Interview with PAD Award Recipient Jack Becker

by Natasha Khandekar

Jack is founder and executive director of Forecast Public Art, established in 1978. As a public artist and program administrator, Jack specializes in projects that connect the ideas and energies of artists with the needs and opportunities of communities. He has organized more than 70 exhibitions, 50 publications, and numerous special events. Widely published in the field, he also serves as the publisher of Public Art Review. At the end of 2013, Jack and I had the opportunity to speak about his career and deep commitment to public art.

Your path to becoming the founder and director of Forecast Public Art represents years of dedication. May I ask you to speak to us about your prolific career and how your combined talents have contributed to your current work?

I was fortunate my parents encouraged me at an early age to explore the arts, and I took full advantage of that. In high school I studied theater (acting, directing and improv) as well as the visual arts (drawing, painting, collage and sculpture). I began my college education as a theater major but switched to a fine arts track, and tried all kinds of different media at about four different schools: Washington University and Webster University in St. Louis (my home town), Maryland Institute, in Baltimore, Croydon College of Art in England and finally the Minneapolis College of Art and Design [MCAD], where I got a BFA in Sculpture and Intermedia. MCAD professors, such as Siah Armajani, Andrew Leicester and Kinji Akagawa, made a big impression on me, and I became interested in art that happens outside of galleries and museums. I also spent lots of time dumpster diving (long before the term was coined) making found-object sculptures, installations and assemblages from whatever was at hand. I recall a project with banana peels, repurposing a piano soundboard, stacking plates of glass and stretching strands of elastic to make line drawings in space.

I was only a year out of college when the city of Minneapolis received CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) funding from the government and created a one-year jobs program for sixty artists. In 1977, I was hired as Gallery Director for City Art Productions, and given a desk and phone at City Hall, at the Minneapolis Arts Commission. The only catch was there was no gallery. The city was my gallery and I was charged with organizing exhibitions of CETA artists at places such as the library, the government center, parks, plazas and other public venues. It was a very empowering experience, as I found that I could make connections, get things done, and people would actually return my calls, or offer to help. Bureaucracy, I learned, is an art form, not unlike found-object sculpture. All the raw materials are around us—the people, places and things that make up a city—and all we need do is connect them in new and meaningful ways.

At the end of the CETA program, I got a part-time job working as back stage security at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis (then owned by Bob Dylan’s brother). One day while walking to work I spotted a 2500 square foot, vacant storefront in the Warehouse District with a “for rent” sign in the window. The tenant had gutted it to use as a gallery but decided to sublease it. Inspired by the nonprofit, alternative artspace movement sprouting around the country (places like And/Or in Seattle, and 112 Greene Street in New York), I saw the potential of the space and invited my CETA and MCAD colleagues to check it out. We decided to start a nonprofit called Forecast (an umbrella for the changing arts climate). After ten months operating as an artspace, Forecast realized most of the funds we were raising were being allocated to rent, lights and promotion, so we abandoned the gallery and began using parks, plazas and donated vacant storefronts for various artist-led projects. As a new public art organization, we began focusing on connecting the ideas and talents of artists with the needs and opportunities of communities.

Visual art and theatre are a strong part of your background. Can you discuss how these interests influence your artistic and administrative practice?

I think public art is more similar to theater than the visual arts. It’s collaborative, as it often requires a team, working in concert, to develop and implement a project. The end result is dynamic and engages an audience in an active and participatory way. My background in theater, and particularly my improvisational skills, are extremely useful in the work that I do. My familiarity with different visual art practices and skills, and my own experimentation as a public artist has been very helpful in serving as a project manager, administrator, fundraiser, publicist and critic. After starting Forecast, since it didn’t make much money, I took several jobs, including public art coordinator for the City of Minneapolis, arts development manager for the City of St. Paul, and instructor at the College of Visual Arts. All of these experiences proved extremely valuable to the growth and maturing of Forecast, and my ability to offer consulting services, which is a large part of my job now.

Forecast Public Art was founded in 1978. Can you discuss its beginnings, its inspirations, and its continued commitment to consulting services, grantmaking, creative resources, and Public Art Review.

As I mentioned earlier, Forecast grew into its role as a public arts organization. The first ten years were project-by-project, from outdoor sculpture exhibits throughout the Twin Cities to vacant storefront installations and traveling exhibitions. In 1989, with grant support from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and The McKnight Foundation, we started two ongoing programs: Public Art Review (PAR) and Public Art Affairs (a statewide grant program for emerging artists now called Artist Services). The magazine grew from our experience of publishing catalogues and documenting our temporary projects, as well as our desire for information about what else was going on in the field. Our grant program was inspired by other “regranting” efforts and support from the Jerome Foundation. We publish two issues of PAR a year, with support from subscribers, advertisers, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The program offers support to emerging Minnesota artists in two categories: research and development and public projects. A few years ago, with support from McKnight Foundation, we added a category for mid-career artists, offering professional development and project support. By the mid-90s we began a consulting practice. Most recently we have expanded our programs to include education and community engagement, offering services to help educators seeking to teach public art in the classroom, growing our online presence, and partnering with others to fulfill our mission of advancing and strengthening the field of public art both locally and globally.

