The Cathartic Vessel of Public Art: Allison Glenn’s Framework for Counterpublic 2023

The Cathartic Vessel of Public Art: Allison Glenn’s Framework for Counterpublic 2023

by Olisa Tasie-Amadi Jr

Becoming one of the largest public art projects in the country, Counterpublic will feature over 30 newly commissioned installations by leading and emergent artists, architects, collectives, and community organizers––such as Sir David Adjaye, Raven Chacon, Torkwase Dyson, Ralph Lemon, Cannupa Hanska Luger, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and Maya Stovall––and weave contemporary art into the daily life of St. Louis along a six-mile route on the city’s main thoroughfare, Jefferson Avenue. As a long-term commitment to communities that have suffered from disinvestment, several of the artist commissions will reimagine civic infrastructures towards generational change.

Allison Glenn, serving as its main curator, offers a crucial voice and urgency to the nurturing of powerful notions of homecoming and return to the significance of the many sacred sites part of this project. We sat down with Allison over the weekend to speak about her curatorial framework for the triennial, working with an ensemble of both artists and community, and more importantly, the conversations of reclamation in St. Louis.

Olisa Tasie-Amadi Jr.: I’ve had the chance to explore a good amount of your previous work, and certainly no surprise, but it’s all truly stellar, so thank you very much for the opportunity to be in conversation ahead of the triennial. For myself, I’d love to start by asking—why do you do what you do? And what was your initial attraction to Public art as a form of expression?  

Allison Glenn: It's a great question. You know, it's been a long time coming. I'll start with public art. When I was an undergraduate, I did a BFA in photography, with a co-major in urban studies. It was really sociology and the culture of cities. But it was kind of this combination of thinking of the way that artists can engage with the built environments. And from that moment, which was about 20 years ago, was when I first understood the ways that artists could intersect with an experience. I really just also believe in the way that access and public art itself, and the many manifestations of public realms ask for a different kind of audience. And sometimes that audience is a multigenerational accidental audience. And sometimes there's an intentional audience. And sometimes it's a bit of both. I'm really kind of inspired by sight, environment, the body, or bodies. How bodies counter space, and occupy space, especially with all the socio-political implications of space and occupation. I do what I do because I don't think I could do anything else.

Torkwase Dyson, rendering of Bird and Lava (Scott Joplin), 2023.

O: In particular with this triennial, and in the wider scope of Public art, how much of a connection do the artists have to the work? and where is the focus more placed: the artist or the work?

A: I think I could use a few examples, right? There's the project for Counterpublic that I have asked David Ajayi to consider as permanent work. It's a permanent work that's being acquired by Counterpublic and donated to the Griot Museum. And the Griot is a founder-run House Museum in a neighborhood called St. Louis Place. The conversation first started with Lois, the executive director and founder, and understanding that she wanted to have a sculpture garden or sculpture park on the land that they owned that is adjacent to the museum. So then listening to the ways that she frames the collection and frames the story that she's telling through the museum, and thinking a lot about the site in the history of this neighbor, David felt like the right person to consider.

The curatorial gesture is one that asks who are my collaborators? Who are the audiences? What is the kind of responsibility for this particular project? And then it's a conversation with the artist and saying, here's what I'm thinking. Does this align? And so I share that all to say, I'm not sure that it's always the responsibility of the artist of the work to continue to have an engagement with the site. I think that the engagement will be continuous if there's real intention around how the work is initially conceived, and there are ways to build that kind of continuous engagement. When I first proposed it to Counterpublic, I also proposed a fellowship, and part of the reason was that I wanted to create a pipeline into the field for conservators of color. Also, potentially thinking about how this artwork could not only function as an anchor for the museum, but also an anchor for communities and an anchor for educational opportunities for someone who was thinking about maybe music, or working with sculpture. So there's real intention there. I think it's really the responsibility of everyone involved, to be thinking critically about the site.

O: I’m glad you used David’s for as an example, speaking on the involvement of the person and the engagement with the site’s history. More specifically, because the triennial also places heavy emphasis on St.Louis’s history in relation to occupation and reclamation of land, was there ever a question in your framework on the decision to commission a permanent work? Acknowledging that while there is the intention, you are also trying to subvert those same notions of occupation.

A: I really did think about what it means to have a permanent work, which is something that is truly monumental. What does that mean for occupation? And when I think of occupation, I think about pre-contact. I think of the communities and the people that were in North America, prior to the existence of Canada or The United States. How those communities: indigenous Native American and First Nations people have to constantly be confronted with the occupation, which is our present existence. So it's something that cannot be denied. So the idea of a permanent work in the Griot collection, which is David's first public sculpture, hopefully, supports and sustains the glorious presence in the community, and in a conversation with other museums, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Ruby, or even the Abrahamic Abrahamic Family Center that he just built in Abu Dhabi. The artwork performs a function of care… care for the museum… care for the community.

