Staff spotlight: Marian Liou, SGA Director of Arts & Culture

Marian Liou's headshot and title, plus a quote: Smart growth, for all its policies and principles, is most fundamentally about where and how we live, where and how we want to live, and how we conceive, dream, plan, and build for that.

Marian Liou has served as Director of Smart Growth America’s Arts & Culture Program for a full year. Under her leadership, the program has expanded in scope, all while maintaining a steady pace of new resources and initiatives—such as the Transportation Artists in Residence report and a new grant program, Healing our Highways. We sat down with her to discuss her thoughts on the program’s current trajectory, as well as her vision for its future.

Tell us a little about your background and how your experience led you to the arts and culture team at SGA.

I started my work in arts and culture and communities as an advocate in an immigrant community in suburban Atlanta, sharing stories and histories of local immigrant entrepreneurs and neighbors through social media. This led to founding a nonprofit that focused on storytelling, design, and cultural preservation. That’s when I was introduced to urban and regional planning, since the neighborhood is located along a state-owned corridor that spans multiple jurisdictions. Back then, I was inspired by the work Transportation for America’s Arts & Culture team was accomplishing through its relationship with ArtPlace America, particularly the cultural corridors creative placemaking program.

I then spent several years at Atlanta’s regional planning agency transforming the arts and culture program to work directly with artists, cultural workers, and community based organizations to deepen its community engagement and planning efforts in creative ways, moving beyond the usual processes.

So I’ve worked at a very local level, at the regional level, and now I’m working nationally, and being at SGA feels a bit like a full circle moment. And it feels great to be working with the experts I’ve admired for a long time who helped frame my thinking around this work and what we’re seeking to accomplish.

What projects or opportunities are you most looking forward to this year?

I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes from Healing our Highways. I believe that creating opportunities for artists and culture bearers to lead, to organize, and to build power in communities of color to address the enduring and compounding harms caused by planners and policymakers through our transportation systems and infrastructure, will provide needed leverage and capacity for long-term systems change.

Why is arts & culture an important aspect of smart growth?

Smart growth, for all its policies and principles, is most fundamentally about where and how we live, where and how we want to live, and how we conceive, dream, plan, and build for that. That to me is a philosophy, a belief system, and culture. So it’s not only that arts and culture are the essence of what it means to be human, and what make communities vital and meaningful, but also that if we believe in smart growth as one way of knowing and nurturing the world we want, then we have to connect with people who are just trying to live their lives in a much deeper way.

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far at SGA?

The main lesson I thought I learned a long time ago is one I’m re-realizing has to be learned again and again. Your fear is telling you exactly where you need to go—to do the hard and impossible things that need doing in this moment, that you are uniquely positioned to do. That fear, or perhaps it’s your conditioning or cultural upbringing, telling you to play it safe and be small, shrink, and be quiet—go straight toward that fear and go big. If ever there was a time to go big in doing harder and harder things, at a faster and bolder pace, now is the time. We need you, and we will go with you.

What does the future of the Arts & Culture Program look like?

The future of SGA’s Arts & Culture Program is right now, especially with the launch of Healing our Highways. Given my background and what I’m interested in, and recognizing the current social, political, and physical environment we’re in, we’re going to be focusing on arts and culture as a process for advancing aggressively what we believe at SGA, shifting power more substantively to the people and communities that by SGA’s own research and reporting have been most harmed by the systems and sectors we work in, and supporting practitioners working internally to create more capacity and urgency for systems change. I’m also thinking deeply about unlearning, unwinding, and unraveling all the so-called best practices and policy frameworks that might be preventing us from connecting with deep wisdoms, knowledges, and truths, and I’m always seeking more collaborators and conspirators in both the unraveling and the reweaving.

To learn more about our Arts & Culture Program, visit our program page here.

our staff