Q+A with Meghan Wells

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With 18 years of experience in nonprofit and cultural programs, Meghan Wells was recently named the new Cultural Arts Division Manager for the City of Austin. Meghan has served the Art in Public Places (AIPP) program within the Economic Development Department of the City for the past 11 years, first as a Project Manager and, since 2010, as the Program Administrator.

Under her leadership, the program has commissioned over 70 new permanent pieces to the City’s public art collection of nearly 200 artworks and over 30 temporary artworks through the TEMPO program. Prior to joining the City of Austin, Wells worked with the public art programs at Texas Tech University and Alameda County, California, as well as with the USS Hornet Museum and the Missouri School Boards Association. Wells has a bachelor’s degree from Rockhurst University, and a master’s degree from Texas Tech University. She shares her spare time with her husband, David, and their two rescue dogs, May and Zeta. Wells co-founded Love-A-Bull, a nonprofit rescue, education, and advocacy group, and remains active in animal advocacy efforts.


Thao Votang: I’m perusing your LinkedIn profile and see that you grew up in Missouri. You did your undergrad at Rockhurst University in Kansas City—the Missouri side. I’m not sure which ‘side’ I’ve heard this about, but I hear that Kansas City has a challenging and interesting arts model. Did you participate in the arts while you were there? Are there things about Kansas City (or other places) that have examples of something you’d like to try/recreate in Austin?

Meghan Wells: I love Kansas City—my college years there were spent at a small Jesuit university (Rockhurst), with its history and roots in a very urban and many would say, socioeconomically depressed, area of the city. It was also just a stone’s throw from some very affluent parts of the city, so there was an interesting dichotomy that considerably broadened my perspectives about community. I regularly visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the gallery scene was rapidly gathering steam (soon to coalesce into the Crossroads District, which many arts orgs now call home base).

There wasn’t an art history (or otherwise art-related) major at Rockhurst when I was there, but I took all of the art history and humanities classes I could. My favorite was a class called “Art in the Galleries” which allowed us to visit an art gallery each Friday and write a critique on the show we saw. It was taught by one of my all-time favorite professors, Will Valk, who was a respected sculptor in his own right, and lived and breathed critical thinking and dialogue about art as a primary way of learning about ourselves both individually and collectively. I circled back to his significant influence and my love for art exploration during my time in Kansas City later when I decided to pursue a master’s in museum science—and then, more specifically, to pursue the field of public art. Kansas City has really grown into a well-respected arts city over the past several decades and has a long history of strong philanthropic support. The public-private partnerships and productive synergies that can emerge from community-wide support of the arts seem to make the biggest and longest lasting impact. I am regularly in contact with Kansas City’s arts leaders and am excited to share our successes and explore new ideas for Austin.

TV: For graduate school, you went to Texas Tech for museum science and then worked in a museum in California. Was it a change of trajectory to move to Austin and start working for the city?

MW: I visited Austin often when I was going to grad school in Lubbock and had enjoyed discovering all that it had to offer in terms of cultural activities, history, recreation, and its bevy of unexpected experiences. When I was offered the position with the City of Austin’s Art in Public Places program, truth be told, I wasn’t quite ready to leave the Bay Area—I was just beginning to find my sea legs—but I knew that public art jobs were few and far between, and Austin’s was a prime opportunity to start working with an established and respected program in a city that I had already begun to embrace. So, I jumped ship (literally—my job then was on a decommissioned aircraft carrier turned museum) and headed to Texas.

For sure, there is a learning curve in working for a city—there are policies and processes that come from being accountable to the populace—but it remains important to me (and the Cultural Arts Division Staff and the Economic Development Department as a whole) to minimize red tape for those we work with, whenever possible. I call it “bureaucratic lubricant.”

TV: What excites you about your new position as the Cultural Arts Division Manager?

MW: We already have great programs in place—Cultural Funding, Art in Public Places, People’s Gallery, Artist Inc., Creative Learning Initiative, Next Level classes, etc.—but I have a lot of ideas I want to explore to broaden our reach. I am excited to delve deeper into areas like arts education, global business strategies, greater partnerships with developers, as well as neighborhood-based projects like Soul-y Austin and pilot initiatives with other city departments and community groups. We have a great roadmap in Create Austin (which has been rolled into the City’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin), but the most recent Creative Needs Assessment we conducted (“Building Austin’s Creative Capacity”) showed that we have a lot of work to do as a community to sustain creativity here (final study to be released soon).

