Michigan cities use public art to add design to area
DETROIT (AP) — A mural of President John F. Kennedy wearing multicolored sunglasses pops on the side of a cement-block building in Royal Oak.
A rusted-brown metal horse sculpture, its mane blowing in the breeze, stands in the grass at Mount Clemens’ southern gateway.
A giant pigeon with shades of purple and blue graces one side of an old barn in a farming area near Port Austin.
While they are distinctly different, these exhibits are among the thousands of murals and metal, sculpture and stained glass that have sprouted up as public art in metro Detroit and Michigan.
A menagerie of color, shape, texture and size are found in big cities, such as Detroit — which has a range of public art from the Heidelberg Project to the City Walls mural project that is expanding to 60 locations as a way to address sites frequently targeted by illegal graffiti taggers — and in small ones, such as Baldwin, home to the world’s largest brown trout sculpture.
It’s all in an effort to add beauty, honor history, spread conversation and culture, attract visitors and boost economic growth, including through art tourism. Murals in the Market in Detroit has been an annual event that attracts thousands of people to the city’s Eastern Market district to view newly painted murals every fall.
″(Public art) can make our 1-square-mile universe a much better place. It looks better, it feels better,” John Bracey, executive director of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, told the Detroit Free Press .
The influx in public art in Michigan is keeping in line of with a growing interest in public art nationally — showing up everywhere from on manhole covers to buses to sidewalks to alley walls. It’s also a measure of a town’s coolness.
The Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading nonprofit for advancing the arts and arts education, conducted a survey last year that identified 728 public art programs in the United States — twice as many as were identified in a Fiscal Year 2001 report.
Bracey said while public art has been around for decades — 41 post offices in Michigan have significant works from the Works Progress Administration of the Great Depression era — it continues to be created on professional and community scales around the state, bringing educational programs to students, telling a community’s story and allowing people to gather and connect.
“I feel public art displays are a really important part in not just defining a community, but generating civic pride in what a community identity would or could be,” said Phil Gilchrist, executive director of the Anton Art Center in Mount Clemens, which is home to least a dozen pieces of public art — from sculptures to a mural — for years in its downtown area.
The city has eight new sculptures to spruce up the south end through an effort by the Macomb County Cultural and Economic Partnership and the Midwest Sculpture Initiative in Blissfield.
The initiative has annual sculpture shows in other communities in metro Detroit and Michigan including Canton, Belleville, Jackson, Macomb and Pittsfield townships, Port Huron and Tecumseh — some of which have continued year after year.
“There’s just so much demand for what we’re doing,” said Ken Thompson, owner of Midwest Sculpture Initiative, who has been making public art for 40 years.
He said the initiative has 18 exhibits this year — adding fall shows to the existing spring ones — with seven communities on a wait list. The sculptures are up for a year and are available for purchase.
Thompson said during the last four decades interest in public art has been cyclical, with it being in “huge demand” right now.
“Everyone looks at public art. It is an economic development strategy, but the cool thing is it is a beautiful economic development strategy for the business owners and the residents,” said Vivian Carmody, executive director of the Berkley Downtown Development Authority.
Carmody, who has a degree in art, said art has been a strong part of how she looks at economic development.
Public art, she said, “brings in people, adds to the culture of the downtown, gives people a reason to walk around. It’s aesthetically pleasing.”
Last year, nine murals were painted by a variety of street artists in Berkley, with the DDA paying for about a third of them, with the hope they would last five years. This year, money dedicated for public art is going to be leveraged to pay for a large sculpture on 12 Mile by Coolidge to replace dead trees at the corner, Carmody said.
She said the sculpture is expected to cost $35,000 to $40,000 and be installed next summer. The DDA is planning a crowd funding campaign and hopes for a $10,000 to $15,000 match from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
In the Grosse Pointes, a street art program every three years helps the Grosse Pointe Chamber Foundation put money back into the community.
This year, there were more than 60 embellished dog sculptures inside and outside businesses and schools in the Pointes and a couple each in Harper Woods and Detroit. There were painted butterfly benches three years ago and fish in 2012, with some of those pieces still visible in the communities. The next project is set for 2021.
This year, the money will go toward a series of television and social media ads to promote the Pointes, Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Boettcher said.
“It’s just to increase awareness of our beautiful community, increase foot traffic for our businesses, to keep people to shop local businesses,” she said. “They brought so much enjoyment to the community and us.”
Royal Oak, which established an arts commission, has permanent pieces of public art along 11 Mile and temporary pieces that change every year in “Art Explored,” in addition to the piano project it started two years ago, mostly in the downtown area, said James Krizan, assistant to the city manager.
“It creates a sense of place. Public art contributes to public spaces, it helps spur investment. It makes it a place people want to be. It helps become an identifier for what this community is about,” Krizan said.
Not only are communities, such as Sterling Heights and Novi, creating new public art programs, some are buying pieces for their own permanent collection.
They’re also promoting public art, in part through online maps and brochures. Macomb County recently introduced an online mapping tool where visitors can find public art in communities throughout the county.
“That’s the power of public art,” Bracey said.
Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com