FORWARD: Issue #2: Transportation

Bringing Creativity to DOTs

After countless conversations with their new colleagues at WSDOT, artist-in-residence team Kelly Gregory and Mary Welcome developed several projects to help staff bring their full creative selves to work, brainstorm more effectively, and learn more about the complex work their fellow workers are routinely engaged in. This piece, titled This Book is a Bridge, chronicled the artists' journey, set the stage for future creative dialogue, and presented a number of projects that address common WSDOT themes along the way. It is a social sculpture and also a 270-page full-color publication. Photo courtesy Mary Welcome and Kelly Gregory.

Artist-in-residence programs bring creative approaches to government agencies

Tasked with planning, designing, constructing, and maintaining their jurisdictions’ transportation infrastructure, departments of transportation (DOTs) are large bureaucratic agencies. Municipal DOTs manage a huge amount of public space that must accommodate a wide range of modes of travel while also supporting recreation, shopping, and many other facets of life. State DOTs must manage how people travel long distances on roads that often serve as both long-haul routes and rural main streets, balancing the needs of rural, suburban, and urban residents as well as out-of-state visitors. DOTs are setting the stage for a future that includes autonomous (driverless) vehicles, while making sure that old infrastructure is maintained and snow is plowed from roadways. In other words, DOTs routinely deal with the mundane while also preparing for an as-yet-unrealized future.

Because of these innate conflicts, and because of their massive size, DOTs are not always the quickest institutions to innovate. To bring a more creative approach to their work, a few municipal DOTs, and lately two state DOTs, have launched artist-in-residence programs. These programs have a long history, with Mierle Laderman Ukeles providing the first modern example. Since 1977, Ukeles has served as an artist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation, inspiring dozens of similar programs in police departments, planning departments, and public health agencies, as well as departments of transportation.

Read on for examples from three different government artist-in-residence programs, including the two new state residencies.

Washington State DOT Artists-in-Residence

Artist team Kelly Gregory and Mary Welcome held the first roles as artists-in-residence in a state agency

Location: Washington State

WSDOT artists-in-residence Mary Welcome and Kelly Gregory created a variety of final products designed to enable conversations among WSDOT staff and transportation professionals. Photo courtesy Mary Welcome and Kelly Gregory.

Beating Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) by one week, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) launched the country’s first-ever artist-in-residence program in a state agency in July 2019. After a national search, WSDOT selected the artist team of Kelly Gregory, based in the Bay Area, and Mary Welcome, based in Palouse, in eastern Washington.

Like MnDOT’s residency program, Gregory and Welcome began their residency without a specific project in mind. Rather, the artist team started with a series of rotations through WSDOT’s core divisions and six regional offices to learn as much as possible about the inner workings of the complex state bureaucracy. With more than 7,000 staff members, WSDOT is tasked with everything from maintaining roads and bridges to clearing snow from mountain passes and operating one of the world’s largest ferry systems.

Through countless conversations with their new colleagues, Gregory and Welcome developed several projects to help WSDOT staff bring their full creative selves to work, brainstorm more effectively, and learn more about the complex work their fellow workers are routinely engaged in.

Upon finishing their rotations, Gregory and Welcome converted two empty offices in WSDOT’s Olympia headquarters building into a gallery and creative space. Covering the walls with photographs from their rotations as well as anonymous quotes from their many conversations with WSDOT staff members, the artists invited their coworkers to join them in the space to brainstorm new project ideas and think creatively. By naming the rooms a creative space, WSDOT staff members felt more comfortable letting their guard down and getting creative.

The Maintenance Post is “a hyper-local newsprint publication that connects the traveling public to the often invisible labor of maintenance and preservation workers within" WSDOT, say the artists. Photo courtesy Mary Welcome and Kelly Gregory.

This Book is a Bridge is a social sculpture and also a 270-page full-color publication. It is a report about people and their places, the very human effort it takes to hold the transportation network together. Photo courtesy Mary Welcome and Kelly Gregory

The DOT Deck is a deck of cards designed to help WSDOT staff and other transportation professionals "understand and inhabit the conversational nature of transportation work." Photo courtesy Mary Welcome and Kelly Gregory.

The DOT Deck Building on the success of their creative office space, Gregory and Welcome next produced the DOT Deck, a deck of cards designed to help WSDOT staff and other transportation professionals “understand and inhabit the conversational nature of transportation work.” Each card features a quote from an anonymous WSDOT staff member, which is intended to be used as a starting point for a conversation, brainstorming, or icebreakers at meetings.

Bumper stickers The artists developed a campaign of catchy bumper stickers with slogans like “Ride the Damn Bus!” and “Maintenance is Sexy” (the most popular bumper sticker, now a collector’s item). These stickers were distributed across the agency and served as another icebreaker for Gregory and Welcome to meet even more of their colleagues.

Maintenance Post Gregory and Welcome recognized that, while new transportation projects are often celebrated with ribbon cuttings, parades, and celebrations, the routine work of maintaining existing infrastructure slips under the radar, despite serving a far more important role for far more people. To remedy this discrepancy, the artists produced a new publication, the Maintenance Post.

