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Great Lakes Theater "The Merry Wives of Windsor," 2014

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Breaking into Cleveland Public Art

Public Art didn’t get there by accident. Except maybe the Free Stamp (kidding). Of the many things artists contribute to our community, public art may be one of the most visible and ever growing influences on our culture and landscape.  Forming Cleveland provides a more in-depth illustration of these investments, which you can learn more about on November 20. On top of that, if you are interested in breaking into your own public art portfolio in Cleveland, I strongly advise you connect with LAND studio (who will also be at the Forming Cleveland event). I recently sat in on a workshop “From the Studio to the Street” that only reemphasized the strength of this organization, which says its support of artists is completely self-serving; they can’t do what they do without the creators that make it happen. Pretty awesome, right?

Buckeye Park

Art & Soul of Buckeye Park Festival

The sold out day was filled with info for artists interested in what might be an intimidating process of working with fabricators, permits and public officials; making it all a little less mystical. The day started with two Seattle-based public artists, Laura Haddad and Tom Drugan, who showed us some really cool stuff, to say the least, and packed a presentation with helpful advice. Erin Guido and Vince Reddy continued with a great overview on the basics. The day ended with a live presentation by four brave and talented artists, who proposed a “hypothetical” public art project to be installed in Ohio City. Then we were given a behind-the-scenes look at the very candid panel review process for the proposals, and there were some of the best voices in town I could think of to comment on them. Here are a few takeaways, and please feel free to add your own or correct me in the comments below.

Successful Public Art              

From what I gather, public artists need to be able to take some tough and sometimes completely off the wall criticism.  Regardless of any debate of the subjective nature of work, all successful public art works have a few things in common and result some fantastic occurrences:

  1. It gets people talking.
  2. Often, the visible public investment in the neighborhood leads to others making their own investments (flowers, better signage or new paint maybe).
  3. The new art reminds us that the built environment is always changing as we do, and that people are at the core.

Public art can be organic, stemming from an artists’ relationship to a place, or it can be a public call from the percent for art program or other community project. It can be a project that cumulates over time, such as Morgana Run in Slavic Village. It can include all disciplines, incorporating performance or poetry. Some projects address social issues, bringing difficult topics to light in a safe and wide-open environment. But the best public art that resonates the deepest, is relevant to its exact location. 

In Practice

So I don’t have a full day—or enough characters—to share all the amazing things I took away from that day, but here is my shortlist of tips and tactics I heard and saw from the many amazing examples we saw from Laura and Tom, the volunteer presenters and the panel’s discussion of their work.

  • Use your studio art portfolio to break into the public art realm and spell out those connections for the panel reviewing your proposal. Know the differences, and consider things like safety, accessibility, ordinances and all the collaborators that will be involved in the proposed project. Also bird poop and Cleveland winters, lets be real.
  • Start small (maybe a $10,000 project) and build up confidence and reputation based on your other areas of expertise.
  • Passion showsthrough when you’re presenting a proposal. Communicating your enthusiasm or personal connection to the place or the concept can go a long way with a panel, especially as a beginner. Pair it with your un-challenged technical skill and expertise for the complete package.
  • You’ll have to work in a lot of technical requirements while maintaining the integrity of the art. It’s a tough balance, but worth it in the end.
  • You’ll need patience and wherewithal. Making public art takes a long time from research to proposal to fabrication and installation; it can also be stopped to a halt or on hyper-speed at any moment depending on the commission.
  • Good collaboration could mean good things for your budget and your stress levels.
  • People (and not just kids) will probably want to climb on it. Plan for that.
  • The more projects you do, the easier it is to budget both time and money. There is no formula unfortunately, but make sure to adequately compensate yourself for time and labor in the artist fees line.
  • Sustainability—and particularly reuse of existing materials in the Cleveland area—is a growing trend.
  • Temporary art and event calls for public art and lighting are also a growing trend. It seems public art trends run parallel with art trends as well as popular/political trends.
  • Don’t apply for everything. “Phoned in” proposals are obvious to a panel. Do what makes sense for you and your work.
  • You are doing this because you love it. Don’t lose sight of that.

Categories: accessibility, Artists, Best Practices, Cleveland, collaboration, creative placemaking, Neighborhoods, public, Sustainability

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