David Adjaye, Assase, 2021, installation view at Gagosian.

O: With his work too, there’s a clear sense that the continuum of education and preservation of history would continue which would serve as its own maintenance of continued success. Though, with the work on show only for the duration of the triennial, and the performances, and the catalogs, what do you then define and establish as a performance index to say, in five or ten years, these works made a chance within the community, or served their purpose?

A: Tough question. It’s so good. Success is such a divergent word to each respective person, and for me, it would boil down to the artist feeling supported in their work and their performance. A great example is Maya Stovall, Theorem Number 3. It's the third performance in the series that will be presenting a series of actions as reparations to St.Louis. And she will be using her entire project budget to pay reparations to St.Louis citizens, and at the same time, responding to the neighborhood's history. Her work deals with subverting a bureaucratic system in many ways through this action. So, for me, the success of that project would be the deep community engagement work that we’re looking to do. I’ll leave it there without revealing too much. So, finding ways to support the artist, gain the trust of people, and offer money and support without any strings attached.

O: How do you go about getting the community's trust? Acknowledging that the majority of the way in which the triennial would function is less of simply a tangible or financial given, but the visual expression and performance pieces. At the same time, also trying not simply to display works but show the intention behind the gesture that would solidify its purpose in years to come.

A: I couldn’t do the community work without the team, and a big part is always knowing not to assume any form of knowledge about the city. It’s always about listening to the community. We needed to make sure that this work didn’t seem like a gesture that didn’t have intention, so working closely with Melissa and Katherine was an important part. And I think the work does the work. Knowing the intention and the collaborators was also crucial in understanding the landscape. What kinds of artists could make work that responds to a kind of history, while also being situated at this moment? I trust the artists that I work with to express and execute their work in that way. It’s also hard sometimes to think about a decade, so I hope that it does have that impact in years to come.

Matthew Angelo Harrison, Detail view of Solemn Unrest (2023).

O: You’ve always been open in regards to feedback from the community within your process for creating public art, and I’m curious, where exactly do you place it into your curatorial framework for each project?

A: I think the role of the curator is producer, creator, and collaborator. And in a public space, I’m thinking about the audience because I’m only able to understand what is necessary for a site through them. It’s the balance of listening and also following my intuition. A lot of that does include feedback because I’m not working for me. I want to know how something lands and how it is received. It has to be relatable to the community in which it is being placed, and for this project specifically, that is also understanding the purpose and intention behind the triennial directly in focus on St.Louis.

O: In that framework as well, there is the balance that is established within all groups of the project, because at the end of the day like you said, each and every person has to feel like they’ve been supported. And so, with this triennial specifically, how do you balance the priorities of the artists, the community, and maybe even yourself, without having to sacrifice anything?

A: I try to strike a balance. I try to understand the place. And so, hearing from a museum that has been in the community for 25 years gives me a clear image of what should be done, and what they want to be done. I won’t be successful if I walked in and told them what they wanted to do is not right. I can leverage my relationships with artists and my understanding of the artistic practice to help aid the Museum's goal and intention. What are the communities being served? And then how can they all be served simultaneously? For me, it felt like an elaborate scaffold upon which all the connections are made, and I was able to stand at the center and provide that view knowing it would sustain itself after our presence.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, American Citizens Map, 2021.

O: Where does the reflection of the work done and establishing connections between all the communities being served come into play?

A: There are always things I know, and things I don’t know. And there are still things I don’t know, so I can’t pretend it’s a perfect project and that it will be embraced, but I hope so. That’s the honest truth. You do your best and try to make the communication as clear as it can be. There are also all the invisible communities that we work with too, such as the artist's studio, the gallerists, the donors, and much more. At a certain point, a project is going to have a life of its own, so you hope to listen and reflect and get it right.

O: In taking this onus open yourself and the artists too, the work serves as your responsibility in reshaping and rebuilding the community. Is there any responsibility on the side of the community, aside from their engagement with the works per se?

What is important with these projects and the artist’s works is that there is a gathering place for the communities that engage with them, and also understanding that not only did I have intention as a curator, but also the artists had intention behind the work. I hope they can also engage with the work in a way that doesn’t look at it like we had a solution or coming in to fix something, but rather creating an environment that allows for continued creation, exploration, consideration, and engagement with their rich and varying histories.

Counterpublic 2023 will be on view from April 15 - July 15.