Portraits of Leadership

ArtPlace America Confronts COVID-19

Hyperakt’s interview series hands the mic to nonprofit and cultural leaders around the nation as they guide their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today we’re talking with Sarah Westlake, Editorial Director of ArtPlace America. The collaborative initiative, established in 2011, is focused on creative placemaking. ArtPlace America envisions a future of equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities in which everyone has a voice and agency in creating contextual, adaptive, and responsive solutions.

From your vantage point, what stories are not being told about the impact of the Coronavirus?

The stories that are getting the least play are about the fundamental shifts that we now have the perfect opportunity to make. We humans need stories we can get our arms around, clapping for the essential workers, volunteers going above and beyond, mutual aid efforts, heroes.

We need more in depth reporting and analysis about what many of us considered ‘normal’ in the before times. Health disparities by zipcode, Americans living paycheck to paycheck, racism, the fragility of our systems, greed, capitalism, mental health, housing, mass incarceration, policing.

Everything should be under the microscope and this is the perfect time to remake the normal that never was.

How have you needed to change how your staff works or the way you deliver services in order to meet the new reality?

Our office closed in early March and we don’t know if we will ever go back there. We have a ‘water cooler’ moment every day for half an hour on Zoom, which is funny because in our office we didn’t even have a water cooler, let alone a moment there every day.

We’ll also be moving our annual gathering online—it’s not ’til October but we made the call early on. Frankly, we are excited to shift to virtual to make it more accessible to more people than ever before, something our disability, rural and Native activist colleagues have been talking about for years.

Turns out all it ever needed was a little creativity.

What gives you hope in this moment?

The ability of humans to adapt. I guess that’s what makes us human. I think more people with the privilege of being able to stay in lock down are coming to the realization that community, helping each other, and the basic necessities of life are what’s important. That the workers that really are essential are the janitors, bus and train and delivery drivers, healthcare staff, grocery workers and those toiling in the fields to feed us.

We are realizing that what a celebrity does, or what your eyebrows look like are just not that important. We are baking and mending and making do. Cutting our own hair and not wearing bras, sending letters and making memes. I hope we never go back to anything resembling normal, because there was no such thing.

Get to know ArtPlace America at artplaceamerica.org and on Twitter, and explore more interviews at PortraitsOfLeadership.org.

Hyperakt is a purpose-driven design and innovation studio that elevates human dignity and ignites curiosity. We believe in design’s power to build a future filled with courage, optimism, and honesty.

Are you a leader in the nonprofit, cultural, or design space? Want to share your perspective on confronting COVID-19? Please fill out this Google Form.

Hyperakt crafts transformative brands and digital storytelling experiences for clear-eyed champions of social justice and creativity.