Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Kate Gilbert: We have to understand, as artists, that there is an audience, and I think that’s a challenge for a lot of visual artists in the beginning.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council. Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Kate Gilbert. She is Executive Director of Now and There. Welcome to our program.
Kate Gilbert: Thanks, Anita. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Anita Walker: We are going to talk about a topic that is extremely popular. People in communities across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts frequently ask us about it, and that’s the topic of public art, whether we’re talking about the murals of Lynn and Worcester, to the efforts here in the City of Boston, to bring vibrancy, and life, and put the art outside where people can accidentally bump into it on purpose. So that’s kind of where you’re sitting with Now and There.
Kate Gilbert: Absolutely. It’s about creating that joy and wonder in our public spaces, and also reflecting the faces of who we are as Bostonians today. The best way to do that right now is outside.
Anita Walker: You know, it’s interesting, because the idea that you don’t have to buy a ticket to experience great art, that’s really what public art is all about. Its first name is “public,” right?
Kate Gilbert: Exactly. You’re the public, and I’m the public, and the artist who made it is the public, and what we’re trying to do in our work is not only expand the outreach of contemporary public art, but also let people understand that they are part of shaping our city through the visuals, through– you know, all of our work has a bit of a public message to it, a little bit of a tooth, and we’re trying to encourage people to get active in their community, as well as, you know, locally, as well as nationally.
Anita Walker: So if you say “public art in Boston” to a lot of people, what leaps to mind is dead guys on horses.
Kate Gilbert: Mm-hm, mm-hm.
Anita Walker: Are you trying to change that?
Kate Gilbert: Absolutely, and that’s the reason that we’re doing temporary work, so all of our projects are temporary. They’re all in the City of Boston. Boston needs us right now. Cambridge and Somerville are way ahead of us. And we do, when we look around, we see a lot of beautiful statues, but they are mostly dead, white men on horses. So we’re doing murals. We’re doing interactive artwork. We’re doing sculpture that you can sit on, for instance, Liz Glynn’s open house, which was out in Kenmore Square last year. The work is supposed to be engaged with. We are supposed to move it.
Anita Walker: Touch it, touch it.
Kate Gilbert: Yes. We’re not looking up at it. If we are, there’s a reason, not because someone’s looking down at us. Yeah, yeah. We’re trying to push the needle. We’re trying to push towards cultural change in the biggest possible way.
Anita Walker: So we like to think this is a podcast for nerds, kind of a how we do it. I have a feeling that we’ve got people listening saying, “Yeah, we’ve been trying to get public art in our city or town. It’s really, really hard. There are so many obstacles.” Talk about what you would consider, like, the three big obstacles to really making a program like this work and how you’re solving them.
Kate Gilbert: Well, I think a lot of it comes down to people don’t understand public art, in the first place, and there’s a little bit of a fear involved in if we put something out there, people are not going to like it. People are going to get hurt on it, so it starts first with a sort of cultural shift. That is happening in Boston, where we are saying “yes” to temporary as a way to try something out, innovate, and with that we’re shaping the way that permits happen. So, yes, the hardest things right now still are fundraising, and permitting, and finding an artist who can, we call it the “unicorn,” who can both make a beautiful, aesthetic work that also is accessible and relates to the community or the context that it’s in. We like to talk about the three pillars of our work as passion, curation, and presence. So passion is building that understanding of public art that creates sort of the demand for more. Curation is about finding those artists, those unicorns, who can make work that stands up in the public. You know, it goes through seasons of Boston winters, and Boston springs, which are, you know, pretty rainy, and also make work that is accessible. I think in the past we’ve seen a lot of works that go out and need sort of the decoder ring to understand what it’s about, especially when we’re talking about contemporary. And so with that, by putting those works in highly visible locations we start to build this demand for more that eventually sort of wears down the challenges that people face today of it’s hard to get a permit. We don’t have enough fundraising. So with our work we’re really trying to demonstrate that public art isn’t scary, and that it’s for all of us.
Anita Walker: What role does the public play in co-authorship? Before the piece is conceived, or even built or made, is there a role for the public?
Kate Gilbert: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: As beyond the recipient and the audience.
Kate Gilbert: Yes, yes, yes. One of the programs that we started recently is a public art accelerator, so we take artists from Greater Boston through this six-month curriculum. It’s really fast, and we make sure that they are working in a neighborhood or with a community group, and it can also be just a park steward, for instance, so that the work isn’t just sort of dropping down into a space. So the public’s role is to go out there and demand this art, to meet with artists. I get a lot of calls from, you know, Fields Corner, and a Main Street. They’re saying, “We want more art. Where do we find artists?” You know this, right? They’re everywhere. We are everywhere, so it does take the public, you know, doing a little bit of work and maybe just sort of stepping outside of your little boundary, or your little box, and saying, “Are you an artist?” But it’s a conversation that sort of germinates and creates this work.
Anita Walker: Talk about a piece of public art that you’ve been involved with that you think is particularly successful, and how did you find success? How do you know?
