The Cultural Organizer as Urbanist: A Conversation with José Serrano-McClain

Public art used to be defined in contrast to the art museum. The latter was a bricks-and-mortar cultural institution whose purview was the collections and exhibitions within its walls. The former – whether a memorial statue in a park, a modernist sculpture outside an office building, or a colorful mural on a disinvested street – was the art that took place outside those walls, in the public spaces of the city. In recent years, both public art and art museums have widened their scopes of activity. On Urban Omnibus, we’ve explored public art’s often surprising intersections with transit, technology, and Times Square. And we’ve applauded the attempts of cultural institutions, like the Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park, to instigate community-based planning and advocacy efforts.

The expanding definitions of both public art and the art museum speak to trends not only in art, but also in urbanism. As artists and cultural institutions are increasingly intervening in urban space, they are borrowing tools from social justice movements as well as the design tactics of placemaking. The multi-faceted career of José Serrano-McClain – artist, community organizer, and social entrepreneur – reflects several of these emerging trends. We sat down with him to discuss his work with the Queens Museum of Arta national pioneer in museum-community partnerships – as well as the organization he co-founded, Trust Art, which seeks to refresh the relationship between artistic practice and capitalism through innovations in crowdfunding, community-building, and other structures of support for socially engaged creativity in the public realm.

-C.S.

Trust Art co-founders Seth Aylmer (left) and José Serrano-McClain (right) in front of Trust Art’s Declaration of Infinite Renewal

What do you do?
I am a co-founder of Trust Art, a community to support public art and creative work of all kinds in the public realm. And I’m a community organizer at the Queens Museum of Art (QMA), where I run a series of projects called the Corona Studios.

When and why did the Queens Museum start hiring community organizers?
Tom Finkelpearl, the executive director of the Queens Museum, has had a lot of experience with community-based creative work, with public art in particular. He believes we’re living in an age of engagement, and to fulfill our mission requires more than inviting our neighbors to come see art inside the museum; we need to create initiatives in the communities that surround us. To succeed at that endeavor requires finding a way to talk to organizations on the ground in Queens. Community organizers are equipped with specific listening skills, able to code-switch between the languages of different stakeholders, and able to communicate with artists about their concerns and goals for the project at hand.

So, about six years ago, the Queens Museum started hiring community organizers to create dialogue with local groups. As community organizers, our task is to make sure that the community leaders know there is a way for them to propose ideas to us and for us to engage in their ongoing work. I would characterize it more as a cultural organizer than a community organizer. We’re definitely speaking the language of organizing, and in doing so, we’re lending the museum’s creative tools to social justice initiatives happening around Queens, especially when our resources can help achieve the goals of a specific campaign.

“I came here to be an American” | photo by Christopher Robbins

And tell me about QMA’s projects in Corona.
Corona is a place where we’re particularly interested in reaching a critical mass of creative energy. For the last few years, QMA has been commissioning groups of artists to tackle different problems in Corona. One example is the work of Tania Bruguera, whose project, “Immigrant Movement International” takes the form of an actual community space — and the space itself is an important aspect of the work — that has been operating as a de facto cultural center, a school of sorts for which Tania has invited people to propose classes. There are ESL classes taught by an artist who uses portraiture as an educational device. And one of the classes happening there — and I find this to be such a beautiful idea — is teaching a group of older Asian women who want to learn Spanish as a third language.

Another project that we commissioned last summer is the Ghana Think Tank. This collective of artists, all of whom had experience in the Peace Corps, realized how absurd it is for the “first world” to develop “solutions” for unfamiliar contexts in the “third world.” They’ve convened workshops in places like Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, and Ghana and invited local participants to collaborate on solving problems in first world cities. In Corona, Queens, where something like 60% of the population is undocumented, the Ghana Think Tank project manifested itself as a structured dialogue between the more recent immigrants — mostly Latino — and the more established immigrant communities — mostly Italian — in Corona. One of the problems identified during this dialogue was that there’s very little conversation about who identifies as an immigrant. And one of the things proposed to spark this conversation was a series of bus ads.

