FLowers in bloom accenting public art at the Love & Care Community Garden, Waterbury

Whenever you find a community that embraces the arts, you find more communicative and empathetic people. Attributes like these are what drive revitalization and change. And while the arts and culture sector pumps 9.3 billion into Connecticut’s economy (that’s more than the construction and education sectors, separately), this industry is still neglected.

“Creative community development” is the industry term used to define initiatives taken in partnership with residents, artists, business owners, and community leaders to engage in public art projects that challenge social norms, amplify community voices, improve neighborhood conditions and overall quality of life. The arts fuel our economy, improve our well-being and mental health, drive tourism and revenue to local businesses, spark creativity.

The list could go on endlessly. When creative community development is woven throughout our Connecticut towns and cities, way beyond the aesthetic impacts, these art projects open the doors to healing, communication, storytelling, empathy, and unification. All Connecticut municipalities should initiate a Percent for Arts ordinance.

I recently visited family in Philadelphia and was struck by the beauty of the city. Its main attraction, public art -– it’s everywhere. Philly is a super vibrant city with a diverse population that is showcased through an extensive public arts collection, believed to be the oldest and largest in the nation. A 1959 ordinance (Percent for Arts) sets this city apart from others, requiring all new construction / major development projects to dedicate 1% of their budgets to the installation of public art. 

While Connecticut followed Pennsylvania’s lead with legislation to uphold the ‘Percent for Arts’ initiative, not all of our municipalities joined in –- in fact most haven’t. 

Waterbury, the fifth largest city in Connecticut, has focused its growth on manufacturing, for the last ten years or so. And recently announced that the Bluewater Property Group would develop 186 acres to build a distribution facility – prospective tenant, Amazon. With a Percent for Arts program, this new neighbor would have been required to provide a percentage of its budget to public art. This addition of public art in Waterbury would drive tourism, grow small businesses, and revitalize the community. 

Maybeth Morales-Davis

Throughout the years, I have spoken to many local artists who say there is little to nothing here for them. With more developers moving in, the opportunities for local artists to gain employment and training here – in their hometown – would be monumental. Art could be commissioned in this community, led by residents and local artists, and not cost the city anything or very little. There’s so much to gain with a Percent for Art ordinance. Look at the growth of Philly, or even closer to home, New Haven. Both are thriving. 

For almost 40 years  New Haven’s Percent for Arts ordinance has enhanced the concrete landscape; featuring 20+ commissioned art pieces throughout the city. But city leaders haven’t stopped there. Besides flocking to the city for a delicious slice of pizza, tourists inundate the green and downtown areas during the city’s infamous International Festival of Arts and Ideas. This multi-day festival generated $1.5 million for the city’s economy and brought together 14,000 folks (not counting the 136,000 virtual participants) in 2021. Under new leadership from the city’s Director of Cultural Affairs, Adriane Jefferson has continued the dynamic work of arts integration, most recently publishing the city’s (and state) first-ever Cultural Equity Plan – a “tool to identify opportunities for equitable change, and to better understand each of our roles in creating a new future.” 

The Cultural Equity Plan is a dynamic opportunity for New Haven to convey inequities within the arts sector and within the city. The plan addresses the cultural needs and the needs of culturally marginalized peoples who are oftentimes left out. I hope other cities use this plan as a starting point for their own equity work because reckoning with the ugly history of our past has to come first before we have any real capacity to move forward. And with art as a leading tool, communities who embrace a similar plan will help residents heal their pasts and reshape futures. 

Our nation has not made great strides towards reckoning with its past, and this was magnified by the murder of George Floyd. It sparked an outcry of injustice and reopened wounds into our communities – especially Black and brown ones. And in the aftermath of such turmoil and grief art followed. Murals popped up across the country, street art reading Black Lives Matter, vibrant colors that tell the story of people who have persevered over so much. Some street art even appeared here in Connecticut.

Many of these murals were led by local art activists – artivists – who invited community members to join the creative process. All types of people showed up, not only Black folks and people of color, but folks who live with disabilities, in impoverished communities, and folks who recognized that their lives would never intersect with George Floyd. This power of convening, of healing, of hope, and of change is what creative community development ignites.  

In recent years, the Connecticut Office of the Arts encouraged municipalities to participate in Make Music Day – a national day dedicated to free live music. I can remember hearing music from my office window in downtown Waterbury, a few years back; the street came alive. Folks gathered – many brought lawn chairs so they could enjoy the sounds comfortably. I heard laughter and conversations. I witnessed newly formed friendships and folks dancing in the street. The spectacle is a small glimpse into how effective creative community development is – visualize the possibilities that begin to shape when we invest more time, effort, and funding into these types of art projects. 

When I think about my own hometown, I instantly envision the Love & Care Community Garden, an initiative led by residents in partnership with local housing group Neighborhood Housing Services of Waterbury. When the garden space was transformed from an overrun decaying property into one with beds of flowers, veggies, and fruits, something was missing – something that would drive folks in. That something was art. 

Led by local artist Kennected; a series of stenciled images surfaced throughout the garden. The images are filled with vibrant colors, vegetable themes, and local icons. One stencil layer combines two to three portraits of local residents – many of whom live within walking distance to the garden. I had the pleasure of speaking to several of the residents who participated in the project; the consistent theme was a feeling of hope, belonging, appreciation, of being seen and heard. Folks were eager to support the community garden and connect with their neighbors. This community garden is not just a space for residents to grow and share plants, it has become an outdoor art studio as well. It lends itself as a peaceful setting for other events too like yoga, arts and crafts, covid-19 vaccine site, and more. The city of Waterbury does not have a Percent for Arts ordinance; imagine if it did. 

While the Percent for Arts legislation is significant in creating public art we cannot assume this always means creative community development is taking place. It’s important to commission artists to create these public displays of art, yes; however, it’s even more important that artists are local – folks who reflect and know the community where the art will be installed. Artists that are agreeable to collaborating with residents and others. That residents are invited and part of the planning phases from start to finish. That they are encouraged to voice their opinions and feel safe in doing so.  While creative community development projects happen with a team, we must be mindful that it is the right of those who live where public art is being commissioned to lead these projects.  

Whether you have a team in place or are looking for one, The Connecticut Office of the Arts recently launched AIR, a workshop-driven program to inspire municipalities, local residents, and businesses to plan art projects in their communities. The AIR program is a great step to introduce creative community development throughout Connecticut. I encourage all municipalities to participate and lead by example. 

The pandemic has been a reminder of a lot of things. For me, I’m reminded that we are in this together. That holds true today, tomorrow, and far into the future. And nothing revitalizes and brings our communities and people together more than the arts. If you want to see your community thrive, ask your board of alders to adopt a Percent for the Arts ordinance – the CT Arts Alliance has language already drafted and available to Connecticut residents encouraging local legislators to support this movement; visit with local artists and become a patron; connect with the Connecticut Office of the Arts and work with a local team on an AIR project, and most importantly engage in conversations around the arts with your neighbors. 

Through creative community development projects we can amplify our voices, unify our communities, and revitalize our neighborhoods.

Maybeth Morales-Davis is Deputy Director of the Neighborhood Housing Services of Waterbury and a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.