Sara Daleiden focuses on cultural production and exchange in various roles of public arts leadership

In common use, “cultural exchange” tends to mean an exchange of ideas, customs, or practices between people of different countries. But “culture” isn’t simply defined from one country to another; in our very own country, there are a myriad of different cultures, many overlapping or colliding with each other from one region to another, and sometimes at odds with one another.

When Milwaukee-raised artist Sara Daleiden first moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago, it immediately struck her how different the two regions were culturally. She began to think about what it means to be an artist from a particular place, and how that affects one’s practice.

She explains, “I was thinking of what is the benefit of being a local artist – are there regional poetics? Are there certainly ways of looking at life that comes up in your work because of the region?”

About seven years ago, she decided to start MKE<->LAX, a sort of “cultural exchange” residency program between the two cities, bringing Los Angeles artists to Milwaukee and Milwaukee artists to Los Angeles to create a cross-regional, cross-cultural dialogue and exchange of ideas.

“I was a little homesick and had enough of Los Angeles and wondered what would it be like to translate my experience there to Milwaukee,” she says.

Artists in Milwaukee are often out of network, she explains, meaning they have often maximized their own networking capacities and resource opportunities locally. So, “I started a residency program in Los Angeles for three years for Milwaukee artists. Now we do collaborations with other institutions and we also do the same thing in Los Angeles.”

As much as Milwaukee artists might be looking to expand their networks beyond their Midwestern region, Daleiden found that L.A.-based artists were also interested in understanding more about this part of the country they knew nothing about.

“A lot of my network in Los Angeles spent time in other major global cities and are kind of fascinated by everything in Middle America. I thought, maybe we all want to know what the rest of America is like, or what the Rust Belt is like.”

Daleiden has a Master’s of Public Art Studies from the University of Southern California and has worked in cultural leadership roles for many years doing different types of collaborative projects for different kinds of organizations, including government, nonprofits, and foundations. She works in the space of public art, creative placemaking, and neighborhood development, exploring how people of all backgrounds can make culture in any location.

She currently works as the Cultural Production Consultant to the Greater Milwaukee Committee for the Creative Placemaking Initiative and Creational Trails, the Civic Art Program Public Engagement Consultant for the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, an instructor and consultant for the Otis College of Art and Design Graduate Public Practice Program in Los Angeles, an advisor for America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, and about a score of other ongoing and project-based roles in Milwaukee and Los Angeles in addition to being the director of MKE<->LAX.

“I feel like I’m of both places and they’re both really important to me,” she says. “I think of it as a performance and an act of residence, exploring what living and working means as it relates to places, like any situation where someone has a sense of multiple cultures. Some of us are more sensitized to that – being a part of multiple cultures, or living a life having to negotiate different identities.”

Daleiden is particularly interested in exploring the role artists play in cultural production through the development of their artistic practices, and how that cultural development is not confined to specific geographic areas.

“How do artists actually offer us imagination around what culture can be? I’m just using two American cities and pointing out that this country is a really broad place; it’s not just New York and Los Angeles defining American culture.”

She compares the goals of MKE<->LAX to traveling to a foreign country – she contends that the way a person might exhibit a more heightened awareness of being in a different culture while in a foreign country is a practice that can, and should, also be translated when in different regions throughout America.

“One of the biggest things Los Angeles gave me over the years that affected my practice is the idea of cultural exchange, just the understanding that two or more cultures mixing happens everywhere,” she says.

MKE<->LAX has been operating out of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood, a historically Black center for arts, culture, and business that was decimated by redlining and freeway construction, a story common among many other Rust Belt cities, creating physical segregation and latent racial biases that still exist to this day.

Bronzeville is on the south side of town. Over on the north side of town is the Beerline Trail, a project Daleiden works on as part of her role with the Greater Milwaukee Committee, which seeks to address some of these issues of segregation, displacement, and divestment through creative placemaking efforts.

Creational Trails is project of the GMC’s Creative Placemaking Committee that aims to create a network of interactive art projects in targeted neighborhoods to activate spaces as a means of encouraging acceptance and growth of the cultural diversity in Milwaukee, raising the visibility of those areas and activity within them, such as increased foot and bike traffic.

ArtPlace America and the Kresge Foundation have provided support to Creational Trails, which has allowed them develop the Artery, a one-mile long park and bicycle trail along an abandoned railroad track, as well as implement a variety of arts programming along the trail and in interior and exterior spaces in the neighborhoods surrounding the trail.

“We’re doing work on reconcepting the whole city,” says Daleiden. “The trail is a metaphor for talking about interconnectivity and flow. No matter where you are you feel like you’re separated from other spaces, so we use the trails as a way of having healthy pathways that also become places for people to connect with each other.”

In this role she works with a number of different local artists who all do community development work through art and creative placemaking. “I feel like our work together is a place to offer mentorship and resources as an artist, being cultural leaders in neighborhoods and rethinking how culture is thought about and generated, who is at the table and who makes decisions.”

With the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Daleiden works on government-funded public art projects in South L.A., an area that was historically Black but is now more than 50 percent Latino.

“There are cultural exchange questions at each site. The communities are low income and there are challenges with gang activity, but these are active public spaces,” she says.

“I do a lot of mentoring of the artists coming in to do this work, looking at the social layers behind the process of public art. With public art, the money is for something permanent – people think of a mural or a sculpture. I try to look at it what the social layers behind it are; how do we go through the public process and address the social layers while also still making a work that will be there for decades. How does it affect those social layers once it’s in? Is this going to be distributed so a broader group can see it? How is this helping communication on culture?”

Los Angeles is a different beast than Milwaukee – it is an exponentially larger city with different cultures already mixing regularly and a different history with these cultures – so for Daleiden, the focus there is a bit different.

“For me in L.A. it’s all about doing this thought work around cultural relating and moving that field forward through urban design, communications skills, all these things that really affect what the art form is, where it’s located, and how it’s funded.”

Daleiden ideally wants to see more creative placemaking work that takes into account multicultural identities and cultural relating that also identify how that work further shapes culture, and acknowledges that cultural production isn’t strictly done by artists.

“Any of us can produce culture, whether you’re an artist yourself or not,” she says. “My creative placemaking work is relationship work, thinking about being an artist and what I’m bringing to the table. [Civic and other community] leaders think art is just painting and they write it off because they think, ‘We don’t need paintings.’ No, but you do need relating, and you need culturally informed relating.”

“I’m very selective about calling myself an artist,” she continues. “I’m more interested in relationships and power dynamics. I help people relate to each other.”

Whether that means creating cultural communication pathways between Milwaukee and Los Angeles or in smaller communities and neighborhoods within these cities themselves, Daleiden’s work might be “public art” and “placemaking” on the surface, but at its core it’s all about cross-cultural communication, cultural production through art and relating, and forging connections across boundaries of geography and cultural identity.