Citizen Artist St. Louis: A Collective Emerges to Shape the St. Louis Mayoral Race
“Did you win? he asks.
It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson.”
– Citizen, An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Late last year I walked in to a living room in St. Louis full of artists, activists, poets, gallery owners, designers, architects, urbanists and more gathered to discuss the potential forms of organizing around the next election hovering in front of us: the St Louis Mayoral Election. The prompt to meet came just a few weeks after the November elections, which found those in St. Louis – among the most progressive politically in the nation – facing not only a Trump presidency, but a Tea Party-leaning governor replacing a centrist Democrat with pledges to strip funding for higher education, weaken the statewide arts council (a measure optimistically on pause at the moment), and push the far-reaching GOP platform forward in our increasingly red state.
However, by and large the pull wasn’t national or even state wide, but intensely local, intently personal. The mayoral election has multiple complex narratives in play. Heightened not only because it is the first time in sixteen years that Francis Slay, the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, is not running, leaving the field open for the first time in recent memory, but also as the first mayoral race post-Ferguson with the city at multiple inflection points: Whither on the vine of whiteness and inaction on racial issues, or meaningfully engage with the Ferguson Commission and other voices. Fund stadiums and other silver bullet developments that never seem to pan out or shake up the status quo in regard to economic distribution and development for a more equitable city. Slide along in the long post-industrial population decline or invest in our neighborhoods, in new ideas, and in the people who live and work around us. And, yes, center artists as essential voices in cultural and civic evolution.
The stakes, the work, and the narrative could not be clearer. Many in the room and on the subsequent dozens-deep email thread had worked together on interwoven projects, from protest actions and boycotts, record labels and self-organized youth art camps, to major institutions and long-standing independent spaces throughout the city, but all spoke to the collaborative, complex, activated, and unflinching art scene of St. Louis circa 2016.
Adopting a name and format from organizers in Baltimore we moved forward as Citizen Artist, seeking to embed art viewed intersectionally and civically into an already charged mayoral race. The title itself – citizen – so lauded, loaded, and abused in this hyper-nationalistic moment is intimately and etymologically connected first to the city. We work first as inhabitants of this particular place and time and owe ourselves to it. Art is just one way to complicate and extend citizenship; to strengthen or seed dissent in one’s city or state. We work outward as artists, not simply asking what a mayor will do for us as a constituency, but how art intersects with the concerns of the city and its citizens – issues such as equity and access, displacement and housing, transportation and education. Our artwork may individually offer a prism into these, but it is our dual identities as creators and citizens that is necessary to our city. The term, Citizen Artist, strips our individual agendas, even our partisan positions, returning us to an essential starting place: how, as artists, may we occupy, build, educate, enliven, challenge, redevelop, redistribute, and resource our cities?
“Will we win?,” you ask. It is not a match, we may say, but a new mode of action.
A Concerned Citizen
Five members from the far-reaching group responded to an open series of prompts on the motivations, goals, and future of Citizen Artist St. Louis following their Mayoral Town Hall on Arts and Culture tonight at The Luminary, where the candidates will come together to speak to cultural concerns sourced from community listening sessions, and the de facto election with the Democratic primary on March 7th.
What personally motivated you to organize as part of Citizen Artist?
Mallory Nezam: I’ve always been politically active as an artist, and many other local artists are, but there is this power in numbers — together we are more than the sum of its parts.
Pacia Anderson: I was motivated to organize as part of Citizen Artist because the arts are a foundational part of my day-to-day life–everything from how I express myself creatively, to how I work professionally, to the ways in which I mother my child, to where I spend my dollars, to how I engage socially in my community; the arts are central to the way that I live and are woven into nearly every part of my life. As such, I feel that it is important that the arts are centered in any conversation involving policy and the growth and development of our city.
Kristin Fleischmann-Brewer: I was inspired what artists had done around their mayoral election in Baltimore. I felt like the creative, civically engaged people I knew in St. Louis had the power to do the same, and leverage our collective voice during our Mayoral election.
Marcis Curtis: After being involved in some art-centered direct actions as part of the Ferguson Uprising and marching in the streets over the last few years, I’ve been frustrated by the lack of results and visible change, but encouraged by the community’s responses to encourage young and diverse people with fresh perspectives to run for office on a local level. I think centering creative solutions to today’s problems on a political level, and getting more creative people involved in policy-making decisions will allow for more nuanced and sensitive legislation. We need to listen to the people in this city that are often overlooked, and find ways to amplify their voices.
