Opinion

RENÉE LOTH

Using art as city problem solver

Pep Montserrat for The Boston Globe

Imagine a dancer working with police officers to better interpret a suspect’s gait. Or a musician teaching a city parking clerk how to listen deeply. Or an abstract painter rearranging a tangle of contradictory street signs. That’s the idea behind Boston’s new artist-in-residence program, which will embed local artists inside city departments to promote creative thinking about municipal government.

The idea is easily mocked — finger-painting at the Department of Public Works! — but give Mayor Martin Walsh and his team credit for trying new approaches to jolt the city bureaucracy out of its inevitable ruts. And since the residencies will be largely funded through a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the program is a low-risk experiment in renewing the banal but crucial business of delivering city services. “Artists are all about asking questions,” says Julie Burros, Boston’s cabinet-level chief of arts and culture. “They bring a unique set of tools to solving problems.”

A jury of seven arts professionals and partners from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design will meet today to winnow a field of 10 finalists to three artists, who will each receive a $20,000 stipend for a six-month residency. Peter DiMuro, executive director of the Dance Complex, a community dance studio and performance space, spent weeks in what he called “artistic speed dating” with several city departments, exploring ideas for collaboration. DiMuro’s father was a police officer, so he was especially drawn to working with Boston’s community policing units. His proposal has three phases, but one involves dance lessons at the Ruggles Street MBTA station in Roxbury, where police and local teenagers together can try out salsa or hip-hop moves. “It’s a way to flatten the hierarchies between the police and community,” he said. “Art gets you out of binary relationships into a place of observation.” Other finalists include a textile artist who works with themes of memory and history, a classical violinist who has helped victims of gun violence manage grief, a documentary filmmaker producing a work about aging, and more.

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Boston is in the throes of a comprehensive planning process that is working to inject fresh ideas into city transportation, housing, and zoning policies. Burros is directing the city’s two-year cultural plan, Boston Creates, and is a prime force behind the artist-in-residence program.

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But Boston is hardly in the vanguard of this approach. The concept dates back to at least 1976, when activist Mierle Ukeles accepted a nonsalaried position as the first artist in residence of the New York City sanitation department. Over the decades, Ukeles created artworks that engage questions of nature, class, and culture; her “Flow City,” a video installation at a Hudson River transfer station, confronts visitors with their own role in the massive waste management task of city government. Environmental education is a dull, dutiful business — until it’s in the hands of a performance artist.

In Portland, Maine, writer and performer Marty Pottenger worked to produce powerful nights of theater after a member of that city’s Sudanese immigrant community was killed by a police officer in 2010. Pottenger, who is also an adviser to Boston’s effort, involved police officers and local teenagers directly in the works, telling stories of their actual lives and breaking down stereotypes on both sides. “Theater has a unique ability to tackle the difficult issues we are facing as a society and not ignore or leave out the emotional part,” she wrote by e-mail. “The challenges that cities and communities are facing are not insurmountable, but require a whole new world of approaches to address.”

Kate Balug, cofounder of an arts collective called the Department of Play (“a lost city department”), stages community activities along the invisible boundaries that separate neighborhoods in Boston. Balug is working with Burros to encourage broader citizen engagement in the cultural plan, to help “translate the sometimes obscure and abstract language of planning into relatable experiences.” Last June, the Department of Play took over a vacant lot in Codman Square to launch “Boxtopia,” where residents used hundreds of cardboard boxes to build their imagined city of tomorrow.

In 16th century Europe, wealthy rulers of church and state often commissioned artists to live and work in their courts — you might say that Michelangelo was embedded in the Vatican. Today’s artists in residence may not paint the ceiling of City Hall, but they will surely contribute to Boston’s renaissance.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.

Correction: Kate Balug is the cofounder of an arts collective called the Department of Play.