August 11, 2016; Next City

Last fall, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced the establishment of the Creative Catalyst Artists in Residence Program, administered through the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). In June, Alan Nakagawa was named the city’s first Creative Catalyst. Nakagawa, an oral historian, sound artist, and mural artist who previously managed public art projects for Metro, L.A. County’s main transit agency, is now embedded in the city’s Department of Transportation (LADOT). Among his goals is to bring a fresh perspective to Vision Zero, a campaign aimed at eliminating L.A. traffic deaths by 2025.

In announcing the artist-in-residence program, DCA general manager Danielle Brazell noted, “A 21st century city must embrace collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. DCA is uniquely positioned as an agency to foster the spirit of creativity within civic government as a force for positive change.” NPQ has previously reported on a number of other cities that are investing in artist-in-residence programs to advance civic agendas and to spark new kinds of conversations about city planning.

As a part-time artist in residence, Nakagawa is being paid $20,000, jointly funded by DCA and LADOT. His residency could continue for a second year if federal funding comes through. The “catalyst” part of being a Creative Catalyst is meaningful: Nakagawa’s role is not only to use his own artistic sensibilities to advance the work of LADOT, but also to recommend ways other artists might contribute ideas. As he notes, “In the hubbub of bureaucracy and public art, the artist is often the least paid and the most needed.” And as Seleta Reynolds, LADOT general manager, observes:

Art has the ability to startle people out of their everyday to remind them that they are traveling through the heart of a neighborhood and to spark their imagination no matter how they move through our city. Vision Zero is a bold goal: zero traffic fatalities by 2025, which will require conventional tools like engineering and enforcement, as well as unconventional tools like art and storytelling. We plan to infuse art into the design and function of the public realm to create safe, beautiful, great streets.

So how does an artist contribute to a public safety initiative like Vision Zero? Just a couple of months into his residency, L.A.’s first Creative Catalyst already is having an impact:

Nakagawa has been tagging along on Vision Zero task force meetings, and listening in as staff conduct focus groups around areas with high concentrations of pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities. Noticing that the presentations tended to focus on the numbers over the personal stories of those killed, he’s invited Gary Buchler of The Moth to lead the engineers in a storytelling workshop.

Nakagawa is also hoping to collaborate with local safety advocates who install “ghost bikes,” memorials to cyclists who have been injured or killed in traffic accidents. And through oral histories, he is helping to document the evolution of LADOT since the 1970s, from a department that catered to the city’s well-known car-centric culture to one that places more emphasis on accommodating pedestrians. His observations and recommendations to date will be included in the Vision Zero action plan LADOT will publish next month.

NPQ would love to hear about other ways cities are engaging artists in projects or conversations about improving civic life.—Eileen Cunniffe