Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Activating public spaces: monuments and public art

Photo of the sculpture of Gen. Nathaniel Greene in Stanton Park, DC, by M.V. Jantzen. Creating sculptures such as this was a big part of the City Beautiful Movement, and the creation of monuments and sculptures as part of a system of socialization of recent immigrants, and introducing them to the nation's history.

DC Metro Urban Diary, in "What Makes a Monument?," covered a roundtable, "Approaches to Public Art, Placemaking, and National Commemoration" sponsored by the National Capital Planning Commission.

Artists discussed how a sculpture or building isn't enough, that programming to engage the public in the meaning and purpose of the monument must be offered. Another artist, proposed what we would call nontraditional monuments. From the article:

Julian LaVerdiere, artist and designer of the World Trade Center Tribute in Light, expressed his wish to see monuments not become celebrated for a singular statue or brick, but derive meaning through their ability to offer a "transformative experience" to the visitor. He cited a potato famine memorial in New York City at which the artist had simply picked up an acre of a fallow Irish farm and plopped it in the middle of a city square. Both LaVerdiere and Justine Simons, Director London's Cultural Agenda and Programming for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, voiced their support of temporary public art instillation as a substitute for monuments.

The article wrapped up with some important questions:

How do we wake up the landscape with interactive, meaningful public art and memorials? How do we keep monuments alive? What is the future of place making in a fractious culture, and a divisive climate? And how do we sneak some interesting public art past the NCPC, ANC's, District Council, and the Committee of 100?

I think the answer is to start doing temporary public art programming in a superior, serious, ongoing fashion. If London (and Bristol) can do temporary interactive exhibits of pianos in the public space ("Art project puts pianos on street" from the BBC and "All Around London, an Invitation to Make Music" from the New York Times) and Sioux Falls, South Dakota can have an annual public sculpture exhibiting program why can't we do something comparably interesting and more significant than fiberglass donkeys and elephants?
Trying out one of the 30 pianos placed around London, this one at the Millennium Bridge.
This photo: Hazel Thompson for The New York Times. Trying out one of the 30 pianos placed around London, this one at the Millennium Bridge. Below 1: Flickr photo by M.V. Jantzen of "Party Animals" at the Convention Center. Below 2: "Pas de deux," Shari Hamilton, Westhope, ND, Sioux Falls Sculpture Walk. Photo by Paul Schiller.
Donkey and Elephant

"Pas de deux," Shari Hamilton, Westhope, ND, Sioux Falls Sculpture Walk
Traditional monuments and sculptures aren't so much about engaging people as they are elements in constructing national memory, myth, and narrative.

Public art is supposed to be about engaging the public and offering up the opportunity for questioning and thinking (unless it has to do with fiberglass cows, etc.) rather than adding to a relatively static historical narrative.

Similarly, all the various boarded up vacant nuisance properties on DC's commercial corridors, that aren't being taxed at the vacant property rate because the owners put in some new windows (taking off boards) and a for lease sign, even though the building is likely to be uninhabitable, ought to be "forced" ("strongly encouraged") to participate in storefront art exhibiting programs.

Bridget Murray Law at 406 H Street NE, Washington, DC
406 H Street NE in 2005. Washington Post photo. Below: 406 H Street NE in November, 2010. This building has been vacant for 23+ years and is owned by the realtor/investor somewhat slumlord John Formant.

Vacant building allegedly for lease, 406 H Street NE

Many communities have such programs. The one in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is probably the oldest and most consistent. Seattle launched such a program, Storefronts Seattle. See "Artists take to empty storefronts: Idea is to put unused space to use" from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Because of the city's role as a national capital, which for better or worse, makes us a world city, much of the art and monumental focus is on permanence and what we might call "art of the past", rather than experimentation and support of live practicing artists and the "art of today."

Maybe by expanding what we do to be more playful and engaging when it comes to public art, it will be possible to be more engaged in monuments and memorials in real time.
Storefronts Seattle map

This H Street NE building has been vacant for at least 10 years. It's not being charged at the vacant property rate. It has an exception because it is being "actively marketed."
Vacant building allegedly for lease, H Street NE

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