Interrupting and Surprising: The Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy’s Visual Arts Manager, Katelyn Kirnie, Speaks on Plans for Public Art in Boston

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By: Alexis Avedisian

image1 (Matthew Ritchie Mural at the Rose Kennedy Greenway)

The Matthew Ritchie mural now seemingly floating over the Rose Kennedy Greenway was just about finished this fall when I made contact with Katelyn Kirnie, whose team is responsible for much of the Park’s aesthetic activation over the past several years. When I was approached to put together a piece regarding public art in Boston, I was honestly more apathetic than eager. What could be said that hasn’t already been said by critics, or even in the digital sphere through thousands of Facebook comments and tweets? I was searching for an insider’s point-of-view: someone who has been directly involved and whose opinion might initiate change. I am happy to have had the opportunity to speak with Kirnie over the past few months. It has left me feeling hopeful for Boston. —Alexis Avedisian, Special to Art New England Online

Alexis Avedisian: In a recent Boston Globe article regarding public art in Boston, critic Sebastian Smee wrote, “The best recent efforts, as a result, have focused less on permanence and more on a temporary, guerrilla-style approach. Increasingly, we are seeing installations that stir up debate, winning supporters and detractors both, and then disappear, to be replaced by something else.” How are the projects happening at the Greenway going to help facilitate Boston’s current demands for more ephemeral works?

Katelyn Kirnie: The Greenway has invested time and resources into creating a five-year public art strategy. The process was funded by New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA).

Our vision emphasizes bringing innovative and contemporary art to Boston through free, temporary exhibitions on the Greenway, engaging people in meaningful experiences, interactions and dialogue with art and each other. We want to give artists unique opportunities to exhibit bold, new work that considers the possibilities of 21st-century Boston.

The focus on temporary is intentional and our exhibitions range from one day to 18 months. Along with the longer lasting exhibitions of established artists’ work, we also provide a platform for the even more ephemeral, including exhibitions of emerging artists’ work. For example, aside from our partnership with the ICA on the temporary murals, in 2011 we partnered with the deCordova on a contemporary sculpture exhibition, Urban Garden, and this past winter we had a one night video installation of local artist Georgie Friedman’s works, Overhead Current and Electrified Sky.

AA: Do you think we can assume a shift from archaic memorials to more vibrant, contemporary works that this article hinted towards?

KK: Absolutely, at least that’s the goal on the Greenway. 

Part of our public art strategy includes a moratorium on any monuments, memorials or permanent works for at least the next five years. There are plenty of historic public spaces in Boston for the archaic type of artwork. The Greenway is a contemporary space and presents an opportunity for new forms of expression and even a little experimentation. By focusing on temporary exhibitions, we can present bolder, edgier work and leave space for more art and additional experimentation.

GeorgieFriedman-OverheadCurrent-BHI-Wide view-600-1                                                                                                                                                              (George Friedman, Overheard Current)

AA: Considering these parks officially opened in 2008, it’s safe to say that they were built with the future in the forefront. In only five years, the site has played host to a myriad of contemporary ideas, and has served the public as a meeting point for a broad range of civic dialogue. In 2011, Boston’s chapter of the Occupy Movement held down Dewey Square. And the controversial 2012 Os Gêmeos mural is behind us. How can newer projects at the Greenway pay tribute to the complex history of the space? How temporary is “temporary”?

KK: We take pride in the fact that the Greenway and Dewey Square Park in particular have been identified as a space for the freedom of expression. The complex history of the space is hard to ignore as one that has re-invented and transformed itself time and time again. We can only imagine how compelling this could be to artists’ creative process and the wonderful civic dialogue that could occur as a result. Erika Rothenberg‘s, temporary Freedom of Expression National Monument in Foley Square, NYC, comes to mind as the type of engaging and interactive work that could take place as tribute.

Last winter a young artists’ collective found Dewey Square’s complex history hard to ignore and very literally represented certain aspects of it in an installation as part of our “Winter Lights” series.

As you noted, in only five years we have seen the Greenway and the way the space is used continue to change. As an organization, the Greenway Conservancy has taken on temporary and experimental place-making as an effective way to meet the changing needs of park users. Dewey Square Park itself is a wonderful example of a space that was once a forgotten and windswept plaza, where an elevated highway once stood. Now there is the massive mural as backdrop to the urban scene that changes from year to year. These ephemeral expressions will only add to the vibrancy and continuing dialogue of this space and our city.

AA: Speaking of ephemeral art, are there any plans to incorporate performance art within your programming?

KK: We’ve had many participatory artworks on the Greenway, which in a way become performance art. But we haven’t had any true performance art. We are certainly open to it and have a great space for it. We’d definitely like to see performance art be a part of our contemporary offerings. However, there are no concrete plans for any just yet.

AA: Tell us more about the five-year plan. In this document, you’ve outlined “platform” projects and “magnet” projects. Is there a plan to incorporate work by locally-based artists on the Greenway?

KK: Our consultants helped us build a flexible framework and a menu of project types to guide the public art projects we choose to undertake. Both projects that come to us and those that we seek out should address one of our key conceptual frameworks: Connection, Interactivity, Civic Dialogue, Ecology and the Environment. Projects take the shape of what we call “Platforms” or “Magnets.”

“Platforms” are projects that take advantage of existing park infrastructure and conditions and allow us to present a number of diverse artworks that may overlap over a short period of time. For example, last winter a local artist group, New American Public Art, used our existing Light Blade structures and re-programmed them to respond to text messages from park users. The Dewey Square Park murals are another great example of using existing park infrastructure (the Air Intake Structure) as a platform for artwork. These projects are the mainstay of our program and more often than not, rely heavily on the creativity of local and regional artists and/or arts institutions for programming. They often come together on a shorter time frame and with smaller budgets and creative funding schemes.

