The value of art reaches beyond traditional museums and formal exhibitions. I have seen the arts galvanize communities, unite diverse groups of people, and provide a starting point for dialogue around difficult and important social issues. Art is a unique and powerful tool we can use to understand our communities.
There are important conversations people living in marginalized neighborhoods of Milwaukee, Wisconsin want to have, and art could be the perfect catalyst, but their voices are absent or muted in art’s more traditional settings. The museum is no longer sufficient.
Enter the TypeFace public art project, which unveiled a couple of weeks ago on some of the city’s vacant and foreclosed spaces.
Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation, the project provides a different forum, one that is accessible to everyone—no opening hours, admission fees, or shushing. Public art, after all, is a community conversation held in the open where you can talk as loud as you want.
But what makes this project different from other public art installations? I admit that even as a borderline-obsessive lover of public art, I am wary of “feel good” mural projects. As an ethnographer, I am wary of those attempting to come from outside a community and play savior.
But TypeFace avoids these pitfalls by making conversation its centerpiece, not an afterthought. Featured artist Reginald Baylor’s installations result directly from the year Milwaukee documentarian Adam Carr spent with residents of four of Milwaukee’s roughest neighborhoods, talking with them about their lives and communities.
These are neighborhoods with high rates of crime, poverty, and unemployment; areas where people live but others rarely visit.
“People will come to areas for art, food, and entertainment,” explains Jeremy Fojut, ART Milwaukee president and my TypeFace tour guide when I visited. Giving people a reason to come into these areas is one of TypeFace’s goals.
Each installation is covered with words and phrases from Adam’s interviews in each community that evoke a variety of emotions: good, bad, angry, brash, hopeful, reflective, realistic.
Quotations range from the serious—“How can I turn the fight into something positive?”and “Challenge them to act” at the Puzzled and Amazed site in the neighborhood of Harambee—to the silly and abstract: “They had my name carved in an ice cream cone” at the Panel Discussion installation in Sherman/Washington Park.
A perfect example of how public art can engage a community, TypeFace is more than inspirational. For cities with dead spaces, these conversation-centric installations can motivate residents to use public art as a way to talk with their own communities. TypeFace does not suffer from “savior syndrome,” but is a creation of the communities it’s in, made with residents very literally writing the script.
The year of conversations, workshops, and meetings is apparent in looking at the installations, and it’s exhilarating. By acknowledging the struggles and frustrations as well as the hopes and aspirations of the neighborhoods, TypeFace encourages us to begin knowing these communities and to continue the conversation.
To learn more about TypeFace and how you might bring something similar to your community, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jordan Kifer is the co-founder of the “Art Is” project and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan where she completed her thesis “Como Ser Afro-Latino/a? Examining Afro- and Latino/a Identities in the United States.” Jordan is a regular contributor to INSIGHT Magazine and works as a development assistant for Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.