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Art for People

Art for People

Public arts administrator Liesel Fenner MLA 98 collaborates with artists to transform and revitalize once-ignored public spaces.

Liesel Fenner MLA 98 at PARK(ing) Day 2015, “a wonderful intersection of landscape architecture, public art and installation.”

For the past 17 years, Liesel Fenner MLA 98 has built her life around public art, working with a wide range of artists to create viewer experiences, build a sense of place and revitalize downtown neighborhoods after dark via light installations and projections. “The arts community is bringing vitality to once-ignored environments across the country,” she says. “Excellent, conceptually challenging works are being created for all kinds of public spaces.”

Recently hired as the public art program director at the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC), Fenner is thrilled to be working close to home in Baltimore. “Much like Providence,” she notes, “Baltimore is a city that reveres its arts community. A lot is happening here.”

Her interest in public art started when she was a graduate student in Landscape Architecture here at RISD, Fenner explains. For nine years she’d been working as a traditional landscape architect in the San Francisco Bay Area but felt she needed to go back to school to study the foundations of making.

“I largely attribute my shift in direction at RISD to [new president] Rosanne Somerson 76 ID, who was a key advisor and a member of my thesis committee,” says Fenner. A professor and department head at the time, Somerson had recently cofounded RISD’s Furniture Design department and given Fenner’s interest in making, encouraged her to supplement her studio work in Landscape Architecture with introductory Furniture Design courses.

Fenner spent an additional year at RISD (earning her MLA in three years rather than two), immersing herself in Furniture Design and Sculpture studios. “Those years were transformative,” she recalls. “I was exploring installation and developing my own language as an artist, which would inform my entire career.” Along the way, her interdisciplinary explorations in 3D work led to a growing interest in public art.

After graduation, Fenner landed a management position at the New England Foundation for the Arts, where she brought artists together with communities to lend visibility to short-term environmental projects (for example, restoring a polluted river). “In my previous experience as a landscape architect, I loved managing projects from start to finish,” she explains. “Dealing with all the ‘red tape’ that others complained about—construction, contracting, insurance—was the best part of the job. And I’ve always focused more on urban design and how people engage with one another in public spaces than I have on botanicals.”

From Boston Fenner moved south to the Washington, DC-based nonprofit Americans for the Arts and served on the council for its Public Art Network (PAN), a national advisory committee that works on projects across the country. “That experience taught me so much about the world of public art and how it links to landscape architecture,” she says. “PAN is a tremendous resource for artists. There are opportunities for all levels of experience, and the organization pairs emerging and more experienced artists, triggering new ideas that might not have come up if the artists were working independently.”

In her work with PAN, Fenner frequently reviewed artists’ preliminary concepts to ensure that their ideas would translate as clearly as possible for the general public. “That’s another example of how my RISD education has paid off,” she notes. “My experience with critiques allows me to come up with suggestions for improvement that help the project—and the artist—develop.”

Now that she’s operating at the state level at MSAC, Fenner plans to continue working with both in-state and out-of-state artists as well as community leaders and government officials. “Exchange is critical,” she says, “and public dialogue about the work is as important as the work itself. Artists working in the public sphere understand that. They’re interested in moving beyond their solo studio practices and collaborating with the wider community.”

photo courtesy Floura Teeter Landscape Architects

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