Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Tucson Renaissance

By Michael B Schwartz 

Summer in Tucson is a special time, nights are filled with an ambiance of excitement and possibility, the days a surrealistic test of our ability to survive, and enjoy, the heat. The Old Pueblo really is undergoing a renaissance as generation “Y” is migrating back to the city core (1). They are bringing with them experience, education and an enthusiasm not seen since just after the second World War. This phenomenon is coupled with a global movement grounded in how we define public space. Throughout the world the issues of community cultural development, restorative design and truly democratic participatory design processes have, rather dramatically, come to the fore. These issues are not about to fade away any time soon. How we use, and govern our shared spaces is something that touches all of us. When these spaces are defiled in some way, it has a collective impact. The opposite is also true, so when a beautiful new mural, or work of public art appears it can change the way a place feels.

In Tucson we have a ton of work to do, there are so many places in need of creative re-design. The arts are a critical part of this process, and groups like the Tucson Arts Brigade (TAB) are experiencing steady growth. TAB integrates the arts into a participatory team based design process that includes horticultural, built and water harvesting features.

The vision of TAB has been consistent since it’s inception following a state-wide gathering of community artists on November 11, 1995; raise funds to train and hire visiting artists to work with schools, community centers, neighborhoods, hospitals and other places. Artists offer exciting workshops that inspire and empower participants, re-design spaces that foster creative, holistic learning and inspire audience members to be stewards of the natural and built environment.

The tricky part of that last sentence is the “raising funds” part. To do so has been complicated in an age of “evidence based results” and “innovative best practices”. TAB seized on the tools available to track, measure and report on their successes while remaining consistent with their values as an arts organization to provide world-class programming. By holding ourselves to international standards participants are given an exposure to the amazing world of the fine arts. Today artists like the Harrison’s (2), Lilly Yeh (3) and Betsy Damon (4) are engaged in transformative work to address the most pressing of environmental concerns such as water, food production and global warming. Artists have applied their skills to solving a myriad of problems, ranging from homelessness, transportation, healing from war and global warming. Increasingly artists are finding themselves at the center, not margins of addressing these issues.

In 2009 I was honored to be a guest of the White House with a group of 50 colleagues to discuss how the arts could be part of the economic recovery process. The next day several colleagues and I went to Capital Hill to lobby for a National Artists Corps, and the creation of employment opportunities for artists. Since that time TAB has continued to build it’s capacity and get artists back to work.

Today TAB and it’s service arm, the Tucson Artists Corp, continue to revitalize our communities through creative means. The outcome of place based arts projects is really inspiring. In addition to an empowering, inclusive process and stunning final artworks there are also policy shifts.

In South Phoenix the TRUCE mural brought together dozens of people to discuss the history, stories, challenges and successes faced by the community while raising awareness about gun violence. The stories that emerged are amazing. In addition to the gun violence this area has been engaged in environmental justice struggles typified by the 1992 chemical fire that burned for an hour, but whose health impacts are still being experienced today (5). Through community meetings, paint days and a final unveiling we were able to build the capacity of neighborhood organizations, and momentum for a gun buyback program. Rarely seen politicians came to paint with us, spoke at the unveiling and networked with grassroots organizers, opening up new channels of communication.

In Tucson the Beautify and Unify program started in 2009 bringing together residents in neighborhoods such as Miracle Manor, North West, Amphi, Roberts, Naylor, Julia Keen, Alvernon Heights, Myers and Barrio Centro to design and create murals through weekly after school workshops. In each neighborhood several development goals were identified such as capacity building, beautification, divergence and stewardship. TAB then integrates these goals into its’ curriculum.

The results that are emerging are very exciting.  TAB is seeing a dramatic upturn in participants understanding of civic life (up 50%) and how to organize community service projects (up 93%). Participants are getting more involved now that they understand the steps to a successful project. TAB’s creative approach to financial literacy has resulted in students becoming more confident in creating budgets (up 121%), balancing their checkbooks (up 54%) and in managing a savings account (up 54%).

Our Workforce Development program is seeing equally impressive results. 100% of the older youth (16 – 22) were prepared and have entered the workforce and/or higher education. All the youth in our programs have gone on to have unique success stories despite monumental economic challenges. 72 youth ages 8 – 22 participated in the 2012 program.

The arts are critical to the economic life of our city, and they are central to who we are as a people, our voices, visions, aspirations and legacy. While things may look grim at times, the arts will always be here, reflecting the best of what humanity has to offer. And in Tucson, it’s easy to get involved.

This fall our TAB invites you to join in the annual 911 Day of Arts Service, Sun. Sept 8, 1-5pm    , 29th Street and Columbus Blvd. Repainting the overpass. Join TAB and Tucson Artists Corp in maintaining and cleaning the Inside the Overpass mural and surrounding area.

If you would like to get involved in upcoming programs, offer a wall, commission a work of art, if you’re an established or emerging community artist who loves to work with people from all walks of life, you can contact us at 520-623-2119, or online at


1) Norris, Nathan 4/9/12 Why Generation Y is Causing the Great Migration of the 21st Century

2) Harrison’s Studio

3) Lilly Yeh, and the Barefoot Artists

4) Betsy Damon

5) Brooks, Sarah, 2000 “Innovative Waste Utilization and the Concerned Residents of South Phoenix, AZ”

(originally published in Tucson Happenings Magazine)

Bio: Michael B Schwartz (BFA Tyler School of Art, MFA UA 1991), is a nationally known visual artist. His public, community and studio works reveal a love for community and place. He believes the arts are a powerful and transformative force that grows in abundance and available to all. Currently he serves as Director of the Tucson Arts Brigade, a community arts education organization, is a member of the Citizens Artist Warehouse in beautiful downtown Tucson.