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Throughout the U.S., Public Art Engages Communities and Transforms Neighborhoods

In Philadelphia, everyone has a favorite. It might be “Common Threads” by Meg Saligman, where neighborhood youth appear to pop out of a stories-high mural as they keep watch over streets below. Or perhaps it's “Gimme Shelter,” in which artist David Guinn delivered on a fundraiser for the Morris Animal Refuge by painting the pampered pets of local residents ambling on tables or chairs, or simply looking cute, as they frolic on an exterior wall.

Mine is “Finding Home” by Josh Sarantitis and Kathryn Pannepacker, a meditation on homelessness woven into a mural, literally, as pieces of a tapestry assembled by the homeless themselves.

These and thousands more are part of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, an ambitious project growing the genre of public art.

“Public art works on many fronts at the same time,” says Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program. “It provides the environment with beauty, and is also a way of lifting up and transforming corridors. It can be a catalyst for community and economic development. Public art is often an emblem of a community or location, of the myriad voices that make up a city.”

In Philadelphia, more than 3,500 murals have served to create a sense of place in the city of brotherly love. “The Program has become uniquely Philadelphian,” continues Golden. “Now we're often mentioned as the 'city of murals.'”

Public art icons and beyond

In Minneapolis, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's “Spoonbridge and Cherry” often personifies public art for out-of-town visitors. The sculpture is the centerpiece of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden next to the Walker Art Center. “The Sculpture Garden is widely understood as a communal gathering place,” says Eric Crosby, curator at the Walker Art Center. “With the social and political aspects of our lives undergoing transformation, public art invites people to stop, think and create memories.”

Case in point: Artist Fritz Haeg planted a circle of wild, edible plants earlier this year as a demonstration garden for school groups and community gardeners. The artist also felt it important that people in Minneapolis come to the Sculpture Garden and find a bit of the wild in order to learn about the landscape that had been here earlier. On a more whimsical note, a collective of Minneapolis and area artists worked on “Artist Designed Mini Golf,” a 2013 installation alongside the Garden featuring 15 off-the-wall holes that were as much eye candy as participatory experience.

The Walker's Crosby is attuned to the juxtaposition of forms in the Sculpture Garden but sees a certain symmetry. “The quality of iconic pieces in public art is not going anywhere. However, it's a space that has to be constantly fed with more ephemeral, participatory and collaborative forms.”

Public art in the Twin Cities, however, is also so much more. When Forecast Public Art was founded in 1978, the nonprofit organization broadened, advanced, and strengthened the field of public art—locally and globally. Forecast has since helped thousands of artists develop and share creative ideas that explore the public realm.

“For artists working in all disciplines on public art pieces, the opportunity to experiment and innovate on their own terms, without commercial pressures, can be profoundly liberating and empowering,” says Jack Becker, Forecast’s founder and executive director. Now celebrating its 35th year, Forecast remains committed to inspiring and nurturing creative talent. The organization grows the field of public art through the sharing of expertise, working with educators, training artists, providing grants and technical support, its recently launched international research initiative, and its 24-year-old magazine Public Art Review.

“Our goal with Public Art Review, in print and online, is to provide information and resources that help raise the perceived value of public art in revitalizing communities, creating memorable places, developing culture and fostering livability,” says Becker. Especially as public art increasingly becomes an interactive, community-based experience. A focus on “social practice,” or engaging local communities in creating change through art, is borne out in public art pieces that are as thought-provoking as they are aesthetically pleasing.

Public art as a socially based practice

It should come as little surprise that in the era of Facebook, Twitter and the 24/7 conversation, public art is morphing into a tool for community engagement—especially in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Along the new Central Corridor Light Rail line, the Central Corridor Public Art Plan (CCPAP) will include public art that involves media other than the visual (such as sound), and might be temporary rather than permanent.

“In this area of the country, public art is becoming a socially based practice,” explains Christine Podas-Larson, president of Public Art Saint Paul, which is involved in the plan. “That means artists have, in their work, a very distinct idea about creating a thing or an experience, but underlying it is an intention to change behavior, whether those behaviors impact the environment or social interaction.” Artists living and working in communities along the Central Corridor, she adds, are in a great position to facilitate discussions about creating healthy, sustainable communities using socially engaged public art, because they live with these issues.

Christine Baeumler, currently the artist-in-residence with Saint Paul’s Capitol Region Watershed District, for instance, is creating a project that will illuminate for residents the processes of stormwater infrastructure, and provide information on how everyday habits contribute to water quality. “In other words,” says Podas-Larson, “the artists are looking at the living systems in the city. As they engage neighborhoods in their work, public art and community involvement become catalytic investments in revitalizing neighborhoods.”

Art as hope and economic engine

In Detroit, artist Tyree Guyton's The Heidelberg Project is broadening understanding of his ravaged Detroit neighborhood, once home to the likes of Wilson Pickett and Berry Gordy. Guyton employs a handful of run-down homes as his megaphone, with one polka-dot paint job tipping us to the fact that we come in all colors and sizes, while another house plastered with stuffed animals can be seen as a plea for space in which kids can recreate.

“Detroit is a canvas that was wiped clean,” says Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of The Heidelberg Project. “No one had a plan after the auto industry's collapse, yet we've always been a creative city – artists, musicians – and able to compete. Placemaking isn't a new term, it's just giving us wheels.”

Those wheels are also generating revenue. “Crain's cited the Williams College economic impact study on how the Project's $450,000 annual budget generated $3.2 million in revenue for Wayne County and an additional $2.7 million for our immediate community,” says Whitfield. “Just by its existence, people afraid to cross 8 Mile had to venture out to see this thing, and they then explored other aspects of Detroit like the Motown Museum.”

Integrating the public into public art

The city of Cleveland is something of a laboratory for public art in the hands of LAND studio, a non-profit engaged in public space design and development. “Public art is making places accessible by adding enhancements,” says Megan Jones, marketing and communications director for the group. “We find that it's not just 'build it and they will come.' You have to activate a space, make it engaging and exciting.”

The proof is in the pudding in a new park in the Market Square section of Ohio City, the neighborhood-of-the-moment in Cleveland. Here, LAND worked with an artist inspired by the nearby West Side Market as he crafted tables and benches that resemble fruit crates. Similarly, an “orchard ladder” rests near a park gateway.

A fuller example of community engagement comes via the Edgewater Hill blue birds, achieved in partnership with the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. In this case, the community wanted to use public art as a tool to expand neighborhood identity. The resulting casted bluebirds are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, perched on a utility pole, commercial building or even a home. While trees may conceal some blue birds during the summer months, they are revealed in fall and winter, lending seasonal cheer.

These new messengers of public art are crafting a path for our cities in keeping with our ever-connected world.

“Many of the traditional industries that built Cleveland are largely gone,” says Greg Peckham, managing director of LAND studio. “What remains, however, is a deep local culture that puts a high value on craftsmanship and hard work, invention and re-invention, and building a legacy for future generations.”

Elaine Labalme is a columnist at Pop City, an Issue Media Group online publication based in Pittsburgh.

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