Living in the Year of Public Art

A Conversation with DCASE Comissioner Mark Kelly
Mark Kelly is the Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), which presents and promotes high-quality free festivals, exhibitions, performances and holiday celebrations each year in parks, the historic Chicago Cultural Center and other venues throughout the city. He was appointed to the post by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in July 2016.
Kelly previously served as the Vice President for Student Success at Columbia College Chicago, where he fostered and oversaw an immersive arts experience for Columbia’s burgeoning student body, across its 100 different degree programs. For more than 30 years, Kelly served in numerous leadership roles at Columbia, supporting students who view the world through a creative lens in attaining a world-class education that blends creative and media arts, liberal arts and business.

Brett Swinney: I see that you have a masters degree in counseling, can you give me some insights on how that has lead you to your current position?

Mark Kelly: My thesis was around milieu therapy, which basically was a theory no one paid any attention to at all. Harry Stack Sullivan. And the argument was basically the mental health in individuals was predicated by the environment much more than by a therapist. Right, that we should focus more on healthy environments to create healthy individuals, and less this idea on mental health and a therapist. And in many ways, just that idea of how we live defines our behavior, and where art is in that mix is fundamental to full human life. So, I was at Columbia for 32 years. A long, long history in this fascinating institution — an institution that I don’t think we understand how important it has been to the city of Chicago. Thousands of grads and students that have taken what Columbia has offered and are now in Chicago making things happen creatively, the faculty both full and part-time, the institution itself, and I liked to be part of that for 32 years and developed my thinking, my point of view, chops, experiences that I think are going to serve me well in this position.

BS: Can you expand on that?

MK: Well, some of my best work at Columbia was recognizing, when I came in — this is 1984 — so Columbia had this interesting curriculum, great faculty, some very specialized, good facilities, but there was no sense of community. There was simply a student in that class. And to me, that was wrong-headed. What we needed is a cohesive culture that inspired our students. To make students are thirsty for community, for direction, for values, and for pathways. And a class doesn’t get enough of that. My work at Columbia was to build a culture that inspired and supported our students. And to start thinking what does that mean for a student at Columbia?

If you think of culture at a traditional college, unfortunately, more often than not, it’s sports, it’s fraternities and sorties, and it’s the Friday night party culture. And whether we like it or not, that’s very often the glue. And of course I didn’t want to create that but we needed our own rituals, our own moments of coming together. That’s what I focused on at Columbia. When I started, there were no galleries for students, there were no showcases of student work, there was no rituals or events that brought students together, there was no focus on students’ bodies of works. We had to push the work beyond just on doing a homework assignment — there might be a homework assignment — but the thrill, the threat, of an audience is where you develop.

So, as I left Columbia, there were six student galleries and I think it is fair to say that I helped create them. There were several student performance spaces where there were not, and then the student culture that began to emerge over time, very much centered on student’s bodies creation of work. When I think of things like Big Mouth — in the end, I helped create that culture, so I would argue a buzz emerged on Columbia’s campus. I created Manifest, an end of the year celebration of student work, putting a spotlight on it, pushing work to the view of the public, pushing students beyond the classroom every way I could.

Sort of like milieu therapy, right? But not to be therapeutic. I think that I could make Columbia a better place and then I became the architect of the Wabash Arts Corridor. So, I’ve always believed that art needs to be in the public way. But we get confused because we think art belongs on a stage, on a screen, in a frame, in a gallery, and in a museum. And of course it should be in all those places, but those are just a starting point. Why shouldn’t be art, in its various forms, embedded in our daily lives? Who said that based marketing images win the day? They sort of have, but no one said from on high “thou shalt have to live in a sea of base marketing images.”

How do you mark a campus?  How do you create an urban campus for students in a creative practice a sense of place? And to me, I saw Wabash Avenue as just this very dowdy, without character, filled with walls, filled empty promise, if you will, that we’re going to go at it and the idea just hit some major breakthroughs and momentum and here we are with arguably maybe the greatest collection of Chicago and world-class, epic public art in the city.

BS: What was your criteria for picking artists to participate?

MK: I would call it opportunistic curation because I think it is fair to say, and of course these processes need as these further mature, but I was assembling artists and walls as I could. In some cases, it was … I got a call from Shephard Ferry’s Arts Alliance, I think they were called. Do I want to partner with them? Yeah, I’ll do my part to make this happen. So we developed momentum, and the curation has to be good. I have to find great walls and great artists. The goal was always to get a mix of Chicago and the world, and a mix of real diversity in who was part of it. I got 20 walls, the majority of participating artists were women or minorities. So I was making selections, but it was with what was available, and now with momentum, there had to be, inevitably, a more formal curation process.It was sort of assembling a team very steeped in this world with connections and together we just made it happen.

