Let’s Study the Essential (and Elusive) Middle Space


Welcome to our latest Growing Dialogue, where we’re exploring how artists work with and within municipalities and city agencies. This is the final post in this series – click here to explore previous posts.

In reading the broad range of experiences and ideas presented here in just a few short blog posts, I can’t help but think that a greater survey and in-depth study of the many programs across the country and beyond would be a meaningful contribution to advance social practice art. Certainly, Frances’ two posts (and probably previous writings as well) are already starting to bring order to what can feel like a mysterious process. It’s evident this work can be explained well enough to move the practice forward, and there are good models to be further used and tested. The new program at New York’s DCLA is very hopeful, both because it connects to a long strand of ongoing history and it indicates an exciting scaling up in our largest city and potential for the rest of the country.

If a more systemic and wide-spread adoption of this work is possible, I want to ask us to talk more about the importance of the creative middle space. This is the “breathing space” in Mierle’s quote, the space for “diplomacy,” the joining “without becoming,” or the possibility for a “double change agent” to exist as Frances writes about, and what allows the introduction and the maintenance of a healthy viral artistic presence as I write about it. In instances of an individual artist or project, this middle space can be negotiated on the individual scale in an ad hoc way. If we are talking about the development of an ongoing community of practice where many more artists can be involved and what is learned from one project will help the next, what is it we would need so that this essential middle space is reliable, roomy, and effective?


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A map showing 751 sidewalk poetry locations installed as part of Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk, an ongoing work of art that has re-imagined the annual sidewalk maintenance program in Saint Paul, MN as a publishing entity for poetry since 2008. The blue circles indicate a 2-minute walking radius, a total area covering 17% of city land. Created with City Technician Cory Richter.


Are we at a point in the development of this embedded-viral-“in residence” civic art practice where we should consider a more comprehensive study to make stronger recommendations for going forward? What are the strategies for holding open that creative middle space, and what are the qualities of that space that help governments and communities successfully hire artists to practice this approach? What are the broader “ecological” needs of this practice, such as training for artists and host organizations, funding, and broader recognition of the worthy work?

Behind these questions is the feeling that there is a much greater potential than we know, even with the various pilot programs and experiments of the last ten years. We realize there is a lot of room at city government tables for the artist perspective when that potential is made evident, when the service from artists contributes like the other professions, when the producers of the creative middle space open the way to see the artistic potential of all civic work.


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Poem by Anna Everett Beek, installed as part of Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk.


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