Responding to Civic Priorities through Public Art

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May 20, 2020
by Soila Kenya
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Responding to Civic Priorities through Public Art

Salzburg Global Fellows Alphonse Smith and Heidi Schmalbach help build artists’ capacity and address civic needs Art Fellows pose for a group photo

In November 2019, ten artists in New Orleans, Louisiana, participated in a series of training sessions to create art installations at key intersections near drainage canals and pumping stations. The aim? To build awareness of how the city’s drainage infrastructure works.

Alphonse Smith and Heidi Schmalbach developed the training after receiving a micro-grant from Salzburg Global Seminar and the Kresge Foundation. Smith and Schmalbach, who attended the third and fourth programs of the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators respectively, wanted to help local artists respond to civic priorities through public art interventions and creative place-making.

What came to fruition is the Civic Art Fellowship, a partnership between Arts Council New Orleans, of which Smith is executive director, and the Gentilly Resilience District. The District is an initiative led by the City of New Orleans’ Office of Resilience and Sustainability that aims to reduce flood risk, slow land subsidence, improve energy reliability, and encourage neighborhood revitalization.

Working in partnership with the District, Arts Council New Orleans is bringing an artistic flair to civic duty. Smith said, “The original concept was developed after meeting St. Paul artist and YCI fellow Amanda Lovelee in Salzburg, after which time a group of New Orleans YCIs visited Minneapolis to research best practice models.”

Heidi Schmalbach, a fellow YCI from New Orleans, was involved in the project as the former executive director and now an executive advisor to Arts Council New Orleans. She said, “There are a lot of people who already work for the city… in particular, the city of New Orleans, who are already creative professionals, artists, hobbyists when they’re not in their nine to five city job[s].

“And for various reasons, people feel like they have to hang up their creative hat when they walk in the door of city government. So we’re interested in the creative energies of people who are already in city government jobs and how to design with artists new ways to interface with [the public].”

Other partners involved with the Civic Art Fellowship include Crescent City Renaissance Alliance, the Water Leaders Institute, and Prospect New Orleans. The specialized training equips artists with technical knowledge related to critical civic issues facing New Orleans while providing peer-to-peer learning, mentorship, and social networking opportunities for the cohort.

The Civic Art Fellowship aims to produce public art along Gentilly’s water features to enhance the public’s understanding of living with water. While doing so, the Fellowship builds the artists’ capacity to address critical civic needs. Artists provide a sense of place through their work to advance future use and development of the location. They create lasting, innovative artwork that influences and shapes the development of the Gentilly Resilience District.

Despite the project’s projected gains, convincing government officials at the beginning of the process was far from easy. “There’s a key disconnect between the government and arts sector,” said Schmalbach. Smith added the critical issue is the two sectors don’t speak the same language. “I think we have a common language that we can speak, but that just hasn’t been defined yet,” he explained.

Smith said it was a matter of aligning agendas and ensuring each side felt their priorities were being addressed. Rather than merely commissioning beautiful artwork for the project, the Fellowship went a step further and also incorporated the artists’ training to benefit New Orleans’ creative scene. The city got what they wanted in artwork, but there was also a great benefit enjoyed by the participating artists.

Smith believes Arts Council New Orleans – and members of the YCI New Orleans Hub – can bridge divides between artists and government officials. He said, “It helps to give credibility and a little bit more weight to the idea that we’re not just these crazy arts non-profit administrators who are coming up with this idea that this is something that folks believe in. So to be awarded a micro-grant for that proposal says that the idea is valid. We’re hopeful that we can sort of build on that as we move forward with the program.”


The Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Innovators empowers rising talents in the creative sector to drive social, economic, and urban change. Launched in 2014, it is building a global network of 500 competitively-selected changemakers in “hub” communities who design collaborative projects, build skills, gain mentors, and connect to upcoming innovators in their cities and countries.    

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