Gregory and Welcome summarize the Maintenance Post as “a hyper-local newsprint publication that connects the traveling public to the often invisible labor of maintenance and preservation workers within the Washington State Department of Transportation. The job of maintaining transportation infrastructure, keeping people safe, and keeping goods moving 24 hours a day and 365 days of the year is no small feat. If everything is working well, nobody notices! The Maintenance Post humanizes the people-powered practice of stewarding our shared transportation network.”

WSDOT artists Gregory and Welcome visited Eagle Harbor—the maintenance station for the ferry system where vessels go for repairs and maintenance—during a day with the Washington State Ferries, the largest marine highway system in North America. The artists rode the commuter ferries and visited with crew in the wheelhouse, engine rooms, and on deck. Photo courtesy Mary Welcome.

“The job of maintaining transportation infrastructure, keeping people safe, and keeping goods moving 24 hours a day and 365 days of the year is no small feat. If everything is working well, nobody notices!”
— Kelly Gregory and Mary Welcome

Artists Kelly Gregory and Mary Welcome, on a day spent with the Environmental Services Office of WSDOT learning about wildlife connectivity within our transportation systems. They visited fish passage sites, trail cams at wildlife crossings, wetland mitigation sites, and pollinator test sites. Photo courtesy Mary Welcome.

Inspired by Gregory and Welcome’s discovery of WSDOT’s internal maintenance newsletters from the 1970s, the artists launched the new Maintenance Post with an issue focused on the Eastern Region, Area 2 Maintenance Office, and distributed copies across the state with the hopes of informing WSDOT employees and Washington residents about the important work of maintaining transportation infrastructure in a rural part of the state.

Minnesota DOT Artist-in-Residence

After conversations with staff, behavioral artist Marcus Young 楊墨 recognizes that the agency itself is the place for culture shift

Location: Minnesota

MnDOT fellow and behavioral artist Marcus Young performs on University Avenue in the Twin Cities. Photo by Ryan Stopera.

After conducting a competitive statewide search for their inaugural artist-in-residence, MnDOT selected behavioral artist Marcus Young 楊墨. Having served as a City Artist with Saint Paul for nine years, Young was an experienced artist-in-residence but, like Gregory and Welcome, had never worked within a state agency. Also like Gregory and Welcome, Young began his residency with rotations through MnDOT’s different divisions, discussing with hundreds of MnDOT staff members their thoughts about their work, their relationship to the communities they serve, and the idea of working with an artist. These staff members acknowledged that some of their challenges might benefit from an artist’s creative energy, as illustrated by these comments:

We are “bound by technical process.” We offer “technical solutions to deal with spiritual land."

“We spend a lot of our resources being predictable. ”

“We build roads. We know numbers and facts. We don't know what to do with emotions. MnDOT is not the only agency with this problem. I wonder if that's where art fits in. ”

“We are part of the community. We're not just a road going through it. ”

“We build roads. We know numbers and facts. We don’t know what to do with emotions. MnDOT is not the only agency with this problem. I wonder if that’s where the art fits in.”
—MnDOT staff member

A slide from a presentation given to MnDOT senior leadership provides context for Young's concept to reimagine Conference Room 820 as The Land Acknowledgment Confluence Room. Young and MnDOT were granted permission to use imagery from native-land.ca, which maps Indigenous lands to change, challenge, and improve the way people see the history of their countries and peoples. Image courtesy the artist and MnDOT.

Young imagined and organized a diversity and inclusion library collection for the MnDOT Land Acknowledgment Confluence Room. Photo courtesy the artist and MnDOT.

Young worked with the MnDOT Library to bring these resources closer to daily work, in the presence of meetings. Photo courtesy the artist and MnDOT.

This selection of reading materials is in place and accessible for staff. Photo courtesy the artist and MnDOT.

Many of his MnDOT colleagues assumed Young would focus on creating artistic objects or, as Young explained, on “making work for out there” — murals or sculptures embedded within transportation infrastructure. However, their comments indicated to Young that “the agency itself is the place for the imagination, for culture shift.”

Building on this realization, Young spent much of his inaugural residency hosting a series of conversations on MnDOT’s relationship to the land, to the people the agency serves, and on relationships between staff members. He also focused on creating The Land Acknowledgment Confluence Room. A homophonic and physical play on the typical conference room, the Confluence Room is a transformation of Conference Room 820 in MnDOT’s Saint Paul headquarters building. An unassuming room that has yet to reach its full potential, Conference Room 820 is in the process of transforming into a creative space for MnDOT staff members to bring their whole selves to work.

Young describes the original Conference Room 820 space as a "plain, beige, and long conference room on the top floor of the DOT building, on the floor with the Office of Land Management." Image courtesy the artist and MnDOT.

Young describes the transformation in process: "Using an actual functioning conference room shows that the art can be made from the fabric, conversations, and processes of MnDOT itself." Rendering courtesy the artist and MnDOT.

