Seattle Report #5

Some of the most interesting discussions at the AFTA conventions each year take place within the Public Art track. AFTA is the coordinating body for a network of 350 public art programs across the country, convening and coordinating them to stimulate dialogue, discuss critical issues, and develop public art products and services. Although this conference does not tend to appeal to most discipline-based arts organizations and individual artists, it does have a strong following of artists who are involved in public art every year. (“But please,” they beg of me, “don’t call us ‘public artists.’”)

The Seattle press – in the form of The Mercury’s sister newspaper, The Stranger – took notice that we were all here in town with an interesting commentary on the city’s own public art collection, asking whether it might perhaps be overrated. Among the complaints herein is that the growing trend toward sculpturally integrated artwork (''interwoven into terrazzo lobby floors, for instance") generates a whole lot of art that lacks interest and innovation.

How fortuitous that I should read this article over breakfast the very morning of AFTA’s annual celebration of public art projects across the country. Being aware of this criticism gave me an interesting lens for considering the awards that AFTA was bestowing to 40 excellent public art projects completed in the past year. Among the works honored were some real beauties, including:

"Verdant Walk," a temporary art and landscape installation in Cleveland, beautifully illuminated at night by solar fabric panels.

"Synchronicity of Color" shows what happens when a good artist (Margo Sawyer) decorates the entrance to an underground parking garage in Houston with 1,500 aluminum boxes in 65 colors.

"The Ziz" is one of the more interesting sports-related public art projects I’ve seen in a while, by Donald Lipski

The panelists also gave awards to our own Horatio Law for his "Gilded Bowl Column" for the Asian Counseling and Referral Service in Seattle, painted with help from clients of the facility…

....and Caldera for “Hello Neighbor,” Julie Keefe’s and Tyler Kohlhoff’s writing and photography collaboration with middle school students, resulting in several dozen 7x5 banners you’ve probably seen hung on buildings around North Portland and other neighborhoods. These seem to be fine examples of the kind of “ephemeral” public art project that The Stranger was calling for.

After seeing so many interesting projects – not all of which I felt were award-winning caliber – I wondered how I myself would adjudicate the 350+ projects that were completed and submitted this past year, and find myself asking, what makes public art good? One of the panelists, Janet Echelman, said that to her a successful public art project provokes “a desire to look at it,” and perhaps more importantly, “it satisfies that desire.” This is as good a litmus test for public art as I have heard, but I am curious to hear what others think.


MightyToyCannon said...

Thanks for the report and for posing more interesting questions. The article in The Stranger is worth checking out too. It mentions the resident artist on Seatte's Fremont Bridge--a story that just ran on OPB the other day. Another thing Seattle has is an audio tour for some of its public art -- dial a number on your cell phone, enter the code corresponding to the work you're looking at and hear a description. Can RACC get working on that?

cynseattle said...

there wasn't enough about your lunch or snacks in this posting. I'm disappointed.