Michael Allen: St. Louis needs movements to shape local politics. Nowadays, there are few organized movements exerting influence, despite an ambiguous assertion of a “progressive” voting bloc in the city. Mechanisms for naming shared goals and enacting shared tactics are crucial to overcome the limits of identitarian politics, and to avoid political aspirations terminating with single candidates or campaigns.
What does the name “Citizen Artist” mean to you?
Mallory Nezam: I think the name “Citizen Artist” means citizens who are simultaneously artists and artists who are simultaneously engaged citizens. It means artists who care about their city, and citizens who are thoughtful and creative in thinking about how to make it better. It is a reminder that within the citizenry there are artists and artists themselves are citizens.
Pacia Anderson: The name “Citizen Artist” means the fusion of two of the identities that make up the wholeness of my being. As a citizen, I am recognizing my responsibility to forward the progressive growth of my community through educated civic engagement. As an artist, I am honoring my responsibility to, as Saul Williams says, “uplift the consciousness of the entire…world” and to do so through my artistic practice. Thusly, “Citizen Artist” is to center my art (and ensure that it is centered by elected officials) in the building of our community through policy and action.
Kristin Fleischmann-Brewer: Citizen Artist means being present in our city as active participants in shaping its future as a creative force – using our tools as artists to impact policy from education to community development.
Marcis Curtis: This is about serving our community, first and foremost. An artist often crosses many disciplines, collaborating with friends and neighbors, and can see community connections where a bureaucracy would lumber along unaware of the enormous talent underfoot. The economic and political impact of creative people in St. Louis cannot be underestimated, and we need to leverage that to find ways to get local government on board and funding human-centered solutions to problems we face.
Michael Allen: To me, this phrase denotes an artist who is willing to be political by engaging electoral politics in collective action with others. This is a person who understands that artists hold political power that has a pragmatic impact in elections and government. Also this is not a person who espouses a single candidate loyalty or ideology — the citizen artist works through difference and embraces productive conflict.
What concrete ideas or proposals do you hope comes out of this campaign?
Mallory Nezam: I hope this campaign puts arts and culture back on the political map in St. Louis–not just on the map, but integrated into the many issues St. Louis is facing. I think the arts community in St. Louis thinks that arts and culture are integrated into many aspects of the city, but I hope that this campaign prioritizes this integrated thinking into all civic issues.
Pacia Anderson: I would like to see some form of specific plan of action or even a broad vision of how a new administration plans to not just support the arts, but to integrate creative thinking into areas of education, development, crime prevention, social services, and economic sustainability in city planning. I also hope that these campaigns recognize the tide of artists that have been elected by the people to occupy these offices and will follow that tide by placing capable, creative thinkers in their public service endeavors, whether they are elected to be mayor of St. Louis or not.
Kristin Fleischmann-Brewer: I would like to see the Mayor’s office create a Department of Arts and Culture with a Deputy in charge of developing arts policy and creating an task force. Artists and creative leaders are placed on different committees and task forces. That artists and creative people feel empowered by our work and realize we can have impact and hold our elected officials accountable as a unified voice.
Marcis Curtis: I hope we can create a more accessible and creative way to utilize the enormous assets currently being bound up in endless red tape by the Land Reutilization Authority. Thousands of buildings and vacant lots could be given to local creative people or organizations to improve access to healthy food, art and skill training opportunities, affordable housing, and community spaces. Engaging creatively with targeted communities and local workers to rehabilitate these spaces can bring enormous impact to these areas, both socially and economically.
Michael Allen: I hope that Citizen Artist builds as an organized movement structure.
What role did the national elections have in you organizing locally?
Mallory Nezam: I have always been politically active, but the national elections inspired me to take stock of the greatest political effect I could have, which was on the local level, as well as to take stock of the value of collective organizing. I also think the elections were pivotal in reminding me to–frankly–whine about issues I care about. To not assume that people care or that politicians know that people care. So here we are as CASTL beating our drum of arts and culture and declaring loudly that is matters, and demanding that mayoral candidates tell us how they will commit to our cause. I sort of felt like if certain constituencies can complain that their jobs are disappearing in rural America (even though they attribute the causes to false perpetrators rather than globalization and automation) then we ought to actually get on a pedestal and yell about the fact that arts education is continually defunded, for example. I also felt that the new federal administration had and will fail artists and that the only way to advocate is at the local level.
