Monday, March 19, 2007

Lessons Learned in Public Art

According to this piece in the Sun by Sumathi Reddy, there's an apparently interesting arts issues brewing in the local Baltimore arts community as the Baltimore city council contemplates legislation that would mandate 1% of public construction projects for public art.

The 1% for the Arts is a very old tradition by now in many American cities, and all of the lessons and the how to's and the tried-and-true ways to make public art be first and foremost "public" are by now established and a good way for Baltimore to take the "lessons learned" from other cities and march forward a little better prepared.

I do not think that (as the article explains) that a nine-member Public Art Commission in charge, which would select the artists and artwork, and allocate funds, is the only solution on how to run a 1% for the arts effort.

If implemented as the only way to "approve" public art, then it is in fact elitist and removes all "public" from public art. There, I've said it.

One solution is to introduce the "real" public into the public art selection process.

Such as the way that some states (such as Florida I believe) have adopted for their state-wide percent for the arts programs, which is to have the public art that will be acquired for their state buildings be chosen not by a state arts commission, or an academic arts panel, but by a selection committee drawn from the people who will actually work in the building (and live with the art).

This most egalitarian and democratic of processes for choosing art, by the people who will actually live and work with the art, is a very progressive step towards democratizing the process of public art, and removing it somewhat from the hands of selection committees and people who can be (in some cases) so far removed from "the public" that their decisions often seem to deliver either yawns or astute controversy, but little "public" to public art.

"I would very much not want to see us get timid because of the heat of the controversy that has been generated by the piece in front of the train station," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum. "If we intend to make this a place for living art in a public way, we have to accept and welcome the notion that not everybody is going to be happy and that is actually a good sign and we should celebrate that."
I agree with Gary Vikan (his own comments on this subject are here), but in the "everybody" who is not going to be happy, Baltimore should also include arts commissioners, arts panelists, museum directors and even artists, not just the public.

One of the great paradoxes of contemporary art symbiotism in the United States is that while they [we] generally tend to be politically very liberal (and I'm about to step into the dangerous waters of generalizing), they also tend to be very elitist, booswah and neoconcritics when it comes as to how much they "trust" the American public, or the democratization of an arts process (especially if it involves public money), when it comes to the visual arts.

The answer in my opinion is the marriage of both a properly burocratically-qualified arts commission process for some works, and also a more modern and more progressive-minded and less academically conservative process (already used by some cities and states) where the people living and working with the art, choose the art, sans academic minds with arts fields PhDs and personal artistic agendas.

Imagine the street walking, water-fountain-chatting, bus-riding, 9-5, tax-paying, let's-hurry-home-so-we-can-watch-American Idol public, actually having a say in what hangs in the hallways that they must walk through every morning on the way to the office, hurrying so that they can get a cup of coffee before the pot runs out and then they have to make the next pot.

Do it Baltimore, if anyone can and should, it's Baltimore.

Looking for a small gallery space in DC?

In the 14th Street gallery district of DC there's a 300 sq. ft. office available to be leased out to a consultant or arts person (not an artist). It's furnished, has wireless internet, track lights and a small exhibition space, so it can be made into a Curator's Office type of exhibition venue. Three big windows, common kitchen and 2 bathrooms. The landlord is asking $1,000 a month and its month-to-month.

If interested drop me an email and I'll forward it to the landlord.