The following essay by Dan Borelli is part of “Beyond Survival: Public Support for the Arts and Humanities,” a call for reflections on and provocation about the precarious state of arts funding after decades of neoliberal economics and the long culture wars.
As publicly-oriented creative practices move beyond the object and into collaborative work with communities, how can public agencies support artists as they navigate these shared processes? This question runs even deeper for communities dealing with loss and trauma. What role should the government play in this context? Can it help? Does it deter? Does it understand the view from the ground?
Since 2010 I’ve been working with the community of Ashland, Massachusetts and the contested histories of its Superfund site. From 1917–78, the Nyanza Color and Chemical Company produced textile dyes in Ashland. The community from that era shared a folklore of color across their land: blue snow, pink mist, and the streams and river running “the color of the day.” In the early 1980s, Nyanza became one of the ten sites that launched Superfund. In 2006, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health concluded that Nyanza caused a cancer cluster in Ashland. I know the story because Ashland is my hometown. I watched friends fight cancer. Some of them died. Nyanza was not something we talked about openly. Instead, the story, like the contaminants themselves, lingered just below the surface of our conversations.
In the first few years of the project, I built support by listening to the needs and desires of a wide range of community members and assembling a network of collaborators. We transformed Ashland’s library, conducted video interviews, created a website and app, and mapped the color-coded groundwater plume onto the city’s streetlights, allowing residents to visualize the location of Nyanza’s contamination today. Slowly, the community’s passive culture of loss gave way to an active commitment to healing. With the gift of a two-acre parcel from the town of Ashland, grants from Harvard and ArtPlace America, and a partnership with the New England Laborer’s Training Academy, we set to work creating the Ashland Memorial Healing Garden.
At the request of the Ashland Public School Committee, I pursued an NEA “Our Town” grant to create an outdoor classroom as part of the memorial garden to build a new generation of environmental stewards. Following a six-month approval process by the NEA and State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), I began working on an eighty-square-foot water table that could serve as both a reflection surface for the two-acre park and a rainwater harvester for science education. As we moved into the production phase, my school collaborators suggested a change to the table design to make it more effective in a lab setting. Instead of the square shape I had initially proposed, I made a long, thin rectangle, which my collaborators greatly preferred, adding eight square feet to the table.
Months later, after the opening of the first phase of the garden, I tried to pay my project partners, only to discover that my grant had been frozen over that eight square feet. The NEA administrator had declined to see a prototype of the redesigned table or to attend the opening ceremony, yet flagged my account over a small disparity from the initial proposal. This response threatened the deep trust I had spent six years building over a difference of eight square feet. There was no recognition that the creative process had to respond to multiple stakeholders in the context of a culture of loss and the community’s need to heal. All that mattered to the bureaucracy was that the design had changed and required a new review.
Although my collaborators were able to wait for reapproval, I learned that public funding programs are not in the business of creating new community futures. An organization like the NEA could have tremendous power to support alternative narratives, place critical interventions in the suburban and rural contexts that often lack public art funding, and support the creative communities working in a participatory manner in the public domain. If we are truly going to radically reconstruct society—as is desperately needed based upon the wide array of ethical, environmental, and social issues we collectively face today—then an organization like the NEA must learn how to support the iterative, messy, and non-linear creative practices currently operating in our communities. Public funding is both an affirmation of a project’s creative merit and a powerful demonstration that the government cares about places like Ashland and the Nyanza Superfund site. Industry polluted this community and left behind a toxic legacy. Alongside the EPA’s remediation of soil and water, the NEA should support creative practices that remediate the social fabric of place and help the healing of the spirit of its citizens.
Dan Borelli is the director of exhibitions and lecturer for the Harvard Graduate School of Design. As an artist, Dan interrogates history, be it local, indigenous, national, contemporary, or specific ephemeral moments.