Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Quest for Public Art

Overflow parking, by artist Blue Sky, is among the most recognizable pieces of public art Downtown. (I won't even get into the discussion on "parking as art")

As I have mentioned before, It was the arts community that initially attracted me to downtown. When standing outside of "The Local" I would stare at the city surrounding me and realize how false the clich├ęs used by my peers to describe Flint really were.

The arts bring a lot of people downtown. Second Friday ArtWalks have been gaining momentum for years, the nearby cultural center has been an artistic draw for decades and it is rare to find a weekend where there aren't at least a few live shows happening at various venues downtown. This is not all that unusual, as center cities are often the hub of the local arts culture. One component often found in such hubs is public art ( often traditionally thought of as large scale, outdoor sculptures, murals etc.) Public art can be, and often is very symbolic of the community in which it is displayed. Pieces such as Chicago's "bean" Detroit's "Spirit of Detroit" and Ann Arbor's "Cube" have all become adored icons of their respective cities. It was with this in mind that I began to wonder.."Where and what is Flint's public art?" and "What do these pieces mean to our community?"

"The Big Gay Thumbprint" as it is affectionatly known as on campus, is a large scale, outdoor sculpture on the U of M Flint campus. However its placement in a courtyard, away from the street prevents most off campus traffic from enjoying it.

A walk through the grounds of the University of Michigan Flint will take you past a small collection of sculptures and of course the nearby F.I.A. proudly features many large scale works on their grounds. These pieces don't feel....public to me though, as you have to physically enter the grounds of the institutions to view them, instead of simply encountering them when turning a corner on your morning commute. So where is Flint's public art?

Our community does have its own collection of public work. The tongue-in-cheek "Overflow Parking" mural on the side of the Flint Journal building is a beloved downtown icon, however, the majority of public art seems to be concentrated on the grounds of various downtown institutions instead of the parks, sidewalks, and storefronts where they are traditionally installed. Riverbank park once claimed to be home to the "world's longest mural" however after years of defacement, the city simply covered the work with beige paint. Riverbank park also was home to a small collection of impressive sculptures. However, after the largest of the pieces toppled over from a gust of wind a few months after the park opened, several other pieces were removed from the park, leaving only two; a small steel piece in the amphitheatre block, and a statue of Casimir Pulaski tucked away in the trees of the Archimedes Screw block. So what does the fact that much of our public art has either been removed or hidden from casual view say about our communities commitment to such art?

Interestingly, there was community uproar when MTA manager Robert Foy used federal grants to install several pieces throughout their various facilities, including two outdoor sculptures at the downtown station (although most of the upset seemed to come from the fact that the majority of the work was placed inside the administration building where the public could not easily enjoy it.)

This also could open up a discussion about what actually counts as public art. The Vernors Mural, and the Saginaw Street Arches are both artistic and symbols of Flint as a whole, but were originally installed with much more utilitarian purposes. Some may consider such places as the "waterwalls" or the "Grand Fountain" at riverbank park to be public art, and the role of guerrilla street art has been gaining momentum in Flint and worldwide. Overall, public art adds color, whimsy, beauty, and fun to the public realm. However, the importance of such characteristics to our community can only be decided by us.

Works like this dot the downtown street scape, and certainly add to the character of our city center. Do you consider this public art?

What do you think? Do you feel that public art plays an important enough role in the urban landscape to encourage, even demand a continued devotion to it in downtown Flint? What are your favorite pieces locally or elsewhere?

1 comment:

  1. I think Flint needs alot more beautification in the form of public art. It helps morale of the city as a whole. Even ephemyral art such as a geometeric garden in balinger park. there are tons, of locations in flint that make me cry because they have been so neglected by communtity leaders. balinger park is one of the best examples.