The events of 2020 increased our awareness of public health disinvestment and systemic inequity. Marginalized groups experienced more illness, received less medical assistance, and ultimately had less access to a vaccine. It is clear that we must build stronger and more collective government systems to prepare us for the future and protect our most valuable populations.
What does this future look like? What must we change to get there? Across the country, communities are embedding artists into government to help tackle these questions, and to find creative ways to prepare for a future that is responsive to critical issues. These artists in residence in government programs (AIRG) are helping agencies spur innovative advancements to internal operations and are working incrementally to advance ways of equitably engaging with and serving constituents.
Through our research investigating AIRG programs operating across the United States in 2020, we have developed a set of typologies that detail how these programs are structured and how they operate within government contexts. Our research findings highlight the potential for internal systems change, specifically demonstrating incremental shifts towards equity and inclusion around both internal operations and dissemination of services. Each program is unique and responds to the distinct contexts of place, community, and government challenges and opportunities. This article draws out strategies and lessons for local governments interested in developing AIRG programs within their own communities designed to respond to their unique contexts. In this article we use examples of AIRG programs in Boston, Massachusetts, and Granite Falls, Minnesota, to present two cases of this work. Each AIRG program is organized around different, context-specific structures to meet similar goals of creating more just places and governments.
In 2020 and 2021, we interviewed (face-to-face and online) and surveyed 40 artists, government officials, nonprofit staff, and others connected to programs that embedded
artists in government in 2020. We also reviewed relevant literature, including project documentation, final reports, and department evaluations. Three municipalities will be releasing evaluations of their AIRG programs in 2021: Boston,1 Minneapolis,2 and Los Angeles County.3 Out of this research we produced a typology that provides an overall, broad view of how artists are embedded in government and a more detailed typology of the structures of AIR programs hosted by government agencies that
incorporates nuances such as the preconditions for their development, program design considerations, implementation partner relationships, and program sustainability. The full typology is available in academic publications, and further work is forthcoming on our website.4
Granite Falls, Minnesota: Artist in Residence in a Small Town
In the town of Granite Falls in western Minnesota (population 2,260), a collaboration between artists and city officials gave rise to the first rural AIRG.5 Beginning in 2017, Ashley Hanson, an artist and executive director of the Department of Public Transformation (DPoT), approached city staff, including the mayor, city manager and financial director with a proposal to bring an artist into city hall. Previously, Hanson herself had served as an artist in residence with a planning department, and then as a program manager for a city artist residency in St. Paul, Minnesota. She brought these direct experiences as a manager and artist in developing this new residency program.
Designed with a local cross-sector advisory group, the proposal for The Granite Falls City Artist-in-Residence program received unanimous approval from the city council.6 The residency is managed through a joint effort between the arts nonprofit, DPoT, and the city of Granite Falls. Beginning in October 2020, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, Dani Prados became the city's first artist in residence. The artist’s role is to “design and implement arts and cultural strategies that increase civic participation and community engagement in city policymaking, planning, and public processes.” Prados has both an office space at city hall and studio and living space provided by the DPoT. As this residency has only recently launched, we provide an introduction, but their website and communications will continue to provide information as the program evolves.
Boston, Massachusetts: Cohort of Artists Working in Multiple City Departments
Boston Artists-in-Residence (AIR) was developed with the support of a grant from ArtPlace America as a strategic program implementing Boston Creates, the city’s 10-year
cultural plan launched in 2015.
Organized by the mayor’s office of arts and culture, Boston AIR invites a cohort of artists for a one-year period to partner with departments across the city. The program has
evolved with each iteration to learn from previous cohorts and respond to current city needs in order to strengthen the impact of the artists, government collaborators, and Boston residents. The third cohort was focused on racial equity and resilience through the work of seven artists who were collaborating with schools and city departments such as the library, planning, women's advancement, and new urban mechanics. The cohort met monthly to discuss challenges and successes, collectively strategizing how to advance their individual work and respond to the underlying goals of resilience and racial equity.
The artists collaborated with government partners, and this collaboration and process of creation was the artwork just as much as any final event or product. Their work took many forms. For example, Nakia Hill worked with the mayor’s office of women’s advancement to elevate the voices of women of color in Boston through storytelling workshops about resilience, published writing by young girls, and conducted a survey about workplace experiences to explore racial bias and close the gap between government programs and women of color. One city partner commented that the work “opens the conversation about racial equity” and “sparks collective action in community members.”7
Contextualizing Artists in Residence in Government
AIRG programs are increasingly common across the country and use many names including: Creative CityMaking,8 Minneapolis; Public Artists in Residence,9 New York City; Creative Strategist-Artist in Residence,10 Los Angeles County; and Artists in Residence, Washington State Department of Transportation.11 These programs are often part time and temporary, placing artists in government settings for a set period of time to address particular goals and often have the structural support of a municipal art department or partnering nonprofit. AIRG artists can work broadly across the city as a whole (as is the case with the Granite Falls program) or are embedded within one specific department, such as public health, planning, transportation, or sustainability (as was the case with Boston’s program).
