Apr 17, 2008 Nancy Keefe Rhodes Uncategorized
More than tourist dollars:
Sitting over coffee last Friday afternoon at Burnet Avenue’s Sparky Town, Mary Stanley said she’s going to next Thursday’s public art workshop at Gifford Zoo because she wants to know what other people think “public art” is. Stanley, who lives part of the year in Parati, Brazil, a small coastal city that hosts a hugely successful annual international literary festival, is a founder of Art Across Borders, a project that addresses how the arts sustain communities.
“Public art goes to the core of who we think we are,” she said. “There’s such a long tradition of public art based on history-making events, really on conquest and imperialism, men on horseback. There was a clear break after 9/11. They’re still fighting about what should be built at Ground Zero — really, what public space is for. I remember the ‘New York Times’ ran a huge piece on European cities designed with those broad boulevards converging on — well, literally the monumental. But I think it started breaking down earlier, with the Vietnam memorial in DC — that low black wall, public art that acknowledged the cost of war. And there’s a whole parallel tradition of people’s public art that’s not funded and blessed by public money. So public art is a lot more than boosting tourist dollars.”
On April 24th the Gifford Zoo hosts “Creating the Climate for Public Art,” a three-hour gathering produced by the City’s Public Arts Commission (PAC) and the Cultural Resources Council (CRC). Liesel Fenner, manager of public arts for the Washington, DC-based Americans for the Arts, is the main speaker. She’ll present a slide show overview of what other communities are doing nationally and speak to current trends, like “master-planning” and regional arts networks, that may echo Stanley’s view. Then participants will have a working lunch, discussing a series of base questions with table facilitators, after which PAC and CRC will take a report back to the community for comment via the eight TNT neighborhood planning councils. Clark says there may also be a follow-up meeting specifically for artists.
Reached in Washington the afternoon of April 1st, Fenner had just returned from Congressional hearings on the National Endowment for the Arts. President Bush has proposed a $16 million cut in the NEA’s 2009 budget, down to $128 million. Fenner said over 500 arts advocates — “I’m sure Robert Redford will get the most press” — visited Congress that day, lobbying to restore NEA funding to its 1992 level of $176 million.
“Instead of doing projects piece-meal, communities are stepping back,” said Fenner, “identifying sites, neighborhoods, types of art. That’s driving longer-term visions now, the desire to collaborate more with designers, landscapers and architects, so that public art is planned in from the start, not tacked on later. Really it’s about civic dialogue. Public art is often the means by which a community discusses the topics that need airing.”
Kate Clark, the City’s public arts coordinator, works out of the Economic Development office and staffs the 11-member appointed PAC, which was established by City ordinance last July to streamline the review process for permission to create public arts projects on City land, promote public arts via exhibitions and education, develop a master plan for public arts and inventory existing public art works (to date, they’ve counted 220).
Syracuse has long aided the arts through in-kind services — the lending of personnel and provision of equipment and venues versus direct arts funding — and funneled public arts projects through the Department of Parks and Recreation. Kate Clark said recently, “Pat Driscoll helped us push the ordinance. He said, ‘I get proposals all the time and I think we need a commission.'”
PAC doesn’t fund public art either and Clark shares concerns that artists benefit by more than a trickle-down effect. But PAC does define the kinds of projects that comprise public art, lay out criteria, and help artists navigate the City’s thicket of permissions and regulations.
“I’m a one-stop shop,” says Clark. “I do the leg-work. Yesterday we looked at seven applications. I might talk to Parks. I get site approval. I get historical clearance. I might go to CRC because they help with insurance. I might ask 40 Below’s public arts task force for volunteers for installation. It helps if people in other City offices are familiar with what a pro-public arts commission is trying to do. La Liga applied for a project at Lipe Art Park on Earth Day — April 26th — and the commission problem-solved the application so it would work.”
Last September Clark visited Ithaca, where she encountered Patricia Caroline Foster Haines of Ithaca’s Level Green Institute and Downtown Partnership. Haines met with Clark in Syracuse in December and initially suggested that Syracuse host Fenner’s presentation. Ithaca has organized its own gatherings this month — a day-long Greening the Arts conference and a two-day conference on sustainability and the arts. But Foster sees Syracuse “headed for being a major arts hub in the region” and wants to encourage that. Haines was in Florida much of the past month with a new grandchild, but the day we first spoke she’d just been on conference call about public arts and planned to stop in DC on her way home last week to scout the possibility of NEA grants for a regional arts network start-up project.
“One of the main points about the meeting in Syracuse is we start talking with one another,” she said. “I’m really excited about the mix — artists, educators, community development, civic leaders, even some contractors. This is bigger than the usual environmentalism. The lens for public arts is to foster creativity at the community level. We’re going to have a hard time meeting the challenges cities face over the next years without that.”
Back in Ithaca on Monday, Haines said she felt “really good” about her DC stop.
“The NEA has been discipline-based, so this is tricky,” she said. “But they’re into the idea of collaboration now. We talked about a proposal for a regional network. It’ll take follow-up.”
