Arts Commentary: Creative Cross-Pollination — HarborArts Expands the Power of Public Art

By Mark Favermann

Over the last 15 years, HarborArts has effectively used public art to raise public awareness, stimulating dialogue about environmental concerns — the climate crisis and degradation of the sea.

Codfish by Steve Israel, Boston HarborArts, The Shipyard Gallery, 2009. Photo: Boston HarborArts

It began with a 40-foot-long sculpture of a codfish made of deteriorating salvaged steel. First floated on the harbor, the piece eventually landed on the roof of a former industrial building at the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina in East Boston that overlooks Boston Harbor and the city’s skyline. It is an example — provocative, nonthreatening, just plain beautiful — of what public art does at its best. Codfish sets up a multilayered conversation with its viewers at the home of HarborArts and the Shipyard Gallery. Over the last 15 years, this organization has thoughtfully used public art to raise public awareness, stimulating dialogue about environmental concerns — the climate crisis and degradation of the sea.

Before placemaking, climate change, ocean degradation, and rising water levels became au courant buzz words, Steve Israel understood what was coming. In 2009, this visionary pioneer organized a nonprofit dedicated to using public art to inspire our communities and corporations to take positive action and conduct environmentally responsible lives.

Israel’s passionate but plainspoken desire to protect our water resources and environment, coupled with a background in architectural salvaging, organic farming, and a lifelong concern with our shared endangered ecology, led him to create the Shipyard Gallery. The space connected artists and the community with examples of public art that promoted environmental reverence and strategic activism. Notably, this was nine years before the Institute of Contemporary Art opened its Watershed auxiliary gallery at Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina.

Splash Pollinators by Felipe Ortiz in collaboration with East Boston’s Dante Alighieri Montessori School students, 2023. Photo: HarborArts

The giant cod sculpture (created by Israel with some of his welder friends) was part of the initial show at the Shipyard Gallery in 2010. Titled Hazards of Modern Living, it was juried by Randi Hopkins, the then associate curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). The lineup featured works (on loan for a minimum of a year) from over 30 artists. Some of these pieces found a permanent home. To keep things fresh, new installations have been sequentially added. Also, HarborArts has carefully matched individual and group installations with local environmental agencies, thus drawing attention to, among others, the Massachusetts Ocean Coalition.

Matthew Pollock replaced Israel as the hands-on executive director of HarborArts in 2012. (Israel has stayed on as a board member.) The Boston-bred Pollock has focused on placemaking and what he refers to as “ARTivism. “ Over the past decade or so, he has designed, organized, produced, and presented large-scale public art projects across Boston. These collaborative cultural landscape contributions include permanent landmark art installations, interactive pop-up activations, and arts festivals. Since its beginning, over 100+ artists have been involved with HarborArts Public Art programs and projects.

Over the last several years, Colombian-American artist Felipe Ortiz, an East Boston resident and internationally recognized muralist, has headed up HarborArts’ extensive mural program. Ortiz is a 2023 recipient of a STARS Residency Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Project What You Love by Imagine (Sneha Shrestha), Sea Walls, 2020, The Shipyard Gallery. Photo: Boston HarborArts

HarborArts’ mission is admirably clear: “To create public art as a platform for community and artist dialogue on the waterfront and beyond to cultivate the intersection of environmentalism, social justice and creative expression.” What makes it refreshingly different from other public art organizations around the country is that HarborArts collaborates with nonprofits of varying sizes to amplify their causes, messages, and artwork. The idea is that nurturing more participation will lead to more effective action. Over the years, Israel, Pollock, Ortiz, and many other artists and volunteers have doggedly expanded the community reach of  HarborArts. These programs now include:

Building Big – Beyond the shipyard, HarborArts continues to work collaboratively with cultural organizations, institutions, and local businesses to engage public participation in ARTivism. They are strategically building a public art incubation environment to nurture large-scale art and design projects throughout Boston.

Harvest is a collaboration of urban farming and public art, an attempt to respond to our uncertain future due to the increased threat of climate change, food insecurity, and environmental injustice. Focusing on the issue of resiliency, HarborArts is fostering a series of paintings, educational murals fashioned to empower and encourage people to take individual action with local climate initiatives. For example, Eastie Farm is transforming unused city lots into urban farms, while at the same time addressing food security in the East Boston community.

Sea Walls is a HarborArts collaboration with Pangea Seed Foundation, Artists for Oceans in Boston. In partnership with the New England Aquarium, 21 murals have been painted to inform people about the critical issues facing our oceans with the intent of encouraging environmental stewardship of our most important natural resources. A team of local, regional, and international artists came together “to paint for a purpose and bring our oceans to the streets.” One project was Shepherd Fairey’s mural on the wall of the New England Aquarium in 2021. (See Short Fuses, June 2024)

Beautify Main Streets is a pilot initiative in collaboration with East Boston Main Streets. By funding and supporting creative placemaking in and around businesses and public squares, Beautify Main Streets will enable neighborhood shops, stores, businesses, nonprofits, and neighbors to collectively participate in and capitalize on reinforcing positive growth of a thriving business district. Objectives of this program include: (1) empowering the community to take ownership of and pride in public spaces; (2) assisting in preserving small businesses by creating heightened visibility and increased foot traffic; (3) supporting East Boston’s creative economy by developing programs, partnerships, and funding streams.

Sharks by Sophy Tuttle, Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans in Boston, presented by HarborArts,2021. Photo by Boston HarborArts.

The ethos of HarborArts incorporates the notion that public art has the ability to reach people emotionally, to visualize critical issues of social justice in ways that transcend cultural barriers and languages. The assumption is that art can change public policies and even laws.

Unfortunately, HarborArts is not well funded. The organization receives no support from major foundations and little aid from smaller family trusts. According to Pollock, each project must be funded separately. Thankfully, collaboration with other non-arts-related nonprofits and educational institutions has helped to defray costs. A lot of recent funding has come from the Boston School Department.

By using public art as a tool for civic education, HarborArts has been able to fulfill Israel’s desire to enlighten and motivate people about potentially disastrous environmental concerns. Pollock’s outreach strategy has expanded on this admirable ideal with powerful murals and sculptures that challenge us to look for answers to increasingly pressing environmental questions. Here is creative cross-pollination at its finest.

Mark Favermann is an urban designer specializing in strategic placemaking, civic branding, streetscapes, and retail settings. An award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. The designer of the iconic Coolidge Corner Theatre Marquee, he is design consultant to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and since 2002 has been a design consultant to the Boston Red Sox. Writing about urbanism, architecture, design and fine arts, Mark is contributing editor of the Arts Fuse.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts