Art as the Catalyst for Critical Sustainability Conversations

University at Albany

Project Overview

The University at Albany is proud to submit an application that illustrates our use of art as the catalyst for critical sustainability conversations. This was accomplished via two main projects during the 2016-2017 academic year: “Future Perfect: Picturing the Anthropocene” and “Breathing Lights”. The Anthropocene project featured a semester long exhibit in the University Art Museum that showcased artists’ visions of the future as a result of human impact on the ecosystem. This was supplemented by a series of public talks and brown bag sessions from artists and professors of various disciplines. Embedded in the Future Perfect programs was a large public undertaking; the Breathing Lights Project, which focused on the issue of vacant buildings. This was a community based project spearheaded by one of our art professors and supported by several university entities and connected to campus activities.

The main curators of the Anthropocene exhibit were: Danny Goodwin, Professor of Art, Janet Riker, Director of the Art Museum, Corinna Ripps Schaming, Associate Director and Curator

Principle Partners of Breathing Lights were: Adam Frelin, Associate Professor of Art, Barbara Nelson, architect and Executive Director of TAP, Inc and Judie Gilmore, project director

Internal partners: (Note: the projects are designated an “A” for Future Perfect: Picturing the Anthropocene and a “BL” for Breathing Lights)

University at Albany

  • Center for Humanities, Arts, and TechnoSciences (CHATS) (A)
  • Department of Anthropology (A)
  • Department of Art and Art History (A, BL)
  • Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences (A)
  • Department of English, University at Albany (A)
  • Department of Geography and Planning (A,BL)
  • Department of History (A)
  • New York State Writers Institute (A)
  • School of Public Health (A)
  • Office of Sustainability (A, BL)
  • Performing Arts Center (A)
  • University Library (A)
  • Center for Technology and Government (BL)
  • Rockefeller College Department of Public Administration and Policy (BL)
  • Office of Community Relations (BL)
  • University at Albany Foundation (A, BL)

External Partners:

  • Various artists including Colin C. Boyd, Amy Brener, JoAnne Carson, Edgar Cleijne & Ellen Gallagher, Tommy Hartung, Dana Hoey, Darius Kinsey, Jason Middlebrook, Alexander Ross, Miljohn Ruperto & Ulrik Heltoft, Jacolby Satterwhite and Letha Wilson (A)
  • Writiers: Jennifer Kabat, Jeff Goodall, Jennifer Haight, Evelyn Reilly and James Sherry (A)
  • Mayors of Albany. Schenectady and Troy (BL)
  • Albany Barn, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady, and The Sanctuary for Independent Media (BL)

A listing of additional collaborators for the project can be found at:


The evolution of the sustainability movement at the University at Albany, especially in the area of environmental humanities, has flourished in the last five years. The Art Museum, Art Department and Department of English were early adopters in championing sustainability. This resulted in several “one off” events and campus as a living, learning, lab collaborations. These fostered a mindset to explore and raise awareness around critical sustainability topics. The Anthropocene and Breathing Lights projects were pursued in parallel and ironically came to fruition at the same time to create a large scale initiative during the 2016-2017 academic year. These were designed to illustrate the power of the arts to stimulate conversations in ways that transcend the boundaries of academic disciplines.

The Anthropocene was envisioned by Art Professor Danny Goodwin, Museum Director Janet Riker and Curator Corinna Ripps Schaming to highlight the designation of the Anthropocene Era and have artists from a variety of modalities explore human’s impact on the earth. The group submitted a proposal to the Presidential Initiatives Fund for Research and Scholarship (PIFRS) for seed money to get the project off the ground. Upon acceptance in May 2015, a yearlong planning process commenced, lining up the artists to create the exhibit, reaching out to internal and external contributors for the public programs and procuring additional sponsorship and collaborators. This work culminated in the installation of the exhibit in August 2016, followed by a semester’s worth of activities during the fall of 2016.

