Public Art: Preparing for the next chapter

By: Elysian McNiff and Elizabeth Keithline

John Raimondi's Michael (1972) yarn bombed in Portland, Maine. Photo: Corey Tempelton
John Raimondi’s Michael (1972) yarn bombed in Portland, Maine.
Photo: Corey Tempelton

The story of public art in New England is an epic tale with many characters, varying settings and diverse themes. The narrative tends to change because the field is constantly evolving. The term’s fluid definition, “art of any medium sited in a public place,” allows it to be frequentlyreinterpreted and redefined. What follows is a brief introduction to recent public art in New England told through six chapters, positing an abbreviated structure for a complex novel that remains to be written.

Chapter One
Permanence In Public: Percents for Art

Percent For Art programs typically operate by setting aside ½ to 1% of construction budgets for public art. Academic institutions often organize a standing committee to select work for their campuses, normally by means of a curated process that operates by invitation only. One example is Dartmouth College’s campus in Hanover, NH, that features the work ofdistinguished artists Louise Bourgeois, Mark di Suvero, Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly.

Five out of the six New England state art agencies also operate a Percent for Art program. In state government, commissioned work must be housed within the newly constructed or rehabilitated building.

Percent For Art projects can take years to execute. Often they are
expected to be permanent, so they must be exceptionally durable, using landscape elements and materials such as steel, bronze and stone. More often than not, they are the work of a team of designers, administrators, engineers, fabricators and installers. Budgets for permanent commissions are larger, so artists who execute them successfully are sometimes able to make a living (though contrary to perception, fabricators, earning an average of eighty percent of the budget, often make a better living than artists).

Programs of this type are not curated like galleries or museums. Most artwork is mandated for selection by committee, a fact that some argue contributes inevitably to mediocrity. Moreover, most state arts administrators who oversee selection committees are expected to be neutral in discussion, so the only real strategic power they have lies in who they invite to serve on their panels.

Rhode Island public artist Erik Carlson’s commission, In Passing (February, 2012), is a large-scale video installation that celebrates automobile travel and Rhode Island’s unique roadside landscapes. Designed and fabricated for the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in Cranston, it was selected by a jury that included, among others, artist and arts writer Martina Windels, former David Winton Bell Gallery curator Maya Allison, and architect Chris Ladds. The $89,000 project is accessible and cutting edge, clearly the product of a panel that was willing to take a risk with art made using technology, while still considering how all DMV users would experience it. (Elizabeth Keithline managed this project.)

Inviting curators and artists to serve on panels of selection sometimes encourages a wider spectrum of artwork for consideration and can bolster the confidence of civic and community panelists, leading them to be more experimental in their decision-making.

Chapter Two
Temporary Brilliance —Time Based Works

Temporary installations are an alternative to bigger budget projects. Without the mandate to install permanent work, temporary programming often costs less and in addition, if members of the public dislike it, they can wait a few months until it’s de-installed or replaced by another project. Initiatives like Christo and Jean Claude’s Gates, installed for fifteen days in Central Park in 2005, and Tatzu Nishi’s Discovering Columbus, installed for just over two months in Columbus Circle in 2012, prompted hundreds of thousands of people to flock to see them during their limited engagement. These types of projects make a strong argument for art as an economic generator, as tourists flock in droves to see them (and spend money on hotels, parking and diningout while doing so).

Adam Niklewicz, The Charter Oak (A Water-Activated Public Mural), 2012, brick wall, sealant, water, 30' x 45', Rust-Oleum treated brick, water  Installation view Hartford, CT Photo: Erika VanNatta
Adam Niklewicz, The Charter Oak (A Water-Activated Public Mural), 2012,
brick wall, sealant, water, 30′ x 45′, Rust-Oleum treated brick, water
Installation view Hartford, CT Photo: Erika VanNatta

A work that references another type of temporality is Adam Niklewicz’s The Charter Oak and Walking Around A Tree on Pearl Street in Hartford, CT. The Charter Oak mural was created when the artist applied clear Rust-Oleum, a water resistant sealant, to a brick wall and then installed fountains that spray it twice a day. The mural is visible only when wet and disappears as it dries. Walking Around A Tree is a companion installation that runs nearby at night.

A collaboration between the Wadsworth Atheneum, Real Art Ways, and the city, this project gave people a reason to visit and brought very positive regional press attention to downtown Hartford.

Chapter Three
Community Identity and Civic Engagement

Public art programmers across New England agree that public art is an investment in community that can reflect the histories of a place or the community’s own potential. Public art has the power to enhance spaces, promote civic stewardship, initiate dialogue and build relationships. Sometimes the creative process is as important as the final product.

Vermont’s propensity for community participation makes the state suitable for civic engagement projects. Vermont artist Andrea Wasserman cites her home state’s tradition of public meetings with civil discourse and representative democracy as crucial to the process.

In 2008, the Orton Family Foundation and Vermont Land Trust issued a Call for Community Proposals for the pilot project, Art & Soul, and selected for it the bucolic town of Starksboro. The project had three phases, the first of which was the collection of oral histories from Starksboro residents. Matthew Perry, the project’s artist-in-residence, led phase two, which united new and varied audiences, from schoolchildren to dairy farmers, in creating art that expressed desires for the future of the community. Perry also converted a bus into a mobile studio to travel the art and the conversation. In the end, Starksboro put the art into action, creating community development projects, which encapsulated the visions of the townspeople.

