By Jennifer Sadler
What is public art? The answer is multifaceted. Public art encompasses a wide variety of creative expressions in the public realm. Public art can be a giant red sculpture that spells the word ART and straddles a street on an arts campus, a professionally designed mural three stories high, a limestone sculpture in the shape of a sofa on a city sidewalk for anyone to use, or large-scale sculptures in an expanse of green space depicting a field of corn. Public art can be almost anything—and it doesn’t require the price of admission or even a trip outside of your own neighborhood.
Public art can make us stop and open our eyes. It can refresh our perspectives by transforming a city’s public spaces, putting us in a position of making new discoveries rather than simply passing through them each day. The experience of viewing public art is dynamic and the relationship between the work and its site, its audience and other contextual factors all contribute to its impact.
But public art is just that—public. And because of this, it can become a lightning rod, especially in complex community projects where factors such as territoriality and dissenting viewpoints exist. Public art can also attract controversy due to how it obtains funding and its prominent place in public spaces. The meaning and possibilities of great public art are often not grasped immediately upon installation. Consider the Statue of Liberty, the Gateway Arch and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—all of these projects were incredibly controversial. It wasn’t until years or even decades later that these public art works became both valued icons and an integral part of the fabric of our American culture.
An aspect of public art that is seldom put into focus is how it comes to be. All too often we look at public works from an artistic standpoint, not from the perspective of how it gets built, installed and maintained. It all starts with a vision, but the research involved within the process of public art doesn’t end with the concept of the piece. It extends to the physical realization of it and beyond. While the artist will create the work, its completion can only be achieved through the collaboration of multiple people within various sectors of the community.
Public art is a negotiated art form and there are dozens of questions before it comes to life, including: Is the work to be a sculpture or an installation? Is it to be permanent or temporary? If temporary, what follows? How is the community to be involved? What is the process for choosing the artist? How is the artist involved in the public process? Who chooses the final piece of art?
Achieving success with a public art program is challenging, to say the least. For Columbus, this is where the Columbus Art Commission assumes a crucial role as a leader in developing a plan for the city’s public art program, art selection processes, funding, conservation, contracts, insurance, community involvement and more. The Commission also aims to facilitate dialogues about our public art, and manage expectations and encourage collaboration. A successful public plan will reflect not only input from the Commission but also a broader group of citizens whose concerns and knowledge are invaluable for producing the public art plan and for its eventual implementation.
Diane Nance, chair of the Columbus Art Commission says, “Although legislation for a City art commission has been on the books since the 1960s, Mayor Coleman is the first to have the foresight to seat the Columbus Art Commission in 2007, and there are many people in Columbus who support—and create—public art.”
According to Nance, the CAC has a goal to support the creation of physical environments where art, design, and function are not separated. “We have been relying on a few good citizens to sponsor projects, for which we’re grateful,” says Nance. “But for continuity and success in reaching long term goals—in neighborhoods and downtown—and for maintaining public spaces and art, a city public art program is an imperative.”
Even then, the process won’t be all smooth sailing.
“Opinions differ widely, but we believe in public process and the ingenuity of artists, designers, planners and engineers to contribute to creative placemaking in Columbus,” says Nance.
When considering successful models of public art programs that Columbus can look to, the City of Dublin, Ohio’s Art in Public Places, which is funded through committed bed tax funding, almost always comes up. In 1988, the City of Dublin and Dublin Arts Council developed the Art in Public Places program to enhance the quality of life for Dublin residents and visitors. The geographically dispersed installations are now part of an established public art tour throughout the city. The program has received extensive local and national recognition in publications such as the New York Times and Landscape Architecture magazine.
The Dublin Art in Public Places program is more than 20 years old and has grown from one sculpture in 1990 to more than 70 sculptural elements in 2011.
And the program has seen its fair share of controversy.
“When the Field of Corn sculpture project created by local artist Malcolm Cochran went up, some people hated it with a passion!” says David Guion, director for the Dublin Arts Council (DAC). “And now it’s iconic for Dublin. People here are proud of it and appreciate that it helps raise awareness for public art and the city.” Guion adds, “It might not be fun in beginning, but the existence of public art gets people talking about art. And those emotions involved put it all in motion.”
Sometimes the success of public art is difficult to measure, but Guion has received calls over the years, particularly from corporations based in the area who are looking to attract new employees. The corporations have used examples of Dublin’s public art as evidence of the city’s dedication to arts and culture and high quality of life.
A new cell phone tour, launched in December and hosted through Dublin city funding, now provides a current, comprehensive and interactive guide to the collection. One of the most engaging aspects of the tour are the recordings of interviews with the artists who actually created each art project.