The Breathing Lights project began as a collaboration of a small group of local artists and community activists, including UAlbany Professor Adam Frelin, to develop a proposal for the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge. This new, competitive grant program for US cities supported temporary public art projects that address a critical issue. The group approached the mayors of the three main cities in the Capital Region who agreed to collaborate on the regional issue of vacant buildings. Conceived by Adam as lead artist in collaboration with architect Barbara Nelson, Breathing Lights incorporated a temporary public art installation illuminating the windows of hundreds of vacant homes in the cities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy with a diffuse glow that mimicked the rhythm of human breathing. Breathing Lights was selected in June 2015 as one of four temporary public art projects from across the United States to receive this inaugural grant award. Concentrated in neighborhoods with high levels of vacancy, Breathing Lights transformed abandoned structures from pockets of shadows into places of warmth. Buildings were lit nightly in October and November of 2016 between 6 and 10pm. The installation was supported by eight months of programming and events centered at three neighborhood hubs, one in each city – the Albany Barn, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady, and The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy. The project brought together more than 35 community and private sector partners designed to give voice to children and adults living in communities with high rates of vacancy and to offer resources for local residents to buy and renovate vacant homes. While the lights need to be experienced to gather their full impact, this video of the Breathing Lights can provide a sense of their power: and


Overarching goals:

  • Illustrate how public art can play a role in launching important community conversations
  • Encourage people to look at the world and work together in new ways
  • Use the power of public art to bring communities together

Goals specific to the Anthropocene:

  • Research, curate and present an exhibition of work by contemporary artists to address the “Anthropocene”
  • Deepen audiences’ understanding of climate change and offer insights into how we view the past, how we perceive the present, and how we imagine the future
  • Foster new research in the form of artistic works created specifically for the exhibition
  • Provide a platform for scholars, scientists, writers, artists to present their work in a public venue
  • Engage the public in conversation on climate change in its broadest implications through programming featuring on-campus, regional and national experts
  • Produce a dynamic, web-based archive and informational hub
  • Increase awareness of the consequences of and pressing need to address global climate change.
  • Establish connections among faculty, staff, students, community groups, organizations, and individuals working in related fields across disciplines.

Goals specific to Breathing Lights:

  • Create an evocative, inclusive experience that transforms perceptions of vacant buildings and the relationship between residents and vacant buildings
  • Showcase an arts-based approach to stimulating local and regional revitalization
  • Engage neighbors and stakeholders in discussions about the issues of vacancy in communities
  • Demonstrate the opportunities that exist for reinvestment and introduce the tools and resources for reclamation available for residents
  • Share stories and artistic expressions about living in a community with high levels of vacancy through workshops and neighborhood meetings and inspire artistic expressions by citizen artists
  • Spotlight the efforts of reclamation by the recently formed Land Banks of each community


These two projects offered different, yet symbiotic approaches to using art as a vehicle for community discussion and action. The Anthropocene project was mainly a campus based program anchored by several university entities that hosted public forums and artists on the topic of climate change. In this case, the topic choice and forum themes were mostly determined by the university. The Breathing Lights project was a community based initiative that was lead and supplemented by university members. While the campus was an integral player in the creation of the art piece, the topic choice, themes, events and resulting actions were mainly determined by the community coalition that was formed. The university provided a key ingredient: the artist! – and played a supporting role in the documentation of the efforts and took ownership for hosting policy forums on the issue of vacant buildings. The main curators of the Anthropocene exhibit were: Danny Goodwin, Professor of Art, Janet Riker, Director of the Art Museum, Corinna Ripps Schaming, Associate Director and Curator. “Future Perfect: Picturing the Anthropocene”, brought together the work of twelve artists, along with works from the university’s Art Collection, to explore the subject of climate change. Related weekly talks and informal conversations centered on the theme of the interconnectedness of our separate pursuits, and revealed how deeply concerned people are about the fate of our planet and all that is being done to address this critical global issue. The exhibit featured artists who explored the conflicted relationship of humans to the natural world and posited that beneath the chaos of contemporary life, artists envisage and protect a fragile, complicated interior space in which visual and poetic forms can help us unravel and accept the reality of a world––and an epoch––characterized by the effects of our presence. Included in this was exhibiting artist Colin C. Boyd (MFA ’08), who created a functional studio in the museum where he filmed a stop-motion animation of a post-human earth. In a series of informal Brown Bag Talks, faculty shared their areas of expertise and research on topics that included environmental law, human rights, public health, climate adaptation, and the impact of personal choice on the environment.

