Schenectady is about to get an influx of public artwork thanks to the Black Lives Matter Black Art Project.
Facilitated by the Hamilton Hill Arts Center and the city’s Department of Development, the endeavor encourages and pays artists to create artwork around the Electric City that affirms the value of Black lives. It will also gather counselors, activists and artists to help guide student artists in creating public artwork throughout the city.
“[It’s meant] to empower the community, based on the emotional transformation that people are going through,” said Hamilton Hall Arts Center Executive Director Rachel Conn.
"Martin Luther King said that a riot is the language of the unheard. Art has the potential to allow someone to share their pain with you, to illustrate a story that isn’t being heard and, in the process, to facilitate empathy. It also has [the] potential to uplift and to empower, to give shape and form to the future you envision. It has the ability to bond a community in shared goals and ideals. This is an opportunity for our community to bond in the affirmation that we value Black lives and envision a future enhanced by true equality."
The project speaks to the power of public art and it, appropriately, kicked off last week with the painting of “Black Lives Matter” on Jay Street across from City Hall.
“That began because some community members came and spoke to me about the fact that they would like to see that written downtown,” Conn said. "They felt that it was important to keep the momentum in the fight for Black lives going and that it would be empowering for those engaged in the fight to see that kind of support and statement."
Public art has become more of a focus throughout the last few weeks with national and local protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. From the removal of statues of historical figures to the installation of “Black Lives Matter” signs, art has been used to send a message. It's part of the reason why Conn wants to ensure local artists, especially Black artists, have a hand in creating public artwork.
“In resistance to the systemic racism that denies the values of our lives, it is important that we fill our environment with positive affirmations of our existence. As statues memorializing oppression come down around the country, we have the opportunity to create monuments that celebrate the preciousness of our lives,” Conn wrote in an email release about the project.
She is calling on local artists to submit their ideas for public artwork around Schenectady. There are no restrictions on the medium of the artwork that artists can propose; it can be anything from film to sculpture to painting to a combination of mediums. There is also no restriction on the locations that artists can propose displaying their artwork.
Some local artists during a recent Zoom meeting suggested putting artwork in parks and other areas of high visibility around Schenectady. Conn said that the city is willing to work with the Arts Center and artists to get the proper permits for those spaces.
The Arts Center and the city are also paying the artists involved. For the adult portion of the project, the Arts Center has a budget of $10,000. How that money is allocated depends on the type and size of projects submitted, according to Conn. Those involved in the youth program, helping young artists from ages 12-17 to create work, will also be paid, as the program also has a budget of $10,000.
“We’re looking to get a counselor who will help them talk about their feelings and some artists [and] activists to help them learn about the history of activism and how to transform their feelings into something that the community can share in the form of an art piece,” Conn said.
While the project is still in the beginning stages, community activist William Rivas, who is the director of C.O.C.O.A. House, said that it’s a long time in the making.
“I think the good thing about this project is we have the opportunity to set the [tone],” said Rivas. “We’ve been calling for opportunities like this in the community for a very long time. I don’t think we’ve really had an opportunity of this magnitude in a while.”
The next step is to create a panel of community members who will accept and review proposals.
“We’re going to put a panel together full of community members to decide which art pieces we will use and we will put out a call for artists to let them know that they can submit the proposals,” Conn said.
Artists will then submit their ideas along with illustrations, information on what the artwork will mean to the community, the location they’d like it to go and a budget of how much it will cost.
“I’m excited to see something of this magnitude. I guess for me it’s a vision of I’m going to wake up one day and there’s going to be Black art all over Schenectady, done by local Black artists and I’m excited to see that,” Rivas said.
If you're interested in being involved on the panel, email Conn at [email protected] Those interested in submitting proposals or who want to sign up for the youth program can also email Conn at the same address.