Balancing public art and public space with what the public wants

When you go to an event called “Who shapes the city? A conversation about public space and the arts” and it’s held in a PAFA gallery upstairs from a major exhibition celebrating the 30th anniversary of Mural Arts and Jane Golden is in the audience, you could be forgiven for one slight eye roll and a few preconceived notions of what the answers are going to be.

Except that the excellent panel which gathered to chat with moderator Jeremy Nowak, interim director of Art Place and former president of the William Penn Foundation and CEO of The Reinvestment Fund (TRF) in Philadelphia, only occasionally directly explored the connections promised in the title.

In addition, prompted by Nowak’s sharp questions and observations, the panelists — Farah Jimenez, president of People’s Emergency Center,  Carmen Febo-San Miguel, executive director of Taller Puertorriqueño, and Harris Steinberg, executive director of Penn Praxis —  also touched upon politics, public transit, civic engagement, land use, gentrification, regionalism, and seemingly every other ingredient in the oleo of contemporary urban planning.

It was left to Golden, the Mural Arts executive director, who sat in the audience of 60 or so attendees, to, at the invitation of Nowak, pull out the relevant pieces of each panelist’s comments and assemble them into a cohesive mosaic.

Mural Arts looked forward to working on a project with Penn Praxis at Bartram’s Garden that would involve community input, she said. And, like Taller Puertorriqueño, she said, Mural Arts was about ensuring that communities weren’t marginalized and were represented fairly. Too, Mural Arts was interested in making art a part of projects that sought to reinvigorate large, desolate parcels — just as Jimenez would like to do.

Nowak began the event by asking each of the three panelists a different question. How did Steinberg reconcile his own design sensibilities with what the public wanted? The Penn Praxis director traced the trajectory of his career, moving from being an architect to working with public constituents on large civic projects, saying that for public works to be authentic, planners have to do as much listening as they do talking.

And could Febo-San Miguel talk a little about the importance of cultural identity to community renewal? Certainly she could, recalling the moment when she realized that ethnic artistic expression could carve out a space for disenfranchised immigrants. What about Jimenez, as her agency tries to take on bigger projects, how can it use art to instill a sense of place? By concentrating on commercial corridors and improving connections, she responded.

Bouncing off the myriad of themes expressed by the panelists, Nowak next asked them to delve a little deeper into the tradeoffs that they’ve experienced. Steinberg pointed out that while past administrations drove development from a deal-making perspective, this one — by appointing Alan Greenberger, a former architect, as its economic development guru — has chosen to include other elements, including aesthetics, into the equation.  Jiminez countered that transactional development has some advantages — too often too much deliberation leaves the city in the position of being “weak at the knees,” she observed.

Finally, Nowak asked each to consider what changes they would affect should they be gifted with a “magic wand.” Jiminez said she’d turn the 14-acre site of the shuttered University City High School and use it as a jumping off point to create a new neighborhood. Febo-San Miguel would advocate for a “more connected” city served by better transit options so that residents could visit and get to know each other’s communities. Steinberg echoed that sentiment and essayed brief comments on Praxis’ pet project (reconnecting the Delaware River to the city) but ultimately chose to emphasize the asset-rich Fairmount Park, emphasizing its network of under-utilized creeks.

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