Breathing Lights was developed by local artist and UAlbany Art Professor Adam Frelin and local architect Barbara Nelson. The temporary art project illuminated the windows of vacant buildings throughout Albany, Schenectady and Troy, creating vibrant art and spurring beneficial dialogue in neighborhoods with high vacancy rates. Breathing Lights was designed to illuminate the potential for redevelopment, start conversations with neighbors, inspire artistic expressions by citizen artists, and spotlight the efforts of reclamation by the recently formed Land Banks of each community. Local students, engineers, artists and product developers designed, built and installed the custom lighting fixtures over the course of three months. The lights were accompanied by numerous public events, including city-specific receptions, openings and events; walking and trolley tours; seminars; and Building Reclamation Clinics. Additionally, films, installations and performances by Community Art Awards winners selected as part of the Breathing Lights project portrayed the experiences and stories of those who live in the neighborhoods.

The Breathing Lights installation included 250 abandoned homes across Albany, Schenectady and Troy, which represented only 10% of all the vacant building in the area. This project required:

  • 1,500 window frames
  • 625 ft. of wire
  • 4,600 ft. of LED strips
  • 442,500 LED lights in the entire project
  • 5,544 sq. ft. of vinyl (for replacement glass in window/door openings)
  • 34,500 sq. ft. of plastic for diffusers on frames
  • 25,650 sq. ft. of house wrap for back of frames
  • 50,000 lineal ft. of furring strips for frames

After the lights were exhibited, the items used for the installation were removed and stored and a call for creative proposals for their reused was distributed. See:

Community outreach was an overriding priority for the project, therefore the Breathing Lights team partnered with a community-based organization in each city (i.e. neighborhood "hubs”). Neighborhood meetings brought together neighbors, artists, and government agencies to address project concerns in moderated forums, recruiting volunteers, and identifying how best to articulate the struggles and hopes of the neighborhoods using art and design. The project enlisted Neighborhood Ambassadors and highlighted Rehab Heroes, to foster community connections and inspire success. ( and


Both of these projects had their roots in the growing sustainability movement that began in 2008 and subsequently the focus on Environmental Arts and Humanities activities that started on campus around 2012. The Anthropocene project started as a conceptual proposal to the Presidential Initiatives Fund for Research and Scholarship in December 2014. The funding was awarded in May of 2015 and planning took place over the course of the next academic year to line up artists and programming with the opening of the exhibit in August of 2016. Co-curators Danny Goodwin, Janet Riker, and Corinna Ripps Schaming used a range of strategies to make these processes transparent. The timeline for the Anthropocene general activities that took place between May of 2015 and December of 2016 include:

  • Picturing the Anthropocene: A Conversation was held on November 16, 2015 with scholars in the environmental sciences, arts, and humanities discussing the perspective of the human/nature interaction from their discipline.
  • UAlbany artist-in-residence and internationally recognized painter Alexander Ross spoke on November 23, 2016, discussing man’s conflicted relationship to the natural world, sharing his paintings and drawings, some of which were included in Future Perfect.
  • Dana Hoey, Alexander Ross, Jason Middlebrook , Letha Wilson and Miljohn Ruperto & Ulrik Heltoft, were commissioned to create new work or new configurations of existing work specifically for the exhibition. Colin C. Boyd MFA ‘08, agreed to create a studio in the museum where he produced a stop-motion animation video based on his small herd of robotic, prehistoric mammals as they wander a table-top futuristic landscape. The works displayed in the museum can be viewed at:
  • Mid-way through the exhibition the museum was transformed when Professor of Art and Guggenheim Fellow JoAnne Carson and her master’s seminar class re-curated part of the exhibition, re-contextualizing work to reveal new patterns of thinking that formed a counterpoint to the exhibition as originally configured.
  • The museum’s Liddle Gallery was transformed as a Library/Reading Room where visitors could browse through Anthropocene themed books, articles, videos, as well as source material from artists and curators.
  • There were eight brown bag talks during the semester. The line up of talks including campus professors from Art (9/10, 10/4 and 11/1), Economics (9/29), Law (10/27), Public Health (11/3), English (11/17) and Environmental Science (12/8)
  • Public talks by external experts included Eban Goodstein (9/20), Jennifer Kabat (9/27), the Breathing Lights team (10/4), Letha Wilson (11/15), Jill Schneiderman (12/1) and Radley Horton (12/6)
  • Performances by Noa Wertheim’s Veritgo Dance Company (and Eco-Art Village community) (10/25 – 10/26) and Ethel/EPA’s Documerica exhibit (11/3)
  • Readings by Jeff Goodell, journalist and nonfiction author of How to Cool the Planet, and Jennifer Haigh, fiction writer and author of Heat and Light (11/10), and eco-poets Evelyn Reilly and James Sherry (11/29)

The full schedule of public events can be found at: (be sure to scroll down to the events starting in September, 2016).

