Picture this: a vibrant hotel boardroom in San Juan, buzzing with anticipation, while just outside ceiling to floor windows, framing the dance of Caribbean waves. It’s Tuesday, November 7, 2023, and the air is alive with humidity that many of us from the Arizona desert were welcoming fully. This was the stage set for a story of community, art, and health from Pima County at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In case you were wondering, the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference is an annual event that takes place in different cities each year, bringing together professionals, practitioners, and enthusiasts from diverse arts and cultural sectors to discuss, collaborate, and explore innovative strategies and practices in supporting the arts and culture sector.
Our team submitted a proposal to host a panel at this conference in San Juan. The proposal was co-authored by Priyanka Pathak, Adriana Gallego, and Adriane Ackerman with the goal to share the story of SaludArte from multiple perspectives to an audience of peers, arts administrators and funders.
As the Communications Director for the Arts Foundation, I had been privy to the intricate threads weaving this tale of transformation, from the moment when the convergence between public health and public art seemed conceptual, yet possible, to the collaborative efforts that shaped its execution, and then to the conference room in San Juan where the story unfolded before an audience of captive listeners from across the country.
I stood at the threshold of the SaludArte panel session, with a video showcasing moments from each of the five ‘Celebrate SaludArte’ events looping in the room, and an interactive Timeline Activity set up outside. The activity encouraged participants to share their memories and feelings during the early stages of the pandemic, the pre-vaccine period, the vaccine rollout, and their hopes for the future. This activity was something community participants in Pima County engaged in during the SaludArte process. Our aim was to provide conference attendees with a comprehensive experience that offered deep and experiential insight into the SaludArte program.
SaludArte, a program that merges public health and public art, is a brainchild born from the Pima County Health Department’s Director, Dr. Theresa Ann Cullen. The title of the panel itself, ‘SaludArte: Bridging the Gap Between Public Art and Public Health Through Innovative Funding, Data Equity, and Community-Driven Design,’ encapsulated the essence of what we aimed to achieve.
The program began as an idea, where the intersection of public health resources and the creative energy of local artists would serve neighborhoods in Pima County that were hardest hit by COVID-19 pandemic. The task seemed ambitious at first – how would public health and art coalesce into a project meant to uplift the health and spirits of our community?
The initial steps involved the fusion of fonts and colors, symbolizing the union of Pima County and the Arts Foundation, culminating in a logo that felt serendipitous, combining Health and Art in Spanish to SaludArte (Salud, in Pima County blue, and Arte in Arts Foundation Green). But it was Sadie Shaw, our Community Design Manager, who performed what felt like an impossible feat. She rallied 75 diverse community members, each learning about the public art process for the first time and contributing to developing the conceptual framework for the selected artists. Through the leadership of Human Centered Design expert, Priynaka Pathak, participants engaged in activities that would center them within every activity and decision. Selected artists would eventually gain creative inspiration from stories, emotions, and behaviors shared in the meetings who produced temporary public art works describing each community’s unique pandemic experiences.
Fast forward to the presentations in San Juan, where the story of SaludArte unfolded. Sadie, alongside Adriane Ackerman, Principal & Founder of Agile Accomplice LLC, contributor to the program architecture and lead planner of Celebrate SaludArte events, and the selected SaludArte artists Mata Ruda and Barbea Williams, eloquently shared the narrative of their experiences that revealed a multifaceted storyline of a two year program.
Witnessing Sadie’s leadership and Adriane’s data insights from the social vulnerability index of Pima County, I couldn’t help but be transported back to the project’s early months of strategic planning that ultimately turned data points into deep relationships and works of art. Mata Ruda emphasized the importance of the community connections he made in shaping his artwork, something he aspires to do moving forward as a public artist. Barbea’s poetic inspiration stemming from her African diaspora roots left an indelible mark on the audience.
Finally, Adriana Gallego, our Executive Director, brought the presentation to a close with an energy that radiated warmth and unity. Her encouragement for a group picture drew dozens of attendees forward. As attendees praised our team’s dedication and the project’s depth, I found myself engulfed in a whirlwind of compliments and shared reflections. The resonance of one man’s words lingered: ‘That took my breath away.’ Others marveled at the seamless execution of such a multifaceted project driven by a fusion of public health strategy and heartfelt dedication.
This collaborative journey, where the lines between public health and art are blurred, embodies the hope for continued collaboration, innovative community development, and the enduring impact of initiatives like SaludArte on our society.
As the applause echoed in that San Juan room, I realized we had not just presented; we had painted a picture of resilience and possibility, a testament to the transformative power of collaborative spirit.