These programs have significant effects on enlivening agency culture, staff creativity, and community engagement approaches, which can all ultimately lead to more equitable government systems and processes. The artistic approach often attracts a wider or different range of individuals than the “usual suspects” and brings them into the creative process, establishing safe spaces for government staff to take risks to cocreate new structures of operating internally, new methods of collaboration across departments, or new ways of engaging constituents. An artist’s methods welcome experimentation and iteration, an important perspective to bring inside of government, and a way to engage in new ideas. A theatre artist can use storytelling with residents of a particular neighborhood to elevate stories of the meaning of place that support planners in redesigning local infrastructure to meet community needs. A designer can engage spatial analysis to reimagine office spaces with government staff to increase aesthetic appeal and facilitate collaboration. AIRs can also focus on policy-specific outcomes, tying creative processes to policy agendas and strategic plans across departments. In this way, AIRG programs are mutually beneficial for both artists and government staff dedicated to the social good.
Preconditions that Lead to Success
Each AIRG program is unique and responds to regional contexts. Understanding the contextual preconditions of a specific place can pave the way for more successful and
sustainable AIRG programs.
In the case of the Boston Artist-in-Residence program, receiving high-level leadership support from the mayor’s office paves a path forward for sustainability of resources, will, and program integrity. In the smaller local government context of Granite Falls, DoPT did a significant amount of work before the program started, meeting with individuals and building relationships within the local government that led to the unanimous approval of the city council. When actually developing the structure of their program, they engaged different community stakeholders through the advisory council—composed of a diverse representation of the population, from the city manager to indigenous tribe representatives to individuals from the local arts council—with ensured wide support from many sectors of the community. Receiving support from decision makers and those with political power, as well as community representation and approval throughout the process, has proven effective for both of these programs.
Designing for Local Needs
Our research indicates that designing AIRG programs specific to the structural and cultural assets, opportunities, complexities, and challenges of a respective place will lead
to more transformative impacts. There is no standard AIRG program model that will effectively work in every place. As Karin Goodfellow, director of public art for the city of Boston, explains, “I think we’re finding it’s also particular to where you are. What is your community? What’s the structure of your government? Are you a county? Are you a city? It’s all so different and unique and we have just had to adapt based on what’s happening that year.” In addition to using lessons from existing AIRG programs, Granite Falls conducted a community survey that helped inform the structure and focus of their program to address their unique needs.
Institutional Value of Equity
Because of the profound power of these residencies to abet cultural progress and inform the creation of more just systems, an institution’s commitment to equity strengthens
these programs. For example, the Creative Strategies Initiative in Seattle is built from a partnership between the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture and the Seattle Office for Civil Rights.12 Built into the city’s racial justice work, it is formally a “culture shift strategy.”13 Teams narrowly interested in founding an artist-in-residence program for aesthetic output will miss out on the creative problemsolving impacts of this work and artists’ ability to nurture a culture shift.
Leveraging a Policy Window
Opportunities like a new cultural plan or a pro-arts elected official are frequently the occasions through which AIRG programs have been established. Boston AIR is not the only program established in conjunction with a new cultural plan. In Oakland, California, Cultural Affairs Manager Roberto Bedoya, housed in the economic and workforce
development department, worked on a cultural plan14 that paved the way for the funding and support for Cultural Strategists in Government,15 which placed seven artists
into five city departments for one year focused on civic belonging and well-being. In other cases, connecting AIRG work to goals in a city-wide strategic plan provides an
opportunity to establish an AIRG program.
Takeaways for Local Government: Program Structures
A primary challenge for government staff is determining how to structure AIRG programs that will work best for their needs. As mentioned previously, rather than importing a program structure, successful programs build a structure based on local context. Some of the models below overlap in practice, but we have pulled out the most prevalent patterns from our research.