The Breathing Lights timeline consists of:

  • October 13, 2014, Bloomberg Philanthropies announces the launch of a new program to support temporary public art projects in cities across the US. The foundation invited mayors in cities with 30,000 residents or more to submit proposals for innovative temporary public art projects that celebrate creativity, enhance urban identity, encourage public-private partnerships, and drive economic development. Projects were also required to demonstrate close collaboration between artists, arts organizations, and city governments. When applying to the grant, the Mayors of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy came together and identified vacancy as a highly visible issue that all three cities face.
  • Initially, 237 cities applied and 12 finalists were selected in March of 2015 to submit full proposals.
  • Ultimately, four communities were chosen to receive up to $1 million each to execute their projects over two years. In addition to the Capital Region, other winners were Gary, IN; Spartanburg, SC; and Los Angeles, CA.
  • From the announcement of the grant award in summer 2015 until the fall of 2016, the Breathing Lights team has worked diligently to develop its neighborhood outreach and audience engagement program and secure all sites for the installation.
  • The University at Albany’s Center for Technology in Government hosted a conference on urban blight in April of 2016. For details see:
  • Installation and testing occurred in the spring/summer of 2016.
  • The lights began turning on during the last week of September, 2016 and came on nightly through October and November from 6pm to 10pm. The lights began turning off the first week of December and concluded by December 10th.
  • During the Breathing Lights installation, there were coinciding displays of arts projects, a calendar of programs, exhibitions, performances, lectures hosted by community organizations and arts institutions, public walking tours and a vigorous social and digital media campaign that further engages broader audiences. The full line up of events can be found at:
  • After the lights went dark, continuing programming included the project’s Building Reclamation Clinics, a series of toolbox-style courses designed to provide education on navigating the process of buying and renovating an abandoned home
  • A Breathing Lights "Policy Roundtable: Combating Urban Blight" was hosted by the UAlbany’s Center for Technology in Government at the campus on December 6. Attendees included mayors of all three cities, representatives from all three cities' city/common councils, the New York Attorney General’s office, state representatives, representatives of Albany Law School, the New York Conference of Mayors, the Historic Albany Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce, area Land Banks and others. For details, see:
  • The project concluded with a Breathing Lights Finale Celebration & Policy Summit on April 7, 2017. At the event, experts from the fields of housing, community development and public art discussed the project’s successes, lessons learned, and recommendations for continued action.


Both projects experienced mainly upfront, one-time costs and were supported by internal and external funding. The Anthropocene seed funding came from the afomentioned Presidential Fund. The team secured additional funding support from the following sources: Ann C. Mataraso Endowment Fund, Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, Office of the Provost, The University at Albany Foundation, the University Art Museum Endowed Director’s Fund and University Auxiliary Services. The NY Writer’s Institute funded the appearance of Jeff Goodell and Jennifer Haight and the Performing Arts Center covered the fees for the Vertigo Dance Company and Ethel Documerica performance.

Breathing Lights secured an initial investment of $1 million from the Bloomberg Philanthropies for the art installation and accompanying community programs. Local funders committed over $550,000 in matching resources, both in kind and cash, for Breathing Lights. Lead local support provided by GE, KeyBank, MVP Health Care, the Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region as fiscal agent, and WMHT as media partner. Additional support provided by Albany Medical Center, architecture+, BBL Construction Services, Bender Family Foundation, Chet and Karen Opalka, McCarthy Charities, Michaelson Family Fund, Nigro Companies, Paul and Alane Hohenberg Fund, Robert and Naomi Ingalls Fund, Schenectady Foundation, Standish Family Fund, Tri City Rentals, The Troy Savings Bank Charitable Foundation, and the University at Albany Foundation. The Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region served as the fiscal agent for the Breathing Lights project and ensured that all funds are spent in a responsible manner.