The issues for all creatives—musicians, visual artists, performers, designers, chefs, etc.—are crucial to be addressed in larger, citywide conversations relating to affordability, transportation, reinvestment, etc. My hope is to build upon our successes but continue to make inroads into areas where creative contributions can receive more recognition and value. Austin’s creativity, artistry, cultural traditions, and innovative ideas are what make this city unique—and what have drawn in businesses, tourists, new residents, and spurred development and economic vitality at record levels. We, collectively, have to do all we can to preserve it.

TV: I’ve been to one arts commission meeting and was the only person in the audience and have never gone back. I take full responsibility for not making time to go to more meetings—I’m curious, though, how would you advise members of the arts community who want to be more active but don’t know where to turn? Especially in regard to helping show the city at large how important the visual arts are Austin. Maybe it isn’t the arts commission meetings—but maybe it is?

MW: The Arts Commission is really energized with the changes that have come from the 10-1 District representation system, and there are now 11 members on the Commission. They all bring unique perspectives and backgrounds to the table but have the capacity and ability to speak as a powerful, unified voice for Austin’s creatives. They want and need input and support from the community to do this important work, so I think (and hope) we will see more and more of the community coming to their meetings or contacting them, sharing ideas and experiences, and helping to forge a strong relationship for progress together.

The meetings are open to the public, and even if you just go to listen, it could be information that leads to higher levels of engagement or action down the road. It is always a good idea to participate in the civic process and to know how your voice can be heard—Arts Commissioners take their charge very seriously, but citizens also have the power to convey information directly to their respective City Council members.

TV: I’ve long heard of the core grant funding, but I’m sure there’s more. What other resources does the CAD provide that you think are underutilized?

MW: There are lots of resources from CAD that we are always eager to promote! We are always trying to broaden our reach to get the word out. Besides the Core funding program, we also have the Community Initiatives, Cultural Heritage Festivals, and Capacity Building programs. There are also Art in Public Places Calls to Artists that are released throughout the year—artists interested in making the leap from studio to public work should especially check out the TEMPO call for temporary public art proposals and the Public Art Resource Guide.

We also host webinars and guest speakers periodically and promote all kinds of information through social media, newsletters, open office hours, community meetings, etc. There are valuable classes and loan programs offered through the City’s Small Business Program that creatives should check into, too. I would love for more people to become familiar with our staff and office (look for our corner wall mural at 2nd and Brazos) and visit austincreates.com.

TV: Most importantly, what have you recently read, watched, and/or listened to that you are loving?

MW: I recently cut the cable cord, so have been binging on streaming. I just discovered Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon Prime—Gael Garcia Bernal is an unconventional conductor hired by the New York Symphony. I’ve heard it’s got some kernels of truth as it relates to professional symphony life, but of course, some pretty largely fictional entertainment value too. I will also watch any show related to food and cooking. The Mind of a Chef is great—David Chang is a culinary genius.

Music: I’m looking forward to hearing Jason Isbell perform at ACL Live in a couple of weeks, and The Bottle Rockets (a band from the bustling metropolis of Festus in my home state of Missouri) at The Continental Club in late Feb. And I have a date night at the Austin Symphony in the works. As a mix of professional development and personal enjoyment, I’m taking a “Contemporary Art 101” course led by Dr. Andy Campbell, a great guest instructor (on loan from Rice University) at Laguna Gloria that discusses modern art from 1990-present. So important to keep thinking critically about art in the world.

As far as reading goes, I have a stack of books on my bedside table waiting for me to peel back the covers, but my latest couple of reads were Bossypants by Tina Fey and Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein—in a bit of a “girl power” phase!

 


 

Thao Votang is co-editor of Conflict of Interest. Votang is the Director of Communications at the Department of Art and Art History at UT Austin, which houses the Visual Arts Center, and co-founder of Tiny Park.

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