Arts & Culture

The Power of Public Art: Fostering Community, Creativity, and Connection

Art by Audrey Njo

Each morning as I walk to Tisch Library, I pass the iconic statue “Colossal AcornHead.” If I walk toward the academic quad, I am confronted by the ever-changing painted cannon, another iconic symbol of public art at Tufts. Public art can include murals, sculptures, memorials, integrated architecture, or landscape architectural work. According to Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture Diana Martinez, “[Public] art can be didactic, an expression of power, an expression of intention—as with most things, it depends on context.” From the Joyce Cummings Center to the Tufts University Art Galleries, the spaces we interact with on the Tufts campus and the symbols we associate with the institution reflect the values Tufts chooses to put on display. 

Tufts’ first on-campus gallery was Gallery Eleven, launched in 1952 in the basement of the Cohen Arts Center on the university’s Medford campus. The gallery was dedicated to exhibiting the work of Boston-area artists and artists affiliated with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts. In 1991, Gallery Eleven expanded into a new visual and performing arts space, the Aidekman Arts Center, which includes the Slater Concourse, Tisch Family Gallery, Koppelman Gallery, and Remis Sculpture Court. Tufts and the SMFA formally merged in 2016, linking two long-term exhibition programs into one unified, cross-campus entity.

When asked about the formal merger of Tufts and the SMFA, Martinez said, “Very directly, it offers new opportunities to diversify our public art—two SMFA graduates, who are also artists of color, received commissions to install two beautiful artworks in Cummings Center.” 

In the Fall of 2021, Tufts opened the Joyce Cummings Center, a technology-focused facility designed to manifest Tufts’ pedagogy towards the community and society, fostering spaces for heightened collaboration and innovation. The building houses the Departments of Computer Science, Economics, and Mathematics. Three new installations commissioned over the summer of 2022 in the JCC embody an intersection of creativity and analytic intellectualism meant to intertwine the three departments through artistic expression. The three pieces, “Fractals Transcending,” “The Poetry of Reason,” and “The Sum of Ostrom, Common Pots, and Persistence” span multiple floors of the Cummings Center and multiple mediums. 

The selection committee for this project, made up of faculty representatives from various university departments, prioritized Tufts and SMFA alumni who could create artwork embodying ideas of connectivity and collaboration—values the university has attempted to center with the design of the Cummings Center. Dina Deitsch, the director and chief curator of the TUAG, was in charge of commissioning artists for these works. She said that after reviewing a long list of artists, the committee met repeatedly to narrow down the list to three artists and projects. The resulting projects are the work of Boston-based artists Jamal Thorne, Yu-Wen Wu, and Polymode Studio.

These new installations indicate an astute awareness of the way public art at Tufts can serve as a bridge between the past and present, encouraging social awareness and inspiring a creative campus culture. However, works displayed on campus in the past have not always presented an inclusive picture. 

Deitsch founded the Tufts University Public Art Committee in 2019 as the result of two calls to action. The first was the need for maintenance of current pieces on campus, such as the bronze Jumbo statue that sits outside of Barnum Hall. The second and more important goal was the creation of more inclusive and equitable representation after two murals in Alumni Lounge were removed for portraying an exclusionary and whitewashed version of the founding of the university.

Deitsch explained that the committee realized there was no governing body to oversee public art at Tufts and ensure equitable representation. She said, “We know very clearly that representation on campus, who was on the walls, really matters to everybody… If you walk into a room and you don’t see any portion of your identity reflected in any way, what does that mean and what does that say to our community who’s living here right now?” 

The committee is staffed with faculty representatives from a wide range of departments and schools within the university. These representatives think about how to organize art, the process for commission, and what representation looks like. Daniel Jay, the dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Science and an adjunct professor of drawing and painting at the SMFA on the Public Art Committee, said, “Having diversity displayed on our walls is a vital opportunity to create an environment where our students can see themselves succeed and become leaders in whatever they choose to do.”

In 2020, the Tufts University Public Art Committee was tasked with thinking critically about whose history and images are displayed throughout Tufts campuses as part of President Tony Monaco’s anti-racist initiative, launched on Juneteenth of that year. The committee embarked on a public art audit to consider the impact of artwork in Tufts public spaces with the objective of ensuring that public spaces reflect values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in conveying the rich history of Tufts. 

Martinez, who is a part of the committee, reflected on her biggest takeaway from the public art audit. She said, “There are very, very few pieces of art on Tufts’ campus either depicting people of color or by people of color. We knew that going in, but it was still surprising to see how stark these numbers actually were. When does public art contribute to feelings of exclusion or inclusion?”

Outside of artwork vetted by the university and showcased in gallery spaces and planned public installations, spontaneous works such as the cannon are iconic symbols for Tufts students and faculty. Martinez said, “I think the cannon is a rare instance of interactive art… I am personally fascinated by the fact that students keep spray painting on the surrounding trees and curbs. In a sense, it demonstrates the difficulty of containing a certain kind of energy. It registers a desire to expand beyond a site of contention sanctioned by the university.”

The cannon is not the only instance of student work functioning as public art that is not institutionally controlled. Ed Hans, a dual-degree student, said, “We have a standard that certain things are allowed and certain things are not for what you can represent in your art. If you literally go to the MFA and look at the things that are allowed in that canon of art, you will see genitals, you’ll see a lot of things that would not be allowed in any official work at SMFA or even student work.” Hans reflected on what public art means to community members beyond what the university allows. They said, “The space you’re in, and what it looks like, is a reflection of who has the power to make that space. And when it’s the university, that power is theirs.” 

Martinez also inquired about the power paradigms of display at Tufts. “Is it possible to argue that an environment is inclusive if there are only portraits of white men hanging on the walls? I don’t think that installations [at Tufts]…were created to have an alienating effect. Rather, they reflect a distinct reality—that women and people of color rarely occupy positions of power,” Martinez said. “Can a more inclusive art program help people of color envision themselves as leaders who belong in positions of power? Or will this simply conceal how power is actually working at Tufts?”