Louisville Invests $50,000 for Public Art Master Plan

by ekramer on September 23, 2008

Public Art is popping up around the country. There are more than 350 public art programs at the city, state and national levels. And today, Louisville announced it will establish a master plan of its own. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer has more.

Why is public art important?Artist Michael Burrell mounts a mural, which is part of Lexington\'s public art program.

“Art is about life. It’s about economic development. It’s about who we are and what we are as a city.”

That’s Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson announcing that the city is spending $50,000 to develop a master plan for public art over the next year.

While Louisville has had some public art projects, it’s a relative newcomer to forming a plan for public art. Philadelphia has the oldest program and Seattle has one of the nation’s most famous.

But what are the benefits? Proponents say helping a city distinguish itself and attracting people, including tourists and their dollars. That includes Barbara Goldstein. She edited “Public Art by the Book.”

“Public art reinforces urban design,” Goldstein says. “It can make a place extraordinary. It can help reinforce the public qualities of the space by stimulating people to be there, to stay there, to enjoy the space, to ask questions.”

Still, some controversies have shaken people’s faith in public art. In the 1980s, “Tilted Arc,” an imposing sculpture on a New York City plaza, generated a public hearing ushering its removal. In 2005, Louisville removed and severely damaged a large sculpture sitting outside the Jefferson County Courthouse. Then in 2006, Louisville sanctioned a graffiti wall for artists on East Market Street. Soon after obscenities were scrawled there, the city halted the project.

It is exactly these kinds of situations that have led many cities to carefully create plans for public art.

Goldstein says good plans should seek input from citizens, help delineate the rights of artists and property owners, and identify funding sources.

“If you look at something more as a plan and a system of events and decision points, then you’re more likely to have something that endures and can respond to change,” Goldstein says.

Other Kentucky cities have launched large-scale public art programs. Since 2002, the Owensboro Public Art Commission has put up six outdoor sculptures with money from private donors. In 2000, Lexington held an exhibition of horse sculptures called HorseMania and auctioned them to raise more than $750,000. The money helped establish a public art program now run by LexArts, which is now beginning to surface on city streets.

The whirling of drill a is the sound of LexArts’ Mural Project. On the outside wall of a bar in Lexington’s North Limestone neighborhood, an artist is putting up painted panels for one mural. He worked with the neighborhood association to create it, with its image of a beloved music teacher.

LexArts president Jim Clark who also worked with the New York Public Art Fund says a solid plan often involves anticipating potential conflicts and input from community groups.

“Unless you have an organization that is structured to accommodate public art and keep it going, you will be destined to do these episodic events,” Clark says.

In Louisville, Clark’s ideas and those of Barbara Goldstein are definitely in play, says Meredith Johnson. She is a curator with an organization in New York called Creative Time and the consultant who will lead the development of Louisville’s master plan.

“We really want to make a plan that’s unique and dynamic and internationally renowned that is Louisville specific,” Johnson says.

Among her many tasks, Johnson will hold focus groups with a range of people, including art historians and business owners, and identify funding sources.

And most experts agree that the management of these tasks and communicating with the public will determine if Louisville’s $50,000 is an investment well spent.

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