There are all kinds of brilliant ways to fail at the game of communication. You can choose to give folks too little intel, leaving so many questions that it's not worth the effort to get answers. You can opt to give 'em too much information, weighing them so far down in sea of words and concepts that they struggle for comprehension. You can give 'em intel too early, so it slides way back in the irretrievable recesses of their brains, or too late, so they feel stressed and angry that they don't have enough time to act. Or you can go with what is quickly becoming a classic: Employing language that no one else on the planet uses, thereby forcing your audience into your weird and whacky parallel universe where everyone flashes uncomfortable smiles, faking that they know what the hell you're talking about and shaking with the fear that they might be found out for the charlatans they are.
It is this last form of communication that harbors not only the most potential for giddy cries of "Mwahahaha!" but also for real danger. And if you sprinkle it with just the right amount of commonly understood words--words like "art," "public," "community," "culture," "creativity," and "money"--you can successfully trigger an explosion that you did not anticipate and may not be able to control.
Just such a sticky spot do the business, civic and governmental backers of the overly complicated, art-infused community "'Creational Trails" program--yes, that is an apostrophe before the word "Creational"--find themselves in. And this, kids, is the undeniably thrilling topic were going to slog through today. Hooray!
Okay, so back in May, ArtPlace America--a collaboration of 13 national and regional foundations and 6 of the nation’s largest banks, which also gets counsel from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other federal agencies--awarded a $350,000 grant to the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC)’s MiKE initiative--MiKE stands for Innovation in Milwaukee. This obscenely large grant by any standard is meant to support the planning, organizing and implementation of the "'Creational Trails" program, which already had a bit of a head start.
The "'Creational Trails" program is, and I quote, "a network of improv(is)ed spaces, projecting identity through light and sound to activate spaces as a means of breaking down barriers in Milwaukee. The trails will activate two linear pathways to connect neighborhoods that are divided by physical, racial and economic barriers by installing interactive light and sound art pieces in residual spaces, turning them into safe, walkable and bikeable destinations. 'Creational Trails also seeks to provide amenities such as bike lanes, cafe seating, edible landscaping, pop-up businesses and lighting."
In regular person lingo, the program wants to develop underutilized and/or blighted land in Milwaukee by creating spaces--or what they refer to as "placemaking"--with artistic elements that folks wanna move through and hang out in. The ArtPlace America grant is specifically for the development of two locations: 1) a 10-block stretch on West Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee and 2) a former rail corridor between the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods.
Ya still with me? I know, I know, but wait! It gets even more complicated.
While the grant was awarded to GMC’s MiKE initiative, the management of the "'Creational Trails" program was given to two organizations, Beintween and Art Milwaukee, with the Milwaukee Art Museum and some other folks lending a hand as jurors in the selection of participating artists--or what they're calling "placemakers."
That enough cooks in the kitchen for ya? No? Well, just for hoots, let's throw in NEWaukee, the young professionals networking group that runs ART Milwaukee.
If you're curious, confused or both as to the nature of the relationships between these organizations, let me clarify it for ya--and believe you me, it took a while to get this straight so don't beat yourself up if ya have to read it through a few times: The private sector civic organization GMC runs MiKE, which was initially funded by ArtPlace America and has a leadership council filled with lots o' corporate/education/civic heavy-hitters. MiKE is in strategic partnership with ART Milwaukee, which has both its President and Vice President on the MiKE Leadership Council and is, as stated earlier, run by NEWaukee, whose President also sits on the MiKE Leadership Council. Translation: It's a corporate/business networking crony-fest with nary an artist in sight!
As far as I can suss out, the only truly independent orgs in this whole deal are Beintween, with a board of directors mainly made up of community-minded architects and urban planners, and the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Also of note, the Riverworks Development Corporation, the City of Milwaukee, and the West Wisconsin Avenue Task Force--among others--are a part of this program for obvious bureaucratic and logistical reasons, making it a true .Biz/.Com/.Org/.Gov venture!
Okay, so now that we've got all the playas named and connected, you might well be asking, "What's this art community explosion you teased us with earlier?" Patience, Grasshopper. All shall now be revealed.
On May 20, there was a press conference held to announce the ArtPlace America grant. All those involved with the "'Creational Trails" program were there as well as Mayor Tom Barrett, Alderman Nik Kovac (3rd District), Alderwoman Milele Coggs (6th District), and Alderman Robert Bauman (4th District). When Keith Hayes, Founder of Beintween, got his turn to speak to the crowd, he stated, according to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Mary Louise Schumacher, "Beintween is most interested in the diversity of human activity as art and the urban fabric as its canvas. Beintween believes this art is real and that this art is fact."
Huh and what? This statement even stumped the very astute Ms. Schumacher, so good luck working that out for yourself.
