Take a look at Creative Waco’s interactive public art map, and you might be surprised at the depth and diversity of art, from wall murals to sculptures to fountains and memorials. But there are many more areas without public art. Could these areas benefit from thoughtful public art and placemaking? If so, who should be involved in the decision-making and funding of such projects?
Public art, as the name implies, is freely available for everyone to enjoy. But unlike other cities, Waco currently has few pathways to create artwork that reflects the history, values, and ambitions of the entire community. Public art in Waco is currently funded primarily by the generosity of private donors. And while philanthropists have always had a hand in financing public art projects—and thank goodness for that!—a new initiative in Waco is intent on creating more mechanisms for funding, selecting, and including the wider population in decisions about public art.
The Vision, The Plan & A Focus on Representation
With the current development boom in Waco, Creative Waco and the City of Waco realized that demand for public art is about to hit an all-time high. While Waco already has some strong processes for developing public art, resulting in successful partnerships for community-supported murals and privately funded projects, it became clear that future public art projects would require a more strategic approach.
The goals are twofold. The first is to ensure a diversity of quality artworks are being selected and installed as part of Waco’s new development plan. The second is to make the best use of the opportunities and resources available to create a landscape of engaging, representative public art that the entire Waco community can enjoy and take pride in.
Amanda Dyer, the director of public art and development at Creative Waco, is spearheading the project in collaboration with the team at Forecast.
“We have contracted with Forecast Public Art, a public arts advocacy nonprofit in St. Paul,” says Dyer, “and we are really interested in their focus on the intersectionality of public art with all aspects of engagement like community development and health care and all the different ways it can be supported and brought to fruition. We’ve provided Forecast with a lot of materials and reports and plans—everything that relates to our community development over the past several years and how public art can be worked into that process. Forecast has taken all of that information and is helping us create a roadmap for public art.”
A key component of the work between Creative Waco and Forecast is the public art survey. Available in both Spanish and English, the questionnaire is open to everyone in the Waco community and provides a unique opportunity for every citizen to have a say in the artistic development of their city.
“Community engagement is really, really important,” says Dyer, “because we want to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard. This is a way to showcase Waco’s story through public art and show the characteristics, voices, cultures, and history of our community. And we want to be able to have all those diverse voices included in public art.”
Including the public in the decision-making process for public art and creative placemaking is a cornerstone of the work Mark Salinas does with Forecast Public Art.
“I think that public art programming must serve the public at large,” says Salinas, the senior project manager at Forecast. “We’re always sharing stories about how art intersects all aspects of daily living, how it can support health in the community, social justice, and also how it can affect every department of city hall: transportation, libraries, senior services, parks and recreation. We see art as a powerful tool for engagement with the public.”
Salinas is working with Creative Waco and the City of Waco to create a strategic plan for Waco’s public artworks that includes the survey results of every Wacoan who participates. Once the survey ends on August 1, Salinas and his small, dedicated team at Forecast will compile the results and submit a plan. But before that, Salinas and his team have employed three talented locals to inspire the community to action.
Boots on the Ground
One of Forecast’s strategies for ensuring community participation in the survey is to hire local talent to help spread the word. A team of three Wacoans—Tashita Bibles, Chris McGowan, and Raj Solanki—is leading the charge, each with their own gifts and perspectives.
Tashita Bibles, a Waco artist and a mentor for Creative Waco’s ARTprenticeship program with a thriving business called Artist-N-U, and Chris McGowan, an urban planner, interim director for City Center Waco, and board member at Creative Waco, are working together to host pop-up events throughout the city to promote the survey.
You may have seen Bibles and McGowan at the Food Truck Showdown or Chalk Waco, urging people to take part in Waco’s plan for public art.
“We’ve been gathering information about what types of art people would like to see and where they’d like to see it,” says Bibles. “How would they like the art to be portrayed? Forecast and Creative Waco are doing a great job including everyone in this survey. It’s been very inclusive, and I’ve really enjoyed that. Art has a very powerful impact, but it’s been really surprising to see the turnout and response from the community, how many people really care about art and want more in their neighborhoods. We’ve gotten some great feedback, and Chris and I make a great team. I’m a people person and I put on a big smile, so you can’t pass me by. I snag them and Chris grabs them.”
With Bibles’s gift for planning engaging activities and McGowan’s talent for organization and execution, the two have been able to entice a diverse chorus of Waco voices to participate in the survey.
“At the Food Truck Showdown, we wore aprons with our slogan for the event, ‘Feed us and we’ll feed you,’” says Bibles. “We had food tickets to give away to guests who participated in the survey, and we had a really good turnout. At Chalk Waco, I showed children how to make their own chalk, and they wrote their ideas on a chalkboard. At Waco’s Juneteenth Festival, I worked with kids to create pinwheels in the Juneteenth colors. So it’s not just adults participating, it’s people from multiple generations.”
Bibles, whose work at Artist-N-U brings accessibly-priced art parties and beautification projects to a wide range of Waco residents, is passionate about the power that beauty and creative expression can bring to the community.
“The goal is to spread art,” says Bibles. “Even if I have nothing to give, I give it out. If you take where you live and you beautify it, it just changes the vibe. Art changes the vibe. Wherever you implement it, you’re going to get a different vibe and things are bound to change. I just enjoy sharing it and I want everyone to feel that.”
Illustrating the Process Through Graphic Art
The third member of Forecast’s Waco team is local graphic artist Raj Solanki, another mentor with Creative Waco’s ARTprenticeship program and who has a unique gift for graphic storytelling. Solanki attends the meetings and events for the public art project and brings them to life through his illustrations.
“Tashita Bibles and Chris McGowan are in charge of the logistics, reaching out to the community and getting people to fill out the survey,” says Solanki. “I’m in the background taking photos of the people and the scenery. I don’t illustrate live at the events, but I take those photos home and use them for my illustrations. I am working on the Juneteenth Festival illustrations right now.”
Salinas is quick to emphasize the importance of Solanki’s work: “Raj is helping to visualize the process. It’s really difficult to put what we do into a photo. No one wants to see photos of people sitting around and talking. Raj has incredible talent, and he is attending our meetings and events and illustrating the topics that we’re discussing. It’s a great snapshot to invite people to the content of our discussions, and his work will be included in our final report.”
This has been a great opportunity for Solanki to not only contribute to Waco’s public arts initiative but also further his career as an artist.
“Through my work with Creative Waco and Forecast, I’m hoping to add this kind of work to my portfolio and potentially help other organizations or businesses bring their work to life. It’s a way for me to bring my comic and graphic novel skills to the business space,” says Solanki. For an artist hoping to make art his full-time occupation, that is no small accomplishment.
People like Bibles, Solanki, McGowan, Salinas, and Dyer—activists, advocates, community members, and artists—will help shape creative expression in the Waco community for years to come. But they cannot do it without community participation.
“This process really matters,” says Fiona Bond, executive director of Creative Waco, “because we get to be the generation that defines how Waco looks and feels for hundreds of years. (Rome is still defined by its public art from 2,000 years ago!) Look at any city across the world; its character, values, pride, vibrancy, and even how invitational and engaging it feels—all that is shaped by public art and creative placemaking. We want Waco to look and feel inspiring and inviting to all. To do that well, we need the input of our whole community.”
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