Portland Works

In choosing the three departments to begin work­ing with, Marty chose the most misunderstood and most stressed departments in the municipal system — police, public services and health and human services. The Art At Work initiative has al­ready made a real transformation for our employ­ees. Should we already have had respect for each other? Yes. But is municipal government set up to give that respect a chance to be made visible? Rarely. For the city councilors, with increasing pressures regarding money, layoffs, and budget cuts, the challenge is to get the arts to be as cen­tral, as core to our community, as a police cruiser or a water fountain.”

Pat Finnigan
Assistant City Manager for the City of Portland

Collage, poetry, storytelling, chorale singing, and discussions.

Portland Works employed art-making as a catalyst to build enduring, authen­tic relationships which are essential to meeting the increasing challenges facing cities. Created in response to civic and social tensions between city employees, elected officials and the immigrant and refugee communities, Portland Works partnered municipal participants – city councilors, police, public service, social service, fire and EMS workers – with community leaders who represented both the city’s growing diversity and the residents who had lived here for generations. Exploring topics including civics, history, life stories and the “state of the city,” participants met monthly to create and share individual artworks.

Project challenges were addressed through education, discussion and art-­making, with a final distillation of the art that had been created – photog­raphy, mosaics, collage, printmaking, poetry, graffiti, video, audio, music – into public art projects. Such projects included sidewalk stencils, park benches, murals, painted light poles, images on sanitation trucks – all of it art that connected people to the communities, each other, and the city.

The challenges: establish structures for ongoing communication and relationships between municipal and community leaders; decrease ten­sions within and between immigrant/refugee communities and city de­partments; reduce incidence of lawsuits that charge city workforce with misconduct; leverage economic advantages that accompany Portland’s diverse, international population.

Our strategy: connect city staff, elected officials and community lead­ers through art-making workshops that address personal, practical, and political topics; use work generated in this process to create public art installations that further the goals of the project.

The last workshop in each Portland Works session included a debriefing to evaluate the impacts of the project and share that knowledge with local and national audiences. The first session of Portland Works included 30 participants meeting over the course of four months (three art-making work­shops + debriefing session).

For this project, our community collaborators included the City of Portland, Police / Public Services / Health & Human Services Departments; AFSCME Local 481, Portland Adult Education, Maine Historical Society, the League of Young Voters, Portland Housing Authority, and Portland Trails.

Three cheers and lasting thanks to Elmina B. Sewall Foundation for their continued support of Portland Works.