“Neighborly Public Art” is the next big wave in world of art—or so hope Marilyn Lindström and Francis Yellow. They are a pair of artists who are collaborating on a new, community-centric, business model for visual art.
In Neighborly Public Art, a private person or persons purchase a piece of art that, rather than being displayed in their home, is installed in a park or a public place. Neighborly Public Art differs from regular public art in that it is not funded by government institutions or large organizations, but rather by private citizens who want to bring art into their world and share it with their neighbors.
While Neighborly Public Art is a new endeavor for the pair, they have worked together numerous times before on public art projects throughout the Twin Cities. Their first project together was a mural entitled “Project of Hope,” which was sponsored by Fresco Community Outreach and Megizi Communications in 1999. Lindstrom was the lead designer and Yellow served as a guest artist, along with several other guest artists and community members who helped to create the mural.
More recently, they created “Homage”, a mosaic commissioned by the Heritage Commons public housing project near Glenwood and Lyndale. The mosaic was installed in the lobby of a new building, and it honors women who organized in that community. The idea for the piece came from the neighbors and staff of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. “The elders watched us make it,” Lindström recalls. “One woman made us dinner every night.” Lindström explains that while “Homage” was a commissioned by a large organization, it exemplifies the concept of “neighborly art” in that the piece relates to community members and tells their story. Upon seeing the phoenix in “Homage,” a woman cried, “I know that bird! It represents me! My house went up in flames.”
The artists have created their first piece created under the official aegis of Neighborly Public Art: a mosaic called “Bird Woman,” commissioned by a woman who lives near the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis. Instead of buying a painting or sculpture for her living room, Sue Sattel decided to commission a mosaic for the outside of her house so that all of her neighbors could enjoy the art as well.
“We believe in taking a humble approach to the work,” says Lindström. One of the reasons that she and Yellow have shifted their focus toward “neighborly” art is the limitations often associated with the creation of public art. Public art commissions are usually run by professional or government bureaucrats. “We are usually less free to say anything,” says Yellow.
There is, too, a great deal of competition for public art funding, which Lindstrom and Yellow say affects the work. “Competition is really counterproductive for relationships,” Lindström says. “‘Quality’ is a very ambiguous word.” She says it wasn’t always this way. “In the early 1970s, we would talk to communities. Now everything is formalized.”
“It is all about the commoditization of art,” Yellow adds. “They say you have to have an MFA to be a worthy artist.” Yellow himself did attend an MFA art program, but was disillusioned when his professors discouraged him from creating work that reflected his people, the Lakota tribe. “They said I was wasting my talent.” Yellow feels he already had a worthwhile education through the teachings of the Lakota. “The Lifeway is more inclusive. It doesn’t classify or modify different kinds of knowledge,” explains Yellow. “We have our own way of making art. You don’t have to be an expert to understand it.”
The artists hope to collaborate with other people who may be interested in helping to bring art to their communities. “We want to emphasize,” says Lindström, “that people can make public art happen.”
Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.