Public Art

 

Dewitt Godfrey’s Concordia. Courtesy: Richard Young

Over the past few years, Public Art has been getting an increased amount of attention in Lexington. From large-scale installations like Dewitt Godfrey’s Concordia that highlight our most used cultural public places, to citizen-led projects like Eduardo Kobra's iconic Abraham Lincoln Mural (commissioned as part of Lexington’s annual PRHBTN street art festival) that bring new attention to spaces, Public Art has the power to animate and transform spaces.

In the Americans for the Arts’ 2004 Monograph, Jack Becker discusses the varied goals that Public Art can accomplish - including creating civic dialogue and engaging community, attracting attention and economic benefit to places, connecting artists with communities, and enhancing public appreciation of art.  While these effects are certainly positive, there are also several implications that complicate their use in communities, especially ones that are demographically in transition. 

Eduardo Kobra’s Lincoln Mural

courtesy: Lexington Herald-Leader

A white paper published by Stuart Cameron and Jon Coaffee in the European Journal of Housing Policy makes the argument that the use of public art and cultural facilities as a public policy strategy can promote the gentrification of transitioning communities, especially when used to make an attempt to visually “transform” poor and working class neighborhoods.

Looking at communities around the US, there are countless examples of neighborhoods and places that have been visually “transformed” through the use of Public Art. These visual transformations can, in the best of cases, empower the residents and tell the narratives of communities, however, they also have the potential to do the opposite. Ken Lum, with theSchool of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that “it is not always clear in whose interest public art is meant to serve and, in fact, history demonstrates that when poorly planned or when divorced from the social or economic reality of the city or neighborhood in which it resides, public art can be a cause of more public harm than public good.” 

In the North End, Public Art is one of the most visible factors of community change - specifically along the North Limestone Corridor. Heading out of downtown on North Limestone, you can see many murals and instances of Public Art, simply by driving or walking on the sidewalk. These pieces of Public Art are some of the most visually defining characteristics of the community, and set the tone for cultural and community development practices as the neighborhood sees investment. But does this Public Art reflect the community? Does it reflect its culture and values?


What is Public Art in the North End?

Muralist Odeith installing a mural in the North End.
C
ourtesy: Richard Young

In order to get a better understanding of what community members thought about Public Art in the North End, North Limestone CDC and the University of Kentucky Department of Community and Leadership Development held a series of community walks with neighborhood residents, business owners, and those working in social services. Following these Community Walks, participants were asked to complete a survey on Public Art in the North End.  

The consensus among North End respondents seemed to focus on Public Art being a visual medium. This included references to murals, sculptures, as well as landscaping and architecture - with the condition that all of these things would be publicly viewable, though not necessarily publicly owned or on public property. According to a 2016 survey by North Limestone CDC staff, all works of public art in the North End of Lexington are in the visual medium. 

Respondents also stated that Public Art should be “free and engaging”, “Art where the public has given input”, and “Visuals that incorporate the entire community population and not just one group of the population”. Many of the respondents to community surveys indicated that public input and appreciation was essential to their definition of Public Art and its success.


Ownership & Community Values for Public Art in the North End

According to a survey done by North Limestone CDC staff, a substantial portion of large Public Art installations in the North End are on privately owned property. This is significant, as it has the potential to place control of the Public Art process and subject matter in the hands of private individuals, without any incentive or requirement for public input. With large-scale arts organizations like the Lexington Art League and Living Arts and Science Center in the neighborhood, as well as a significant amount of publicly-owned land (Castlewood Park, Duncan Park, etc.), there are a wealth of public art opportunities in publicly owned spaces.

Considering the amount of murals on private property (which essentially makes them privately-owned), those commissioning new works of Public Art should incentivize them to be installed in publicly owned spaces, and they should be created with sufficient citizen input that they can be reflective of the values and character of the community in which they are created. In order to get a better understanding of the values that North End community members hold in regard to public art, participants were asked several questions as a part of the North End community walks and corresponding survey. 

The responses to these questions paint an interesting picture of how North End residents feel about the Public Art that inhabits the community. On the whole, participants seemed supportive of the use of Public Art in the neighborhood - even requesting that more be created. Many named the creativity of the artwork as their most valued aspect of the work, as well as the unique nature of the work or its aesthetics, color, and scale, and the presence it brings to the community.

There was also a sentiment from community members that Public Art in the North End should be more inclusive and representative of the community, particularly people that are currently living in the North End, and the history of the area. Respondents also stated that Public Art in the North End should incorporate mediums other than murals.


“What do you want to see in Public Art?”

  • I just want it to stop me and make me think, to slow me down.
  • Beauty, Joy, inspiration, (not weird creepy images)
  • {That} it shows respect fully {for} how our neighborhoods were developed, maintained, or ignored
  • More engagement, a diverse engagement in the selection and creation of that art

A Toolkit for Public Art in the North End

As residents desire more inclusiveness and representation in the neighborhood’s Public Art, the North Limestone Community Development Corporation is developing a simple toolkit for creating new works of Public Art in the North End. It will be available at www.nolicdc.org - and will be free for anyone to use. It is derived from Public Art Forecast’s “The Public Art Toolkit”, a project of the Public Art Review Journal, as well as information gathered from LexArts, the Kentucky Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts.