Artists in four US regions—and counting—are harnessing the creative power of regeneration to connect our communities to the past, present, and future.
In biology, “regeneration” is the process by which damaged or missing cells, tissues, and organs are restored to full functionality in plants and animals. In the art world, the term is more expansive, with many potential forms and meanings taking shape in the arts today (think Donna Haraway’s musings on cyborgs, cells, and mutation, and also in “urban regeneration,” where art often plays a part). In light of the past two years, there is perhaps no example quite as poignant—and urgently needed—as the Artists At Work program.
Launched with the support of the Mellon Foundation by The Office Performing Arts + Film, a New York and London-based cultural production company, the premise of Artists At Work is simple, yet uncommon: the program pays emerging creatives a living wage (with benefits, to boot) for up to a year. Their job description? Make beautiful art and use that art to activate and inspire a community.
“This is just unheard of in terms of my field,” said Simone Immanuel, a writer and performer hosted by Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. “When you are constantly worried about finances or other jobs, stuff that isn’t related to the thing that you feel called to do, that takes away from your practice.”
“I deeply appreciate that the Artist-At-Work program is centered around the belief that artistic labor is valuable and essential to society.”“The Care We Create,” Audrey Chan’s mural on the facade of the offices of the ACLU of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Elon Schoenholz.
During especially trying times, the misconception of art as a luxury can destroy the livelihoods of thousands of artists, and Audrey Chan, a Chinese-Taiwanese American artist based in Los Angeles and in residence with The National Center for the Preservation of Democracy at the Japanese American National Museum, puts it in perspective: “The pandemic revealed so much about whose work is valued and given protection and whose is un- or under-compensated…Even as the economy ‘recovers’ and ‘reopens,’ we must resist the status quo that reinforced these inequities.”
“I’ve long been interested in the history of the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Art Program,” Chan continues, invoking the New Deal-era predecessor to Artists at Work. That concept, rewired and revived from the Great Depression, now affords a new generation of artists work and compensation while facing another seemingly insurmountable crisis. “I deeply appreciate that the Artist-At-Work program is centered around the belief that artistic labor is valuable and essential to society.”
Having grown up in the suburbs outside of Chicago, Chan’s childhood was crowded with WPA murals. At school, the post office, and other municipal sites, she would see murals depicting idealized scenes of the United States including depictions of colonizers and missionaries with BIPOC genuflecting at their feet. “While I appreciate the historically progressive agenda of the WPA in its support of creative labor,” she says, “I feel called in my public artwork to create an iconography of social realism that reflects an America that centers communities and culture over productivity and industry.” In the role of storyteller for this chapter of American history, Chan is among many who are whiting out the errors of the past, engendering alternatives to the dominant myths of American identity.
Chan accomplishes this widening of the narrative in tandem with Asian American artists and organizations that harness cultural power for social progress. Woven into the tapestry of public artworks are installations, and a poster-based awareness campaign in the spirit of Artists At Work’s predecessor. “We’re joining forces to develop a multifaceted project centered around what ‘vocabulary’ can mean in the context of the diverse AANHPI (Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander) community and its relative invisibility and erasure in American culture.”
“Regeneration has a capacity to heal the earth, heal our communities, and heal ourselves.”“Pile 2 patio,” a mulch sculpture and community project, part of Maru García’s exhibition Radical Propagations/ Propagaciones Radicales at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, California. Photo courtesy of 18th Street Arts Center.
Read more about this 21st-century “New Deal” for artists in this Q&A with Artists At Work Founding Director Rachel Chanoff.
Maru García, a Los Angeles-based transdisciplinary artist and researcher whose environmental-themed work is based at the intersection of art and science, embodies the regeneration Artists At Work has offered to herself, her community, and the world at large.
“Just as a plant can be propagated through cuttings that can be replanted and encouraged to root in new soil, this exhibition includes the work of artists and activists whose practices focus on splitting and sharing—on creating spaces for regeneration and resilience,” she says of Radical Propagations, the project she mounted with 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, CA. “Regenerative practices propose methods of building relationships and community from the bottom up. Actions that seem minuscule, when propagated by these means, achieve a scope that aggregates and grows deep, interconnected roots.”
To Chan, regeneration manifests as a means for people to be “open to the symbiotic and porous relationship between the past, present, and future.” Taking on the mantle of her forebears (Maya Lin, Barbara Kruger, and Faith Ringgold are counted among her inspirations), she considers history to be active and ubiquitous, influencing the systems that govern, and constrain, our movement within society. “If I can inspire anyone in future generations to believe they have a valuable point of view to share with the world, then I’ve done my job,” Chan says.
In their autobiographical performances and writings, Simone Immanuel excavates their own memory bank on a constant basis. In their instance of regeneration, the past takes on new forms. A 2012 study by Northwestern Medicine proved that when recalling a memory, the brain produces a less accurate version of events each time it’s remembered. Immanuel embraces these revisions and inaccuracies: “In my work I like to showcase that all memories are true—even the ones that are reconstructed. It leaves [audiences] questioning what is the real memory.”
“I want to help confirm the dreams of others, while gathering and hearing every voice.”Simone Immanuel (center) in “7 Minutes” at HERE Arts Center in New York City. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
One particular memory Immanuel traces, individually and collectively, is the Trème neighborhood of their hometown of New Orleans, famously a seat of culture and arts for the Black community. Celebrated as the cradle of jazz and host of Mardi Gras festivities, it established many of the cultural touchstones foundational to the arts today. But gentrification, and in particular a highway that threatened to all but destroy the rich lives and creations of Trème, has been transformed through a combination of art and entrepreneurial thinking. “The spirit of art will always last. Now, under that expressway, there are barbecues, bounce parties, party buses, car washes—there is a community there,” says Immanuel. They are also hopeful that a thriving arts community will impact matters on a political level.
“I think one of art's main purposes is representation. It was rare to see myself in art growing up,” they recall, citing the television series Pose, about trans women of color in the New York ballroom scene, as the moment they thought they could become an actress and writer. “I want to help confirm the dreams of others, while gathering and hearing every voice. Seeing us is a way we can all have a conversation. Let's get everybody in the room. Let's change some shit.”
García studied chemistry and biotechnology in college because of a desire to better understand the ecosystem which she is a part of, and to prevent its further degradation. But, she encountered far too many impediments in her field: “I was trying to learn ways of really solving the problem—not just analyzing contaminants in a lab.”
García’s artistry combines research, installation, performance, sculpture, and video—usually with organic matter at the center. In a world where many systems are concentrated on extraction, she’s cognizant of the necessity of a practice that moves beyond “sustainable.” “Regeneration in general can make you see that the systems we are part of have the capacity to bring back life.” Indeed, García mounts education-based community events that incorporate sensorial and experiential components for visitors, including propagating plants or interacting with mulch sculptures. “I impart scientific knowledge as a source of empowerment for people, to teach them how to do things themselves,” she says of her weekly eco-happenings at 18th Street Arts Center. “While we’re never in a situation in which we come back exactly to the origin—we are evolving every time—I still feel that regeneration has a capacity to heal the earth, heal our communities, and heal ourselves.”
By helping to regenerate individual artists and the communities where they live, Artists At Work may end up crafting an entirely new deal for the 21st century. May history show that its impacts last far beyond the crises that sparked its origin.