Transcript – Episode 15

Announcer: This podcast is a project of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency committed to building creative communities and inspiring creative minds.

Jason Weeks: Before an artwork ever gets made, we have professional art conservation specialists talking with the artists, trying to understand the best way we can carry out the artist’s idea and intent and the things that are going to allow the artwork to be in good shape for a long, long time.

Anita Walker: Hi.  I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.”  Jason Weeks, Executive Director of the Cambridge Arts Council, is with us today.  Welcome, Jason.

Jason Weeks: Hi, Anita.  I’m so happy to be here.  Thank you.

Anita Walker: You know, I love coming to Cambridge, mainly because there is so much to look at and see, and one day, you took me on one of the best tours ever of probably the largest collection of public art in the city, just about almost anywhere.

Jason Weeks: Well, certainly in the New England area.  We do have colleagues in cities like Seattle and Chicago and New York that have larger collections.  Philadelphia Mural Program alone I think has something like five or seven hundred murals, but as far as the collection of contemporary public art in New England, we certainly have the largest, and the beautiful thing is it’s expanding all the time.

Anita Walker: So, I’m coming to Cambridge for the very first time.  You gotta look around.  You gotta open your eyes.  You have to be a little bit of an explorer–

Jason Weeks: –that’s exactly right–

Anita Walker: –give us a little bit of a hint on how to discover this art.

Jason Weeks: That’s exactly right, particularly these days.  We tend to be buried in our smart devices and thinking about our next steps or picking our children up from school or commuting– getting to the next commute, and if you stop for just a moment, you don’t have to take more than a few seconds to scratch that surface and to see something surprising, and it’s something that has been developed in partnership with our artists.

Anita Walker: How did this get started, and why is it such a value to Cambridge?

Jason Weeks: Well, it’s a great story, actually.  We had a muralist that was at Mass College of Art and Design who was living in Cambridge who got a grant to basically produce a mural on the side of a building, and people got so excited about that.  One of the great hallmarks of public art, besides the fact, as we know, that it exists out in the public realm, is it’s done with community interaction, deep community interaction in most cases, and in most cases where it’s successful.  And so, in this particular case, residents and visitors, everybody got so captured by the opportunity that they saw happening right in front of them that they actually lobbied the city council, and we developed, all the way back in 1978, a formal ordinance that requires by law that we include artists in the thinking and the practice of designing and building a city.

Anita Walker: Say more about that.  That is an awesome and really forward-thinking idea.  In the 1970s?

Jason Weeks: In 1970s, late 1970s.  It was one of the earlier programs, and, of course, it came at about the same time that the Arts on the Line program came, and, of course, that’s well known to folks as Art in Transit, Public Art in Transit, as we expanded the Red Line, what was called the Northwest Corridor, but it basically was Kendall Square up through Alewife.  As the new stations beyond Harvard Square were being built, we brought artists into that process through the Cambridge Arts Council and the MBTA and the DOT and also federal money at that point in time.  All of that created the first opportunity for Public Art in Transit and, importantly, on the country’s oldest public transit system.  So, that captured the imagination.  Then imagine this mural aboveground, and suddenly we were off and running, and the city and our city council and our city administration were incredibly visionary at that time to actually find a way, a mechanism, a city tool, an ordinance in this particular case, that actually, as I said, legally requires us to make sure that we’re including the voices and the creative direction of artists and how we actually grow the city.

Anita Walker: I can imagine the two big fears:  one, what if people don’t like the art, and two, how we gonna take care of it?

Jason Weeks: Yeah.  Both happen all the time, of course.  The first– highly subjective– art is always highly subjective, whether it’s behind the velvet rope and it’s in a museum, or whether it’s on the walls of your home, or whether you see it out in a plaza or an open space or a streetscape.  Everybody’s gonna have their opinions about it, but I don’t think anybody would argue that it’s a good idea to have a creative opportunity for folks that think differently than we do.  And so, I think when we turn those artists loose in a setting like this, with engineers and architects and landscape architects and city departments and designers, we come up with a better solution than we would have come up with without them being part of that conversation.  So, it is highly subjective, yes, but I don’t think we’d argue that it’s a really terrific opportunity to have creativity be part of something as mundane as how we actually develop a road or a sidewalk or a park or open space or building.

Anita Walker: And it’s not necessarily more expensive.

Jason Weeks: It’s not necessarily more expensive, and particularly when you have a mechanism like a Percent-for-Art ordinance.  I mean, imagine one percent of a construction budget for a project.  These days, we see enormous construction budgets for projects, not just in Cambridge, but all around the world because of the price of materials.  One percent is typically a very, very small drop in the bucket, but it ensures that each and every time we do this, and we practice this art of public design and building, that we’re involving this oasis. And so, I think the return on that investment is absolutely magical in most cases.

Anita Walker: Do you have any sort of sense of exactly how many pieces of public art are in Cambridge that you have to take care of?  ‘Cause I wanna get to the second question is how do you take care of it all?