As a collector, maker, and collaborator, can you speak about your continued interest in the public sector and dedication to meaningful public art?

Cities around the world face a series of crises, including climate change, urbanization and escalating social tension. Governments and businesses have too long been focused solely on financial gain, and have lost sight of social and cultural needs. Artists exploring the public realm bring ideas and innovation to these challenges in fresh and meaningful ways, yet they are sorely undervalued in our society. It’s only through increased understanding and appreciation that we will achieve the goal of increased support. My strategy is to put more artists to work in the public realm, and help them grow as independent producers, while at the same time provide resources and information to assist in a new approach. We need to encourage dialogue with governments, funding agencies, policymakers, civic leaders, design professionals, curators and educators, not to mention the media and the general public, which still often defines public art as murals, monuments and memorials (plus an occasional mime).

The definition of public art continues to be discussed, debated, and reassigned. At this time, “creative placemaking” is a term we often see at conferences, in academia, and in critique. How do we expand the conversation, and importantly, find a shared vocabulary for what we understand to be public art?

This is a great question. I have seen trends in the public art field come and go. The list of trends, terms and acronyms has grown quite long. A few years ago, Forecast created a Public Art Toolkit that’s freely accessible on our website. We added a glossary but it’s hard to keep it up to date. Indeed, the lack of a shared and standardized vocabulary is one of the biggest barriers to increasing understanding and appreciation in this field. For example, I think fireworks displays are public art, but how many people that flock to see pyrotechnics on the 4th of July would agree? If it’s not public art, then what is it? Can educational systems help level this playing field? Can schoolchildren be taught at an early age about design, public art and socially minded creative practices? What about college-level students? What will it take to change the post-secondary educational systems that seem to overlook the importance of artists working in the public realm?

Your mission to empower the artist manifests in many components of your work including funding opportunities. Can you discuss your methodology?

It’s important to recognize that public art is not an art form but rather a field of inquiry, not unlike medicine or science. Some artists are specialists and some are general practitioners. The practice of public art is one of trial and error as well as cause and effect. Forecast’s grant program asks artists: If you could apply your creativity to anywhere in the state, reach any audience you want and address whatever issues are important to you, what would you do? We have one deadline a year and receive about sixty to seventy applications. The proposals are reviewed by an independent panel of public art experts that changes each year. A limited group of artists receive grants including technical assistance and opportunities to network with each other. We hire a videographer to produce short documentaries for each project which are posted on our Vimeo site. It’s important to note that this is not a commissioning program. We’re not asking artists to create something for Forecast nor do we own or maintain the art. We invite artists to take risks, reach beyond their comfort zones, follow their passions and connect with others—in the arts and other sectors—to realize their ideas. But it’s not enough to simply fund projects. It’s important to foster a community of public art professionals by offering professional development opportunities, providing career training, networking, and developing resources. Public art is a profession, and a complex one at that. In addition to our online Toolkit, we host visiting artists, convene forums, and offer access to our public art resource library—one of the largest in the world with more than 3,000 titles.

What are some of your current projects, including your involvement with the International Award for Public Art?

Forecast is celebrating thirty five years, and in 2014, Public Art Review turns twenty five. Both of these are major milestones. I have many consulting projects in the works, including a “Healing Space” project for Planned Parenthood, preparing a strategic plan for a Gordon Parks memorial for downtown St. Paul, several library art commissions, and some speaking gigs around the country. I’m very excited to be working on the International Award for Public Art in collaboration with Shanghai University, where they publish Public Art, a Chinese magazine devoted to contemporary public art. In 2011, I was invited to meet with a team of people assembled at Shanghai University and plan the program. Last April, after many months of researching and jurying more than 140 projects from around the world, Forecast co-presented a forum and award ceremony in China, joined by 150 artists, critics, academics and curators from seventeen different countries. A new nonprofit entity, the Institute for Public Art based in Hong Kong, was established to foster ongoing research and manage the award program every two years. Future forums and award events are currently in the works. I welcome involvement from anyone interested in committing time and energy toward this effort. Our shared goal is to build a network of universities, municipalities, and others willing to help support the process. One idea is having students perform research for credit; a curriculum could be developed that offers credit for independent research to be posted on Forecast’s website. The research would be shared and used by future rounds of jurors to help determine finalists for the next International Award for Public Art. My hope is that we will also find support to produce professional documentary films about new public art around the world, and build a broad and diverse audience to raise awareness, share vocabulary, and build further support for artists working in the public realm.

Winter 2014 | Vol 6, Issue 1
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