Feature Article - October 2018
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Get Inspired

Incorporating the Arts Into Parks

By Dave Ramont

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.