Cohort Models Produce Strong Results
Cohorts of artists completing AIRG programs simultaneously create a community of practice for artists embedded in government, which provides professional support and strengthens their work. Without the cohort support, a novel undertaking like this can lead the artist to feeling isolated in unfamiliar territory within a government setting. If the goal is an exchange of ideas and methods, structures that foster collaboration and support are important. These cohort structures range from interdepartmental—as in the case of Oakland,16 Minneapolis, St. Paul, Boston, and Los Angeles County—to interagency and across state lines, as seen within two residency programs created by Transportation for America through Washington State Department of Transportation17 and Minnesota Department of Transportation.18
Two-party Partnerships (Government Department + Arts Organization) Are Accessible
This is the most common structure used in establishing AIRG programs. These two-partner structures are accessible to most governments that can identify an arts
organization that can serve as a partner. The city of Granite Falls partnered with the arts nonprofit, the Department of Transformation. DPoT manages the “human resources”
components of the residency, offering its expertise in managing artists, producing artworks, and crafting a welcoming environment. The arts organization also serves as a liaison, able to translate between the artist and the department to ensure that collaborators understand one another and can connect productively.
Takeaways for Local Government: Strategies
Arising from the research, these strategies are for municipalities and agency partners to consider as they revise existing AIR programs or as they design and implement one for the first time.
Valuing Process Over Product
Typically, artists begin residencies with an onboarding period to help learn systems and create relationships with staff. This process of listening, learning, and relationship
building takes concerted effort and time, yet it is essential for building awareness about the internal challenges and opportunities to pursue. The artist can then build on this
initial dialogue through collaboration with staff across agencies and constituent communities. This process is the core of AIRG work. Perhaps a final product, such as a
report or book or festival occurs as well, and is a celebrated output of the residency, but the process of creation is both an incremental opportunity for systems change and a part of the artwork. Within art fields, this collaborative and dialogue-driven artwork is known as socially engaged art or social practice.
In Boston, Victor Yang worked with Boston Public Health Commission staff and Youth Organizing Institute members to advance work around racial justice, finding pathways to elevate youth voices and build connections across generational divides and power hierarchies. This dialogic process aims to both heal and work for social change by suggesting more inclusive ways to connect government staff and youth of color.
AIRG programs embed art practices into traditional government work, which creates new opportunities of working together. This process of readjustment is vital in creating
insightful projects, but it requires a willingness to pivot and adapt as things evolve. While pre-planning the program structure is beneficial for creating a solid foundation, a
flexibility to adjust to unexpected factors supersedes that to deepen impact.
The Boston team recognizes that program flexibility and ongoing reflection is important, and took time to assess after each AIRG cohort to revise the program structure to better support artists and city staff, as well as to respond to Boston communities. In the first year, they partnered with Massachusetts College of Art and Design, which provided insight on how to set expectations and develop curriculum to use in establishing relationships between artists and city staff. From the lessons learned in the first cohort they pivoted to a thematic approach with the second round and connected AIRs with community centers. In the third cohort they found that they needed more clarity
around the roles of each participant to create a stronger structure, supporting the underlying intrinsic goals of racial equity.
Each year they add more clarity around the roles of each participant, which in turn increases their shared abilities to be flexible and pivot the work as needed to create a stronger process. As Boston Program Manager Sharon Amuguni reflected in an interview, “I think it was great that we had the sense of structure and the sense of direction starting off, so we could then be flexible within.” Similarly, in Granite Falls, the new residency is set up without a specific project or role for the artist to fill. Instead, “her role will be to design and implement arts and cultural strategies that increase civic participation and community engagement in city policy-making, planning and public processes.”19
Pursue Equity-focused Work
The artists selected for these programs are typically skilled at community engagement work and are often BIPOC individuals. The Granite Falls City Artist-in-Residence
program specifically lists the following in its selection criteria: “experience as a practicing artist, with a focus on community engagement; interest in, connections to, and/or experience working in and with community members from a diverse range of social, cultural, economic, and political backgrounds.”20 It is also common that the artists in these roles possess deep connections to and trust within the communities the government serves. The possibilities for how artists can use their creative, social, and aesthetic practices to courageously engage community members, especially people of marginalized backgrounds, to craft new ways for the government to address harm and/or center their needs are incredibly powerful. This activity is different from many traditional community engagement practices in that they are uniquely designed for and are responsive to community needs, are often interactive, engage people in deep storytelling, and create opportunities to celebrate culture.
While government staff increasingly recognize that their work should be more equitable, they do not necessarily know how to approach this. Inviting artists into government
creates opportunities for government staff to take risks and explore new ways of working. For many local governments, tackling issues of inequity is new and requires diving
into unknown territory. The experimental and curious methodology of artists embedded into this system begets a courage to engage in the unknown. For Boston artist
Victor Yang, change happens in intimate settings, on an interpersonal level. This human exchange may lead to future policy, or it could influence how staff think about their
future work—change on both scales is important in evolving government systems on incremental levels.