Pacia Anderson: The national elections further highlighted for me the importance of organizing in the places where we can be most effective, and to take an honest inventory of my own abilities and skill sets to apply them where they will do the most good. I realize that not all of us have lifestyles or temperaments for large-scale organizing work, or the patience for working within the national political matrix of top-down mobilization. The national elections reaffirmed my belief that “all politics is local” and that the best way that I can effect the most change is to focus on working in the place where I live, collectively with the folks who live here too–where the policies and decisions effect my community and family the most.
Kristin Fleischmann-Brewer: The results of the election were the final push I needed to open up the conversation to a broader group of friends and colleagues, and ask: Can we do this? Should we do this?
Marcis Curtis: Watching the national election cycle and feeling the swell of disgust with how it evolved, I had to do something to respond. I’ve been involved in a handful of projects over the last few years that have significantly changed following the election. People have seen what is happening and are reacting in so many ways that I realized I needed to plug in, rather than tune out. If this political trainwreck can galvanize people to take serious action then we need to utilize that for the benefit of those most in danger of being affected by the new government’s actions.
Michael Allen: None. The agony of national elections is nothing new, but the potential of mass participation in local politics has been alive in this city as far back as the general strike of 1877. The local becomes the national, to some extent.
What do you imagine Citizen Artist’s work to be after the mayoral elections?
Mallory Nezam: I think this organization finally united STL arts & culture workers around a common cause: to ensure our elected leaders are prioritizing arts and culture issues. I believe that this model will be helpful for other communities organizing around the country and that CASTL can consult to help artists organize everywhere. I’d like to see CASTL to continue to be involved in the political process throughout the year, like involvement in aldermanic races, shedding light on propositions, proposing legislation, and uncovering issues long veiled.
Pacia Anderson: I imagine the work to be in the areas of helping to keep the electorate engaged and educated, and the officials held accountable to the promises or decisions they make during and after the campaign. And dope arts-based events that bring out artists and non-artists alike. I imagine Citizen Artist can actually become a bridge between the oft-divergent worlds of civics and the arts. At this point, the possibilities are endless!
Kristin Fleischmann-Brewer: I imagine that we will hold the elected candidate accountable and continue to build relationships with the candidates to advocate for the arts and our priorities. I imagine that we will set meetings with elected officials and talk through our platform, offering our vision and ideas for ways the arts can be involved in their administrations. This is also not just about St. Louis, but about connecting with officials in Missouri’s capital and similar groups across the nation through the US Department of Arts and Culture.
Marcis Curtis: I would love to see it become a conduit for community engagement and continue to ask for policy-level changes that center art and community on a fundamental level, encouraging an economically viable model for inclusive community growth. I think the people of St. Louis would benefit greatly by having more creative people in places of power in local government. Citizen Artist can help highlight community concerns and possibly provide resources for those looking to get involved.
Michael Allen: Regardless of who wins, that candidate should be held accountable. This election has seen mayoral candidates almost overpromising to rise to the top of a crowded field. The reality of that office is that it responds to demands, and if we stop demanding things after the election (even if “our” candidate wins), we will cease being political.
Mallory Nezam is an entrepreneurial social practice civic artist, cultural producer, writer, communications strategist and urban strategist passionate about engagement that dissolves barriers. She is a founder of STL Improv Anywhere, Building as Body, #ChalkUnarmed and many more.
Pacia Anderson is a Performance Poet, Teaching Artist and Co-Founder of Cherokee Street Reach.
Kristin Fleischmann Brewer is a practicing artist, co-founder of Enamel Art Space, and serves as the Director of Public Projects at Pulitzer Arts Foundation.
Marcis Curtis is a multidisciplinary artist and small business owner, founding Citizen Carpentry with Emanuel Taranu in 2015 and providing over 1200 hours of paid carpentry training for two Apprenticeships. They have worked with community organizations, galleries, museums, non-profits, companies and individuals to find creative solutions for their spaces.
Michael Allen is the founder of the Preservation Research Office and a lecturer in the Landscape Architecture and American Culture Studies Department at Washington University in St. Louis. He is an active writer, organizer and lecturer and was most recently the urban cultural geographer in residence at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.