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Nick Tobier



Nick Tobier


Curriculum Vitae
  • M.F.A., The Milton Avery Graduate Center at Bard College, 1997
  • Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, 1997 — 1999
  • B.A. (History and Art), Swarthmore College, 1989

I once saw an elephant walk through midtown Manhattan in the middle of the night.

Standing waiting to cross the street, I looked up at the traffic signal, then down at the exit of the Midtown Tunnel where cars generally came careening out. It was quiet for once. Then the elephant walked out, followed by another elephant, and these followed by a man with a shovel and a bucket on wheels.

Around me, were a number of other faces similarly locked in astonishment. It was honestly hard to tell who was in on it–where the show started and ended really was blurred with the real places of the city. Were the trucks with their headlights on coincidentally illuminating the tunnel or were they part of the procession? A few minutes later, the light went green, cars and pedestrians who had paused continued back into the city streets filled with the memory of this unexpected occurrence. For those moments, the streets I walked routinely had been host to an event that was anything but routine, casting that part of the city and those inhabitants into a collective gathering, offering everyone present a liberation from routine.

This sighting, for me, provoked a quest for seeking out, savoring and idally, fostering public projects with an air of the unexpected and shared delight, and to use art and design to prompt questions of what might be possible.

I studied history and art as an undergrad, and then sculpture (Bard College) and landscape architecture (Harvard) followed by professional practice at Landworks Studio/Boston and the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation/ Bronx Division as a designer. My real formative education in art and design was at Storefront for Art and Architecture, writing critical essays, facilitating public projects, exhibitions and and coordinating international competitions focussed on broad-thinking explorations of architecture and urban space beyond expected function. Prior to coming to U of M in 2003, I taught foundations at the School of Art and Design at Alfred.

My interest in the potential of public places (with or without elephants) has manifested itself in built public projects and actions in San Francisco, Detroit and New York, internationally from Toronto to Tokyo, Brussels to Medellin, in exhibitions at MOMA, The Smithsonian, The Queens Museum Kunsthalle Nikolaj/Copenhagen, at The Edinburgh, Minneapolis and Philadelphia Fringe Festivals and, upcoming at the Prague Quadrennial (2019 with Roland Graf). Project sites include bus stops, flea markets, Laundromats and car washes, and include the entrepreneurial design ventures, F.O.O.D. (Field of Our Dreams), Brightmoor Bikes and the Brightmoor Maker Space. Published wiriting includes Utopia Toolbox with Juliane Stiegele (U of M Press, 2016); a traveloge of Detroit’s People Mover, entitled Looping Detroit, (Maize Books, 2017) and The Crazy Pineapple (University of Oregon Papeprs on Power, 2021.) I have been honored to receive support for my work from, among others, The Harpo Foundation (2011), the Graham Foundation (2021) and the NEA/ National Endowment for the Arts (2015, 2017 and 2022)

In my current research and teaching, I focus on collaborative projects in the public realm. These efforts have included partnerships with furniture designers, bakers, farmers; critical and celebratory involvements between artists, designers and broad communities; and a commitment to lasting partnerships working with creative individuals and communities from Detroit to Ishinomaki through the Brightmoor Maker Space, an open to the community hands-on workshop (since 2011.)