What is happening in other cities? We talk with Flint Public Art Program

Flint Public Art Program has painted over 100 murals in Flint Michigan since 2013. We sat down with the program director: Joe Schipani and PixelStix CEO Matt Walker to discuss how technology paired with outdoor art is helping to shape Flint Michigan into a world class arts destination.

Mergeculture: Q: Flint public art program has been going on since 2013, and Joe, you’ve been the director since 2015. You guys have one of the largest Pixelstix collections in the world, how has this technology helped your community engage in the street art and work you place outdoors?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: The technology, its giving neighborhoods data from the murals, to share with businesses who operate around the artwork. We can actually take data and let businesses know that people are visiting a mural after say, 6pm, and we can advise that business to stay open later if applicable. The neighborhoods are showing foot traffic data in the mural, and we’re also tracking crime data in the neighborhood. It can help our neighborhoods with getting grant money.

Mergeculture: Q: We’re all part of smaller communities that can barely get along, but how do you feel like public art can help communities stay together, and become more connected?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: We started painting murals through community engagement. There have been a lot of things that have happened in Flint: The water crisis, Flint Town on Netflix. And obviously the documentary Flint Town branded Flint as a detrimental place and the producers of the show purposely blurred out anything that wasn’t blight or destruction. So we have really been having discussions around what is behind that blur? If you live in Flint, you know the city isn’t all bad, there are many beautiful places and people doing great things in the neighborhoods. So we started having these neighborhood workshops and we really started getting neighbors together to talk about art, about what their community looks like, and about what they would like to see.

Mergeculture: Q: What is the process of the workshops? How do you engage the community, do you give people a list of artists to choose from that you pre-selected?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: – Absolutely, here are the artists we can bring, here are some local artists, what would you like to see. Some people got overwhelmed, some were excited, and the point is that it brought people together around a positive initiative in the city.

Mergeculture: Q: Do you push your workshop conversations with a suggestion?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: We build kind of like a word-cloud that describes what the area or community reflects. We take suggestions from the community and they all remove words and add words that reflect what they want to see. So for instance, we might end up with “flowers and butterflies” and then we can give the community a list of artists who do that, and they can choose from the artist they like the most. It’s a collaborative effort and this is what helps build the community.

Mergeculture: Q: One of the reasons I wanted to speak with you about the Flint Project is that I feel like Tampa has some examples of things that could be done – in ways we can learn from what Flint is doing. We have a huge opportunity here for artist collaborations with property owners. We have a lot of warehouse districts and empty warehouses in our community, and since the 70’s artists in Tampa have moved away to places like New York, and Los Angeles, and we loose a lot of artists to St. Pete because the art scene is so connected just over the bridge. Tampa is not like St. Pete in their connected warehouse districts and the collaborative efforts between the institutions, city and what is happening in the art scene… In what ways have artists collaborated with vacant property owners in Flint, and how did that work?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: We did kind of a Burning-Man style festival in a space along the Flint River which used to be miles of GM factory. We had a variety of artists, concerts going on, a market, live painting and all of these different performances. During that time we got the art community together with the city, and with the property owners, and a great way to do that is to just invite artists to interact.

Every artist who comes to Flint, they just stay at my house, and we make a community dinner with the local artists and outside artists. We have had local artists connect to international artists, or artists over seas and its just important to build those connections. This looks different in this time of Covid-19 and the pandemic, but that creative energy around these conversations is what is important.

Mergeculture: Q: These events create buzz, obviously when you activate a place like a vacant factory lot – has the community been eager to continue these types of events?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: They are – but with that particular property it was turned into a park, so there wasn’t really a way to continue that event there, but we do these barbecue festivals that we get together with the State Police and Walmart and we basically have a four block parade and festival block party. The neighborhoods love these block parties and we only do four of the block parties all year round.

Mergeculture: Q: With the PixelStix technology in place, it also seems like you can do tours, biking tours and walking tours, is that something that is ongoing?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: For sure, Kady Yellow, who runs the downtown murals and “Whats Up Downtown” project for the city, she organizes bike tours and walking tours for a lot of the downtown murals.

Mergeculture: Q: One of the interesting things that I do a lot of research on is the value of outdoor art. If you look at Wynwood in Miami, it really started in this warehouse district with graffiti artists and production walls – and it started with street art and graffiti bridging the gap between the two worlds… and obviously murals are ancient, with the Sistine Chapel and we can even go further with public art to cave paintings, how do you navigate the funding for your projects and make it worth it for the artists who participate in your program in todays economic systems?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: We get a lot of corporate donations and private donations, and we’re a small non-profit. I’d love to pay the artists what the value of the artwork is, I mean some of them are 10 to 20 thousand dollars in value, but we are working with a very small budget for each mural in Flint. So we get donations for paint as well but we really rely on the community engagement and make it valuable for the artist. Many times the local artists who help on our projects, while they may not get paid for a Flint Public Art Project mural, what they would make from a private commission, they get to have conversations with the community and a lot of times they get commission projects out of the our projects. We encourage that connection.