Jason Weeks: Sure, sure.  Yes, we have– these days, it’s about 285 unique art works or objects that we have that are part of the city-owned collection.  Now, bear in mind, in Cambridge, we’re sort of twice blessed, in a sense, because of our university communities and partners, and, as you probably know, MIT has a Percent-for-Art Program on their campus, and so, as they build and develop the campus, which we see happening right in front of our eyes this very day, they’re including public art in that process as well, and similarly, we’re having conversations with partners at Harvard University and now, of course, with Lesley’s College or Art and Design right in Porter Square.  There’s just tremendous opportunity for public/private partnerships, but with regards to the ones that are city owned, those are the ones that are on city property, on public space, and that we, as the Cambridge Arts Council, are very much required to caretake for.  We have been doing this, as I said, since the late 1970s, so some of the artworks have been out there for decades, and so, we have to make sure that they’re true to the artists’ original intent, that things like public safety are taken into account, because, imagine, these are objects that belong to us.  We can touch them, we can sometimes climb on them, we can have a tactile experience with them in a way that we don’t in other types of settings, and that takes an effect.  Of course, here we are sitting in New England and Boston and Cambridge, and the weather also takes a heavy toll on anything that’s in an outdoor setting.  So, we have to think about all of those types of variables when we’re caretaking for the public art.  But we’ve come up with what we think is a terrific plan for doing that.  Of course, there’s routine maintenance and assessment.  We look at all of the artworks in the collection on a regular basis, annually and every two years, we’re touching and looking at and doing reports on all of the art projects in the city, and then we’re also thinking about what might need deeper work, what might need more intense focus and work and resource to make sure that it stays in good shape.  And then I think the most important thing we could possibly do and the thing that I would encourage any organization, city, university or otherwise that does this type of work to consider is a pre-conservation review.  I don’t think anybody’s sort of confused by conservation and maintenance.  Those are pretty straightforward, not necessarily the manner in which it’s done, but the idea that it’s necessary.  But a pre-conservation review was not something that was done until truly, probably the late 1990s and into the 2000s, and it’s just the idea that before an artwork ever gets made, we have professional art conservation specialists talking with the artists, talking with the design teams and the fabricators, trying to understand the best way we can carry out the artist’s idea and intent with the most sophisticated materials, and the things that are going to allow the artwork to be in good shape for a long, long time.

Anita Walker: This is somewhat of a unique program.

Jason Weeks: It is.  It was developed early on by Rika Smith McNally as part of the work that we do in Cambridge, and we’ve talked about this at conferences, we talked about this at recent American for the Arts conferences on a panel, we’ve done different exhibitions about the science behind art conservation, and we actually wrote about it in a book on contemporary public art and conservation and maintenance.  And I’ll tell you, with regards to this, I think people are fascinated to learn more, because it’s such an important step that we can take, because, imagine, many of the artists that we might work with don’t necessarily know the most sophisticated painting methods or the most sophisticated types of materials to use.  They have the idea, they have the creative concept, but if they’ve never fabricated that before or worked with the fabricator to make it real in the world, then they might not know the different mechanisms that allow us to prepare it best for a long and fruitful future.

Anita Walker: So, what you’re really doing, though, is engaging the artist at the front end to be your partner in making sure that it is a long-lasting and a sustainable part of the landscape of Cambridge.

Jason Weeks: That’s absolutely right.  It is a partnership with the artists, it’s a partnership with all of the folks that are involved in developing the artwork to give it the best chance of being with us for many, many years to come so that we can enjoy it and engage with the public art.

Anita Walker: Do you have funds set aside with the installation, or does part of the expense and cost of a public art installation include maintenance funding, or does that come–

Jason Weeks: –yes–

Anita Walker: –from someplace else?

Jason Weeks: Yes, and this pre-conservation review actually makes certain that that gets done.  That’s one of the great things, that no artwork will get made in the City of Cambridge without a detailed maintenance plan, and I would encourage partners all around the Commonwealth and in other places, if they’re not already doing that, to consider that, because for years and years and years, artworks got made.  You think back in the earthworks movement and in other things in the 1960s and ’70s, not thinking what’s gonna happen 50 years down the road, 60 years down the road, and yet, here we are, and so, it’s on us– it’s incumbent upon us to take good care of these things, and so, a pre-conservation review and this type of ongoing maintenance gives us the best possible chance of getting that done.  The other thing that we don’t think about a lot related to this art conservation is it also dovetails into what we’re talking a lot about in the Commonwealth is STEAM, creativity, critical thinking, the things that go into all of the focus areas and acronym STEAM, there’s a lot of material science behind art conservation.  And so, it’s a way to bring students and young people along, it’s a way to make sure, as I talked about before, that we’re doing the best possible job as stewards for this work, but the whole idea that we can talk about science in a very interesting, exciting and real-world practice, and you can actually see the results of that right in front of your eyes, I think is also very exciting.

Anita Walker: Stepping back, you do have an exemplary public art program in Cambridge.  You can see it when you walk up and down the streets, but even to the point where you’re understanding that you’re protecting and preparing this art so that it is delivering into the future and for generations who aren’t even here to see it erected in the first place.  What is the impact of being a city that embraces public art?  What does it mean beyond the esthetic?

Jason Weeks: Well, I think it sends a message to our residents in Cambridge, to visitors in the city, and to folks all around the state and all around the country and perhaps even all around the world that we value the voice of the artist, that we want the voice of the artist and the creative input of our artists to be part of how we operate in this city.  So, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we do that in the most strategic way possible and that as things do get created, we’re caring for them so that generations from now, young people, seniors and everybody in between can continue to enjoy this and recognize Cambridge as a leader in this process.

Anita Walker: Exemplary work.  Jason Weeks showing you a bit of his creative mind out loud.  Thanks for joining us today.

Jason Weeks: Thanks so much, Anita.

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