Many people are not optimistic over the challenges that cities face. For some, this taps into American myths about the evil city versus the good small town. Then there’s PAC’s new acting chair, Christine Capella-Peters, who comes with a rich background in city planning, neighborhood activism, landscape architecture, historic preservation and urban design studio teaching.
“I’ve always taken a different view,” she said recently. “Cities are the life-blood of the strides we’ve made as a culture, the greatest concentration of who we are. We have all kinds of challenges. But in a smaller city like Syracuse, there’s so much within our reach.
Here, we can have access to the artist, not just the work. This exposes citizens to the source. Many of us have been saying for years what a gem Syracuse is and now a new generation is taking up that call. Of course we need to make this part of the everyday dialogue if we are going to grow the audience.”
This more expansive view of urban possibility also makes room for regional networks and identity, and helps bridge the gap between art in public space and more traditional museums and galleries. The Cultural Resources Council now serves Oswego and Cortland Counties as well as Onondaga, actively fosters the notion of a Route 81 “corridor,” and enlarged the initial invitation list for next week’s zoo gathering.
CRC director Patrick O’Connor says, “The turn-out’s going to be better than we expected. Public art has its greatest impact on people who might not go in a gallery. We must start on the street. People have a greater chance of venturing into a museum or gallery if they pass public art every day than if they walk down an empty street. I think that grows the audience for museums and galleries instead of competing for audiences. And I guess it’s acknowledging we have to be our own advocates too. I understand that media is a business. The public has to demand that media cover the arts adequately. But you know, we’re starting to connect the dots here.”
Nancy Keefe Rhodes covers the arts. Reach her at email@example.com. Contact Kate Clark about PAC or the 24th at 448.8101 or KClark@edsyracuse.com.
What they’re saying about the zoo
Registration for the April 24th zoo event was supposed to cap at 100 and close on April 10th. But last Friday Kate Clark said, “People are still sliding things under my door, so we’ll leave it open for now. We’re talking with the zoo to see if they can accommodate more people. Right now we’ve got 130 signed up.”
Some comments from Central New Yorkers registered for the event reveal the range of issues at stake:
“For a long time I’ve advocated that we set aside money from the Downtown Committee and the City for a substantial program of public art. What’s so great is, it’s free and there it is. I feel very strongly about our public spaces.” — Bob Doucette, Armory Management & Development Group, RD Realty
“Public art brings our streets to life. In the I Love NY campaign, we fall into the Finger Lakes region — Ithaca, Rochester, Corning, Syracuse. It’s a very strong destination mix. But we also need to characterize ourselves individually as a community with pride of place.” — David Holder, Syracuse Convention and Visitors Center
“We started with an Earth Day project for Lipe Art Park because it’s so close. We’re not artists here, but Kate Clark invited our participation and walked us through the process and now we’ve have a teen project that day, a mosaic we’re making.” — Laurel Frega, La Liga
“We want people to know we’re open 365 days. We’ve always had an annual pottery fair but this June we’re having a kite festival, Art in the Sky. As a new administrator I’ll meet the community this way.” — Amber Blanding, Stone Quarry Hill Art Park, Cazenovia
“We’ve really been encouraged so far by the enthusiasm. We’ve supported public art especially through 40 Below. The Lipe Art Park is an exceptional testament.” — Rob Simpson, Metropolitan Development Association
“Internationally recognized sculptors live in upstate New York. Some of our alums come up here from New York City to use our fabrication studios. We’ve had over 400 artists from 23 countries come for residencies for over 30 years. We want to invite upstate sculptors to apply and invite curators and gallerists to visit. We certainly want to share the fruits of our labors.” — Sydney Waller, SculptureSpace, Utica
“Our daughter works for a public artist in Boston and knows Liesel Fenner, so this event will answer some questions for us. Last year we closed our Skaneateles gallery — it wasn’t profitable. Look at the culture we’re living in. This isn’t the Renaissance — there’s no Pope handing out money. The number one hurdle is making a living and the number one mistake artists make is not accepting that it’s a business. But upstate arts are just as good as anywhere.” — Tim & Deb Rodrigo, Rodrigo Studios, Marcellus
“We’re interested because we’ve been doing this work here for the past ten years. Now the Cultural Resources Council is talking about an arts identity along the Route 81 corridor. It’s not a big trip — we’re only 35 miles away.” — Michelle Southgate, Chamber of Commerce Mural Committee & 20/20 Arts Group, Oswego
“We’ve got to solve the money part. If people can’t make a living, can’t buy supplies, you have a limp scene. Art can’t be a cash cow. It doesn’t sustain itself in the present. We really need a wider audience for all the arts. We’re opening up in September again with fewer shows, fewer artists per show and a ‘wild card’ area that’ll be more flexible, allow us to respond faster when new work comes up.” — Bill Delavan, Delavan Art Center & Gallery
“We’re doing all this new construction but we’re not showing hospitality. We’re not welcoming. Public art does that. We built a bigger stage here so that so that local artists would have a space. We’ve got some film festival screenings this year too. I’m new to this. I’m a retired police officer and I own a construction company. I’m on the credit union board, which owns the building. The press? Well, I cannot emphasize how important support is for these new initiatives.” — Peter Ruszczak, Syracuse Center 4 the Arts