Get Inspired

Incorporating the Arts Into Parks


Ever since works of art have been created, whether they're paintings, poems or photographs, nature has been a major inspiration: maple leaves exploding in autumn colors; thunderheads marching across an angry sky; a monarch butterfly dangling from a wildflower. So it only makes sense that art would be a valuable asset to our modern day parks, and could help attract people to these spaces. This could come in many forms: public art installations and art walks; outdoor drawing or photography classes; concerts, plays or storytelling events; local artists painting park benches or murals. Artwork can reflect a community's culture and history.

In Washington State, Amy McBride, Tacoma Arts administrator, feels that they—and other parks and municipalities—benefit from providing a platform and nourishing opportunities for creativity to thrive, using the arts as a tool to affect community and economic development. "The arts, and artists, in all forms bring so much to our communities. The end result, i.e., performances, public art, exhibits, etc., bring vibrancy and interest. They can be destinations that draw tourists and consequently money to our city. They create places that people want to be."

Tacoma has earned a reputation for being a creative city and cultural destination, even being named "one of the top 13 art trips you need to take" by Forbes Travel Guide. McBride said they have a diverse collection of public art, with each project being developed in response to a particular site, the goals of the project and the community involved. "The intent is that there will be something for everyone within the collection. Over the years, we have community clamoring for art in their areas."

And while public art doesn't directly generate revenue per se, McBride explained that it does attract people. "The Chihuly Bridge of Glass, for example, is a huge draw. Public art adds to the mix of Tacoma being a destination for the arts, so I think it does draw people and gets press attention and that brings dollars. Public art is also a field that pays artists, the engineers, fabricators, lighting folks, material providers, etc., so it is a little economic engine in its own right."

McBride points to a 2016 survey which showed that the nonprofit arts and culture sector in Tacoma generated $137 million in economic impact. "It's an important asset in our community to leverage."

The City of Tacoma's Office of Arts and Cultural Vitality manages the public art program for Metro Parks Tacoma (MPT). The MPT board passed a resolution in 2014 allocating 1 percent of capital construction costs for the creation of public art, the "one-percent for art" policy. "So projects greater than $5 million will definitely have artwork in them," McBride said. "The rest of the projects contribute 1 percent of their construction costs to a pool and we—committees and stakeholders—identify which projects throughout the system make sense based on criteria such as: what projects can be best leveraged (partnerships), where are there current gaps in artwork throughout the city, and what stories can be told?"

Ever since works of art have been created, whether they're paintings, poems or photographs, nature has been a major inspiration.

If you head north out of Tacoma on I-5, you'll soon reach another city with an exemplary public art program. Seattle was one of the first U.S. cities to adopt a percent-for-art ordinance, doing so in 1973. Their program specifies that 1 percent of eligible city capital improvement project funds be set aside for the commission, purchase and installation of artworks in a variety of settings. Their collection includes more than 400 permanently-sited works and nearly 3,000 portable works. And the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture has partnered with Seattle Parks & Recreation (PARKS) to implement the Arts in Parks (AIP) program, with funding coming from the Seattle Park District.

Jenny Crooks is the project manager for AIP, and she explained how the program supports neighborhood arts councils, community-based groups and individual artists seeking to activate Seattle parks in economically-constrained areas. The program supports "new and established festivals or events and temporary art installations that promote arts and cultural participation, celebrate diversity, build community connections and activate parks through arts and culture, while connecting with under-resourced communities," Crooks said. This includes low-income residents, people with disabilities, immigrant and refugee communities and communities of color.

AIP oversees a grants program, which Crooks said was designed to be as accessible as possible so they could support the wide range of arts and cultural activities happening within diverse communities, with PARKS staff identifying parks that have been underutilized or had a history of negative activity. "We also created funding levels and designed the guidelines based on feedback from our community to encourage new and established, large and small, single and multi-session events and projects," she said. The program also supports temporary art installations.


According to Crooks, PARKS staff promotes the grant program through ethnic media outreach and community networks. The guidelines are translated into the top four most-used languages in Seattle, plus English, and they've worked with community liaisons when translation assistance is needed. "As part of the selection process, we have community panelists representing the diversity of our community in age, geography, involvement in arts and cultural diversity serve on a selection panel," Crooks said, adding that the panelists participate in a racial equity and implicit bias training prior to reviewing the applications.