Kate Gilbert: That’s a million dollar question, you know. How do you measure impact is something that we’re always trying to figure out. Public art isn’t “in the wall”, you know. For these reasons we started the conversation. It’s free, and it’s accessible, but I can’t stand there with a clipboard and count how many people come through. I think the most accessible projects touch peoples’ lives, and I can’t always tell what change has happened, but we hear it through stories. Storytelling is a really great way to find out impact. I think one of our most successful projects is still one of the first projects we did, which was “Public Trust” with Paul Ramirez Jonas. We asked the general public to come and give a promise at a table, one-on-one with local artists. We had 13 local performers who worked under Paul to make this happen. Those promises were put in context with promises taken that day from the headline news. This was during the presidential election. We had some pretty audacious promises.
Anita Walker: Such as.
Kate Gilbert: Oh, Trump promises, you know, whatever. My promise was to love as hard as I work. My husband at the time was like, “Are you going to be home,” because this was a really big project. And at the time, Trump was promising to stand by Kyiv, and the manufacturer was promising to end soggy teabags with a spray, so you can imagine the difference we had happening at that time. The resulting work was a contract that you could take home, as well as this billboard. It was in three spaces. It was in Dudley Square first, and then it was in Kenmore Square, and then in Copley, each for seven days. This billboard was showing promises changing every seven to eight minutes as the public was putting them up. The end is a book where 997 promises live. It’s their fourth transcription of this work, first with the contract, then “at the wall”, then on Instagram, and then in this book. And if we look across the promises are very similar from one to the other, so the promise to be a better mom came up frequently. When I saw it happen in Dudley, it was with a young teen, who was pregnant with her second child. The first had been taken away. When I saw this happen in Copley, it was a woman with many shopping bags sort of running harriedly across and, you know, I don’t know what her life was like, but they are both moms and they’re both promising to be better moms.
Anita Walker: The story you told is really a great story, because it really sort of, I think, expands the dimensions of what people think about public art as not just a static thing, and even expanding the notion of public art is always visual art as an installation.
Kate Gilbert: Mm-hm. I think the best public art needs to be visual and needs to be something that you recognize, so that’s why Liz Glynn’s open house, which was twenty-three pieces of cast concrete furniture in Louis the XIV’s style was so successful, because you could walk up to it. You knew exactly what to do with it. You sit on it, right, or you lie on it. I saw kids doing homework lying down on the couches, but then you can kind of go into the next level, and in that case Liz was talking about the possible second Gilded Age coming, economic inequality, you know, housing. It was all packed into the work, and that is, I think, the most successful public art, and also any kind of other creative form that is trying to disrupt how we sort of walk through and see the world.
Anita Walker: I want to talk a little bit about the artist’s perspective.
Kate Gilbert: Yeah.
Anita Walker: Share with us a little bit about your curriculum, the six-month boot camp to be a public artist.
Kate Gilbert: Well, we go through the basics of how you do your taxes, and not just file, you know, throw your receipts in a shoe box. But we do go into permits, and we start to talk a lot about empathy. You have to understand that the person on the other side of the table is just trying to make sure that there isn’t a fire, you know, that there isn’t, you know, a public catastrophe. And that empathy runs through into how the work is created in context with the site, or the community that it’s part of. We also bring in curators to get outside perspectives, because a lot of art is, you know, myself as a trained painter started in a tiny, little room by myself. I got really used to just listening to myself or, you know, the radio. We have to understand, as artists, that there’s an audience, and I think that’s a challenge for a lot of visual artists in the beginning, and that the work might not be interpreted the way you want it. So we do a lot of work with the accelerator artists on messaging and trying to figure out the content of the work is first. Often times that’s sort of the end result, especially for a very process oriented artist. They kind of get to the end and go, “Oh, right, it’s about green,” you know. And in this case we have to push them through the six-month curriculum where they’re learning permits, and budgeting, and insurance, and all that great stuff, plus knowing what you’re going to do first before you fabricate.
Anita Walker: So you’re an artist.
Kate Gilbert: Yes.
Anita Walker: What made you decide to step out of your own studio and help other artists turn the world into a studio?
Kate Gilbert: Well, you know, I was looking around. I almost left Boston. I have to put that on the table. I almost left. I’ve been here for over twenty-two years, and my husband and I were about to move to New York City. When I look around at what Boston has to offer, and its very small, but strong connected art scene, and the Greater Boston experience, as well, I realized that it was time for me to step up, that everything I wanted in New York was already there but could happen here in Greater Boston, and I really enjoyed getting to know people and meet people. I had spent about four or five years at the Greenway Conservancy in its infancy, so I helped open up the park in 2008, and what I enjoyed so much about that job was just being outside and meeting all kinds of strange, unique, interesting people, and I found studio work to be just not that satisfying anymore. So, yeah, so I had to put my shoulder to this wheel. You know, we are trying to make Boston a public art city. It can be, and it deserves to be, and, yeah, eventually I’ll get back to being a hermit in a studio, perhaps, perhaps.
Anita Walker: So looking in your crystal ball five years from now, what will we see in Boston?
Kate Gilbert: Oh, we’re going to see public art everywhere, temporary public art. I think there will be more permanent work. I think the more that we see temporary examples of projection, social practice work, murals, sculpture, we’ll begin to create an identity for Boston in our public art, Chicago’s big plaza scale work, Philadelphia’s murals. Boston can be– fill in the blank. I don’t know yet, but I think it’s going to be very innovative, and so, you know, I like to say it will be littered with public art. I hope that’s okay with everyone.
Anita Walker: Oh, Kate Gilbert from Now and There working on public art right here in Boston, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Kate Gilbert: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
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