With the arts particularly vulnerable during the pandemic, Tanner Woodford, founder and executive director of the Design Museum of Chicago, talks to Newcity design editor Vasia Rigou about the importance of public art during times of uncertainty, the city’s creative community growing stronger, his upcoming projects and how he plans to steer the museum through a fall art season like no other.
Tell me about your latest project, “Postcards to Chicago.”
“Postcards to Chicago” is a 600-foot-long public design project made by the Design Museum of Chicago on the north side of Navy Pier. Through colossal shapes, energetic lines and vibrant colors, it references the significant place Navy Pier holds in the visual makeup of Chicago. The artwork is centered on representational forms of four Navy Pier icons: the USS Chicago, Lake Michigan, the Centennial Wheel and the Wave Wall staircase. Each is connected by compositions made from the common geometric elements shared between them. We worked in collaboration with a talented group of photography students from Harry S. Truman College, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ultimately, this artwork is a gift to visitors of Navy Pier and the people of Chicago, and we hope it brings happiness to each viewer.
Can you talk about the importance of public art amid a pandemic?
Public art is more relevant than ever, as it provides context, depth and informs public dialogue. Certainly, artists have taken to the streets amid the pandemic, creating hundreds of murals in an effort to beautify relinquished shops and practice nonviolent resistance synchronously. Likewise, a recent illustration of the importance of public art in this moment is the conflict between citizens and municipalities across America over the statues and monuments that embellish public space. In this case, it isn’t the creation of public art that is important, but its impassioned removal. This process reveals the privilege of power, and forces us each to confront the physical and psychological racist structures that still need to be dismantled. This is such an important moment in the history of public art.
As we’re going through a time of regeneration and reshaping, following the outbreak, what is different and what’s remained the same in the Chicago arts and culture scene?
So much has changed since March. Waves of artists and designers across cultural sectors have faced existential and absolute crises. Communities have lost members suddenly. Many are on the verge of homelessness. It may be too soon to have an objective understanding of the full scope of change brought upon by these senselessly cruel times. What I know at my core is that we will emerge stronger and smarter. I hope we shed our old habits of competitiveness and stardom, and invest in the grit, passion, talent and drive that defines us.
In what ways have these trying times of self-isolation, social distancing and political turbulence affected your creative process and eventually the work itself?
Consistently throughout this great pause, I have been overpowered by information anxiety. “Doomscrolling” is so hard to avoid. Punctuating unhealthy obsessions have been fleeting moments of relentless productivity. I process the world through my work. This clarity has manifested in many forms, from virtual programming at the Design Museum of Chicago to a series of acrylic paintings on an array of canvases, and even by way of a burgeoning coin collection. One of my favorite projects has been with my two-year-old daughter Emi. Every few days, we add a new layer of paint to a one-inch-by-one-inch canvas. This has been a near-constant synthesis of dedication and experimentation, with lots of messy hands to show for it.
Any thoughts on how to steer the organization through a fall art season like no other? What’s next for the Design Museum of Chicago?
We have a lot up our sleeves! In May, we hosted our first-ever Re:treat—an asynchronous, two-day event that kept only the best parts about conferences while leaving out the worst. Themes were nostalgia and recovery, with topics including Bauhaus graphic design with Ellen Lupton, recovery after 141 days in space with NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren and a nostalgic crayon activity with the Chicago Children’s Museum. We are planning to host this conference two more times before the end of the year.
What’s a positive and inspiring message you’d share with our readers as the lockdown eases?
The next generation of artists will be massively affected by what we are living through. It may be too close for me to be objective, but I remain irrepressibly optimistic about the minutes, months and decades ahead. The “rising like a Phoenix from the ashes” trope exists for good reason. Leaders are often born in tragedy, and this moment is making many. I have full faith in our ability to provide future artists with a landscape that is more equitable, accepting and collaborative than we found it.
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