Image Caption: Roxbury-native Problak’s (Rob Gibbs) Breathe Life 3 mural at 808 Tremont Street. Representing happiness, hope, blackness, and kinship this is one of Rob’s largest works to date and incorporates his strong graffiti sensibility.
By Joey Phoenix
Images and Videos courtesy of Now + There
May was a busy month for Boston-based public art curator Now + There – a nonprofit that aims to challenge the Boston metro area’s cultural identity by producing poignant temporary and site-specific art projects. Last month, they had their final workshop in their three year long pilot Public Art Accelerator program, wrapped up a series of seven community conversations called N+T asks, and finalized three public art projects to be installed later this year.
And they’re planning much more.
Public Art as Community Identity
Artists and, by extension, art curators, sit on the front lines of the human experience, narrowing in on public identity in a compelling and recognizable way. A reinvigoration of the MassArt’s UrbanArts Institute, Now + There continues to produce projects and initiatives that both acculturate Boston to the cultural, social, and economic benefits of art and define Boston’s essential public art identity.
Some of their most recent projects include ¡Provecho! (a Mexican-Spanish idiom meaning “enjoy”) by Justin Favela installed at the Prudential Center, Growth Rings by Oscar Tuazon installed at Central Wharf, and Breathe Life 3 by Problak, a piece representing happiness, hope, blackness, and kinship at 808 Tremont Street.
Public art is the face of cities, and Now + There’s mission works to ensure that the face shown is actually representative of the communities it exists in, enabling it to be a catalyst for change. Because of public art’s temporary nature, it also has the opportunity to be more relevant in regards to regional public commentary as well.
“We work to put more contemporary public art in all neighborhoods of Boston,” said Now + There’s Executive Director Kate Gilbert. “And we do that by focusing on high caliber curation, using artists who not only create visually compelling works, but also a strong social message within their art.”
With the challenges of living in a COVID-19 world coupled with the current civil unrest against systemic oppression and white supremacy, there is a lot that needs to be said. And N+T is doing the work of bringing in the right people who can say it themselves, either through community discussions or public art.
“We have a great responsibility as producers and curators of public art to make sure that the work is embraced and reflects who we are,” Gilbert said. “Artistic risk tasking is going to be the core of what we continue to focus on, and we need to remember to continue listening to our communities and neighborhoods of Boston.”
When COVID-19 social distancing parameters went into effect in mid-March, Now + There, like most of the world, quickly adjusted their programming to meet the needs and answer the questions of the communities they work with. One of the things they did was introduce a series of seven conversations about how to face big questions at this monumental moment called N+T Asks, creating space for artists, cultural producers, community leaders, and, of course, the public to come together and address the impact of crises on their work.
“We’ve had to postpone some projects,” Gilbert explained. “But it has been an opportune time to pause, reflect on what has worked in the past, and decide where we want to lean into the future.”
These seven conversations, featuring topics like cultural equity, hope, and self-care, fostered discussions about hard topics and created opportunities for collaboration and solidarity.
“To have an opportunity to be at a table where decisions are made and not to be included as an afterthought. For me, that’s what cultural equity means, in the right now,” said Latina artist and entrepreneur Rosario Ubiera-Minaya in “Can today’s crisis spark tomorrow’s cultural equity?”
“How are you engaging and having challenging conversations with people who have come to be called white?” said Destiny Polk in the same discussion.
N+T Asks engaged with questions that community members needed to have answered during a time when a pandemic and unrest has still left everything feeling a bit untethered. These conversations are part of a larger push towards moving BIPoC voices to the center of discussions, something that Now + There has been engaging with since its founding.
Moving Forward with Public Art
In light of the challenges that 2020 has brought so far, Now + There is working to produce a series of public art projects that will be installed around Boston this fall. As always, they are making choices that reflect the needs of the community and make statements about what’s important to the neighborhoods where the art is installed.
“As a young organization built on the values of being brave, open, and sharp we are making new commitments to being vulnerable, actively learning, and being allied with our Black and Brown communities,” Gilbert said in a statement made on June 4th called Responding and Reckoning. “We have a long way to go. We will make mistakes. We will acknowledge them. And we commit to learning from them.”
Joey Phoenix is a performance artist, the digital content manager for North Shore Pride, the host of the Chaos Within Podcast, and the Managing Editor for Creative North Shore. They are currently thinking way too much, scribbling manically, and looking for threads of hope in an untethered note. Send them pictures of llamas or story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @jphoenixmedia.
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