Mergeculture: Q: One of the aspects of Art UP, is that year round programming for outdoor art, but we also have festival programming with Pow Wow! Tampa coming here in 2021. I think that one great things that you do a few murals at a time, what do artists expect with the way the Flint project works?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: Last year we did 105 murals, but this year we did 45. We generally have 4 or 5 artists stay with us at a time, but that has changed with Covid. This last year we’ve had 2 artists stay at a time, and we have some amazing sponsors to make this happen. Kobra Paint has been an incredible sponsor, and Co-Labs who have really been able to bring artists in, and we’ve sent artists out there to Los Angeles where they’re based. Nomad Clan has helped to raise funds for projects as well, they are a duo out of the UK, and they just fell in love with Flint and want to help us out as much as possible. We’re grateful for those relationships.

Mergeculture: Q: How has the Flint Public Project helped to raise the awareness of the water crisis, and how is it helping the image of Flint?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: Sometimes people coming in, they say “We saw the documentary, what about the crime, what about the water..” We used to get this from artists and from people coming in to check out the art, and that just doesn’t happen anymore. We didn’t have anyone say that last year.

I went to two conferences now and I’ve had people say “Wow, we’ve been seeing your murals everywhere” and it was the first time someone didn’t say anything about the water first.

Mergeculture: Q: Have you brought any specific art projects to raise awareness as activism about the water crisis?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: Absolutely, we’ve worked with the group Indecline, who created two projects, one was Leaders over Leaders and a Greetings from Flint project, and a Lead-monade Stand, and last year they just came back and did beatification.

View Indecline’s Project – Greetings from Flint

Mergeculture: Q: Do you map every single mural in Flint with PixelStix?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: Yes, we have 155 murals right now in our gallery. We do things a bit different than the mapping of Shine. We are able to have a picture of the mural, the artists bio, and we also have a gallery of work attached to that, where people can purchase artwork from the artist directly from the content. This links to their social media and their art page store to purchase their work.

Mergeculture: Q: I feel like that’s a huge opportunity – people are taking photos outside of murals and outdoor art all day and if there was a way to use that technology to attach a Venmo or Cashapp to that mural, so people using and experience the outdoor art could throw the artist a tip, that would be really helpful the artists who are doing a lot of this work for free or for a little budget.

Matt Walker – PixelStix A: Absolutely, one of the things that we do is we take all of the intrinsically valuable things about outdoor art and what these pieces of work bring the community – crime reduction which we haven’t gotten into here very much, or foot traffic measuring… We target bringing light onto those benefits, and quantitive data to the conversation about artwork funding. So we can bring this data to fundraisers and to local government and it’s a tool for accountability on the value of outdoor art. It’s a good tool to point out the sustainability to create a tool to integrate those ideas you’re talking about.

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: I think that’s really easy to do with the technology, I could just create a tip the artist bar on the plaque or the content and it’s really just a matter of if the artist wants to add that content. Some of them don’t, or wouldn’t want to.

What PixelStix does is really show the value of providing the information on who the artist is. Sometimes the name of the artist gets hidden by a bush, but you can research all of these artists by the PixelStix content and that helps with posting on social media.

If the artists have a shop we can link directly to them, people can buy work directly, that’s great. And artists have said, I sold another print to someone in Flint, so people have used it.

Mergeculture: Q: How is the art scene in Flint? We have a couple galleries in Tampa, St. Pete is popping – what does the Flint scene look like.

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: One of the things we were blessed with from the auto industry is the Flint Art Museum – it’s just got an amazing collection. But you can spend hours in that place.

We also have a place called MW Gallery which focuses on Black artists and some local and mainly all over the world. We also have the Greater Flint Arts Council, and those are only Michigan artists. They have all types of different shows from street art to contemporary.

Mergeculture: Q: We have cultural assets government resources in art and institutions but not a lot of merging between the worlds of what is happening on the street level of innovation or in the New Contemporary world, these worlds don’t cross over.

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: We do need that as well, we do need more opportunities for local artist to have exhibits in Flint.

With galleries, you need storefronts and art supply shops which we don’t have. We really need to get these types of things as well. So there’s a lot of opportunity for business around the arts in Flint.

Mergeculture: Q: What art programs do you have in education in Flint?

Joe Schipani – Flint Public Art Project A: We have two really great Colleges as well, the University of Michigan has a Flint Campus, they have an excellent art programs. Kettering University that is an Engineering university. We definitely have a need for more art supply shops in Flint.

View the whole interview and talk:

View the entire Flint Public Art Mural Collection with the Pixel Stix App.

Also check out this interview with Joe and Matthew Walker with St. Pete Catalyst.