Artists Step Up:
Crisis Management and Creative Sensibility
Header Photo Credit: Jason Cruz
Where a Covid response is innovative and cohesive, you’ll likely find artists and cultural organizations in the mix – if not in the lead. How are Lynn, Salem, and Worcester’s creators inventing new ways to help their communities through the crisis?
When the pandemic hit Lynn, Massachusetts, a diverse gateway city with a large immigrant population, the scale of the crisis seemed nearly insurmountable. Lynn’s sole hospital had closed only months before, and like many communities, the city’s public health infrastructure was limited.
Luckily, Carolyn Cole says, “resourcefulness and adaptability are the hallmarks of arts and culture.” Born and raised in Lynn, and a person for whom “community is family,” Cole was, until a very recent job change, Director of the Downtown Lynn Cultural District for the City of Lynn (as well as CDBG Subrecipient Administrator). As Director, she applauded the City’s welcoming of creative solutions and applied her arts and culture scope and sensibility to the tasks at hand. She transitioned the position to be one that supports all aspects of the city’s response and recovery and that led artists into new ways of engaging with municipal government to address emerging needs. Says Cole, who had regular access to and support from the Mayor’s Office, "The pride and perseverance of my community is ingrained in all that I do, and it has been an honor to serve my city in the ways I’ve been able. I'm very much looking forward to expanding my efforts to additional areas throughout the region, and to further inclusive and equitable economic development through the power of creativity, within my new role with the Creative Collective."
Director Cole started with adapting the kinds of programs she offered pre-pandemic to the new reality. She accelerated Lynn’s pre-COVID funding opportunities for artists, including the Canvas the City and Lynnstallation projects, offering flexibility and leniency to grantees. She partnered with Lynn Community TV to document the Canvas the City grantees’ experiences as they adapt to the pandemic. The film is expected to be released in early 2021.
With a grant from Mass DOT, and in partnership with the City of Lynn and Lynn Main Streets, she is launching the creation of new outdoor public spaces that use living moss walls to improve air quality. The spaces feature multilingual public health posters and provide wayfinding signs to encourage social distancing. By actively reaching out to businesses owned by immigrants and people of color she helped ensure these initiatives met the needs of those who might not have had support at the beginning of the crisis. Cole describes these efforts as going beyond “some chairs out on the sidewalk,” and toward co-creating with the individuals who are the source of Lynn’s cultural wealth and equitable economic growth.
Director Cole’s efforts went even further: she mobilized a multi-faceted collaborative pandemic response. As a member of a Vulnerable Populations Task Force, Cole established the Lynn Community Care Fund with the United Way. Aware of food security issues from her work with The Food Project, Cole launched Lynn's Food Security Task Force and 'Food for Thought' pilot program in partnership with Mutual Aid Lynn and pivoted the Lynn Main Streets initiative to include food distribution. Cole made sure that the food and ingredients offered were just as culturally diverse as the community.
Meanwhile, the creative sector was getting practical in Salem, too. In response to the intense Covid-related challenges for small businesses, Mayor Kimberley Driscoll created the Economic Development Recovery and Revitalization (EDRR) Task Force and included Creative Collective, an organization that supports the creative workforce and small businesses throughout the North Shore, along with municipal staff, elected officials, and leaders in Salem’s business community.
The result has been an array of programs that together indicate vigor to businesses and customers and inject energy into otherwise boring public health messaging.
On the second day outdoor retail and dining was allowed, Salem was ready with approvals for 15 restaurants. The City partnered with Creative Collective to facilitate the commissioning of over a dozen muralists to create vibrant works of art to be displayed across more than 100 jersey barriers. These beautified barriers protect new outdoor dining venues and welcome customers and diners downtown. To rebuild trust amongst and between customers and businesses, the EDRR program developed the Salem Together Pledge Toolkit. Through this project, Salem commissioned Collective Operations Director and freelance artist Michelle Garcia to create striking public service graphics that cover topics from wellness tips for small businesses to clever Salem-centric posters about mask wearing. In one such poster, which is available in English and Spanish, the iconic Salem statue of Samantha from Bewitched is shown – bemasked.
Salem invested in its artists. One grant went to the Northshore CDC program, Punto Urban Art Museum, which in turn commissioned 25 artists to create stunning – and free – Covid PSA resources primarily for non-English-speaking communities. The artwork includes posters, activity books, stickers, and more.
Salem’s Arts & Culture Planner Julie Barry developed the program Art Spring as an arts response to COVID-19 in April and May. It ultimately put money in the hands of 11 local artists who in turn created over 20 unique works of art for the community. The project brought a colorful and whimsical spring to Salem through pop-up installations of chalk art and yarn ‘bomb’ sculptures, complemented by maps guiding visitors on walking tours of Salem’s public art.
Salem Art Spring. The second piece was installed on Congress Street across from the Health Center at 48 Congress Street. The artist, Anna Dugan of Anna Did A Thing responded to the Art Prompt: Gratitude for Essential Workers. See more: https://www.studiofuldesign.com/blog/2020/5/7/chalk-art-saturdays
Worcester is yet another example of how the creative sector is not only adapting its own work to new challenges, but also solving entirely new problems in new ways – with energy and empathy.
“By May,” says City of Worcester’s Cultural Development Officer, Erin Williams, “we (the cultural office) saw how depressed everyone was getting, and we were tired of only giving out dire messages.” Thus was born Give me a Sign, a Worcester-wide blitz of 149 metal signs designed by artists to evoke street signs and several billboards with encouraging messages such as “Better days are ahead,” “Absolutely not. No hate here,” in multiple languages.
"Give Me a Sign," Courtesy Worcester Cultural Council
Sponsored by the City of Worcester Cultural Development Division, in partnership with the Worcester Cultural Coalition and the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, the project is a hit. “People are head over heels,” says Williams. “It’s a small little thing, but it’s a big thing right now because people are feeling pretty bleak. The very act of physically posting the signs on street corners and in parks brought out a glimmer in the eyes of passersby, thumbs ups or laughter. We couldn’t actually see the smiles but know they’re there.”
Not everything the creative sector is working on in Worcester is so supposedly small. The Cultural Development Division is an active part of Worcester Together, which was launched in March with the United Way and the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, and has already granted $8.6 million for Covid-19 relief. “We are pretty adept at collaboration as the cultural sector,” observes Williams, “we were able to jump right in to working together and see the problem as a creative challenge.”
Worcester Cultural Coalition members and the cultural development staff work on a wide variety of different crisis response committees. “Some people might say that's mission stray,” says . “‘Why are you working on hot spots to develop Internet access throughout the city?’ Well, it's very relevant to our work. Because we've all pivoted to virtual programming. If you don't have access you're out of the loop.”
“These things might be a detour from the projects we were expecting to be working on right now,” continues Williams, “but it certainly doesn't move us away from arts and culture being about creating an equitable society. So if we send out a call to create some public health signage, all the better.”
In the end, Williams says, “Artists and cultural institutions bring a creative perspective to problem-solving. It’s like a lemon I have that was turned into a piece of jewelry – taking that creative sensibility and putting it towards something that's really critical in our communities right now. We know we all can't do it alone.”