Corona Plaza | photos by Neshi Gallindo

Most recently, we’ve spent a lot of our energy on a space called Corona Plaza, which has now been pedestrianized and is officially part of the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) Plaza Program. QMA has been the programming partner for this plaza, in collaboration with a number of local cultural producers, and there is now a series of awesome community events there.

Do you get the sense that other bricks and mortar cultural institutions around the country are starting to follow the Queens Museum’s model of creating work beyond museum walls and engaging in communities?
I do. And I hope it continues to happen with sensitivity. But we’re just at the beginning of this type of work: among artists feeling energized to go into communities, and among institutions realizing that this is an important part of their missions.

I think we’re past the point when art museums considered themselves as distinct from their neighborhoods. There are definitely more and more examples of institutions finding ways to harmonize with their surrounding communities.

How has your professional and academic background led to your current projects?
For the past ten years, I’ve bounced from realm to realm. In college, I studied economics as well as cultural theory. And after school I worked at the Federal Reserve for five years as an economic analyst. I worked on a number of research initiatives intended to create long-term insights into capital markets, basically running different models to look at where the economy was headed. I remember working on papers in 2005 about how the subprime mortgage market was starting to look unstable.

And then I quit my job at the Fed to work on a variety of creative projects, starting with a documentary film that looked at how the world of celebrity works, how value and fame are created. The projects that followed all seemed to relate to questions about why the realms of art and capital are so hard to reconcile. I was spending a lot of time and attention on public art projects, and wanted to explore how to create a funding mechanism that addresses the specific challenges and opportunities that public art presents. Trust Art evolved out of that desire.

Trust Art Stock Certificate | photo by Justin Tellian

How does Trust Art work?
Our first experiment was to issue financial securities around a series of public art projects. Our current experiment is to create a hybrid cooperative structure around Trust Art that matches the values and ethos of the artists whose work it aims to support. We’re now bringing to market a funding mechanism that will borrow many of the best features from existing crowdfunding platforms, but will also introduce some new ways to think about what it means to fund this specific type of creative work.

We’re not talking about how to support creative work that can easily be turned into economic transactions – like a painting or an album. We’re talking about how to support creative work like a public space intervention or a free event in a specific neighborhood. When you put a piece in the public realm, like a mural for example, there’s no aftermarket for that, per se. And so its economics are much more complicated than art objects that you can sell.

How do you, personally, define “public art”?
I tend to have a pluralistic view of public art: I define it as creative work in the public realm, free and available to all and not enclosed private commodities. I’m not just referring to objects that appear in a cityscape, but also free forms of intellectual property — like an open-source database of imagery, for example.

And how do you define “social practice”?
I’m steeped in a world that is trying to define and own this term, “social practice.” But, for all the time invested in trying to define it, most of us agree that when the artist was part of a functioning social fabric, there was no need to distinguish social practice from other modes of making art. For the past 150 years, during which time the market has dominated the realm of art, the figure of the artist has been considered as separate from society. Before that, the artist was a social actor.

Social practice, public art… These are definitely within the same sphere for me. I would like to walk outside and come upon an awesome free play in the park that engages tons of kids, then walk down the street and find a really awesome mural, and then walk across the street and continuously be engaged by imaginative choices that make us, as the public, pause to enjoy social interactions and creativity.

Bushwick Art Park

How do you characterize your own art practice?
I feel like art is a space of experimentation, where everything is game. So, I consider myself an artist in that I am deeply interested in experimenting with new forms. And the forms that I’m most interested in experimenting with are economic exchanges, especially economic exchanges that try to operate in a balanced way, in the realm of the creative spirit. Tactically, I’ll use that identifier or not depending on the context. I’m on a trajectory of interloping between worlds.

Lewis Hyde, who’s an advisor to Trust Art, wrote a book I really love called Trickster Makes This World, which argues that most societal change begins with social actors who are crossing boundaries, sneaking between worlds and bringing ideas from one to the other. At first these ideas are unwanted, then they become necessary, then those boundaries dissolve and there’s a new fence to cut through. Hyde discusses a number of mythological figures like Hermes from Greek mythology, Krishna from Hindu mythology, or the coyote in certain Native American literatures. And he discusses historical figures like Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, and Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp is a good example of a trickster, an interloper between worlds, and his work – like Fountain, his porcelain urinal project – clearly created a moment in art history after which everything had to operate within a new framework. Change happens at the juncture between worlds. And for me, those worlds are art and capitalism. An earlier book by Lewis Hyde, The Gift, goes even further in defining what separates art from capital. The gift economy, in Hyde’s account, existed long before the market economy. In societies where the idea of gift giving does not correspond to a one-to-one transaction, the most important thing anyone can do with a gift is to pass it on to another actor in the community; each gift contributes to the common good.