BS: Wonderful. So that laid the foundation for the Year of Public Art?

MK: It was all fortuitous. I had no idea that I was coming into this position. I got a phone call. I didn’t even have a resume; I wasn’t even in the making. But I got a phone call that I was on the shortlist to be the new commissioner. After a momentary pause … heck yeah, I was interested. And then I come in and it’s already been declared the Year of Public Art, but it wasn’t clear Year of Public Art was going to be. There’s literally going to be $20,000 installation, or two or three, for every ward in the city to the tune of a million dollars. And this is a one time, there were some public art funds waiting to be used, so we’re using them.

It’s a partnership with aldermen where they commit $10,000 and we match it. We qualify the audience to be eligible and just let a hundred flowers bloom. I think it has the potential to be a watershed moment for Chicago because it takes public art and street art, which have been coming together, right? So public art used to be the monumental, the ceremonial, the very carefully streetscape, carefully placed and crafted. And then street art is very much the feel of the street and it’s not necessarily permanent, and it’s alive and it’s organic. You start to see it come together, and we’re going to have installations by Chicago artists throughout the city, suggest that maybe we enter a new era … the whole goal is for everyone to reset what should happen in a public way.

BS: What are the other initiatives are percolating for artists in Chicago?

MK: No, it’s going to be amazing that it’s taking place. First of all, for our individual artist program, we just announced the new guidelines for the new year. 25% of the grants will be for artists working in the public way. So maybe 35 additional artists will be receiving grants for public artwork. And in our grant program there probably will be three major announcements of major cultural institutions going deep to the public art world.

The Culture Center itself will be focused on public art, so we’re going to do a retrospective of the Wall of Respect; we’re going to be doing a gallery show that calls from artists from all 50 wards, so it’s a very unusual approach to curating. But the whole point is that the whole city is filled with great artists. It’s this very demographic way of thinking using geography as a driving force, but of course still curating based on the quality of the work.

We’re going to have a retrospective on the importance of the Latino mural movement in Chicago with the 18th Street and Little Village, Pilsen. We’re going to be doing what we hope will be a major … an installation that revisits the unveiling of the Picasso sculpture 50 years ago. Because we forget that when the sculpture wasn’t there, a bunch of the city was horrified, they were like “what the hell?” It was literally moving from public art as ceremonial to public art as Art. And then our eyes began to adjust to now see this iconic part of how we see the city. We want to go back and explore that and think about that.

And then we literally have over 100 submissions from partner cultural organizations around the city who are going to do public art installations and initiatives, and that’s just the beginning. So I think it’s fair to say there’s going to be incredible energy and momentum in the city regarding public art. And what we hope this all does is create new forces, creates new expectations where public art should be and what it is.

BS: It sounds really exciting and I really can’t wait for it to unfurl in the next a year, how do you plan to fit it all in one year?

MK: Well it’s the year of public year, but it doesn’t mean public art ends. But rather what we hope is that it becomes a watershed moment, a point in time where going forward in 2017 we’re starting to see fences, yards, gardens, parks, walls, all filled with the work of artists.

BS: In a different direction, what’s your favorite space or feature in Chicago?

MK: Well, as the architect of the Wabash Arts Corridor that’s just the delight I have when I go back there and I just see the power of that work and how people are always taking it in. But that’s more on a personal note.

I will say as we’re pushing work out there, both the Bean and the Crown Fountain are … I don’t want to get caught in the trap where I only value the more street style public art because here are these two installations, incredible artists, and they’re so interactive, and they bring such delight. I was just out at the Bean last weekend and there were hundreds and hundreds of people all transfixed. And then the glee, the joy, the squeals of delight you hear from children at the fountain. We need more of that. We need more of that at every level.

But I love taking the Blue line and getting out of your phone and just watching the back sides of the building. Some of its great, some of it is guerrilla style, I’m sure some of the wall owners wonder “who the hell did this?” But overall it’s colorful and alive and it speaks to me.

BS: So what do you want to tell the artists who use the Chicago Artists Resource?

MK: As excited as we can be about the Year of Public Art, it’s always been true and it remains true that for many artists in the city life is a struggle. They don’t feel that this is a culture that supports them, that there are not the opportunities that they wish for. So one of my responsibilities, within the limits of capacity, is to help make this a better, more supportive environment for the artists of this city. There are big and small ways that we have to do that. That’s not just my responsibility, but it is my responsibility working with all of the leading cultural partners to think about that and to work on that issue.

Click here for more information about the Year of Public Art.

Published by Brett Swinney on Wed, 11/16/2016 - 3:39am
Updated on Wed, 11/16/2016 - 11:13am