Q&A with Emma Boast, MAPC Arts & Culture Fellow

Emma Boast_Bloomingdale_Trail_Chicago_2009

Emma Boast joined MAPC in 2019 as an Arts and Culture Fellow to serve a two-year term. Prior to joining MAPC, Emma worked as curator and cultural organizer who shaped experiences to help people collectively understand the past, engage with the present, and reimagine the future.

Emma’s fellowship is made possible by a grant from the Kresge Foundation’s Art & Creativity Program.

Give us an idea of your background: What was your experience prior to joining MAPC?

I often like to say that I wear a lot of hats and that’s been borne out by my meandering career path. Perhaps the first hat I wore was a toque. I’ve always loved cooking and toward the end of high school I told my parents I wanted to go to culinary school to become a pastry chef. In my senior year of high school, I took classes in French culinary technique on Saturday mornings and worked with a friend to develop a concept and business plan for a plated dessert café. During the summers while I was in college, I took on a number of odd jobs, from stages in kitchens in New York City and Chicago to working as an assistant to food writer Melissa Clark.

At the same time, I’ve always been passionate about art, history, and museums. This led me to study art history at the University of Chicago, where I quickly realized I was not terribly interested in paintings and sculptures, at least as an object of scholarly critique. So I sort of carved out my own niche in the discipline, focusing in the history of architecture, design, and urbanism. I had the incredible opportunity to take a class with artist Theaster Gates and immersed myself in histories of urban renewal.

With the support of some incredible advisors, I wrote a thesis about a seemingly mundane obsession: the 1972 New York City Subway map, designed by Massimo Vignelli. As so often happens with these things, my research helped me realize that the story was much, much bigger than I’d anticipated: the map was just one part of a larger campaign to rebrand the subway in the era of white flight and deindustrialization. Taken collectively, these cultural texts could be read alongside urban plans—particularly the 1969 Plan for New York City—to reveal the institutional priorities, cultural values, and political realignment that drove New York City’s transformation into a postindustrial cultural capital. I found that the “allied arts professionals” (to borrow historian Alison Isenberg’s phrase) who work with planners—artists, designers, marketing and PR professionals, museum directors and curators—were central to this story, which is really a story about the marketing and making of place. Little did I know that I’d find myself on the other side of the story a decade later here at MAPC!

Rice Harvest in Matsumoto, Japan. Photo via Emma Boast

Fast forward to post-college, I was living in Japan, working at a hospital in a Tokyo suburb as a technical writer, editor, and assistant to doctor. Although I’d lived in New York City and Chicago, those two years in Japan opened my eyes to a whole new kind of urbanism and, really, a different model of land use. I traveled a ton, tried to teach myself about Japanese cuisine and wrote a food blog and, inspired by what I observed about Japanese cities, researched graduate programs in urban planning. But I wasn’t quite ready to give up on a career in the arts.

Operating a puffing gun while working at the Musesum of Food and Drink. Photo via Emma Boast.

A couple years later I found myself back home in New York City, volunteering for a new, startup museum: the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD). Eventually, I managed to transform a part-time volunteer gig into a full-time job. Over five years, we launched three exhibitions that illustrated the museum’s interdisciplinary approach to food as culture. I probably wore about a dozen hats at the museum, but my primary job was directing the museum’s content: exhibitions, public programs, digital initiatives, and educational programming. Sometimes, that meant collaborating with a neuroscientist and flavor chemist to fine tune the mixes for the interactive, Willy Wonka-esque “Smell Synth” exhibit. Other times, it meant working as a puffing gun operator.

Smell Synth Exhibit at the Museum of Food and Drink. Photo by Marianne Masculino (2016), Flickr Creative Commons

Eventually, I decided it was time to pursue further formal education and found my way back into academia at Brown University, albeit via another non-traditional route: Public Humanities (more on what that means below!)

There’s no neat way to tie these threads together, and I’ll probably never feel entirely at home in any one discipline or institution. While I could say I’m an urbanist or a curator or a writer or a historian (and those things are technically true), I’d prefer to simply identify as a generalist and creative thinker. If those are the threads, the weave, perhaps, is critical curiosity: about the world around us and why things are the way they are. My hope is that by better understanding our present moment and how we got here, we can help shape better futures.

What was the appeal of MAPC’s Arts and Culture Fellow position?

