Art is a funny beast. Viewed in defined “art-appropriate” spaces – think hotels, building lobbies, hospitals, cafés and galleries, there are few styles, works or mediums that we don’t appreciate. From contemporary painting, large-scale black and white photography, avant-garde sculptures and mixed-media work, to hard to interpret audio pieces, we accept it as art, as something that is inherently good for us to be surrounded by – even when we don’t understand it.
As artist Martyn Reed of Stavanger, Norway said in an interview about public art with Juxtapoz magazine, “Art, on a philosophical level, even academically, is good for people; it improves the quality of people’s lives, which is why we put art classes in prisons; we have art in hospitals because it makes people’s lives better, it’s present in pre-op and in every ward, there are pictures. Everyone believes this, you don’t get people saying, ‘It doesn’t improve the quality of people’s lives.’”
Yet despite the positive and emotional connection many of us have towards art, we neglect how important the context in which we perceive it truly is. Viewed outside the confines of its regular context, we lose that same openness and acceptance of the quirky, hard to understand or strange. The vibrant club poster stapled to a telephone pole is no longer an ink print, but a nuisance. The series of wheat paste concert posters is no longer pop-art, but vandalism. The large-scale photographs stuck to a blank wall, they too cease to be considered art.
Public art or art created in and for the public sphere gets a bad rap. It can polarize a cohesive community into those who are up for a bit of whimsy in the public domain and those who are vehemently opposed to it. Of the diverse forms of public art, few are as vilified as graffiti. For many, the mere mention of the word invokes images of hastily spray-painted train cars, or sprawling script along vacant walls. Graffiti is akin to neighborhood blight.
And while in some cases graffiti does represent a lack of respect for a place, there is the flipside of the graffiti spectrum. Street artists and residents collaborating painstakingly over a period of hours or days, to create art for the betterment, interest and enjoyment of the community in which they reside.
This role of community generated public art or graffiti as social and economic tool is not often talked about, but can have a huge impact on a city. In an open letter to the mayor of Stockton, California – a fledgling city on the verge of bankruptcy, M. Revelli the editor of art magazine Juxtapoz, cites examples of Stavanger, Norway, Bristol, United Kingdom and New Orleans as examples of cities that have embraced an attitude of tolerance and openness to public art and are reaping the benefits of dollars spent in their cities. The influx of money to the city comes in the name of tourism as curious locals, art enthusiasts, bloggers and others in the art world travel to experience the works in these cities.
Another such city that has embraced graffiti and public art as civic tools is the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In that city, well-known street artist Steve Powers, completed Love Letter, a series of murals along the elevated subway line to help give a sense of pride to residents from the different neighborhoods in which the murals were installed.
Discussing his experience in Philadelphia to Juxtapoz magazine, Powers explains, “Nobody saw any benefit of the project for their neighborhood. Once we got to painting and people saw the results, they got excited about their neighborhood again. Everything has been great ever since. And when they see people coming by daily to take pictures, the equation becomes very apparent. More people coming to the area translated to more foot traffic, which translates to more businesses.”
In addition to the economic benefit to the local economy of embracing public art, the social benefit of a community creating, appreciating and discussing art is invaluable. In a unique public art project, French artist JR – winner of the prestigious TED Prize, had the idea to empower people and strengthen communities around the world by encouraging widespread participation in a global art project, The InsideOut Project.
Sourcing co-creators from around the world, individuals or groups upload black and white portraits of themselves that subsequently get turned into large-format posters (they’re big, very big) and returned to the individuals to be posted in their own community. Using only their face to share a message, JR’s wish is to inspire people from all over the world to indulge their inner artist, taking pride in their communities ultimately making them better more interesting places to live.
Closer to home, New West is in the midst of a civic renaissance of sorts. After years of slow growth, the city is adding a more diverse and interesting culinary component to its reputation as an affordable city with great quality of life, good transportation, loads of amenities and a strong sense of community. While the depth of offerings is still developing, people are now moving to, coming to and staying in New West because of its food offering. What would the impact be if New West added a dynamic public art component to its urban fabric – reclaiming vacant spaces and knitting a sense of surprise into our public spaces?
Imagine a collaborative series of murals along the back of the buildings that face the Skytrain, short-run sculpture installations in parks or other public spaces, art installations in vacant commercial storefronts or our own chapter of the InsideOut Project. If only our city had disused wall space, vacant lots, empty storefronts or large unused areas along the waterfront … hmmm.
While I’m no artist, I appreciate the arts –no matter where on the brow they may fall, and would like to see a greater sense of playfulness and surprise in our public spaces. I am interested in helping push New West towards being a city that embraces the economic and social potential of public art through an open attitude towards it. We need not strive to be an art capital, just a community of engaged citizens who embrace the potential of the arts and aren’t afraid of a more dynamic and whimsical public sphere.
As for those black and white portraits through the InsideOut Project, mine arrived in the mail a few weeks back and all I need to do now is paste it up. Group exhibitions are always better than solo efforts. Get in touch with me if you’re interested in a group effort or check out http://www.insideoutproject.net