These programs produced large art exhibits as well as numerous programs and public discussions. The Anthropocene project had well over 2,000 visitors to the exhibit, the twelve public talks/performances and eight brown bag sessions. The museum hosted group meetings for the Student Sustainability Advisory Council and UAlbany Students for Sustainability. Three class projects were directly related to the exhibit including the re-curation of part of the installation by JoAnne Carson’s class, which was discussed in the timeline section of this application. Michael Leong, an Assistant Professor in the English department, had his graduate poetry writing workshop (AENG 515) visit the “Future Perfect: Picturing the Anthropocene” exhibit and write poems in response to at least one of the pieces in the show, drawing on a variety of forms and techniques. A sampling of the poems is available on the Future Perfect website at: Additionally, Danny Goodwin offered a no-prerequisite undergraduate studio art class based on the exhibit. Working from its content, assigned readings and the aesthetic approaches represented, students produced original artwork during the course of the semester. Finally, “the Anthropocene Web Project,” was created as an archive to the works created throughout the course of the semester. This project website is:

Besides the exhibit itself, the Breathing Lights project held countless public events but more importantly spurred some long lasting community impacts that seek to address the issue of vacant homes in a tangible and proactive way. Over the course of the two-month installation, Breathing Lights was directly observed by tens of thousands and dozens of events and programs across the region engaged more than 10,000 residents and visitors directly through more than 40 public events presented across the region. The building reclamation workshops fostered an online toolkit for rehabbing homes available at:

This project is continuing to evolve, spawning the formation of Breathing Life, an effort by the local Community Foundation to increase funding and awareness toward vacant buildings in the region. The Breathing Life project has been accepted into the next cohort of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI), and the three mayors have once again teamed up pursue a joint strategy that directly impacts the health and well-being of the communities they serve. While its focus may be more directly tied to low-income, owner-occupied homes, the principles of GHHI apply to current and future investment in rehabilitation/renovation of Breathing Lights (type) properties. If successful, those neighbors living in distressed areas might see coordinated, equitable and accessible support helpful to their investment in a green and healthy home. Additionally, the City of Albany has secured a grant to create a new position who job will be to focus solely on the issue of vacant buildings and their redevelopment.

The installation represented an unprecedented collaborative effort between the Tri-Cities, and earned attention from national news outlets including the Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, New York Times and the Associated Press. The project has also been used as an example of innovative approaches and a cross-sector team of policy-makers, community development professionals, arts organizations and philanthropic leaders from Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Paul were brought to Albany to explore how multi-stakeholder partnerships can use creative placemaking to support the equitable revitalization of vacant properties, using Breathing Lights as the example. Finally, the project was awarded the University at Albany’s Exemplary Public Engagement Award in April of 2017.

Perhaps the best results are the impact quotes from the mayors of the three cities involved: I believe Breathing Lights will leave an indelible mark on the Capital Region, and I think we have already felt the effects of this stirring arts project,” said Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan. “This has been transformational, not only because it has brought our three cities together to work hand-in-hand, but because it has sparked conversations in neighborhoods, offices and classrooms. I am inspired by the possibilities that remain as Breathing Lights goes dark.”

“Breathing Lights demonstrated the power of public art in focusing positive and creative attention on a social problem that spans our region,” said Troy Mayor Patrick Madden. “It brought together disparate communities in each of our cities, engendering common understandings and new creative approaches to problem solving and in the process shifted our perspective. I’m proud our region was host to this important and moving conversation.”

“I am grateful to Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Breathing Lights team for enabling this important and poignant project,” said Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy. “Home vacancy is an issue in the Capital Region that we can ill afford to ignore, and I applaud efforts like this public arts project that help cast light on subjects that we need to discuss as a region.”

Lessons Learned

While these projects may have been on a grand scale, the model used to make them successful is entirely replicable. The main components of the success were crafting a clear vision and identifying common goals, a willingness to commit to the long term, early planning and reflection, lots of community input, involvement, feedback and ownership. We found you can never start too early or completely be ready for the deluge of activity once the main project hits, but once you have regional support on all levels––whether that involves your campus, neighborhood, community, city, non-profit, and corporate members––you can do just about anything. We were continually reminded of the impact public art can have in the reactions it produces and the conversations it generates. Through art, we were able to disrupt the “normalization” of the problem and not just accept inaction as the norm. While our ability to directly impact climate change is not as apparent or immediate as the issue of vacant buildings in our cities, we were heartened by the convening of minds from various disciplines to ask “why” and to express our shared desire to make a difference.

Websites for future details are:


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