Celebratory Public Art

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Not all visual art is locked away in museums or galleries. Some of the most memorable pieces of art, think the Statue of Liberty or the Bean, are public works. Here at Northwest, murals, paintings, and sculptures left by former students and faculty are everywhere. Public art is an interesting place to learn more about the (sometimes complicated) history of a people or place. 

Public art stands out from other mediums in some ways. “What public art does is it includes your body,” says Julia F., Northwest School art teacher. “I think with art in general, it’s a language.” Julia has been teaching this language at the school for six years and is a practicing studio artist. This form of visual art also communicates across language barriers. Julia emphasizes that public art tells a story.

Public statues and memorials are a powerful way to tell a story of a person or an event. A piece will also reflect the experiences and feelings of the artist and others who supported its making… and unfortunately their biases as well. The story that is told in the end “depends on who makes it, who funds it, who creates, whose vision it is… it becomes very embedded,” says Julia. Many public monuments celebrate harmful figures in history. What the impacts of this are and what to do with these works of public art are being talked about across the country right now, especially with Confederate statues. 

Public art is also a big deal at the Northwest School. Murals and graphics are all around campus. Maybe you’ve seen the quotes on the main building stairs, or the murals in the upper hall for Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. All of the art up on our walls tells stories. Some are hidden. Kevin Alexander, Dean of Students, talked to me about the decal of a tent and campfire in the main hall to the right of the doors. It doesn’t make much sense now, but when it was put up it was for Glenn S., former outdoor program director, who used the office next door before it was passed on to DEI faculty Amina Loftin and Catalina Martinez. Public art works hold pieces of the time they were put up and the people who made them. Northwest used to have a dedicated public art class, and currently the Making Monuments summit run by Julia and humanities teacher Kate B. is about to start its second year. Last year’s monuments are up around the building, or you can find them at www.justmonuments.com. Making Monuments is relatively new to them, but Kate and Julia have been friends for years. “The summit’s based off of a… probably fifteen year conversation,” Julia said, pausing to think back. 

Needless to say, conversations about public art are relevant on a local level as well as nation-wide. Many people don’t know that Seattle had its own Confederate memorial all the way up until 2020. It was put up by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1926 in Lake View Cemetery, which is privately owned but is right by Volunteer Park and open to the public. It was made from a slab of granite shipped from Stone Mountain, Georgia. If that name sounds familiar, it may be from history class. Stone Mountain was the birthplace of the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Campaigns for the memorial’s removal had been going for decades.

Seattle has many other works of public art that choose and create their stories in different ways. We were one of the first big cities to start a Percent for Public Art program, second only to Philadelphia requiring building projects to put aside 1% of their budgets for art. The AIDS Memorial Pathway is just a short walk from Northwest, located around the northern end of Cal Anderson Park. There’s also an augmented reality part of it you can see if you have your phone on you. It was built to honor and celebrate victims of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The art on the Pathway was built by multiple artists from diverse backgrounds, partly initiated in response to a different art installation that reinforced harmful narrative in 2015. The Tacoma Art Museum had put together a collection called Art AIDS America which left out the people most impacted by the epidemic, stigma, and inadequate health support. Five out of the one hundred seven artists featured were Black, while the Black community is extremely overrepresented in AIDS deaths and the HIV+ community. The Tacoma Action Collective worked tirelessly to demand change with the Stop Erasing Black People campaign and a die-in (lying down as if dead to disrupt and protest) at the museum. “#StopErasingBlackPeople is a call for the entire public to challenge the false histories that are being fed to us,” says the TAC in an interview with The New Inquiry. Their work was a large part of the creation of the AMP which puts forward a different narrative that gives the microphone, or you could say speakers, over to a group of artists that comes closer to truly representing the HIV+ community, giving them the space to tell their own stories. The AMP contrasts the Confederate Memorial in almost every way. For one, it’s colorful and has multiple parts spread out rather than one looming center. It contains symbols of music and protest among many more. The different elements are angled in ways that force viewers to walk around to see all of the images and read all of the words. It’s an immersive experience that remembers and amplifies the voices of people impacted by AIDS and the failure of the nation to take action. I can’t do it justice just by writing about it so I encourage you to go check it out yourself! More information about the memorial, artists, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic are at theamp.org

These two very different examples of public art celebrating people shows the power of storytelling with art. Public art can perpetuate harmful narratives about white supremacist figures. On the flip side, it can also raise up marginalized stories. Julia says that public art is an important part of activism because “the more ways that social justice can be integrated, spoken about, lived in,” the better. Art like the Pathway is meant for anyone and everyone who walks by and it gives a platform for people to tell a new story that challenges the dehumanizing stigma around HIV/AIDS and paint their own portrait of themselves and their communities. The world of art institutions has made important shifts towards centering more marginalized voices in the past few decades. Though it’s important to be on the lookout for performative activism and tokenization of BIPOC artists and other historically marginalized identities, and art institutions are far from perfect, more and more artists are able to uplift and challenge harmful narratives.  For example, say, the idea that the Confederacy was a noble war over state’s rights rather than a fight to preserve a violent white supremacist system of slavery. Art can rupture these embedded stories and keep them in people’s thoughts and conversations, as Julia sums it up. 

I also want to address that “art” does not have a set definition. Tons of art falls outside of primarily white fine arts institutions. Many artists historically and now are intentionally locked out of these. Art also sometimes lies outside of legal systems as a whole which adds another layer to the meaning to think about. This is especially true in public art. 

There is no one size fits all answer to the question of what people and events should and shouldn’t be remembered in celebratory public art. There’s no set answer to what to do with existing harmful art either. What is certain is that the communities harmed and marginalized must be involved in the decisions around art. 

Some call for monuments and statues that celebrate oppression to be given to museums. Some people add more art on top or in conversation with the piece. The taking down or changing of a monument can be considered art in itself. Seattle’s Confederate memorial is no longer standing. Calls for that went unanswered for decades, and in the end the different organizations involved never took action. Local community members knocked the memorial over in 2020 and the plot has been empty since. The response to the Tacoma Action Collective was not entirely positive, but as well as that they say, “We’ve seen people support what we’re doing, and start conversations around the issues we’ve brought up.” Uplifting voices and stories gives a fuller picture of history and society and gets these issues into conversation. Every piece of art tells a specific story reflecting both the subject matter, environment, and people behind it. It’s important to be aware of that, what may be left out, and the impacts are on those viewing it. “[Visual] art … it’s not verbal, it’s not written, it’s not music so it’s this visual language that I think it’s really powerful. I think it’s more powerful than we give it credit. It’s all around us all the time,” says Julia. This power can be used for all sorts of things. Let’s continue towards using it for social change.

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