of assets and problems there are; you have to listen to people and you have to look at the history of place and the unique characteristics, whether it’s landscape or architecture or cultural traditions. It’s a complex answer, actually. What works for one city isn’t likely to work for another.

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