Art At Work

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Art At Work

Marty Pottenger & City of Portland ME
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Photo: Marty Pottenger


Art At Work is a national initiative begun in Portland, ME. It was initiated by theater artist and cultural strategist Marty Pottenger at the invitation of the Mayor. Projects begin by working with key stakeholders to identify critical municipal challenges. Those conversations are used to work together in developing an evaluation plan with specific goals and outcomes, and only after that is “the art part” brought into the conversation. Pottenger and/or an artist she invites to participate then designs a project to address that issue. Projects center around engagement, working with municipal staff, elected officials, residents, grassroots leaders and others.

“My years of work in community arts has confirmed my belief that changing perceptions is a key element in creating new possibilities, possibilities that the city can embrace and leverage in ways that benefit the long-term health of everyone.” Marty Pottenger
  • Artist

    Marty Pottenger and others

  • Liaison

    Various agency staff

  • Location

    Portland, ME

  • Start/end dates



Thin Blue Lines, Marty Pottenger, other artists & Portland Police Department

This project addressed two key challenges—police relationships with the public and low morale within the department. Pottenger paired ten police officers and detectives with ten local poets and photographers, explaining, “People rarely put the idea of police anywhere near the idea of poetry. One is internal, the other external; one private, the other public; one demanding flexibility and openness, the other about force and control. But both rely on observation, require risk and an intuitive trust in one’s own judgment, and demand courage, to head into a scary place—metaphoric or actual—and not turn back.” Police engaged the artists in ride-alongs, time at headquarters, and informal conversation over coffee, while the artists structured workshops, facilitated exercises in rhyming techniques, and helped edit the poems. The artists supported the officers in creating a calendar featuring their poems and photographs about their work and lives. Initially conceived as a fundraising strategy for the family of an officer who died, it became a basis for internal and external community dialogue. Thousands of calendars were sold, and public events included poetry readings. The artworks gave the public a better picture and a new appreciation of what it meant to do police work. In the second year of the calendar project, participation increased by 300%, and 73% of officers reported that the project improved their morale.
“We had no idea the outcome would be this outstanding. The photographs in the hallways, reading poems at roll call—it's brought us a different sense of who we are and what we do. It's changed a lot of minds about the police and about poetry.” -Joe Loughline, Acting Police Chief, Portland Police Department
Thin Blue Lines
Credit: Marty Pottenger

Ties That Bind: Elizabeth Jabar & the Health and Human Service Department

HHS is one of the most diverse departments in the City, but also has a high rate of turnover given the stresses and emotional toll of working with the city’s most at-risk populations. Printmaker and bookmaker Elizabeth Jabar facilitated workshops with department staff that began with sharing personal stories of what brought them to their work, and how they sustain themselves. They also explored the dynamism of their own heritage, and shared images such as maps, photographs, textile patterns, and iconic symbols from within their cultural traditions. They learned about the cultures of their co-workers and built a deeper understanding of who they are together and how that brings them closer and makes them more effective as a team. The group created four multi-layered prints based on these conversations and imagery. They displayed the prints in a conference room and public spaces that are shared with other city departments. The project’s greatest challenge was finding the time for already overworked staff to participate. Strategies included brief lunch-hour meetings, staggered longer workshops, using individual sketchbooks to develop ideas, and setting up an onsite area with materials so participants could work when they were able.
City staff participants in Ties that Bind.
Photos: Marty Pottenger

Meeting Place: Marty Pottenger & Department of Neighborhood Services

Pottenger observed that many public meetings were poorly attended and/or did not reflect the true diversity of the city. She engaged with four neighborhood associations and a team of multidisciplinary artists to encourage new connections and relationships with residents to reflect the diversity within their own communities. Public engagement was the central component of the project. Meeting Place was designed to increase the four neighborhoods' social resilience, which is a critical element in a community's ability to maintain quality of life, sustain economic vibrancy, and foster civic engagement, as well as lessen the damage when emergencies and disasters strike. Monthly arts-based workshops were held on topics to increase civic engagement, pride, and unity. These included workshops on: singing to explore leadership and fellowship; storytelling about defining your community; photography of neighborhood sites that have personal and collective meaning; and visualizing demographics through collage. At the end of the year, each neighborhood hosted a festival that included open houses, guided walks and bicycle tours, BBQs and pancake breakfasts, art exhibits and sports games.
Art At Work projects.
Photos: Marty Pottenger


City agencies faced challenges that were hard to overcome through conventional methods, including internal conflicts within departments, high turnover in others, and the public’s lack of respect for city workers and elected officials. The mayor, chief of police, and other city leaders as well as residents had participated in a performance about the refugee crisis that Pottenger facilitated. They thought she could bring new and useful, arts-based tools to these challenges. The mayor invited Pottenger to make a proposal, which became Art At Work.

Partnership Structure

Pottenger acted as project manager and lead artist. She became a staff member based in the City Manager’s office, which gave credibility to her activities. In the beginning of the project, the Assistant City Manager liaised between Art At Work and city government.

Artist’s Approach

Pottenger’s main approach was to include city staff as active participants in identifying agency problems, and to act as curator and bring in other artists to make art with and about municipal workers. As project manager, she was the liaison between those artists and government. She chose artists with a track record to increase the likelihood that the project’s impact would carry into the art world as well as within the community.


Art At Work was supported by a small municipal contribution of $5,000 annually, $28,000 in benefits, and some in-kind administrative support. Pottenger raised the majority of project funds through her own nonprofit organization. This included major grants from the Nathan Cummings Foundation ($600,000 over 8 years), and $500,000 from a combination of local government and private and community foundations, and the NEA.


  • Municipal government is profoundly risk-averse and vulnerable to public criticism, with rare appreciation for the commitment of people in public service and the work they do.
  • The public’s lack of knowledge about what city workers do and lack of appreciation for their work.
  • It was difficult to surmount structural racism and other inherent challenges.

Impact and Outcomes

  • City employees created hundreds of artworks, performances, poetry readings, and civic dialogues engaged over 25,000 people. The art increased residents’ awareness of city employees as three-dimensional people and city workers’ self-respect and pride in their work.
  • Community members gained increased understanding of each other’s histories and a greater feeling of belonging in their own neighborhoods.
  • Structures were developed for ongoing communication and relationships between municipal and community leaders.
  • Decreased tensions and increased collaborative activities within and between diverse communities and the city, for example between youth and police.
  • Contribution to conditions that reduced incidence of misconduct lawsuits against city workforce.

Success Factors

  • Pottenger began with a focus on the municipality’s and municipal workers’ needs and not on art.
  • Pottenger’s track record of an impactful creative and civic approach.
  • Relationship-building occurred over years, involving municipal staff from 12 departments.
  • Allies included people in leadership positions including the the Assistant City Manager, an early and key internal liaison, the Mayor and Chief of Police.
  • Pottenger’s belief that everyone can make art, her ability to engage with different publics, her commitment to diversity, sense of humor, fun, and warmth.

Lessons Learned

  • Begin with the municipalities’ goals, and then generate project ideas from there.
  • Define outcomes that matter to municipal leaders, and evaluate and communicate their impact.
  • It’s valuable for municipal workers to engage in artmaking which, according to Pottenger, enables people to access a flexible intelligence, sense of hope, and connection to others, and to take risks that are essential to finding innovative solutions.
  • The value of artist as the project manager/curator.
  • Changing perceptions was a key element in creating new possibilities that the city could embrace and leverage to benefit the long-term health of everyone.
See the Evaluation in Action Profile on Art At Work for more.