All events supported through the program are free to the public, further promoting accessibility and participation. Some of the many outdoor events include "Guelaguetza," a celebration of Oaxacan history, dance and music. "Salmon People Teach Us" is an art installation and storytelling event featuring regional Native stories about ecological stewardship. "African Village Experience" presents traditional African dancing, singing, drumming, masks, and arts & crafts. "Paint & Smoothies" has participants recreating a painting led by a teaching artist while enjoying a nutritious and refreshing smoothie. There's a public art bike tour, Shakespeare plays, ethnic dance classes, poetry workshops, intergenerational art workshops and programs featuring artists with disabilities. For kids there's Toddler Hip Hop and a Children's International Film Festival. And there are art installations at various parks and playgrounds around Seattle.

As arts programs in schools are being eliminated or dramatically reduced, many park districts are helping to pick up the slack by offering a wide variety of educational arts programs and lessons. Other organizations are helping to fill this gap as well. The 1,700-acre Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., was founded in 1922 by Joy Morton, who also founded the Morton Salt Company in Chicago. His father, J. Sterling Morton, was the founder of Arbor Day. The Arboretum's mission is to collect and study trees, shrubs and plants from around the world for people to study and enjoy. It's a not-for-profit charitable organization, offering memberships and open to the public.

As arts programs in schools are being eliminated or dramatically reduced, many park districts are helping to pick up the slack by offering a wide variety of educational arts programs and lessons.

The Morton Arboretum has educational offerings for kids and adults, including nature photography and filming, watercolors, drawing nature, Japanese flower arranging and beginners nature-art workshops. Brooke Pudar coordinates learning programs at Morton, and she said the year-round programs are very popular. "Favorites include the "Under the Microscope" classes where students can draw or paint insect and plant specimens from the Arboretum's collections." As far as public parks looking to enhance their educational offerings, Pudar advises that they think of opportunities that are unique to their site and that participants can't easily do elsewhere.

Lesley Kolaya is manager of youth and family programs at the Arboretum, and she observed that art and nature seem to go hand-in-hand as nature often provides the inspiration for creativity. "We offer a lot of process-based craft projects in our Children's Garden. Kids are encouraged to express themselves artistically through various drop-in activities such as our current Build-A-Tree eco workshop. We place glue, scissors and a variety of recycled materials such as cereal boxes, plastic caps, scraps of yarn, egg cartons, etc., on the tables for kids to create their own imaginative masterpieces."

According to Jenelle Hardtke, special events manager at the Morton Arboretum, the Arboretum has a long history of nature and art; the Morton family collected fine art. "Art is a way for visitors of all ages to experience and engage with trees in a different and very approachable way."


The Arboretum hosts many art-related events, including a wine and art walk, winter chamber concerts, monthly book discussion group featuring works relating to natural history, ecology and gardens, a holiday exhibit of natural history art, culinary events, a visiting photographer series and Wednesday night summer concerts. The Glass Pumpkin Patch features glass-blown art. Thursday family nights in the summer feature crafts, live music and a bilingual sing-along.

You can also walk along with the action of your favorite literary tales during Walking Plays at the Morton Arboretum. "We typically see that at least 50 percent of our show's attendees are non-members," Hardtke said. "Visitors have shared with us that they really enjoy the combination of an outdoor natural setting paired with a quality theatre performance."

This year they partnered with ArranmoreArts Professional Ensemble on the Walking Plays, depicting the stories of the Brothers Grimm. The plays are written by the ensemble's executive director and performed by members of the organization. "We strive to present performances that appeal to a wide range of ages," said Hardtke, adding that many of their events and programs are good revenue-generators for the Arboretum.

In 1872, Yellowstone officially became the nation's first National Park, signed into law by President Grant. Ever since then, artists have found inspiration in the sights and sounds of these national treasures, helping to document and preserve them by sharing their creations. Today there are more than 400 units in the National Park Service (NPS) and more than 100 Artist-in-Residence (AIR) programs at NPS sites across the United States. Each site oversees its own unique program and application process. Residencies are typically two to four weeks and include on-site lodging. Some offer stipends or other incentives. Artists are often invited to participate in park programs by sharing their art with the public. There are programs for painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, printmakers, dancers, potters, photographers, videographers and poets.


