Suzanne Lacy and Susan Leibovitz Steinman-The Confluence of Conservation Ecology and Community Economics

Article excerpt

Our group discussion in Atlanta built on Suzanne Lacy and Susan Leibovitz Steinman's initial presentation about Beneath Land andWater: A Project for Elkhorn City, KY, an ongoing public-art and environmental-regeneration project they created in collaboration with Yutaka Kobayashi. In this project the artists are collaborating with the residents of a Kentucky mining town to call attention to its riverfront ecology and to develop longer-term strategies for building eco-tourism in the area. Lacy and Steinman's presentation helped spur conversation about more broadly applicable ethical principles and practical strategies for community-based projects.

The group turned out to be almost entirely composed of practicing artists who were ready to share ideas, methods, and questions derived from their own deep experience. Many of the participants work in the arena that Lacy in 1992 presciently identified as "new genre public art" and that has since flourished in itself and mutated into new, related modes of practice since she coined the phrase (terms like relational aesthetics, dialogical art, public practice, and critical practice all cover related territory).1 These practices include many environmentally based works such as Steinman's but also extend more broadly, so this session stretched the boundaries of the general eco-art discussion of the day. The themes that emerged during our group conversation include: the benefits of careful planning, the importance of building trust, and the need for flexibility in response to the inevitable surprises. (Or to put these themes another way: logistics, ethics, and adjustment.) What follows is a partial list of the strategies and issues that emerged during the discussion.


Dealing realistically with givens (the possibilities and difficulties of a situation), including your own resources and limitations.

Observing carefully and listening well.

Finding the right collaborators and guides, whether you're working within your own territory, with a new community, or as a short-term visitor to a distant place.

Knowing your audience (and whether what you thought was an audience in fact consists of participants or collaborators or opponents).

Avoiding the traps of so-called aesthetic evangelism.

Working overtime. Making a long-term commitment to a community (a commitment that can take many forms).

Maintaining transparency of process, plans, and finances.

Communicating well.

Honoring your commitments.


How can we implement new curricula that teach the skills used in these kinds of projects, emphasizing their utility not just in training artists but also in nurturing citizens?

What are the roles of symbol and metaphor within new-genre public art and critical practice?

Why pursue some of these projects as art?

An ever-popular question: how can we assess quality in a rigorous but appropriate "way? …