"The Avenue Concept has shown that public art opens hearts and minds, offers common ground, and supports vibrant cultural and economic vitality in good times and in bad."
Jenn Harris joined The Avenue Concept last year in the newly created role of deputy director. Since then, she’s been busy with everything from fundraising to strategic planning to engaging with community partners – so it took us a while to find some time for her to sit down and chat. Jenn brings 20 years of experience working in nonprofits, community, higher education, and fundraising to The Avenue Concept. Her previous work ranges from Brown University and CCRI to the Danforth Museum of Art and Angiogenesis Foundation. Her board service and volunteer leadership roles include The Providence Honk Festival (PRONK!) Save the Bay, the What Cheer Art Company, and she’s just joined the board of The Collaborative in her adopted home of Warren. Let’s take a few minutes to get to know a little bit more about her and her approach to public art – quick, before she’s on the move again.
How did you get involved with The Avenue Concept?
I met [founder/executive director] Yarrow [Thorne] and learned about The Avenue Concept in 2014. We were connected through my work as a volunteer on the PRONK! steering committee. Pulling PRONK! together was a labor of love for so many artists, musicians, activists, organizers, and business owners. We were always scrambling to solve problems, support the musicians, and shine a light on activists working in PVD neighborhoods.
Just like our committee, Yarrow and the TAC team were creating these exciting art happenings through pop-up events, installations, and sheer determination. They were experimenting, building relationships, and creating solutions where pathways didn’t exist.
The Avenue Concept signed on to support PRONK and dove right in to help us scale the work we were doing and make more space for exploration. That often meant that Yarrow was jumping in to make introductions and solve problems, pitch tents, move equipment. He was right in it with us, doing all of the things required to make the festival happen. I quickly understood what the “avenue” meant: this organization built the pathways to support art making in public spaces.
Through the years, I’ve followed along as a supporter and fan, and I’ve gotten to know some great people along the way. When the opportunity came to formally contribute in this new role, I jumped at the chance.
What is your role? What have you been working on?
I’m out there Zooming, fundraising, amplifying, and making sure that our supporters see real results from their giving. I am helping our board and team fine tune our processes to make art that serves our community’s needs at the highest level, now and into the future. And I hope I’m making more Avenue friends and public art fans every day! We have so many opportunities coming up to support artists and create work that is relevant and free to everyone. As a privately funded public arts organization, support for most of what we do comes from individuals. Every supporter and every dollar fuels our success.
Right now, we’re building a new strategic plan and preparing to commemorate our ten-year anniversary next summer. So, we’re talking with people from all parts of our community to learn about what they value most and where we might grow.
How have you seen TAC develop over time? How can you help take that further?
The Avenue Concept has been actively installing art in the community for ten years, but in the last two years, it’s really come of age, you might say. By giving artists space to tell their stories, TAC has shown that public art opens hearts and minds, offers common ground, and supports vibrant cultural and economic vitality in good times and in bad. Artists always lead the way.
My job is to help ensure that we keep making space for artists to tell the stories that connect people to places and to each other for the next ten years and beyond. Our team’s first priority is always to uphold the values and mission of the organization: to fund and support installations; make public art projects more viable and sustainable; create encounters to engage and interact with the art; and to tell those stories through every available channel.
What do you think are the strengths of TAC’s work?
TAC believes in supporting artists in ways that allow them to tell the stories they want to tell. We then use all of the resources the team has worked for ten years to create to shine light on their ideas. That happens through storytelling, pop-ups, digital experiences, community building, and education. We bring people together to explore. And we innovate. We’re not afraid to try things and we apply design thinking to that process: research, explore, test, and improve. We don’t always get it right, though we learn and grow. I think we need that honesty and approach today more than ever.
You came into this role at a unique time, to put it mildly. Now that you’ve been able to settle in a bit, what do you see on the horizon?
COVID-19 pushed us to reimagine the way we work just like everyone else. I also think this year reaffirmed for us that we must continue listening, learning, and acting to support equitable and meaningful public art experiences that speak to and reflect the communities we serve. We created virtual and self-guided public art tours, and lit up installations to create a nighttime public art gallery so people had a reason to safely spend time outdoors. We’ve built new partnerships and learned that free access to public art is more important than ever.
After ten years in higher ed, it’s been really exciting to contribute to this team and our arts community with both a personal and professional perspective. I’ve been inspired and motivated by all of it during these first six months: -the exhibits, the conversation, and the exploration. Amidst the worst year, we found so much joy.
So, what’s on the horizon? More of that.