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Dayna Del Val, The Arts Partnership, Published January 19 2014

Del Val: Public art part of identity of a community

There’s been quite a bit of buzz lately around local public art. Earlier this month, the FMWF Chamber of Commerce’s State of the Cities breakfast was full of talk from local mayors about the value of the arts in the greater metro community.

The Forum recently published the editorial “A new era for Fargo public art?” It said, “A progressive, sophisticated city should embrace public art. Several projects, including the architectural restorations of old downtown buildings, qualify as public art. The publicly funded Veterans Bridge and associated riverside features could have been just another utilitarian concrete slab. Instead, the bridge is a striking feature of a modern, dynamic metro.”

The Fargo City Commissioners unanimously voted to create a Public Art Task Force this month, and Moorhead’s new mayor Del Rae Williams reported in her first State of the City address that there will be increased attention paid to arts and culture in Moorhead this year as well.

There are some naysayers, but the feeling seems to be generally positive around public art and its inclusion in our communities because the benefits are many and the opportunities are broad.

But what is public art and why does it matter?

According to Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Network Council’s Green Paper, Public Art “reflects and reveals our society, adds meaning to our cities and uniqueness to our communities.”

In this day and age, where people often select where they will make their home as much by aesthetics as necessities, form and function have to work in tandem to create communities that have a compelling narrative, and public art is often the first, and most accessible, means of creating that narrative.

“American cities and towns aspire to be places where people want to live and want to visit. Places with strong public art expressions break the trend of blandness and sameness, and give communities a stronger sense of place and identity,” the Green Paper continued.

But public art is more than just a piece of sculpture, a decorative bridge or a water feature. Public art has the potential to infuse the community, from the very core of city planning and engineering, with a design-mindedness that works to bring creative thought to neighborhood revitalization and development, streetscape creation, gathering spaces design, and overall city expansion.

When artists sit at the table with planners, engineers and elected officials, they “bring their own creative skill set to those conversations, which can also inspire creativity in others, ideally bringing the means of decisions and problem-solving to a more responsive and imaginative result,” the Green Paper said.

In other words, creative thinkers inspire and encourage creative thinking from those around them, and this is a very good thing for city development and expansion.

The power that good public art can have on the identity of a community should not be underestimated.

Think about some of the major U.S. cities. It is often iconic public art that comes to mind first. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Minneapolis’ Spoonbridge and Cherry, Make Way for Ducklings in Boston, the LOVE sculpture in Philadelphia, The Field of Empty Chairs in Oklahoma City and the many pieces that make up the National Mall in Washington, D.C., all are recognizable visual representations of their home cities.

These pieces of art matter because they have significance to their communities. They engage residents and tourists. They become places where people gather. They are destinations in and of themselves. They can be the introductory element that leads businesses and industry to investigate and invest in a community.

Public art challenges our assumptions about a place and invites everyone who wants to, to observe, take part in and celebrate what makes our community great. Public art invites us to see our community and ourselves in a new light, and it does it in a way that is accessible to all because it exists in the public sphere. Public art is not about gatekeeping; rather, it is about taking down the gates and inviting all to see, learn, appreciate and grow.

Public art can be green space, permanent or temporary installations, a long-term financial investment or a short-term, low-cost event. Public art can be painted pianos sitting in public locations for all to play, time-lapsed videos of the community, painted dumpsters and refurbished cigarette vending machines that sell original pieces of mini art. Public art can be poems by elementary students stamped into the new south-end sidewalk at Island Park. These are all pieces of public art that have or will be showing up in Fargo this year, by the way.

What if we were known for more than our falling temperatures, our underage drinking, our 3-peat football status or our proximity to masses of oil? What if we had an iconic image that came to mind, drew people here and became a focal point of all that we are and all that we are becoming?

The conversations about public art are not going to go away. Rather, they are going to be more frequent, more developed and more embedded into the community because, ultimately, public art is a visible sign that we are an emerging, intelligent, creative place worthy of notice.

Dayna Del Val, executive director of The Arts Partnership, writes a monthly column for Variety. For more information on the arts, go to http://theartspartnership.net.