Santa Monica Museum of Art’s “Citizen Culture” exhibit explores the intersection of creativity and real social change

Art’s public policy impacts Photo by Jeff McLane

Art’s public policy impacts
Photo by Jeff McLane

By Jenny Lower

In an era of slashed public budgets, it can be tempting to shuffle aside the arts as one more luxury we can’t afford. In dire times there’s a tendency to question the utility of art, mandating that the value of a public sculpture or mural be as self-evident and indisputable as filled potholes or a new plumbing system.

In these times it’s gratifying to be able to point to art that not only provides aesthetic rewards but also offers pragmatic, even utilitarian worth. Though more than an apologia for artistic endeavor to the naysayers, the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s current exhibit, “Citizen Culture: Artists and Architects Shape Policy,” braids together civics and creativity in a way that enriches both.

Orchestrated by independent curator Lucía Sanromán, the exhibit highlights historical and ongoing projects from six cities across the Americas, blurring the line between artistic undertakings and civic engagement. The message is clear: Far from being a mode of expression of last resort, art encourages horizontal thinking that can liberate societies and individuals from even the most intractable problems.

Take Bogotá, Colombia. By the mid-1990s, the city’s violent death rate had reached crisis proportions. Antanas Mockus, an academic with a background in mathematics and philosophy, was then elected mayor and led a series of initiatives from which the Santa Monica exhibit borrows its name. The “Cultura Ciudadana” policies, presented here as a series of photo-based vignettes designed by Sanromán and Colombian-born artist Futuro Moncada, addressed pervasive social ills such as guerilla warfare and family violence with unlikely solutions.

In response to widespread child abuse, local authorities created a secular ritual reminiscent of both Catholic and voodoo traditions. With psychiatrists and psychologists present, participants were encouraged to take symbolic action against a puppet labeled as their past aggressor, and then received symbolic cleansing with drops of water. To combat guerilla attacks against the city, citizens participated in a nonviolent demonstration in which they collectively erected freestanding structures made from PVC pipes as a sign of unity against the terrorists.

Even traffic infractions were on the table, as mimes used humor to tease negligent drivers into respecting pedestrian crossings, reducing the rate of accidental deaths. Traditional solutions, such as increasing police presence, were set aside in favor of cooperative policies that challenged conventional modes of governance and the people’s way of thinking about themselves and their urban space.

What emerges from this and other projects is that integrating art and policy seems to work best when neither approach takes place in a vacuum. Artists bring a certain clarity of vision that can help bridge divides where public policy falls short, and civic allies can direct artists into spaces where they haven’t traditionally been invited. Rather than just reinforcing change, artists can drive it. Or as former Chicago mayor Richard Daley asserts on one of several quote boards placed around the exhibit, “Politicians don’t bring people together. Artists do.”

That perspective emerges vividly in “No Blood/No Foul,” an installation documenting one of the key projects in artist Suzanne Lacy’s 10-year effort to reduce tensions between youth of color and law enforcement in Oakland. A series of monitors mounted on a chain link fence replay video interviews Lacy conducted with teens, police officers and community leaders to help foster mutual understanding.

Further on, visitors can sit in bleachers and watch replays from a June 1996 basketball game in which police officers and teen players faced off against each other. Staged as performance art, the event interspersed gameplay with video interviews and a halftime dance performance. Youth and adult referees alternated calling fouls before switching in the third quarter to street ball rules, in which a foul doesn’t count unless it draws blood. In the fourth quarter, spectators were invited to arbitrate the game themselves. The event highlighted passage of the Oakland Youth Policy, which set aside city funds for direct services to youth in order to combat crime and poverty.

Though the projects don’t exactly make their own cases — you’re not handed a sheaf of statistics afterward citing their outcomes, which can make digesting these multi-faceted initiatives challenging — they open a space for reimagining our definitions of art and how it can further transform society.

That transition may already be happening. On the other side of the country, Columbia University senior and visual arts student Emma Sulkowicz has been engaged in a highly visible campaign to force the Ivy League institution to address the issue of sexual assaults on campus. After the university refused to act on Sulkowicz’s accusation that another student raped her, she vowed to carry around a twin-size dorm mattress until Columbia authorities agreed to expel him. With its visceral imagery, “Mattress Performance or Carry That Weight” has galvanized the discussion around campus sexual assault in a way nothing else quite has.

Whether or not Sulkowicz is successful, she might take heart from one of the projects featured in the Santa Monica exhibit: the Tamms Year Ten campaign to shut down the infamous supermax prison in Illinois. Starting in 2008, the facility was targeted for closure by activists who said it propagated torture. Activists reached out to prisoners through letters, poetry and photographs, meanwhile lobbying Governor Pat Quinn, legislators and the state Department of Corrections. In 2009 a reform plan was introduced and, in 2013, 15 years after it first opened, Tamms closed for good.

Vive les artistes.

“Citizen Culture: Artists and Architects Shape Policy,” is on display through Dec. 20 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Call (310) 586-6488 or visit