When contemplating artistic mediums and venues, some things may cross your mind. Is it the image of a museum or gallery, white walls filled to the brim with sculpture and canvas, paintings and sketches, carvings and ceramics? Do the hallowed halls of the MoMA, the British Museum, Guggenheim or the Louvre possess your thoughts? In any of this, do you stop to consider the integral role public art plays in your life and within your community?
Public art encompasses a broad range of permanent or temporary works that are erected in the public realm, with the intention of bringing installation art or a similar interactive experience to society at large. Art is considered public if it is funded through community resources, placed on community land or created and developed through a community process.
It has been proven that public art not only enhances the aesthetic quality of an area, but it also serves to create a sense of belonging and identity, reflect diversity and celebrate history, while demonstrating a city’s energy, initiative and pride.
Art, let alone public art, was of minimal concern to federal, state and local governments before 1965, when the passing of Public Law 89-209 established the National Endowment for the Arts. This legislation declared a governmental commitment to the humanities and the arts, which is defined broadly as including “…music (instrumental and vocal), dance, drama, folk arts, creative writing, architecture and allied fields, painting, sculpture, photography, graphic, and craft arts…,” among other forms of work.
Today, the federal NEA, as well as minor state agencies, consider artistic progression to be essential to the culture and prosperity of modern America. As of 2009, there existed approximately 450 public art programs across the country, 80 percent of which resided within and received principal funding from municipal governments.
A number of these programs exist in our very own Greensboro, a city well known for its thriving arts scene.
In 2010, the NEA granted Action Greensboro, a local non-profit, $100,000 for the production of public art installations within the abandoned railroad space of the Downtown Greenway. The result was the creation of “Over.Under.Pass.” an abandoned railroad trestle converted into a gallery of art deco style gates by artist and sculptor Jim Gallucci. The project features interactive lighting effects designed by Scott Richardson, owner and founder of the studio Light Defines Form. The lights work to illuminate the dim passageway and change colors when sensing movement.
Following the completion of “Over.Under.Pass.,” several other Greenway arts projects were brought to fruition. The most memorable of these works is the eye-catching “ColorHaus,” a series of multicolored prismatic murals painted on the support beams of the Spring Garden Street underpass. Surrounding the area is Morehead Park, containing a multitude of creative bike racks in addition to the industrial “Inside/Out Bench,” designed by Ben Kastner and Toby Keeton of Wilmington.
Greensboro is not the only city known for its public art – Charlotte, another of North Carolina’s cultural hubs, has dramatically increased its commitment to public art in the last decade. One of the most ambitious tasks undertaken by the city is that of progressing the LYNX Blue Line Public Art Project, a series of works created for the passengers of the Charlotte Area Transit System.
Thomas Sayre’s “Furrow,” one of the most prominent pieces in the collection, consists of six large disc-shaped sculptures made of concrete and steel that have been cast from segments of Carolina earth. The immense models, installed at Scaleybark Station, pay homage to much of the area’s distant agricultural past.
Other works, such as Richard C. Elliott’s “Tower of Light,” an elevator installation assembled entirely from multicolored plastic industrial reflectors, and Hoss Haley’s River Rock benches, which replace standard seating at five LYNX stations throughout the city, further serve to enhance the transportation and artistic experiences of Charlotte citizens.
Public and government commissioned art, though rarely considered, is an essential component of the cultural integrity and spirit of a city. Next time you venture into the Downtown Greenway, take a ride on the LYNX Blue Line or engage in any other form of community experience, take a minute to ponder the significance of public art for yourself and those around you. After all, you never know when your environment might inspire you.