“The artists were so thrilled to be interviewed and talk about their work,” says Guion. DAC has also collaborated with the English as Second Language (ESL) program through Dublin City Schools for the project.
Nance reminds us that Columbus also has some beloved examples of public art—among them “monuments that have been with us for decades and speak to our history or the lives of our ancestors, sculptures that signify events or places and a topiary park that sprouts green and allows us to imagine ourselves in another place and another time.”
“It’s time to add to that legacy and allow artists to create works for this century.”
Public art, despite being sometimes controversial, creates a gathering place for the free exchange of ideas and is no less an investment in infrastructure than mending potholes or fixing water lines. It is an investment in the infrastructure of the heart and face of our community as we present Columbus to the world. And the big plans in store for 2012 confirm Columbus’ commitment to public art.
Finding Time: Columbus Public Art 2012, a major initiative of the 200Columbus Bicentennial celebration, is a temporary public art project that will provide an extraordinary opportunity for the community to engage in the conversation about public art. 200Columbus will offer a platform to explore these temporary installations and develop a dialogue with our citizens about what they want to see in the future landscape of downtown Columbus.
The temporary works chosen for Finding Time: Columbus Public Art 2012 will be displayed in the public spaces, plazas, parks, streets and alleys in the 360-acre core area of downtown surrounding the Statehouse and along the newly revitalized Riverfront. Exploring the physical and philosophical measurement of time, projects range from the familiar (sculpture and murals), to unexpected (sounds works and site-specific performances). Project partners have commissioned 15 temporary site-responsive public artworks by 56 international, national, and local artists (many projects involve multiple artists) who reflect the broad range of contemporary public art in multiple forms and media.
Participating artists have created works about time to inspire the community to think about the city in relationship to the chronology of life and the notions of temporary and permanent. Their works, keyed into landmark dates during the Bicentennial year, will transform downtown Columbus into an open-air gallery where innovative and surprising public art accessible to all will create memorable experiences for downtown workers, residents and visitors.
Jennifer McNally, director of the Ohio Arts Foundation, serves as a consultant on the media relations and communications for Finding Time: Columbus Public Art 2012.
“With a wide range of community collaborators and supporters, I am hopeful that awareness of the 15 varied projects keeps people talking about public art and its value and importance throughout 2012,” says McNally. “I don’t believe that any of the projects will be controversial, but you never know how the public will react. Touching a nerve is good, in my opinion; it gets people talking and really thinking about what matters.”
The Columbus Public Art 2012 project is a unique partnership between educational and cultural institutions, the City of Columbus, and businesses in Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District dedicated to the vibrant cultural and commercial heart of Columbus. The project seeks to engage the community, promote tourism and economic development and help weave the arts into the fabric of downtown Columbus. On January 1, an original composition for the chimes by Sheena Phillips titled Double Century Doubles sounded at downtown’s Trinity Episcopal Church to kick off the project. Twelve local composers have created works that will ring new each month throughout the year.
Other projects range from an installation to be unveiled on February 1 called Breathe of Life: Columbus & Dresden that will illuminate the façade of COSI from dusk to dawn with LED lights timed to the rhythm of human breathing; to the sprucing up of downtown parking lots with OSU architecture students creating unique “micro-buildings” to replace the lot attendant booths. The latter will mostly likely remain as permanent fixtures for us to enjoy for years to come. To read more in-depth about the many exciting projects planned and the artists involved, go to www.ColumbusPublicArt.com.
The Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District believes this public art project will be the catalyst for a 25% increase and net increase of 15 retail stores by 2013. By demonstrating the value of art in the public realm, the initiative seeks to spur the ongoing integration of public art into the fabric of the city. By inspiring dialogue about the past, present and future, Columbus Public Art 2012 aims to inspire citizens and visitors to see Columbus and themselves with fresh eyes. In turn it will spotlight Columbus, nationally and internationally, as a smart and open city.
Partners of Columbus Public Art 2012 include: The Ohio State University, Columbus Art Commission, Capital Crossroads SID, City of Columbus, Columbus Museum of Art and the Greater Columbus Arts Council.
Leaders of the project are working with the OSU Humanities Institute to develop several open-discussion forums for people who are interested in the Finding Time projects and want to learn more and engage in the dialogue about public art. Dates and more information will soon be available on www.ColumbusPublicArt.com.
To learn more about public art programs around the country, go to Public Art Network, a program of Americans for the Arts. To see some great public art and architecture around Columbus while working on your fitness, go to the Columbus Health Department's Art Walk site and download a walking tour map for your neighborhood!