In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Estrus Tucker, chair of the Fort Worth Art Commission discusses what the commission does and how residents can get involved.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Rachel Behrndt: Thank you so much for joining me. Could you start with a brief explanation of what the purpose of the art commission is and what its goals are?
Estrus Tucker: By city ordinance, the Public Art Commission advises and makes recommendations to the Fort Worth City Council regarding the Fort Worth public art program that is managed on its behalf. So we oversee the Fort Worth Public Art Master Plan, and that also includes project planning, artist selection, design, review and then collection management. It’s significantly about engaging and continuing to recruit or invite a diverse set of Fort Worth residents to be involved in that process.
If you go:
The Art Commission will meet at 5 p.m. July 11 at the Fort Worth Community Art Center, 1300 Gendy St, Fort Worth, TX. Residents who wish to speak at the meeting can fill out a comment card or email firstname.lastname@example.org. A copy of the meeting agenda is available on the Fort Worth Public Art website.
Behrndt: I know that city council members received an update on the master plan. How important is that to the city strategy?
Tucker: It’s critical. Part of the overall Master Plan process is to engage a diversity of key stakeholders because it needs to be viable, right? It needs to be a real plan. It needs to be strategic. When a public art project is commissioned, it goes well beyond the public art commission. We rely upon really key city department partnerships for timely completion of the public art process. When we do an update, we try to make sure that all those voices are represented. We want people to be part of the process early on, so that we’re not having to sell it. We’re not selling it. They’re part of our process. So broad based ownership and public involvement are critical. The master plan update is kind of that environmental scan and that internal assessment that keeps us on track.
Behrndt: For people outside of the art world, who are only engaged with art when they go to a museum, they may not understand the need for coordination. Doesn’t somebody just get an idea and then paint it? Can you explain a little bit more like why there needs to be communication between different groups of people and why that coordination piece is really important?
Tucker: Oh, wow, such a wonderful question. The first word that came to my mind was professional. This is a profession. We have some phenomenal artists in all sorts of mediums — this is their livelihood. It’s really important that our general public and our key stakeholders recognize and appreciate public art and particularly the artists who do public art as professionals. These are not hobbies. This is not something casually done. They bring a passion for their vocation. We all had art in elementary school and high school and we might doodle. Art at one level really seems familiar, right? Close up and personal. And yet undergirding some of the most simple and breathtaking offerings, whether it’s a sculpture or a painting, is an incredible amount of talent and discipline, and commitment. So we want to make sure that that’s appreciated, rather than thinking the only time you have that kind of deep dive of dedication and commitment and expertise and professionalism is for example, in engineering or medicine. Art is no exception. It is phenomenal, because it takes a phenomenal contribution, commitment and professionalism.
Behrndt: Could you give me a sense of like, who are the stakeholders that are kind of involved in a commission meeting? What are some of the groups or groups of people that y’all work with closely?
Tucker: It’s the city’s public art program. So it’s very important that we have a good report, and this is predominantly our staff role, and good communication with the city management office and the different departments that we often partner with in the delivery, but just to overall city city government. The larger public engagement then, is equally critical. Each of our commissioned art pieces begin with inviting a project core team and connecting them with our city council person in that district. So it really is a pretty broad net. We create that net by looking for some artists and professionals, but also community members at large. They’re going to have to work together, so chemistry is important. So that’s one very powerful part of our process.
Then, because we are a city program, our board meetings are very similar to our city government. We post the agendas at each public meeting, whether it’s a regular commission meeting or a special called meeting, and we always have a place for citizen presentations. They can talk about the overall process, or they can talk about a specific agenda item. So the public voice is always in the center of our engagement.