Boston reorganized their AIR program with racial equity and resilience as an organizing principle, seeing it as more than a temporary theme but as how all work was grounded. In this way, it became a model for how all city operations can be organized to promote equity and address systemic inequity. Government staff recognized this goal. One participant reflected that working with an AIR project “deepened my sense for how richly diverse the Boston community is and how we need more ways to bring these stories to light. With regards to racial equity, an important thing that came up is heightened conversation about these issues, and that is the first step.”21 This was reinforced in the 2021 program evaluation, which found that the work increased the dialogue about implicit bias and race within the government.
Promote Cross-sector Collaboration for Maximum Impact
Embedding artists in government systems connects art and design across sectors to leverage creative methods for innovative ideas. One example: participants engage in
dance movements to advance community participation in transportation planning. In Boston, many departments across the city have participated in the AIR program as
Director of Public Art Karin Goodfellow reflected in a research interview:
Part of this work is realizing that having that creative thinking, and having the practice of an artist, benefits all of our departments. I think one of the things I’ve seen that’s helpful is that there’s so much space for more collaboration and connection across departments. The partnership is great for people to come together and to do this work; to have an opportunity to talk to other colleagues that we’d potentially not interact with day to day.
Boston now invites government agencies to apply to host an AIR, demonstrating their interest and dedication to collaboration. Through this initial foundation, artist Erin Genia worked with the office of emergency management to develop cultural organizing strategies to sustain long-term health and safety beyond discrete moments of crisis. This
work involved collaborating with indigenous leaders and cultural heritage bearers to confront colonial narratives as an ongoing cultural crisis that still impacts communities
in Boston today. The work expanded the conception of emergency management beyond a blizzard or other immediate crisis to underlying emergencies of inequity that
challenge residents, suggesting an expansion of the office's role in promoting equity in the city.
Building Equitable Futures
As we collectively build our post-pandemic futures, local government leaders can play a significant role in strengthening civic infrastructure and programs to make them more equitable and inclusive through innovative collaborations such as AIRG programs. These programs can make the work of extending civic capacity to experiment with innovative models more accessible. A Boston city staff member reflected that their AIRG experience expanded their connections to community partners while also supporting work to “revaluate how we think and who we engage in our advocacy efforts,” which served to “inform our future work.”22 It is an opportunity for experimentation that can lead to lasting change.
Drawing on our interviews with artists and government staff across the country, we have identified the three most likely ways in which AIRG programs can support governments in advancing equity in our future postpandemic society.
1. Promoting Equity by Strengthening Community Engagement.
Embedding artists within civic systems creates local community engagement opportunities that are more creative, culturally responsive and heartfelt, building a solid foundation for future collaboration with constituencies.
2. Experimentation for Innovation and Systems Change.
Inviting experimentation into a local government agency through intentional collaboration with an artist. Creative methods, such as storytelling or visual analysis or movement, can break through processes that are no longer serving government needs to discover innovative new ways of working.
3. Shepherding in the Culture Shift Required for Institutional Equity Work.
Changing behaviors and mindsets are important foundations to more equitable practices. Through their intentional process of getting to know staff and community members, listening, and staying curious, AIRG programs can set in motion a more deeply attuned way of working, which can give government a stronger foundation for the ultimate
mission of its work in service of the community. Minnesota Department of Transportation Community Vitality Fellow Marcus Young models a relationship and trust-centered process of working in government, as he reflected in a research interview: “You have to build the relationship and trust…you must consider how to be a good guest…and you must start asking really good questions.”
Further research on AIRG programs and opportunities for engagement are forthcoming. Sign up for our newsletter or contact us to collaborate at www.cairlab.net.
MALLORY RUKHSANA NEZAM loves cities and believes we have the tools to make them more just and joyful. She is an independent consultant (Justice +Joy), scholar, and artist who specializes in creative placemaking/keeping/knowing. Nezam holds a master’s degree in design from Harvard University. She seeks to be in every room she’s not supposed to be in.
JOHANNA K. TAYLOR is an assistant professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. Her research explores questions of cultural equity through the intersection of art, community, policy, and place—including in her recent book, The Art Museum Redefined: Power, Opportunity, and Community Engagement. Before turning to academia, she spent over a decade working as an arts administrator.
To learn more from ICMA about partnering with artists, visit the ICMA resource, Problem Solving Through Arts and Cultural Strategies: A Creative Placemaking Wayfinding Guide for Local Government Managers.
Endnotes and Resources