Boston Creates, artists, Barr Foundation

When Artists Are at the Intersection of Planning and Community

How a group of artists infused creativity, imagination, artistry and fun into a citywide planning process.

When we hear the phrase “planning process,” it often conjures images of PowerPoint slides and half-empty high school gymnasiums, where a passionate few deliver prepared remarks, one-at-a-time, at the microphones set up in the aisles. Over a year ago, when Boston launched a year-long process, called Boston Creates, to enliven and strengthen the arts and creativity, some of us wondered what could be done to inject some creativity, surprise, and fun into the process itself.

As one way to capture how Bostonians think about their city’s creative potential, we enlisted the help of the people on the front lines—Boston’s working artists. Department of Play, an artist collective, along with conceptual artist Heather Kapplow, photographer Leonardo March, and musician Shaw Pong Liu, went into different neighborhoods across Boston to explore the ways in which Bostonians encountered arts and culture in their lives and what they thought was necessary to support creative expression. These artists were called “artist-ethnographers” because they were collecting ethnographic data from different social and cultural groups, filtered through their unique artistic practices.

How can artists contribute uniquely to improving the life of a city? Artists traffic in communication and translation, at times, making complex things simple, exposing essential truths about life. Artists can give metaphors and visual representation to the “emotional data” of people’s hopes, fears, and ambitions. Artists can build bridges and connect people across neighborhoods and experiences. Artists think creatively about how to solve problems. They can hear and translate multiple voices into action by pushing conversations forward and bringing together people who may not otherwise meet. The Boston Creates artists were the connective tissue between the sometimes jargon-heavy language of urban planning and the personal experiences of residents that makes a cultural plan necessary and immediate.

The Boston Creates artists were the connective tissue between the sometimes jargon-heavy language of urban planning and the personal experiences of residents that makes a cultural plan necessary and immediate.

To document and learn from the Boston Creates artist-ethnographers, Barr partnered with Technical Development Corporation (TDC) and Hairpin Communications to create a series of videos and essays documenting their work within the cultural planning process. The artists speak about their unconventional methods and show how art can start dialogues and open doors to possible solutions.

The process reflected back how Bostonians view arts and culture in their own neighborhoods—and how much diversity there is in those views. The contributions of artists are multi-fold. This videos series shares the ingenuity and creativity that went into the process of connecting, in the hope that communities will be inspired to continue the dialogue and express their creativity in their daily lives.

I encourage you to watch and read, enjoy and share these with others who believe in the power of arts to engage and inspire dynamic, thriving communities.

Learn about Department of Play’s role in Boston Creates

Hear from Leonardo March, Artist-Ethnographer

Hear from Shaw Pong Liu, Artist-Ethnographer

Hear from Heather Kapplow, Artist-Ethnographer

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San San Wong

E. San San Wong

Director of Arts & Creativity