One Year Later: Mary Miss

Above, an Audio Postcard about the starting conditions for the project. 

When I spoke with Mary Miss a year ago, she reflected that Broadway: 1000 Steps was an evolution of her previous practice as an individual artist creating site-specific work.  Rather of developing a new way of working at each site, she was looking to create a replicable model for making sustainability issues tangible through art in many cities.  Now, after having produced a significant prototype and built a team to support the work, it’s clear that the project is more than just an evolution, it’s a genuinely new way of working.

The project is enabling Miss to engage with communities, scientists, academics, and the city in ways she’s never done before and requiring that she build the new capacities necessary to do so.  Moreover, the increasingly complexity of the project has led Miss to realize that it is essential she create a non-profit entity to house the project – a significant shift from working as fiscally sponsored individual artist.

The Innovation

Broadway: 1000 Steps: The City as a Living Laboratory by artist Mary Miss seeks to boldly transform Manhattan’s oldest street into a site where everyday people can engage with environmental issues. From Bowling Green to Van Cortland Park, Miss and her team will install interactive works of art at ten to twenty locations along the Broadway corridor to call viewers’ attention to the part they can play in issues that impact the environment in New York City.

Progress So Far:

One year after receiving The Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund award, Mary Miss’s major milestones have been installing a prototype installation at 137th St/Montefiore Park and investing in the project’s sustainability through increased staff capacity and community buy-in. The project has evolved by “the seat of their pants” according to Mary Miss, but Miss and her team have laid the groundwork for its future success.

According to Mary Miss, the test site at 137th and Broadway, which included 54 installations, was put up “as fast as humanly possible.”  She explained the site was designed, fabricated and installed within one month of receiving the Rockefeller CIF grant. The test site enabled Miss and her team to evaluate and reflect on how the project can, as Miss explains, “implement place-based learning through effective visual engagement.”  Miss worked closely with scientists from CUNY and the Wildlife Conservations Society to establish the installation’s learning goals.  In addition, the installation was assessed by the Institute for Learning and by psychologist Dr. John Fraser of NewKnowledge.org, Principle Investigator on the National Science Foundation project grant associated with 1000 Steps, whose report indicated that 92% of passerby noticed the installations and 68% of the passerby had read one or more of the texts.

Key Lessons

The major lessons the Mary Miss and her team took away from the prototype at 137th Street included:

  • Keep it simple: The team had initially assumed that more elements in each installation would lead to greater engagement, however they learned that too many visual elements proved confusing.  Miss’s team also observed that installations pointing to specific, concrete objects or ideas were more engaging then abstract ones.
  • Provide multiple access points: The team founds that supplementing the installation with talks, public programs and web engagement strategies was essential to engage viewers more fully with the issues the installation highlights.  For example, in partnership with the Municipal Arts Society, Miss conducted a 14.5 mile, 12 hour walking tour down the length of Broadway with over 200 participants, which proved incredibly stimulating and dramatically increased awareness of the project.
  • Evaluation is essential: Working with the evaluator the team is developing methods to assess the effectiveness of the sites in encouraging scientific inquiry and learning among viewers.
  • Staff capacity should meet project needs: Miss added a community outreach point person, a science educator and a professional evaluator to the team to diversify the responsibility and ensure the project does not rely on Miss along to move forward.

Challenges

This ambitious project has faced two main challenges: working with the city and funding. Installing public art in New York City demands approval and permitting from multiple city agencies.  She says, “I get no all the time from the city and I keep going back until I find a way that suits them and suits us and moving forward.”  In working with the city Mary emphasizes, “It’s not about the spectacle of the project. It is my hope that this project will nurture and develop relationships with community boards, Business Improvement Districts and academic institutions that will continue after the project.”

Securing funding for the completion of the project has also been a major hurdle. The Rockefeller CIF grant represents only part of the funding needed to fully implement Broadway: 1000 Steps.  Although they received a grant from the National Science Foundation to support the initial phase of work, they have not been as successful in additional fundraising as they anticipated. In addition, Dr. John Fraser, points out in his report that people who saw the project as a “science learning intervention” focused more on what others should do based on the information, whereas those who saw it as an “artistic expression of sustainability issues” thought more about their own responsibilities and what the science meant in their lives.”  Perhaps the hybrid nature of the project makes fundraising a greater challenge as well.

As a result of limited funding, staff hours on the project have been reduced and the concept may need to pivot to include more virtual content. However, Mary Miss is determined to launch the project within the next year and is continuing to plan for optimum funding while preparing to complete meaningful project components and fulfill the mission incrementally.

When embarking on an innovative project that is not fully funded, what are the risks an organization takes on? Innovation demands flexibility, improvisation, and a willingness to rethink a project even when it is already underway. However, Mary Miss also demonstrates that innovation requires persistence, “I take something on like this with bold determination that it is going to happen,” she said.

Next Steps

The next phase of the project will include developing narratives for each hub on the route based on research, continuing to develop a diverse, renewable funding base, and integrating on-going assessment into the project development and implementation.

Interview conducted by Karina Mangu-Ward.  Post written by Eleanor Whitney with Karina Mangu-Ward.  

About
Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.