Public art can help drive our post-pandemic renewal

Shared cultural displays are 'expressive and democratic' at their core

A YEAR INTO the global pandemic and the once-familiar roar of people, cars, and activity in Boston is still a memory. The feeling of life in suspension persists.

Yet, glimmers of hope sparkle as vaccines roll out, days lengthen, and workers return. Now is the time to imagine how we safely and equitably reopen Boston so that all who call this place home can actively reimagine the experiences and spaces that create a strong, connected city.

Despite a year of significant personal and economic losses, we ingeniously piloted ways people and traffic can hold equal space, digitized the most intimate experiences, and fell in love with our shared parks and waterways. We faced, and continue to grapple with, the hard truths about our prejudices and biases. We recognize that to be an open, inclusive city, we must dismantle historical barriers like transit divestment and redlining that block equitable progress.

We’ve also had time to reflect and reimagine what it will be like to connect, socialize, gather, and feel communal inspiration again. Coming together in joy and spontaneous interactions is what makes us human. It’s what creates a public.

According to “Culture and Community in A Time of Crisis,” a July 2020 Culture Track survey of 120,000 people from 50 states, we miss being with others and having fun. Yes, 81 percent of us have pursued creative outlets in quarantine, from cooking to knitting to singing, painting, drawing, and writing. About 53 percent of survey respondents tuned into digital cultural activities and enjoyed the broad access it affords. But something is still lacking: human connection.

“Ambrosia” at the Prudential Center. “Art created in community in the public realm is one of the surest ways to open up Boston to a more equitable and vibrant future,” said Kate Gilbert, executive director of Now + There.

The same study found respondents willing to come back into public life when and if it feels safe. “We need places and ways to gather and still have joy and pleasure in our lives,” the report said. “Places, even if virtual, to comfort one another and feel human, humane, and normal.”

Enter public art, a cultural realm that is free, easy to access, welcoming to all, and, at its best, a rallying point to bring together daring voices, a variety of life experiences, and a diversity of people to participate in the broad and loud chorus of humanity. It’s expressive and democratic at its core.

Films, books, plays, paintings, murals, sculptures, and other artistic experiences give us windows into others’ lives. How else do we learn about and empathize with each other’s experiences in this pandemic? Public art can be an outlet, a place for us to wrestle and reconcile feelings about controversial issues and painful times. By experiencing it together, masked-face to masked-face, we create agency. We share an invitation to greater openness and a call for change.

Art in our public realm also offers beauty, inspiration, and aesthetic uplift. It gives our cities more vibrant and humane corners and byways. Boston has an opportunity right now to create more of these pockets of culture and intrigue, magnets for gathering people of all ages, abilities, races, and backgrounds safely. We deserve more experiences like these that open spaces, advance artists’ careers, cultivate joy city-wide, challenge our biases, and create community-wide conversations.

Meet the Author
We are at a collective crossroads. The pandemic’s end seems within sight. We have new leaders that want to address the inequities and injustices, and we have artists ready to amplify messages of inclusivity. Art created in community in the public realm is one of the surest ways to open up Boston to a more equitable and vibrant future.

Kate Gilbert is the executive director of Now + There, a Boston-based nonprofit bringing temporary and site-specific public art into all of the city’s neighborhoods. Visit www.nowandthere.org for information about current programs and installations, including “Ambrosia” at Prudential Center and “To Each Era, Its Art. To Art, Its Freedom” in Central Wharf Park in Boston.