One site offering the AIR program can be found in Connecticut at the Weir Farm National Historic Site (Weir Farm NHS), the only NPS unit dedicated to American painting. The park is named for Julian Alden Weir, America's most beloved Impressionist, who lived on the site from 1882 to 1919. Many art colleagues visited him here, painting numerous masterpieces of the rocky landscape. A long and arduous process was undertaken by preservation groups looking to protect the site from developers, and in 1990, Weir Farm NHS was officially established.

The 68-acre Weir Farm NHS includes a visitor center, trails, meadows, stone walls, historic gardens and the Weir house, studio and pond. Kristin Lessard is an employee of NPS, working at Weir Farm NHS as the chief of Interpretation, Education and Volunteer Services. She described how the artistic tradition started by Weir continues today through a variety of programs. "The park offers free-to-use art supplies during visitor center hours, hosts an annual Art in the Park contest and festival, offers Impressionist painting and photography workshops to the public and works with partners to offer art therapy programs."

Lessard said that due to the national park designation, Weir Farm NHS can attract a broader audience, with visitors coming from around the world, sharing their excitement for learning about American art history and the three generations of artists that called Weir Farm home. "From historic restoration work on the landscape and grounds to the work of the park rangers who share the stories and legacy of Weir Farm artists, visitors and artists are provided the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the artists in a preserved landscape."

The Weir Farm Art Center (WFAC) is a nonprofit organization that manages the adjacent Weir Preserve. They also partner with Weir Farm NHS to help return historic artwork to the site through donations and to run their Artist-in-Residence program. Michelle Stewart, digital outreach and alumni liaison at WFAC, said that since 1998, 220 alumni artists have participated in the AIR program from throughout the country, as well as from Tunisia, Germany, Australia, England, India, Ireland, South Africa and The Netherlands.


WFAC encourages applications not only from painters, but a wide range of artists. "We accept professional and established artists as well as emerging artists that are either in or have completed a graduate program," Stewart said. The program provides living space in an historic on-site cottage, and use of a large new studio equipped with various art supplies. No financial stipend is available, though some artists have secured other grants to help finance their participation. WFAC does not tend to acquire new work by AIR participants, though on occasion Weir Farm NHS has, recently acquiring a collection of paintings done by an artist during her residency.

Stewart explained that a three-member jury selects the artists. "The jurors we select tend to come from the art world, including museum curators, gallery owners, art history professors, graphic designers, etc. We like to change the jury up on a yearly basis to keep the viewpoints fresh and exciting."

Stewart added that many of the AIR programs are managed in partnership with other organizations, rather than run strictly by the NPS site.

For many years, the St. Charles, Ill., park district has been presenting free concerts at Lincoln Park every Thursday throughout the summer, and more and more communities are following suit with their own concert series. These are typically geared toward families, a place to mingle and socialize while the kids dance and play.

Erika Young, public relations and marketing manager for the St. Charles Park District, said their concerts are extremely popular, with 800-plus people typically showing up, though certain acts may draw closer to 1,500.

Vendors pay a fee to sell hot dogs, ice cream and pizza. "Each of them keeps 100 percent of their sales," Young said, "and their fee helps cover the cost of the event."

Local sponsors help offset the cost as well. "Recreation staff books the entertainment each March. We choose depending on cost, band popularity and music type. There's an event held each year in November called SPRA where entertainment businesses come showcase their talents to area park districts."

Across town in St. Charles, at Mount Saint Mary Park, the Sculpture in the Park program takes place. Young said it's been a prime example of inter-agency cooperation, as the park district partners with the nonprofit St. Charles Park Foundation to manage and promote the acclaimed annual event, made possible by contributions from corporate sponsors and individual donors. Local, regional and national sculptors are featured.


"Sculpture in the Park was designed to create awareness of the sculptural arts and the synergy that can be achieved when such works are placed within the natural beauty of a park environment," Young said. "Such works often interpret elements of nature in both abstract and realistic ways, providing innumerable opportunities for enjoyment, reflection and thought-provoking discussion."

Back in Tacoma, McBride said that if an agency is looking to increase their commitment to art, they should commit the resources to hiring arts professionals and administrators to run their programs. "I know that seems daunting to folks, but a good arts administrator can do so much with modest means. Being creative and knowing how to work with artists and the municipality or agency is a skill set that really helps programs to grow and thrive."

She's surprised the arts don't play a larger role in many park systems since they have tremendous assets—such as parks and community centers—that lend themselves to art including programming, education, exhibitions and public art.

"Art in parks is a natural fit."