Plains Art Museum

Report date
February 2015

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

Defiant Gardens for Fargo-Moorhead, a series of three innovative, artist-designed collaborative landscape projects, helped to expand the capacity and imagination for public art within Fargo and Moorhead. Underway for five years and moved forward by the Bush Community Innovation Grant support, these three endeavors helped to inspire not only direct participation in these projects but also to disperse interest in public art and enlivened public spaces more broadly through the communities. In Moorhead, the Heritage Garden near the site of the former power plant is becoming the first showcase component of a new River Corridor redevelopment. It also inspired the Northern Plains Botanical Society to propose developing their Japanese garden nearby. Although that project is just getting underway, we know that our work with the City of Moorhead and Moorhead Public Service prepared the ground for their receptivity to new proposals coming from other community groups. In 2014, the City of Fargo established a Public Art Task Force, which Colleen Sheehy was invited to be on, and subsequently established an ordinance to create an Arts and Culture Commission to oversee and advance the development.
2. With the “Living as Form” exhibition in summer 2014, which showcased socially engaged artists and projects from the region and around the world, we employed a Conversation Circle of chairs in the gallery where each Tuesday noon hour, we held a “Lunch Launch.” We invited the public to join an Artist of the Week for these conversations about the issue that person was addressing through a social engagement art project. These informal, artist-led, circle-based conversations drew diverse new audience members and fostered remarkably honest and forthright conversations about important and difficult topics, ranging from water stewardship issues; food and health issues; women’s health care and access to safe, legal abortions; the history and politics of sugar in our agriculture and diets; inclusivity of who feels a sense of belonging and voice in our community; housing and homelessness issues; seniors and memory loss; and more. The artists led with central questions and everyone had a chance to respond and participate. We were really pleased at how these simple conversations fostered a sense of inclusion, receptiveness, respect for everyone’s opinion, and honest and open discussions.
3. The regional symposium, “Central Time Centric: Art and Social Practice in the Midwest,” provided a forum for (among many topics) serious conversations about race, equity, white privilege, and social practice, public art, or creative placemaking work with communities of color. The frank conversations that took place during the symposium were startlingly direct and honest, even somewhat raw. The conversations and challenges raised have helped to shift ideas about artists and institutions working in low-income and ethnically diverse neighborhoods and increased sensitivity about attitudes; questions we need to be asking ourselves; and how funding is distributed among communities, artists, organizations, and consultants. This impact is being felt throughout the region via those in attendance at the symposium, not only for us in Fargo-Moorhead.

Key lessons learned

1. We learned that too much of even a good thing can be counterproductive. In our enthusiasm to share the work of artists from our community and the wider region, we planned an overly ambitious roster of programs with the Living as Form exhibition in summer 2014. We hosted at least one artist in residence each of ten weeks of the summer. Each week involved a project, Tuesday Lunch Launch conversation, and a Thursday Night Live event to share the results of the community project. We generally had good audiences for these public events. However, the planning, management, and promotion of so many events were trying for our staff. Everyone worked incredibly hard to make sure everything went well. We learned don’t have to implement every good idea. It takes time to thoughtfully engage individuals and build a network. Staff sustainability and equanimity are valuable assets needed to innovate and serve the public. We failed to anticipate the amount of care and attention each visiting artist and each audience cultivation effort would require. Lesson learned! Less can be more!
2. Each program or event needs a design for the related social engagement and audience building. When working with new communities, longer lead time and more personal, face-to-face contact are required. We undertook a successful effort to recruit a diverse group of teens to participate in the summer Buzz Lab program with the Pollinator Garden for Plains Art Museum. We held a fun showcase event called “Honey Happenings” in March 2014 to engage families in learning about area efforts and knowledge in bee keeping and gardening. A festive atmosphere included food, art-making, and informational displays in a drop-in evening event. We used this event to promote and recruit applicants for the June Buzz Lab. Our Community Engagement Liaison invited members of the First Sudanese Lutheran Church, and their teens were given applications, learned about the opportunity, and encouraged to apply. Several follow-up meetings were held with the teens to foster their engagement with the Museum and assist with their applications. Four of the teens did become part of our inaugural Buzz Lab.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Collaborative. With the Defiant Garden public art projects, none of them can be achieved exclusively by our organization but require a cross-sector collaborative team to design, problem solve, and implement. We are collaborating with artists, city governments, a public service commission, businesspeople, artists, architects, scientists, engineers, teens, and a variety of community stakeholders.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

Vision and leadership are needed to create an expansive vision of what public life can be and how arts and artists help to advance the collective imagination for public art and public life. Different actors at different points step into the visioning and leadership roles, making the process fluid and open and fostering agency among community partners and participants.

Understanding the problem

More than ever before, we realize the role Plains Art Museum is serving as a space for and hosting of community conversations. There are needs for more spaces like this in our communities, where open and honest conversations can take place about important issues, where people of different backgrounds and values can come together to respectfully discuss issues and experiences. On one hand, we are building new public places outside of the Museum building for the public to convene and see each other as invested citizens and participants in community life. On the other hand, we also are building the Museum itself as a space that can foster community connections similar to what might happen in a church, a marketplace, or a public square.

If you could do it all over again...

Community engagement capacity needs to be ongoing and requires the focused skills of a dedicated staff person and cannot necessarily just be added to an existing staff person’s work plan. Similarly, the public art projects would have benefited from having the funding to hire a project manager that could oversee schedules, contracts, and budget issues.

One last thought

Four things foster great excitement about and sense of fulfillment with our Community Innovation:
1) We are witnessing a shift in our community as it becomes a place where important and frank conversations about resources, access, racial and gender equity, housing, and other difficult and sometimes divisive issues can take place. The work undertaken with the Living as Form exhibition and programs and the Central Time Centric symposium had helped to generate this shift.
2) Plains Art Museum is increasing its capacity to envision our organization as not just a place and a building with art objects on display but as an organization that is about social engagement and collaborative processes. Art is becoming a verb, not only a noun!
3) Our staff is excited about our reflections on our work in summer 2014 and about how we integrate our learning into our ongoing approaches and programs. Rather than having a Niagara Falls of intensive social practice programming in one short period, we want to strive to have a flowing stream of it that is purposeful, manageable, sustainable, and impactful.
4) We are realizing that when change becomes dispersed throughout the community, it becomes