“Magnets” are Conservancy produced projects that are major undertakings, impressive in scale and artistic excellence. These will be the high impact exhibitions that bring in renowned artists (not excluding local ones) and draw international attention. We’ve started initial planning stages for a Magnet project, “Greenway Connection,” by issuing a call and conducting a proposal competition. Actual implementation is a few years out, as Magnet projects are a multi-year planning and fundraising endeavor. The eventual goal is for the Conservancy to produce these projects on a regular basis. At this time, we have a lot of fundraising to do. In the meantime, our Platform projects allow for diverse and high quality programming and many opportunities for our local artists to get involved.

jacob                                                                                                                                                                (Jacob Kulin, Modern Dance, image source)

AA: People expect to see (or are at least curious to see) cutting edge, high budget exhibitions in major museums. From your experience with public art, how does taking projects like this into the public sphere change the viewers’ relationship with the work? In turn, how does public art affect art that has been institutionalized?

KK: Public Art is accessible to everyone. There was a great quote in Geoff Edgers piece on the Os Gêmeos mural in the Boston Globe, “You don’t have to pay money to go into a museum or feel intimidated to go into an art gallery. It’s for the commuters, the homeless, the youth working in the garden. It’s for everyone.”

With public art, the relationship with the work becomes very casual. When you remove the gallery walls, you remove a lot of the barriers to entry that the art world tends to create. There’s a level of intimidation, when a person walks into a museum, the formal setting establishes “do not touch” parameters and a certain audience is instantly lost. When you move art outdoors and into the public realm, it frees the viewers to be themselves and establish a more intimate relationship with the work. It’s been a blast to see this take place on the Greenway. Whenever we place works in the park, it’s like they are people magnets. A sculpture on the lawn becomes a place to rest, a mural becomes a meeting place for a picnic with friends, and a giant hammock invites children to climb and play. As the work integrates itself into the viewer’s everyday life, they begin to develop a visual and experiential vocabulary that includes art. The institutionalized art then becomes more accessible because the viewer has a reference point and their own art language to build from.

AA: Who will be curating these long term public projects?

KK: Eventually, the Greenway Conservancy will have its own curator. Until then, we have an extremely qualified Curatorial Advisory Committee that includes curators, artists and arts enthusiasts from the local community. Members include:

Nick Capasso (Director, Fitchburg Art Museum) – formerly Curator at deCordova Sculpture Park
Kate Gilbert (Artist, Greenway neighbor)
Bob Gordon (Managing Director, City North Development, Greenway neighbor)
Geoffrey Hargadon (Artist, Senior Vice President-Investments, UBS Financial Services, NEFA Board)
Ralph Helmick (Artist)
Young Park (President, Berkeley Investments, Greenway Board)
Edward Saywell (Curator of Modern Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Art Commission)
Deborah Spiro (Manager, Neiman Marcus Group, Greenway neighbor)
Meejin Yoon (Principal, Höweler + Yoon Architecture, MIT Faculty)

os-gemeos-boston-mural                                                                                                                                           (Os Gêmeos mural via Rose Kennedy Greenway)

AA: Can you tell us about a specific moment or memory you have in which you felt that the Greenway projects were truly becoming the vibrant, modern space you’ve outlined in the five-year plan?

KK: It was probably last August when the Os Gêmeos mural went up. Dewey Square Park was jammed with people picnicking on the lawn to watch as the twins painted and the mural unfolded. It was quite the spectacle and the twins were totally approachable, which only added to the energy and buzz of the Dewey Square scene. The evening they put the finishing touches on the mural, a Clover food truck was hosting a movie night in the park. Just as the sun was going down they completed the artwork and the crowd burst into a round of applause as the lifts lowered to the ground.

After it was all over, I was doing a final walk through of the site and I found an envelope taped to the lift. Inside was a letter from a businessman in one of the neighboring office buildings. The note was to Os Gêmeos, thanking them for the color and excitement they had brought to his daily routine that week and an inquiry about commissioning a piece of his own. That is what public art is all about—interrupting and surprising the most unsuspecting viewer and if not turning them into a lover of art, then inspiring them to see the world in a new way.

The whole controversy instigated by Fox News was disheartening. But it was a real affirmation of what the Greenway Conservancy is trying to do when the art world and others came to the murals defense. It was wild to see the mural and the ridiculous controversy pop up in the media everywhere, from The Atlantic, to the Huffington Post to the front page of the Globe and throughout the blogosphere. And then, the mural was selected by the Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Network for their 2012 Year in Review, as one of the top 50 public art projects of the year. These were the moments that clarified how vital public art it is to the vibrancy of, not only the Greenway, but to all of Boston’s public spaces.

AA: Can you disclose any information to Art New England readers about an upcoming project the conservancy is excited see happen?

KK: I can’t spill the beans on anything just yet, but I can say our visitors can expect to see new sculpture on the Greenway next year. We’re excited to partner with a New England gallery and introduce Boston to the work of an international female artist.

Alexis Avedisian is a writer and independent curator based in Boston, with a focus on fostering experimental works by emerging artists. She is a current contributor to Dig Boston, Hyperallergic, and most recently Art New England Online. Follow her on Twitter: @GODBLED

Maybe Fox news was not the cause of the controversy...maybe the painting was?
Posted by: michelle marcinelli    On: Nov 21, 2013 10:12 am

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