Saturday, March 28, 2015

Five Minutes with Tom Borrup on the Value of Public Art

Ten days ago I attended a lunch meeting involving a new new initiative to move the markers forward a notch in the development of creative community here in Duluth. The Duluth Public Arts Commission is on the forefront of this year's activity, hoping to build on the work others have done over the past ten years.

Tom Borrup from Creative Community Builders and two members of Forecast Public Art, Carrie Christianson and Bob Lunning, led this first meeting which you can read about here. Afterwards I followed up with Mr. Borrup to help gain a better perspective on the aims of this year's efforts.

EN: What is Creative Community Builders?

Tom Borrup: Creative Community Builders (CCB) is a small consulting practice that includes myself and other planners, designers, artists and arts professionals who team up as needed to assist communities to better appreciate, coordinate and leverage their cultural assets for the purpose of making better places. We work for cities, nonprofits, and foundations across the U.S. In Duluth, CCB has teamed up with Forecast Public Art and a team who bring a complement of skills to help the City develop an arts and culture master plan with a special emphasis on public art and placemaking.

EN: Why is public art important?

TB: Public art -- when understood broadly to include a wide variety of temporary and permanent art in public places — is the most visible and outward expression of a community. It speaks loudly to the identity and values of a city. Art in public places, when done thoughtfully and well, brings people together and makes places more livable and enjoyable. It strengthens our connection to places and to others with whom we share those places. Public art can also draw attention from far and wide to places and stories that have special meaning. It can help our communities build their self-esteem and help each of us to learn and to remember.

EN: How did you come to take an interest in art personally? What's your story? Were you an art student?

TB: From an early age I had a love of photography — both making pictures and looking at pictures. In elementary school I took part in school plays but always behind the scenes, off the stage. I also enjoyed writing as a teen and began shooting and editing movies back in the day of super-8 film. In college I studied film and video making but found myself gravitating to the organizing process and to helping others make their films and get those films seen. That led me into the field of arts and cultural management in the 1980s, raising money and growing nonprofit organizations. I still enjoy taking pictures wherever I go and it helps me better understand places, how those places are made, and how people interact in those places.

EN: What kinds of things can be accomplished by an organization and through the process like this one you have undertaken in Duluth?

TB: Forecast and CCB hope to engage with many people in Duluth who represent the widest spectrum of arts and culture and to work with them to learn, formulate and begin to implement strategies to strengthen the cultural community. This spectrum includes the arts and also the historical and the natural environment. Central to any culture is the relationship to the environment, the foods, the traditions, the stories, and of course how we relate to each other, how we communicate and how we organize. From this, we articulate the special and unique qualities of place. And, already we have seen and heard so much of what is unique and special about Duluth. We believe that only by building on what is unique and special can Duluth express and grow its best qualities, find ways people can best work together so that arts and culture can flourish and bring much value to all aspects of life here.

EN: This isn't your first such project. Can you give an example of another city where your group helped facilitate positive changes that have lasting value?

TB: There are many stories and each, of course, is different. Ten years ago we worked in a small Ohio town called Yellow Springs. A citizen group felt there was something missing in the community and that by building a new performing arts center they could fill that void. After spending time there and convening hundreds of people through an active community process, we realized the last thing the town needed was another building that they couldn’t maintain and operate. They already had several. They didn’t need an arts center, the entire town was already a vibrant center for the arts. We were able to get artists and the Chamber of Commerce to join forces and to revitalize the Arts Council. Already an amazingly active and vital creative community, Yellow Springs needed to appreciate more of what they had and to understand how the arts were central to the local economy and way of life. A small college in town already had a theater building that was near to being condemned. Years later, funds have been raised and the college and community have come together to share that space. They have a performing arts facility and the means to operate it and maintain it. They have a public art program, a newly organized community theater, a renovated art cinema under a new nonprofit umbrella, a highly-active arts council, many new and thriving creative sector businesses, and very importantly, a stronger self-image. They re-invested in what they had and they found new ways to work together.

In a much larger city, San Jose, CA, we spent considerable time between 2007 and 2009 looking at the unique qualities there. It is a city of one million people in one of the wealthiest and most highly educated regions of the world known as Silicon Valley. Arts leaders there were puzzled as to why they couldn’t grow and maintain a symphony, ballet, professional theater, museums and other such institutions. They lost several major arts organizations to bankruptcies before, during, and after those years we worked there. Through extensive research, we found that smaller, participatory, culturally diverse arts organizations were thriving and new ones were starting constantly. Silicon Valley represents the world’s most international, creative, new technology start-up cultures. Industrial-era production and distribution models that focus on Western European cultures were not going to achieve a broad base there like they have in other, older U.S. Cities. San Jose and Silicon Valley arts leaders have now come to terms with their unique and amazingly wonderful culture and have stopped trying to replicate models that seemed to work in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

As you can imagine, Ed, I could rattle on and on, given the time. Nor do you have the space!

EN: There's always more space for a good cause. Thank you for sharing and I know many who will be looking forward to seeing what evolves.

* * * *
After last week's meeting I did speak with a few who attended. There's a general feeling among some that there will be a need to bring a more diverse group of artists and arts representatives. I myself have had a number of ideas in the aftermath and one key observation. There are many groups who are making real contributions in various ways who were not at the table. They're voices will need to be heard. The possibilities can be significant.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it.

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