Another example of public art promoting community identity is Patrick Dougherty’s So Inclined at Middlebury College (2007-2011), a collaboration that had brought together “town and gown.” More than 250 volunteers from Middlebury (author Elysian McNiff included) assisted Dougherty in constructing nine towering, interconnected cones woven from local red maple and grey dogwood saplings.

Art and Soul and So Inclined engaged community members that might never have considered themselves patrons of the arts, and demonstrated that successful public art is a magnet able toattract diverse participants to the creative process, and sustain their interest.

Chapter Four
Stimulating Imagination and Play

Effective public art spurs creativity and imagination. The art instigates critical thinking, evokes play and opens creative minds. Public art often finds itself adopted by education systems for these reasons. The state of Maine has many Percent-For-Art public art projects in its schools.

Dig (2006) is the work of Portland artist Aaron Stephan. Stephan created a three-part conceptual project for Biddeford Middle School including a story, monument and website. Dig relays the fantastical story of two young boys, recorded in the diary of Adam Chase, who dug a 6,548 mile hole from Biddeford to Beijing in 1867. The diary includes a historical narrative about the two cities, pairing fact with fiction. A Gingko tree and plaque mark the spot where the children began their brave and spectacular journey. An extensive website allows viewers to dig deeper, providing information about the characters and further documentation of their journey. Dig reminds participants of the power of imagination and play in life, whether they are eight or eighty-eight years of age.

Guerilla interventions, like yarn-bombing, have added a playfulness to the streets of Portland. In honor of International Yarn Bombing Day (June 8) anonymous knitters covered a cold, abstract metal sculpture, Michael (1974),by John Raimondi in a colorful, patterned “sweater.” This spontaneous gesture reminds us of the productive power of public art to disrupt our daily routines and environments.

Chapter Five
Pushing Boundaries

The director of the Public Art Program in Cambridge, MA, Lillian Hsu, believes that public artists should think not only of a site as a physical space, but as a social space, as well. For her, public art is not static adornment of buildings or spaces; instead, public art raises questions and prompts the development of fresh answers.

Paul Ramirez Jonas’s Taylor Square (2005) asks the question, “Who owns public space?” Jonas created the smallest park in Cambridge. The park is fully equipped with an iron fence, gates and bench, despite being under sixty-square feet. Jonas made keys for the locked gate and mailed them to over 5000 families living near the park, along with a note that urged them to copy and share the keys. Hsu expected this humorous tiny park to be just an object, but it turned out to be “a special physical, mental and symbolic space.” The public created its own relationships with the urban park. Firefighters from a station nearby smoked on the bench, a pumpkin emerged on Halloween, a neighbor asked to plant tulips. These personal actions reveal a shared sense of ownership over the space.

Heidi Kayser, The Remodeling Project, Fort Point Channel, 2012. Photo: Tyuji Suzuki and
Heidi Kayser, The Remodeling Project, Fort Point Channel, 2012.
Photo: Tyuji Suzuki and

Heidi Kayser’s Remodeling Project (May, 2012) created a performance in a less than expected place. Kayser established a floatingmicro-environment in the middle of Fort Point Channel where she performed daily activities like yoga, laundry and office work on a small platform, remodeled for each activity. This slightly drifting public work blurred the lines of art and life by constructing a familiar reality in an unfamiliar place, along with a continuous (even voyeuristic) sharing of it, and its documentation. Eventually it redefined social norms about the public and private by encouraging slippages between social and personal identity.

Chapter Six
Measuring Success

One of the hardest things to do with public art projects is to measure their success. Public art, particularly publicly funded public art, is frequently controversial. While some argue that controversy is an indication that the public should stop commissioning work in the public realm, others insist that controversy constitutes value. Public art can spawn discussion and engagement in the same that way that a newspaper editorial or a blog post does. It simply uses a visual or aural or dimensional medium, instead of words, to do so.

Street A.K.A. Museum, an excellent and courageous temporary installation initiated by the Portsmouth Art Museum in New Hampshire in the summer of 2012, is an example of colliding interpretation, the latest in a long line of public projects that have been embraced by some and reviled by others. The exhibition presented artwork and murals by six emerging artists from around the world. Each artist had work represented within the museum and, in addition, the artists transformed the streets of Portsmouth with a series of nine murals placed around the city’s downtownthat were offered as a walking and/or phone tour. The murals contained no nudity or profanity. As arts journalist Dunstan Knight said, “Street art involves the non-art world in the art conversation, and that might be this exhibition’s greatest contribution.”


The region’s public art serves as a catalyst for discourse, a cultural signpost, a contribution to the region’s intellectual life, a place-making tool, and an economic engine. The intrigue of the public art field lies in its complexity and possibilities. What is its next chapter? That depends on how we as artists, curators and community members move forward.

Elysian McNiff is the Public Art & Creative Communities Coordinator for New England Foundation for the Arts, and Associate Curator at Brown University’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts.

Elizabeth Keithline is an artist, a curator and the Director of Grants To Organizations and Public Art for the Rhode Island State Council On the Arts.

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