Most creative practice exists on a spectrum between purely market driven and purely gift driven. And one of the beautiful things about public art is the number of stakeholders involved, so it immediately becomes a context for exchange between community leaders, politicians, agency directors, museums, artists, and local businesses. Trust Art seeks to excel at supporting those types of projects that are able to invite their supporters into creative decision-making. When that happens, all of a sudden supporters start to recognize themselves as creative participants.

Dreamers Project | Photo by Justin Tellian

For example?
One of the pilot projects supported through Trust Art was called the Dreamers Project. For one day, in six cities around the world, the Dreamers Project invited anyone in that city who considered him or herself a dreamer to dress in all white and have his or her portrait taken, to take a moment to think about his or her dreams. That was an ephemeral event based around a social interaction with the artist. Another example was a more traditional object in public space: a fountain in McGolrick Park created by a perfumer, a sculptor, a glass blower, and an electrical engineer. Another one of the pilot projects consisted of an artist visiting a bunch of sites in the Lower East Side with a typewriter and sitting down for an afternoon’s worth of typing up people’s memories of the Lower East Side.

And what’s changed for Trust Art between the pilot projects and what you’re working on currently?
This time around, we are getting much more strategic about building a useful crowdfunding platform. We’ve brought on a technical co-founder. And we are working with designers and web developers to bring everything we have learned from supporting public art projects in the physical world over the past few years and to bake all that learning into this new funding platform, which will be available soon at trustart.org. The spirit of the projects we support remains the same, but the model of support has changed. That said, I’d like to think that other types of projects in the public domain – like open-source journalism projects for example – could also benefit from the crowdfunding platform we are developing.

In Trust Art’s first iteration, we called each project’s supporters “shareholders.” We thought it would be fun to borrow this lingo from the market. But it proved confusing for people. Shareholder of what? This time around, we’re calling project supporters “trustees.” A shareholder refers to someone with a financial stake in a private institution. A trustee, on the other hand, refers to a collaborative leadership role in guiding a public institution. But whatever the nomenclature, the point of Trust Art is to create communities of support around art projects in the public realm, and to create tools for the artists behind those projects to enter into productive dialogue with their supporters.

How will this platform, philosophically as well as practically, differ from something like Kickstarter?
It differs in that we are a mission-driven organization rather than a for-profit organization. That mission is to support the growth and sustainability of creative work in the public realm, and all of our strategic decisions are about whether that mission’s being achieved or compromised. And we’re going to focus on building tools for the artist to be able to create community around their trustees.

Existing tools are effective in enabling the artist to send updates about their project to its supporters. But we want to take a more dialogic approach. Of course, any artist who works with Trust Art will maintain the autonomy to realize his or her own vision. We’d like to think that we’re encouraging discussion and creative contribution from the trustees, but we don’t want to create a binding or tight situation for the artists. We just want to develop the tools for discussion and see if those tools get used.

We’re practicing a lean startup approach with all of this. I’ve learned a lot about what it means to develop an agile product that’s responsive to users’ needs. Our primary goal is to understand the specificities of this type of creative practitioner and to continue to come up with ways to be useful for this particular kind of creative practice.

Humanity Fountain in McGolrick Park

 

Jose Serrano-McClain is an art worker, social entrepreneur, and community organizer that started his career as an economic analyst.  Jose is a co-founder of Trust Art, a community and funding platform to support the growth and sustainability of creative work in the public realm.  Jose is a community organizer at the Queens Museum of Art, and involved in the museum’s creative and political work in Corona, Corona Studio, and Social Practice Queens, the partnership with Queens College to develop a Social Practice MFA, in which he is also enrolled. 



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