And partnership, you know art stimulates dialogue. That dialogue sometimes takes the place of conflict, right? We want the conflict to be civil, but conflict is natural. It’s human. We don’t all agree about everything. We don’t need to agree. We just need to be able to have a conversation about it. Art stimulates that conversation. Whether it’s a public art piece that depicts … racial representation. Well, we know that that’s a hot political topic in particular. So we get feedback from the broader community. And we’ll host a town hall meeting, have some type of public forum so that we can listen, so that we can hear what’s going on and how people feel and think. Facilitating those meetings helps us engage communities.
Then the big constituency group, of course, are artists. Artists in our local city and region. We want to maintain really healthy, reciprocal relationships with artists, emerging artists, which is a very important category and existing, experienced public artists. So there are activities that involve reaching out to them, updating our list, and hosting events. We have a lot of different events, but we want to make sure that artists and people who are interested in public art as professionals are included, that they’re involved. Our community engagement staff do a great job of reaching diverse constituents from the artist community, emerging artists, then increasingly really, people who have an idea that maybe they could be an artist. It really is about Fort Worth art for all. And we are increasingly leaning into how to define that ‘all’ in deeper and broader ways.
Behrndt: You answered my question about how the public at large can get involved by going to meetings and things like that. Is there anything else you wanted to mention about that? How could a fan of art get involved?
Tucker: A good starting point is our website. They will get a good education about who we are, what we do and see things that might spark their attention, right, pique their interest. So please start with our website. There are links on there about how to get involved, if you’re interested in being a commissioner, if you’d like to volunteer at one of the events, if you want to keep abreast of all the different public events we have. There’s going to be a public dedication of every commissioned art piece and we certainly want to invite people to come out to the public dedication. They hear from the artists, they hear from different leaders and they hear from project core team members about why this is important and invaluable. Just a lot of starting points. And in particular, I love it when people find out that there’s a public dedication in their neighborhood, or a neighborhood that they have relationships or connections with, and come out. Because there’s nothing like that, you really get up close and personal view. There’s contact information on the website if they’d like to talk with one of our key staff, or would like to reach another volunteer. So yeah, it’s pretty accessible, and very, very open to feedback.
Behrndt: Why do you think that the Arts Commission is important to Fort Worth? What role do you think that they play and why should people be interested and really care about the work that y’all are doing?
Tucker: Public art, in particular, humanizes the built environment. We are in a time in our history of the city of Fort Worth, where there’s a lot of redevelopment. But there’s something about character. There’s something about integrity, that’s kind of looking backward and has historical significance. But there’s also something futuristic, around the built environment that is inclusive and diverse and not just from a mechanical perspective, but from a human perspective. That’s what art majors in. Art can display, define, create our humanity in such wonderful ways, sometimes it’s just breathtaking, right?
Think of some of the great cities of the world and public artists positioned there. In some spaces, you can’t miss the iconic representation and in others, they’re small and you just kind of stumble upon them. So in a city that has a deficit mindset about public art, it’s less human, it feels more mechanical. Cities have to be more than just steel and concrete, right? How do we go beyond human engineered pieces, and that’s where public art comes in.
Another element of it is the value economically. That has been a struggle around the country — demonstrating the economic impact of public art. Obviously, it’s a profession. People are paid to create public art. It enhances the space and makes it more attractive and appealing, not only to local businesses and residents, but residents and businesses who are considering relocating. I’ve heard this over and over and over. Public art is inviting in ways that we don’t always calculate. I think that increasingly, we’re going to find better ways to measure the financial impact of public art in our spaces, and take advantage of that.
The other element I would say is that public art has the potential for bringing people together. We need that more than any other time when you look at a public art piece. Now there’s a lot of space for creative interpretation. Yes. But generally speaking, public art doesn’t have Republican or Democrat or Independent listed anywhere, right? It doesn’t narrowly define any religion or faith expression. So public art really is a space for us, regardless of our particular identities, to engage. It holds potential to do that in a very indirect way that can capture your imagination, your heart and your head, too. There’s just few things that can do that in the way that art does. We have robust community engagement and a diverse cadre of artists. It’s just a good formula for humanizing the environment.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.