AMAZING PUBLIC ART
I’m often asked what it takes to be an ‘Amazing’ city and while there are many factors, one that seems to be present in every amazing city that I visit is a commitment to public art. The ‘Cloud Gate’ sculpture in Chicago is a great example of what I mean by public art. This beautiful, stainless steel sculpture is the centerpiece for Millennium Park and is the subject for hundreds of thousands of pictures each year. Dedicated in 2006, the Cloud Gate sculpture draws in visitors from throughout the world and is a favorite of families who park strollers next to the sculpture and let their children find themselves in the reflection of the polished, mirror-like finish.
While many examples of public art are quite expensive, this is not always the case. Public art can be as simple as a mural on the side of a building or a colorful display of a large Adirondack chair in a public square that I saw on my recent visit to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Many cities have capitalized on a famous event or person to create a public art display. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the bronze statue of Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in the air is a favorite of many. Nashville and Austin have capitalized on their music heritage and many of the public art pieces reflect a musical theme. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a large mural of folk hero, Woody Guthrie is very popular and anchors the ‘Guthrie Green’, a large public performance venue.
One amazing city in Alabama that has put themselves on the map via public art is a small town named Fairhope. I visited Fairhope on a trip to Mobile with the National League of Cities. My good friend, Debbie Quinn was a member of City Council in Fairhope and she had always bragged about her town being famous for hanging baskets of flowers. I assumed that they had a few flower baskets hanging from the streetlight poles like many cities throughout the country. As we entered Main Street, I was amazed at the hundreds of baskets of beautiful hanging flowers that were everywhere. Buildings, parks, light poles and virtually everywhere else had more flowers that I had ever seen in a city.
The size and scope of public art is as varied as the cities that develop it. Few cities have only one piece of public art. It seems that when cities see the value of developing several pieces of public art, it becomes contagious and everyone starts to think in an “art” mindset. On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I noted the large utility boxes along the sidewalks had been painted with beautiful art. These utility boxes are frequent targets of graffiti and posting of advertising flyers and are very unsightly along the sidewalks. In speaking with some of the Los Angeles city councilpersons, I learned that they have been encouraging painting the utility boxes as part of neighborhood cleanup efforts.
Public art can also distract focus from objectionable things. In Charleston, West Virginia, a vacant building was an eyesore until a local art group painted plywood panels to cover the broken windows. The paintings made the building appear to have flower boxes and people looking out onto the street. This very inexpensive feature gave new life to the adjoining neighborhood. I have seen this in several cities and it always seems to have a positive impact on the neighborhood.
I am a believer in public art as a component to building an Amazing City. Public art gives a city a fun and lively feel and gives residents and visitors alike, a place to gather. From the largest city to the smallest town, public art is an investment that pays dividends for years and can give your city a needed boost and define your identity.