By Todd W. Bressi, public art planner

The Athens Public Art Master Plan process includes a unique feature, three guest artists who will visit Athens for a week at a time to provide insight into opportunities for public art in Athens.

How does bringing artists from St. Paul, Cambridge and elsewhere lead to a plan that is specifically about Athens?

Community engagement is an important part of any public art master plan. In my experience, I like to have broad-ranging conversations with people in the community to learn about their hopes and aspirations for their community, as well as the challenges they see. Community engagement can provide profound insight into the meaning of places in the city, and also shed light on a community’s creative resources. All of this information provides an important context for public art recommendations.

It is not always easy to get people to participate in a public art master plan process, or any planning process for that matter. Artists, however, have their own ways of engaging people in their work, which can be much more interesting to and rewarding for participants than simply attending a public meeting. Artists have their own questions about a community and bring their own insights, beyond which a team of planners would bring on their own. Sometimes it helps most to bring people who live and work elsewhere, because they can bring the freshest perspective on the local scene.

Visiting artists can also provide the community with new insights into what artists do these days. Public art is an ever-expanding field, beyond murals and sculptures and the kinds of artworks that have been commissioned in Athens already. Visiting artists can help provide a broader view on what artists do and how they do it. Artists also bring their own perspective on what makes projects interesting and feasible, which is important information to have when framing the plan.

This is an idea with a growing number of precedents. Just the other day, I learned about the Turn to the River plan, which seeks to connect residents of Terra Haute with the Wabash River through art and design projects. Three environmental artists (Stacy Levy, Buster Simpson, Betsy Damon) were invited for week-long residencies to get to know the community and offer their reflections and recommendations.

So far, we have scheduled two artist visits for the Athens public art master plan. Next week, Seitu Jones, from St. Paul, will visit Athens to explore his interests in urban food systems as a lens on public health, culture and community. Matthew Mazzotta, from Cambridge, Mass., will visit Athens in December to set up “outdoor living rooms” and community conversations that explore public art and civic space in Athens.

You can follow their work by watching this blog and subscribing to Athens Cultural Affairs Commission social media.

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