Hayes has also admitted that he has no experience with this type of program, a revelation that sparked Schumacher to post an article on the Art City blog with the headline "Are we making place or pep rallies with ArtPlace funds?" The post asked thoughtful questions, such as why were organizations with no real experience in public art tapped to manage this program? And why was the City bucking the standard and going without a qualified staff person to oversee and facilitate it? When she tried to get answers to these questions, she was essentially stonewalled by both Jeremy Nowak, interim director of ArtPlace, and Mayor Tom Barrett.
The next day, Alderman Nik Kovac jumped on Schumacher's Facebook post linking to the blog post with a snappy comment, implying that she and others asking questions were acting out with a "Crab mentality" by very helpfully linking to the Wikipedia entry, which describes the meaning of the phrase as a "if I can't have it, neither can you" way of thinking. Ah, Ald. Kovac, have you learned nothing in your years of dutiful public service? Speaking as a fan and voting constituent of yours, I feel I should remind you that substantive questioning is the basis of a healthy democracy, sir, and no amount of bullying--no matter how thinly veiled--will ever change that.
If ya got the time to peruse the entirety of the FB comments on that post, you'll also see a lot of other members of the artsy community chiming in and taking issue with the way this program was developed--and that is without any identifiable input from the artistic community.
So, after two days of bantering on FB, Ald. Kovac penned a rebuttal to Ms. Schumacher's question raising article, which she graciously posted on the Art City blog on May 28. In it, Ald. Kovac scolds Schumacher and us all, managing to miss the point entirely:
Underlying these twists are two fundamental criticisms that have been rumbling around the local arts community ever since the GMC funded groups like Art Milwaukee and Newaukee and MiKE started to publicly celebrate this city and emphasize the experience of young people in it. The criticisms are: 1) these young people seem more concerned with having fun than being serious about art and 2) the fact that a prominent group of business leaders is funding them might mean that art is less important to them than economics…
Both criticisms, in my opinion, are mostly true. But so what? Isn’t it a good thing that young people are having fun with art, and that business leaders see profit from investing in art?
Isn’t that, in fact, the argument that art advocates have been trying to win for years? That public art is literally worth it, because it attracts more qualified employees to our town while also stimulating a local production economy. We lost the Blue Shirt, we lost the MacArthur Square sculpture, and now we’ve finally convinced young professionals and older patrons that public art matters, that it might be worth real numbers with lots of zeroes after them… and so we invited the press, were peppy, and filled a day with pomp because we can now afford to make a place not just a path…
Artists are like anyone else. Sometimes the ones that are lucky enough to get paid are resented by those who are not. But on a good day that private resentment fuels future production. It should never be allowed to publicly pull the lucky ones down, like selfish and doomed crabs in a fisherman’s unguarded bucket.
And there it is again. Good for you, Ald. Kovac, for bringing it back to your original theme of "you're all a bunch of ingrates and sore losers with a crab mentality" and not getting thrown off by some pesky attempt to understand the source of the questioning!
So the issue that the Honorable Ald. Kovac missed is that the "'Creational Trails" program--in spite of the incomprehensible gobbledygook used by the folks in charge--sounds and smells like a community public art program. Why is that important? Because there are members of our artistic community who have been workin' their tails off in the name of community art in this town for decades--long before some of the leaders of these organizations managing the "'Creational Trails" program could even pronounce the word "placemaking"--and they were doing it without the interest or money of business and government 'cause both refused to see the inherent value of it.
Over those decades, artists and arts organizations have been cajoled and harassed into using mind-numbingly incoherent biz-speak and bringing "proof" of art's worth to the table, and we went along with it 'cause that seemed to be the only way to get the monied and connected folks' attention. But the deal has always been this: We learn to communicate in your language and on your terms, and in return we get to sit at the big kids' table and get real investment in art and in the artistic community.
To be clear, we got nothin' against the young and energetic--heck, we love 'em 'cause they're the fuel for keeping the arts fresh and lively! But energy without direction is just hot air that dissipates with the next cool breeze, warming no one for any measurable period of time.
The good Alderman may have forgotten that the GMC has found itself in the dog house with the artsy community before--an ugly precedent established waaay back in 2008 that left a nasty taste in the metaphorical mouths of many. When the GMC's Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee--now called Creative Alliance Milwaukee--armed with the highly questionable suppositions of Richard Florida and others, started sticking their noses into the local artistic/cultural community's "bizness" through their Cultural Asset Inventory of the Milwaukee 7 Region report without so much of an invitation for discussion or a quick explanatory IM, folks were understandably wary of the groups' intentions. Initial answers to questions posed were long in coming and, when they did come, were deeply unsatisfactory.
These initial missteps led directly to a state of animosity that took months to calm down enough for a series of indoor voice meetings to take place. And even then, many independent artists and small orgs perceived themselves to be disrespected by not being included in any meaningful way until well down the line. If you don't remember or were otherwise occupied at the time, read here, here, here, and related links, to get a feel for it--riveting stuff, I promise!
