Socially engaged art

We believe art and creativity can help break down differences, encourage empathy, and make people happier. We value collaboration, accessibility, and flexibility. We see the public work we do as our art medium. And we see the people in the communities where we work as our collaborators.

Our art practice centers on working with people — sometimes called social practice art or socially engaged art. We have chosen this path as the sort of activists who passionately believe in the democratization of art and creativity — and in using our abilities, talents, and know-how to help make the world (starting with our city) a better place.

Everybody deserves access to art, to creativity, to activities that challenge our minds. And artists should help make creativity an integral part of people’s lives. Better than anyone, we know the joy of using our imaginations. And we have a moral imperative to share this joy. We see the importance of prioritizing art projects that get to people where they are instead of challenging them to figure out how to find the art in some walled-off place.

As one way to be relevant and important to the broader community, artists can choose to invest in the community directly. Rick Lowe, founder of Houston’s Project Row Houses, told the New York Times: “I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.”

And Lowe’s realization connects to the philosophy of Frances Whitehead, an embedded artist who works directly with the City of Chicago. She calls her work “post-normal” and doesn’t make things; she makes things happen. And, as a “double agent” working both sides of the system, she reaches and helps the broader community in Chicago. “I’m interested in the artist not as a trickster or activist, but as a cultural disrupter, as a change agent,” she said. “If culture is the problem, then who better to solve it but cultural workers?”

It comes down to a choice: Should we preach to the choir, making work that merely points to our community’s challenges? Or do we use our skills as artists to do something about it?

The importance of Placemaking

Lots of people are talking and writing about placemaking — and the relatively new idea of artist-led creative placemaking — as approaches to improving cities and communities by better using the spaces and places people share.

This, of course, has been central to our work at Big Car since we formed in 2004 — even if some of the terminology didn’t exist then. Our original mission and the work that furthered it was about bringing vibrancy to the then-neglected Indianapolis neighborhood called Fountain Square. Even before we opened our gallery and performance space, we organized an annual event that brought artists and vendors into the streets, that turned a parking lot into a temporary public square (it is now a permanent public square). Later, in summers, we managed an outdoor movie series that turned yet another parking lot in the neighborhood into a place to gather and enjoy films. We supported a neighborhood-wide mural project, the idea of a Fountain Square resident who was then a member of our collective. Meanwhile, we brought what is now a strong and economically powerful tradition to the neighborhood — celebrating the first Friday of each month with art openings and parties. And, the energy we helped create prompted Fountain Square to get connected to The Cultural Trail, ensuring its ongoing success. This is how creative placemaking can turn a place around.

Prior to 2000, Fountain Square was not very vibrant. Many of the commercial buildings stood abandoned or poorly utilized. Nearby homes rotted. Public spaces were parking lots. Sidewalks were neglected and shrunk to make more lanes for cars that sped through the area. But the neighborhood had character. It had a funky refurbished theater. It had artists. It seemed poised to be something they have in other cities. And the Murphy Art Center — an artist-led creative placemaking project if there ever was one — became the tipping point for the area. Phil Campbell, a painter and gallery owner, took a vacant and water damaged block-long former dime store and transformed it into a home for artists and creative businesses. It took about 10 years and the steady support of groups like Big Car, but, by 2013 — when the Cultural Trail celebrated its completion — Fountain Square was truly vibrant. It had arrived.

So what is meant by vibrancy? As Project for Public Spaces says, vibrancy is people. If somebody completes what they say are placemaking or creative placemaking projects and they don’t have pictures with people in them, what they’ve likely done is beautification, or creative decoration projects. Placemaking is about setting the table for making things happen for humans, it is about making places to do things. It isn’t about making the physical location passively artsy or pretty. It isn’t about involving artists to put a little icing on the cake. Adding some decorative elements to a vacant lot or old building and then walking away will make things nicer for those who pass by. But this does not create true vibrancy. A placemaking project isn’t successful if it can be enjoyed in just one way — with the eyes for example. Big Car loves murals, work on them often, and we see how powerful they can be. But we understand that murals are only one part of a creative placemaking project. And, if vibrancy is the goal, other aspects of placemaking — spaces made for people — need to be connected to murals.

Ultimately, placemaking is about making a shared place right, comfortable and welcoming for people. This is hard to do without spending some time and money. But the investment is worth it as successful placemaking projects accomplish multiple things. The projects that really work make places for people who have been part of the idea and contributed to the design of it, places where people can socialize, learn something, connect with the location or neighborhood and understand it better, support the area’s economy, and contribute creatively in engaging ways. When placemaking succeeds, we get people sharing spaces in positive and creative cultural and social ways. In other words, we get vibrancy. And true vibrancy — as we’ve seen in Fountain Square — helps people, neighborhoods, and cities succeed in tangible and lasting ways.

Here are some great links (with lots more links within each article) for further reading on the topic:

Project for Public Spaces series on Placemaking

Ann Markusen on creative placemaking success and measurement