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In December 2014, Tania Bruguera, a New York-based Cuban artist, was arrested in Havana after refusing to cancel a planned open mic performance at the Plaza of the Revolution. Last July, she was made the first artist-in-residence at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Now, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs has announced an initiative to create artist residencies in the city, similar to the one Burguera enjoys, that would be embedded in municipal agencies. A class of graduate students at New York University presented a series of recommendations to the Department after a semester-long study of art–government partnerships in order to bring new perspectives to the work of creating equity in New York City.
As a starting point, the class investigated similar partnerships in cities around the U.S. and interviewed key people involved in agency residencies, including the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who has been the official artist-in-residence at the Department of Sanitation of New York City for more than three decades. Other interviewees include Pepón Osorio, Marisa Jahn, Caroline Woolard, Chloe Bass, as well as several artists who are also staff of city agencies, including Anusha Venkataraman at Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and Liz Hamby of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The broad recommendation presented to the Department was to establish a “learning accelerator” to kick-off residencies—to convene staff of different city agencies and a cohort of artists to engage in a series of learning experiences together, including field trips, presentations, and design workshops that span the course of several weeks to several months. The goal of a residency should be to connect artists’ willingness to learn about agency work to the agency’s willingness to learn about art. A corollary goal could be to use the “learning accelerator” to facilitate inter-agency collaboration as well as collaboration across residencies.
Below is a summary of recommendations for specific agencies.
Administration for Children’s Services
In 2014, New York was the least affordable state in the nation for childcare, according to Child Care Aware of America. The current state of childcare in NYC limits self-determination for working parents, pushes professional caregivers into poverty, and disproportionately hinders children’s development.
Recommendation: Frame an artist residency to explore the role that collectivism can play for the 400,000 New Yorkers in poverty that currently go without childcare. An artist project could draw on the rich history of collective child-rearing practices that permeate the multicultural foundations of New York City to bring new perspectives to the issue of affordable childcare, including to the question of how the creation of cooperative child care practices might provide affordable, culturally relevant care that is responsive to the community in today’s economy.
Department of Education
The NYC Community Schools Initiative is a relatively new effort of the Department of Education to turn select school campuses into hubs of integrated social service provision and platforms for community partnerships.
Recommendation: Frame an artist residency at one of NYC’s new Community Schools aimed at collaborating with students on public art projects that helps them critically engage issues in the public education system. A resident artist at a Community School could help create a specialized after-school enrichment program aimed at giving students the opportunity to think critically about their own educational realities and relate their points of view through public art-making.
Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
District Public Health Offices, also known as neighborhood health hubs, work on holistic neighborhood planning activities and are particularly interested in the cultural relevance of local food systems (grocery stores, bodegas, community gardens, urban farms, food box programs, food pantries, and school food programs).
Recommendation: Frame an artist residency at a DPHO to explore the role of local culture in local food systems. Artists could play a key role in helping to develop a meaningful, legible process to help community residents build consensus around the future of health in their neighborhood, and work together with city agencies, citywide nonprofits, and local community-based organizations to realize their vision and goals.
Department of City Planning
An artist, or artist collective, embedded in the Department of City Planning can explore what makes neighborhoods livable, racially integrated, and socially cohesive. They can create opportunities to learn from public spaces where people from different NYC neighborhoods are already naturally interacting with one another.
Recommendation: Frame an artist residency at DCP to bring new perspectives to the conversation around the role of race in the social cohesiveness of NYC’s neighborhoods, and how might new public spaces create opportunities for people from radically different backgrounds to learn from one another. A residency could explore what humanizes these spaces, and to bring that learning to neighborhoods that are experiencing dramatic transformation in their racial demographics.
Department of Housing Preservation and Development
The Mayor’s Housing NYC plan aims to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in the next 10 years, and emphasizes that the execution of the plan “must be guided by early and regular input from the communities themselves.”
Recommendation: Frame an artist residency at HPD that invites artists into the agency for a durational creative project that supports the engagement of community members and constituents in execution of the Housing NYC plan. The emphasis on increasing community engagement creates an ideal opportunity for an artist residency. While in residence at HPD, an artist or artist team can assist in the facilitation of community dialogues on critical issues of neighborhood development, including finding creative ways to facilitate interactions between a diversity of constituencies.
City University of New York
In 2010, CUNY introduced a unified sexual assault policy across all 23 campuses in accordance with New York State Laws.
Recommendation: Frame an artist residency on a CUNY campus specifically for new media artists to collaborate with students on the production of viral videos on the topic of sexual consent. An artist, or a team of artists, can work directly with students and faculty to develop engaging educational content about sexual consent, rape awareness, and CUNY’s policies and services. The idea could be to engage students in a way that allows them to expand upon their own ideas and their specific cultural perspectives about sexual consent.
 The following students contributed to this article: Emily Caruso, Christina Morgera, Olivia Ek, Patrick Gora, Rebecca Kaplan, Erika Houle, Carol Cabrera, Federico Hewson, Sara Rubenson, Natasha Budiman, Brenda Hung, Diane Bezucha, and Becky Neil.[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]
Jose Serrano-McClain is an artist, educator, and community organizer who works to support the community of cultural practitioners in NYC.