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Spotlight on BostonAPP/Lab, Art in Greater Boston’s Public Places


Last June, after a decade, I left my perch as a senior planner with an architecture and planning firm in Boston. During that time—partly because of my training, partly because of my own inclinations and intuition—I became more and more engrossed by those core aspects of planning that come under the heading of "civic engagement": creating routes into a deep understanding of the array of communities on whose behalf I was presumably doing the planning. I called it "getting under the skin of a place" in order to find the multiple social, economic, as well as physical "desire lines" that reflected stated (or unstated) core values and priorities. It required patient listening, coalition-building—another word for "political will"—and, as my boss correctly emphasized, a two-way education process.

My current project, BostonAPP/Lab, began essentially as a suggestion to the co-chair of the Boston Society of Architects’ (BSA) Urban Design committee. I proposed that "public art" be the subject of one of their regularly scheduled open meetings. Admittedly, my suggestion was based more on gut feelings than on any deep experience in this field, feelings that in Boston there was a singular lack of cohesion, energy, support, even communication, that together would provide a much more robust environment, similar perhaps to what one finds in cities as varied as Minneapolis, New York or Amsterdam. After all, Boston, while not having the breadth of New York’s financial resources, for example, nevertheless has extraordinary intellectual and aesthetic capital that—again, from my admittedly narrow perspective—has simply not been leveraged.

As I met and talked with dozens of stakeholders—foundation program officers, artists, City agency and NGO representatives, institutional leaders —I repeatedly heard descriptions of a public art "scene" that is (1) at best a disparate collection of pockets of activity with no real cohesion; (2) further inhibited by ongoing frustration with everything from opaque permitting processes to scattered and thin sources of funding; and (3) lacking perceived political (i.e., community) and Political (i.e., elected) support.

Building on these discussions, I organized a "brainstorming roundtable" last October at which these multiple voices were asked to identify and prioritize the most significant challenges facing the creation of a more vibrant public art environment, and the most critical goals by which to meet those challenges. To no one’s surprise, what emerged reinforced what had surfaced during the initial one-on-one conversations.

The roundtable produced a preliminary agenda for a working group, under the auspices of the BSA, with the title BostonAPP/Lab: Art in Greater Boston’s Public Places. The name—especially the "subtitle"—was consciously chosen to reflect my own sense of the critical importance of examining three components simultaneously: art, the public, and the place. It essentially acknowledged that art in public places is the ultimate manifestation of civic engagement—the idea that sparked this work to begin with. The "Lab" component was, and continues to be, critical to the overall concept: this would not be a series of presentations of new projects or new works. Rather, the intention is to examine the issues raised through a kind of "maker’s space", or laboratory, that would allow participants to create new strategies, processes, and collaborations to support and sustain art in Greater Boston’s public places.

So far, the activities within the Lab have taken the form of monthly working sessions, ranging in focus from the creation of a new communications and networking strategy, to an examination of collaboration at the urban scale, to the design of a multi-part strategy to support and sustain ephemeral art, ranging from site selection to funding tactics.

The first outcome from these working sessions has been a (still in progress) website www.bostonapp.org, which currently offers as its main feature a searchable database, connecting members of this community who might still be ships passing in the night were it not for the Lab. Furthermore, we are creating a collaborative funding and site-selection "template" by which the practice of ephemeral art might be sustained. The Lab will also be seeking to create opportunities for serious and sustained involvement by the private sector. It will search for ways to assist State and Boston efforts to revive, and implement as permanent policies, percent-for-art initiatives, and explore ways of embedding an "art" curriculum within local design and planning programs, undergraduate as well as graduate.

From the beginning, the Lab has been—and no doubt will continue to be—a complicated, messy, but essential exercise in improvisation. It will also continue to be—as it should—a catalyst for ideas that have remained hidden, or unarticulated, or partially done-in by frustration over time, all of which comprise a set of existing conditions, one of which should not be paralysis.

Anyone can play: there are no rules other than the imperative to contribute ideas, energy, and creativity to help resolve the challenges that confront art in Greater Boston’s public places. While waiting for the website to emerge fully, you can contact me directly for more information, to exchange viewpoints, and to offer your own ideas for collaboration.

We are currently designing the next round of workshops, starting in May, focusing on such topics as integrating art into the new design standards for Boston’s downtown; examining the role of art from the developer’s perspective; art in public places that are outside the [downtown]box.

As a friend of mine so eloquently puts it, you basically place one foot in front of the other. Join the parade.

The next roundtable session April 18 at 6:30pm is titled "Public art in Boston: The intersection of politics, economics, and aesthetics."
For more information visit:

Boston APP/Lab is online at bostonapp.org
On Twitter at @BostonApplab
Contact Ron Mallis at ron.mallis@gmail.com

About Author

Ron Mallis is an urban planner and the founder of Boston APP/Lab.

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