I was fortunate to attend a seminar on Design in the Public Interest this past weekend. Public Interest Design (PID) is an approach to architectutre with an organizing principle that “all people should be able to live in socially, economically, and environmentally healthy communities.” At the beginning of the session, we saw a slide with a pie graph with a tiny “2%” sliver. That represents the portion of the populace that interacts with architectural design. PID is for the other 98%.
Many industries have robust segments dedicated to the public interest—public health, pro-bono interest lawyers and community-based artists. As in those other industries, PID usually addresses the needs of the under-served, takes a humble listening-centered approach and is very focused on long-term impact. It’s relatively new and there is a developing set of best practices, ethics and evaluative tools—and a growing community of practitioners.
Many of their issues, approaches and objectives align with those of smart art policy. Terms like excellence, innovation, identity, diversity, heritage and sense of place are central in the discourse. The goals overlap quite a bit.
There was one moment, though, when I was struck by how far ahead the art discourse has advanced. In one of the discussions, someone said that “quality of life” is not a useful goal because it is difficult to define and perhaps impossible to measure.
Those who have studied art policy would disagree. The very purpose of art is to bring quality to life that exceeds existence and there is correspondingly much research about what defines a quality life, what cognitive tools and processes are employed and how art can spawn and nourish them.
NEA’s How Art Works study has defined the question with clarity and has map a methodical process that it is now following to examine the constituent sub-questions. We have a pretty good idea what makes people happy but finding the right approach is difficult. Although it will never be a settled question, it seems that smart strategies are available.
While PID professionals, who are mostly involved in small practices, might feel a little hopeless in the face of gigantic numerical social problems, they are a shining light when it comes to solving practical dilemmas—even if they are difficult. Funding is a prime example.
There is a strong current of social entrepreneurism guided toward the public interest. The question of resources is approached with creativity: every stakeholder is also a potential investor, in their own way. Lines blur between practitioner and client and then customer feedback becomes inherent in the early design process. It made me think a lot about the idea of the citizen artist, who is both audience member and performer, reader and writer depending on the time of day, location or hat.
There’s a powerful notion that art is for everyone because art is everyone. It’s inspiring to see designers working from a similar script, and their practical-minded problem solving approach provides good ideas.
It’s a great synergy.
The conference was organized by The Public Interest Design Institute.
As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate
to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on
the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia.
This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and
discussions in which I find links between our readings and discussion
and the front lines of community-based art.