While many since then have either jumped on the bandwagon or, like Cricky here, just got sick to death of it and got back to what really matters--and that is focusing on the art itself--that was the initial trigger to the slow-motion explosion in which we find ourselves now.
Okay, so leaving Ald. Crabby Got Claws aside, the fine fellers on WMSE 91.7FM's The Disclaimer--Ryan Schleicher of WMSE, Evan Rytlewski of the Shepherd Express, and Matt Wild of The A.V. Club Milwaukee--took on another aspect of the "'Creational Trails" program on October 16. Springboarding off of Wild's A.V. Club piece "Help Milwaukee become a vibrant art city by...camping out on Wisconsin Ave.?" the three discussed their utter confusion and annoyance with the terminology--i.e. "activating," "placemaking," "tournavation," etc.--being used in the all the informational and promotional material for the program as well as the idea of an "urban camping weekend" to be held on Wisconsin Avenue next June. Camping = Art? Sure it does.
These gentlemen also hit the nail on the very flat head in discussing the fact that details about the art to be created wasn't a part of the original proposal, making aspects of the program--including the the "urban camping weekend"--look like publicity stunts that create an illusion of art rather than truly investing in the artistic community. Yes, yes and YES!
As a followup, The Disclaimer had a special guest today, NEWaukee's Angela Damiani, who did her best not to slip into the confusing jargon that led us here and explain that the "'Creational Trails" program is not a community public art program but rather a program to increase the safety and economic viability of various locations by attracting business investment and community activity. She also clarified that the call for submissions to participate as an artist--or "placemaker"--is open to everyone as it's based on a crowd-sourcing model. Well, finally! Why didn't ya just say that in the first place?
I also did some of my own digging--'cause I'm nothin' if not a good little journalist--which took me down a winding and convoluted road and included a very fruitful connection with Laurel Osman, Director of MiKE. Through documentation she kindly provided--some of which had not been made available on the "'Creational Trails" website until today--it became clear that, while the words "art" and "artists" are employed copiously and the funding breakdown allocates 53% of the $350,000 to Artist Fees, these terms are used in such a broad sense as to encompass any idea that could possibly be birthed from human gray matter.
Ms. Osman also provided me with a document outlining the project leadership and a list of community partners, under the heading of which states, "Throughout the planning process, we have contacted the following individuals to include them in the planning and direction of the grant application. Should we receive the ArtPlace grant, these individuals will form a large network of partners to integrate the work into the communities in both the Harambee/Riverwest neighborhood and in downtown Milwaukee along West Wisconsin Avenue."
In this very long list, I located the names of quite a few members of the artsy community. Needless to say, I was a tad surprised. If local artists had played a role in the development of the program and grant application, why are we experiencing this explosion of frustration?
A quick survey of a representative percentage of the artists listed revealed that some had vague memories of informal conversations that took place in the fairly distant past and some could not recall being contacted at all. Those who did recall chatting about it stated that they were not actively involved the program.
This is problematic for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that the artists surveyed had no idea that their names would be included on a list claiming their participation in a program they're not active in. It also points to the possibility that, unbeknownst to the artists, their names were used to garner the support of others and, perhaps, to pad the list of community partners as a part of the "'Creational Trails" grant application. Since, according to Ms. Osman, "ArtPlace has advised [MiKE] to not release the grant submission to the media," we may never know unless they choose to tell us, and I would request that they do so.
So, with these new questions raised, we must honestly state that the explosion still has merit. It is right and proper when using the names and, by extension, the reputations of artists--or anyone else--to gain favor of any kind, that a clear statement of intent be issued so they may concede or decline. One should never, in all good conscience, surreptitiously utilize the character of others for one's own gain or ends. And in this particular case, those in charge should not downplay the importance of the role of art in the program while taking advantage of the reputable power of experienced and well-known artists. You cannot have it both ways.
Which brings us to the answer of a question that many non-artistic individuals and entities have posed over the years: What do artists want? It's so simple you're gonna give yourself a dope slap when ya read it: Respect. Respect enough to be invited to the table at the beginning of the process in a formal manner. Respect enough to be heard among the first voices during the first discussions. Respect enough not to be last on the list of inclusion, as if the art and the artists are afterthoughts. As productive and valuable members of this city, that is what we want and that is what we deserve.
If the non-artistic .Biz/.Com/.Org/.Gov collaborators of this world want to profit from and claim ownership of all the good that art can bring to a city--bridging diverse neighborhoods, creating safer communities, attracting and retaining the hip crowd with disposable income, building tourism, etc.--then they must respect the vast knowledge and expertise of the artists that make it possible. Not doing so means making any claims of having a "culturally vibrant" city a sham and a farce that no amount of imaginative jargon or marketing can conceal.
Your move, .Biz/.Com/.Org/.Gov.