As part of the Annual 2013 Americans for the Arts National Conference, the Public Art Network (PAN) Preconference, presents the opportunity for public art professionals to explore all aspects of their field from invigorating communities to behind-the-scenes negotiations such as planning, fund raising, and working collaboratively with artists, architects, engineers, fabricators, city planners, and so on.
Like any worthwhile artistic production, good public art requires delicate negotiations, collaborations, and most importantly flexibility and adaptability. One of the many panels at PAN this year took a look at how the end result can often be very different from the initial prospectus. The panel, titled “Between the Lip and the Cup: How Projects Change from Initial Process to Final Installation,” was made up of four different professionals: Cath Brunner, Director, Public Art 4Culture, Seattle, WA; Stacy Levy, artist, Sere, Ltd., Spring Mills, PA; Natalie Plecity, Landscape Architect, Pittsburgh, PA; and Janet Zweig, artist, Brooklyn, NY.
The panel used examples to demonstrate how changes and unpredictable circumstances are inevitable at all phases of a project but they can be successfully managed in order to create the “best” outcomes for all stakeholders.
Ms. Zweig talked about two of her projects. One was for Maplewood, a neighborhood in St. Louis. Her first proposal to create a digital sign proved cost prohibitive so she revised her plan. In the end her signs were made of recycled materials taken from bungalows that were scheduled for demolition in the neighborhood. One of the signs was intentionally installed backwards so that drivers passing by could read it in their rearview mirrors. Serendipitously, it was this aspect of the project that created a buzz and got the neighborhood the recognition it was seeking.
The other project Ms. Zweig talked about was for Milwaukee. It was supposed to be a simple piece but it became controversial when the city got rid of the arts administrator responsible for redoing the downtown streetscape and the project had to be presented to a committee of five city officials who knew little about public art. After the local arts community caught wind of some disparaging remarks made by this panel, things got a bit out of hand. But after much consternation Ms. Zweig did end up making the piece and she made a conscious effort to use all local actors, filmmakers, fabricators, installers, and engineers.
Ms. Plecity talked about her experience as project manager on a piece here in Pittsburgh by Ms. Zweig. Contrary to the panel topic, Ms. Plecity explained that in this case everything went very smoothly. She attributed this to the fact that all the people working together on the project really liked each other and that they all had a stake in making the family happy since it was a memorial piece.
Another project Ms. Plecity worked on was for a park in Asheville, NC. One of the problems encountered on this project was whether work by the chosen artists was even feasible as public art and whether the chosen artists could collaborate with structural engineers, contractors, architects, etc. In the end two artists were selected, Hoss Haley who created a stainless steel pergola and sculptural fountain, and Kathy Triplett who created tiles.
Ms. Brunner spoke about some of the difficulties she experienced as project manager for Susan Robb’s “The Long Walk” a complex four-day event, in which problems ranged from figuring out how people would camp on sites that were not previously used as such to how to deal with negative press. She also talked about the project VERDI with Christian Moeller and the necessity of renegotiating a project as things change such as the artist’s conception or the economy. Ultimately, she explained that each stakeholder owes it to the artist and to the community to ask “is it better” and to go for it even if it means modifying the production timeline and the budget.
Ms. Levy talked about the obstacles encountered on two of her projects and how essential support from the project manager is. Her installation Tampa Wind at the University of South Florida was hampered by the fact that every location she wanted was already reserved for other projects leaving her with only one spot on the side of a building stair tower. In the end she made the best of it and worked within the space constraints. However, on another project she felt that the physical limitations placed on the work left it looking unfinished so she took a risk and used guerilla tactics to extend her piece beyond the 10 feet into the roadway that she had been allowed. The piece only lasted three days before PENNDOT removed it entirely. Despite this she felt that it was worth it because she had always played by the rules even though public art is too often constrained by odd rules that don’t always make sense.
Overall, the panel offered a glimpse into the daunting and time consuming practice that is public art. Instead of being downbeat the panel presented a refreshing and positive view and reinforced the idea that flexibility and adaptability are key aspects of any project.