When I first saw the job posting for the Fellow position, my first reaction was simply, “Wow, that would be pretty perfect!” It seemed like such a unique opportunity to bring the questions and issues I have been considering throughout my career—who shapes cities and with what tools and what degree of power; the political economy of art and culture; and the importance of historical perspective and interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving—into practical focus. After studying histories of urban planning and trying to understand how the interplay between political and cultural forces has reshaped American cities, it seemed only appropriate that I should position myself on the ground and learn through an embedded process. The opportunity to work in and with communities was also appealing, as I have long been interested in how local actors and institutions deploy cultural narratives to articulate and promote particular visions of a “community.”

What opportunities do you see to bring the public humanities into MAPC's work?

You’re probably wondering: what on earth is the public humanities? Here’s my definition: public humanities is an emerging, interdisciplinary field that seeks to engage people in understanding history, art, and cultural heritage in service of promoting social justice, empathy, and understanding. Public humanities practitioners use a variety of tools—including storytelling and oral histories, exhibition and experience design, and informal education—to do this work in settings like museums, libraries, community arts organizations, foundations, and cultural heritage institutions.

Right now at MAPC, I am working on organizing a series of public programs that will convene artists, culture bearers, historians, arts administrators, preservationists, and planners to explore possibilities for creating more inclusive representations of our region’s history in public space. My hope is that these conversations will serve as a necessary starting point for larger conversations about the region’s past, demonstrate new approaches to framing belonging, and support our goal of promoting inclusive and thriving communities.

What do you think planners can learn from the public humanities?

First and foremost, I hope to approach that question from a position of humility: I have a lot to learn from planners! But I do hope that, through my fellowship, I can model ways of working that demonstrate that planning is more an art than a science. This perspective can help us embrace more inclusive narratives, as well as bolder approaches and solutions, in ways that shift our perspective of whom we’re accountable to.

Perhaps most importantly, I hope to demonstrate that planning for the future means nothing unless we are clear-eyed about our past and recognize the fundamental roots of inequality in our region and country. Although planning is a fundamentally future-oriented profession, I’m excited to develop tools that can help my colleagues here at MAPC (as well as our municipal and state partners) bring more critical historical perspectives in order to support our work promoting equity in the region.

What opportunities do you see to bring co-creation into MAPC’s work?

I tend to think about co-creation in two ways: it is a design method that starts from understanding audiences, partners, and participants, and designing projects, solutions, or interventions that align with their proclivities, interests, and needs. But it is also a conceptual framework that can help us better understand, say, how young people engage with social media, or how people construct narratives and interpret experiences together. I hope to bring this framework and approach into projects where we are partnering with local partners to execute creative products.

For example, for a current project I’m working on in Bedford, we will be partnering with local organizations to develop public art installations on a historic rail trail. In this, case, we can apply a co-creative design method and the lens of public humanities to develop interventions that expand a community’s historical narrative and sense of itself. I am also very excited to work with my colleague Annis to establish a learning community at MAPC where we can educate ourselves about Native presence in our region and learn from Native communities who have long called this place home.

Did you have any prior knowledge of urban planning before you came here? What have you learned?

From a practical perspective, I knew relatively little about planning before coming to MAPC. Most of what I did know I learned by studying histories of planning and pouring over archival material—for example, studying the University of Chicago’s role in Hyde Park’s urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s or reading about the history of public housing. Urban planning has obviously changed a lot since then; it’s much less top-down and more consensus-driven. But some of the fundamental concerns of planners remain the same: how to provide maximum public benefit while negotiating with the realities of private land ownership. It seems to me that the philosophy around matters of accountability, ethics, and citizenship has shifted, but that many of the tools remain similar. I’ve learned and gained a great appreciation for the fact that planners are quite often generalists who wear a lot of hats! I’ve also learned that it takes great political sophistication to do this work well, though I question whether even the most sophisticated process can ever be truly objective.

What have you been working on for the past few months?

We’ve been working on a Public Art Master Plan for Watertown, which has become one of my larger projects. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to local stakeholders about the plan, as well as organizing public workshops to build buy-in and inform our recommendations. I’ve also begun to dip a toe into the world of public art policy by studying how public art gets created and financed in other places. For a creative placemaking project on the Malden River, I helped design and lead a training for bilingual interpreters who could serve as advocates for the project in their communities, and contributed to the research, development, and writing, of an interpretive guide to the Malden River’s history, infrastructure, and land use.