Marcus notes that, "in addition to exhibiting transportation-related art, the room will feature quotes from staff spoken in conversations about land and belonging." Rendering courtesy the artist and MnDOT.

Young summarized his thoughts on The Land Acknowledgment Confluence Room:

"I call [The Land Acknowledgment Confluence Room] a place and a placeholder. The reason I keep calling it that is that we are looking for better ways to gather, better ways to meet each other. How do we bring together people to have creative and meaningful conversations, where we can take risks in how we talk to one another? Conversations can evaporate, but they can condense too. As easily as they go away, they can come back when practiced properly. To make it have some lasting effect I wanted to create a place so that we can be reminded that these are the conversations we want to have."

The Confluence Room features a gallery of transportation-themed art; a diversity and inclusion library; furniture, tea, and plants for relaxation and meditation; and supplies to support the creative expression and brainstorming of staff members.

Like so many projects produced in 2020, the Confluence Room was a work in progress as the COVID-19 pandemic enveloped the world and forced MnDOT’s employees to work from home, leaving the headquarters building empty. Once it’s safe to return to the office, the Confluence Room will be ready to fulfill its purpose.

Reflecting on his inaugural year as MnDOT’s artist-in-residence, Young offered the following advice for artists considering artist-in-residence positions and for transportation agency staff considering hosting an embedded artist:

  • Acknowledge that working with the land is a spiritual, not just a technical, endeavor.
  • Use art to make culture change irresistible.
  • Opening the topic of land is a powerful approach to address equity, belonging, wholeness, identity, and history. Land acknowledgment is a good place to start.
  • Statements that address past wrongs matter. Changing the names of things matters.
  • The artist may be an object maker, but an [artist-in-residence] may be better suited if they are a relationship builder, facilitator, ideator, and curator.

Chattanooga Department of Transportation City Artist

Artist-in-residence Jules Downum was intrigued by the openness of the City Artist position. Then the pandemic hit, requiring a pivot

Location: Chattanooga, TN

Downum set out to create a trial event that would put artists, who had been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, to work and restore some cultural activity on space controlled by the DOT, while also educating the public and the city government on COVID-safe procedures for events. Thus, the Rolling Surprise was created. Photo by Kelly Lacy.

Artist-in-residence programs have continued to proliferate at the municipal level. In the spring of 2020, Chattanooga’s Department of Transportation (CDOT) launched its own program, based on the model of Saint Paul’s City Artist program. (Eric Asboe, Chattanooga DOT’s transportation administrative manager, formerly served as director of development for Public Art Saint Paul.) CDOT selected artist Jules Downum as its first artist-in-residence.

With a background in cultural anthropology, dance, and event production, Downum was struck by the openness and exploratory nature of the City Artist position. Unfortunately, with the position launching just days before the COVID-19 pandemic closed Chattanooga DOT’s offices, pivoting became necessary.

Chattanooga DOT controls “the most open public space of any department in the city,” allowing Downum to restore some cultural activity on DOT-controlled space and put artists to work.

Community members regrouped to rescue the Rolling Surprise, which was nearly canceled due to COVID-19. Photo by Kelly Lacy.

Community members passed out masks, gloves, journals, art kits for children, and a list of resources for the community which has traditionally not had the best relationship with the City. Photo by Kelly Lacy.

Downum was primarily tasked with helping CDOT establish better community engagement procedures. Recognizing that Chattanooga DOT controls “the most open public space of any department in the city,” Downum set out to create a trial event that would put artists, who had been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, to work and restore some cultural activity on space controlled by the DOT, while also educating the public and the city government on COVID-safe procedures for events. Thus, the Rolling Surprise was created, featuring “a rolling motorcade, art cars, dancers and face masks and socially distanced costuming, and a DJ.” Having been planned for almost two months, the event was nearly canceled the night before as several partners—including the city, and CDOT—pulled out due to concerns about COVID.

Nevertheless, community members regrouped to rescue the event, which “included passing out masks, gloves, journals, art kits for children, and a list of resources for the community which has traditionally not had the best relationship with the City.”

Community members regrouped to rescue a nearly canceled event, including “passing out masks, gloves, journals, art kits for children, and a list of resources for the community which has traditionally not had the best relationship with the City.”
— Jules Downum

As she pondered next steps after the success of the Rolling Surprise, Downum began to wonder, “What does an event recovery plan look like during COVID...because part of the issue around the Rolling Surprise was there wasn't a policy in place to lean upon.” Downum then began working with public health experts, physicians, and members of the regional COVID task force to create guidelines for future events in Chattanooga, which the city is now using as it considers next steps in reopening.

As a somewhat unintended consequence of the City Artist residency, Asboe acknowledged that Downum’s work has “pushed [Chattanooga DOT] to think really creatively and differently about our procurement process...how we think about doing our contracting, doing our payment, and thinking creatively about how we actually get payment to artists and creative producers in a much faster way.” A key sign of success for artist residencies may in fact be the willingness and ability of city agencies to work more effectively with artists in the future.

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FORWARD: Issue #2

Transportation

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